Famed actor says his portrayal of the Prince of Denmark has been ‘a wonderful thing’

Paul Giamatti took to the stage on Monday — this time not as an actor, but as himself — when he gave the 22nd annual Maynard Mack Lecture, telling the audience that he finds “joy” in performing theater. 

Paul Giamatti and Murray Biggs (Photo by Michael Marsland)
Paul Giamatti and Murray Biggs (Photo by Michael Marsland)

He spoke to a large crowd in the University Theatre — the same stage where earlier that day he starred as the Prince of Denmark in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s sold-out production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

In an informal conversation with Murray Biggs, adjunct associate professor of English and theater studies, the award-winning actor spoke about what led him to return to the theater after almost 10 years in film. “I never intended to not be doing theater. In my mind it’s only been two years,” said Giamatti, later adding, “I loved the idea of doing this play in this theater.”

Giamatti ’89, ’94 M.F.A., recalled, as an English major at Yale, performing in “unsanctioned” extracurricular plays “in dining halls and squash courts and loading docks.”

After spending time in Seattle, Washington, Giamatti returned to Yale to pursue his M.F.A. at the School of Drama. He credits his vocal training as a graduate student with his ability to perform the leading role in “Hamlet” nightly without losing his voice.

When approached by James Bundy about portraying Hamlet on stage, Giamatti broached the subject of playing the character with humor — and in his underwear. “[Bundy] relented,” joked Giamatti, “and I’m in my underwear.”

“I’m not terribly experienced playing Shakespeare,” admitted the New Haven native. “The character takes possession of you and tells you what you are doing wrong and what you are doing right.”

Giamatti — who has 40% of the lines in the more than three-hour production — explained to the audience how he paces himself. “The character of Hamlet has more energy than I will ever have. … The energy of the man himself is tremendous and carries you along.”

He added that Shakespeare builds breaks into the play, “… towards the end I get a whole half an hour offstage, where I can relax, take a shower,” quipped Giamatti.

Paul Giamatti and Murray Biggs (Photo by Michael Marsland)
Paul Giamatti and Murray Biggs (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Giamatti said that he preferred playing a supporting role on screen versus a lead role, noting, “To play a leading role you need to be cheerleader, and I’m not much of a cheerleader. … I’m more the guy who sits in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs.”

In a question-and-answer session following the talk, Giamatti was asked how he stays motivated to repeat the same lines night after night. “The language is constantly alive … I’m constantly tinkering with it. Someone could perform it for the rest of their lives… it’s bottomless.”

Giamatti explained the difference between acting in movies — where you can film a scene numerous times until you get it right — versus performing on stage. On stage, he said, “you are shot out of a canon once you start performing.”

Giamatti’s childhood babysitter was among the audience members at the talk. He asked the actor, “You obviously had such great enthusiasm as a child; how much do you tap into that?”

“Ideally, you are just a complete juvenile the whole time,” said Giamatti, describing his enjoyment in playing Hamlet. “This has been such a wonderful thing because [Hamlet’s] such a child in so many ways,” Giamatti added, gesturing toward the University Theatre stage.

Giamatti’s return to theater has been a pleasurable one for the actor. “I was so happy to have physical space around me, and people to relate to without cameras between us … ”

While acting on stage, explained Giamatti, “time is actually passing, and you are watching people actually go through the process of something. I do much prefer the stage, and I can’t believe I haven’t done it in so long.

“I could use my whole body, which you don’t really get to do on film that much. It was a joy to me,” he said.

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,