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Paul Giamatti Taps Into His Inner Science Geek for ‘Breakthrough’

When you think of the “Anthony Bourdain of science” … first of all, you don’t ever expect to think of the “Anthony Bourdain of science.”

But if in fact we are to think of an “Anthony Bourdain of science,” you really don’t expect that person to be Paul Giamatti.

Nevertheless, that’s who emerged as a globetrotting scientific tour guide in National Geographic Channel’s “Breakthrough” series, according to Beth Comstock, vice chair of producing partner GE.

“It’s just charming,” Comstock says. “I didn’t know he was a science geek, but he was, and we tapped into it.”

Giamatti was one of several counterintuitive choices to direct one of the show’s six episodes. The prolific actor was not the type even to dabble behind the camera, much less on a nonfiction hour entitled “More Than Human,” dedicated to how the latest tech advances are affecting human behavior and even biology.

But Giamatti’s curiosity prevailed — about science and about directing.

“The subject matter was really interesting and then the thought that I could have some input to put it together, something different that I’ve never done before,” says the actor. “I suppose the uniqueness of the job was what really sold me.”

Giamatti cast himself as an explorer, and the episode takes the structure of an organic journey — a “Let’s Go”-like tour of science on and off the beaten path — with one revelation leading to the next.

“We probably did all the shooting in about a month,” he says, “and traveling as much as we did, it is amazing. We went from Sweden to Sao Paolo; we hopped all over the place.”

Stops ranged from labs to cafes to the Guardian Center, an enormous outdoor installation in Perry, Ga., where first responders are trained for earthquakes and terrorist situations. There, Giamatti witnessed the use of a real-life, one-size-fits-all exoskeleton.

Giamatti’s interview subjects were equally provocative and eclectic: hardcore scientists, bookstore operators and others with unique perspectives on the intersection of gadgets and humanity, such as director David Cronenberg.

“What’s kind of cool is they’re the actors,” Giamatti says. “They’re not actors, but it was really about them.

“The big gearshift was how much I could relax and sit back, and these guys were really eager to talk about it and educate me. I didn’t want to learn too much (in advance), because I really wanted to be surprised.”

Portraying himself as something of an eager skeptic when it came to the value of some breakthroughs, Giamatti says he grew “less freaked out” as the production progressed. With Cronenberg, Giamatti says he “was sort of amazed how positive he was about it.”

“I kept trying to trap them into saying, ‘Isn’t this kind of creepy?’ And they kept convincing me that it wasn’t.”

In the end, he admits, “I enjoyed the hell of out doing it — I really did.”

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