It’s impossible to avoid the elephant in the room with The Holdovers; why is a movie that was declared an “instant Christmas classic” on its recent US release only arriving in UK cinemas in January?
“This is a movie that you can and should watch whenever”, star Paul Giamatti told Zavvi. “But you can’t escape that Christmas plays a crucial part in this story!”
Set in the early 1970s at an elite all-boys boarding school, The Holdovers stars Giamatti as Paul Hunnam, a history teacher for whom the word “curmudgeon” was practically invented, even though his grumpiness is partially justified by the rough hand he’s been dealt in life. Not only is he the subject of ridicule amongst his students due to his glass eye, but he also suffers from a rare condition where he smells increasingly like fish as the day goes on; he’s long been at peace with a life devoid of romance because of this.
Over the Christmas holidays, as the students return home to their families, he’s tasked with looking after the “holdovers”: the kids whose families aren’t around to welcome them back. Alongside the school’s cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), he quickly sees the numbers whittle down, with only one boy left in their care – Angus (breakout star Dominic Sessa), who slowly develops a friendship with the teacher he hates as they get to know each other more over the festive period.
It’s a heartwarming tale, the kind that you probably wouldn’t expect courtesy of a director like Alexander Payne, whose previous films – most notably his prior Giamatti collaboration, Sideways – were far more cynical in their comedic sensibilities. In certain interviews last year, the director even bristled at the notion that he’d made something which you could label a cosy, heartwarming crowdpleaser.
Having previously worked with the director, Giamatti understands that impulse: “I don’t think he wants to hear the suggestion that he’s made something sentimental, as that could be interpreted as being a watered down version of his earlier work, which I think is something he worries about.
“He can be a little bit of a curmudgeon sometimes, or at least wants to appear that way, but I don’t think that’s reflected in the movie. It’s a very different kind of film from him – it’s not cynical at all, it’s the most directly emotional movie he’s ever made.”
His co-star Randolph believes that Payne secretly enjoys having made a conventional crowd pleaser, telling us that: “Whenever we go to Q&A’s, he will always run into the theater as the movie’s finishing to see if people like it – he likes that they like it. I think he just lives in fear of having made something that appears too “commercial” or “mass media””.
If the description of a man who wants to present himself as a curmudgeon despite being a softie at heart sounds like Giamatti’s character after you’ve started to get to know him, well, that comparison isn’t lost on the actor.
“Just between us, there’s a little bit of Alexander in this character, and in the one I played in Sideways”, he added, “but I was drawing on much more personal stuff in this performance.”
As he’s the current favourite to win the Oscar for Best Actor following recent Golden Globe and Critics Choice award wins, I was intrigued by Giamatti’s claim in a recent New York Times profile that, compared to his previous performances, his acting process in The Holdovers was more unconscious, less intensively prepared than usual. It turns out that this approach was largely because he was guided by his own formative memories in bringing this character to life.
He explained: “This world is so familiar to me, to the point that this story began feeling like a personal one. The familiarity felt weird sometimes; I went to a school like the one in the movie, around a similar time period, and shooting in one proved surreal – it felt uncanny to the point that it did often feel like something approaching an out-of-body experience”.
His co-star Randolph is also cruising through awards season, picking up supporting actress trophies left and right. She delivers one of the most universally celebrated performances of the year as a mother still grieving the very recent loss of her son, doing her best to work through her first Christmas without him in her life.
Similar to Giamatti’s approach to embodying this character, much of Randolph’s process was unconscious – and as she explained to Zavvi, her approach offers a great argument as to why there are better, more vivid ways of bringing roles to life than via method acting.
She said: “I was drawing equally from other people’s past experiences and memories from my personal life, of seeing the way that family members grieved during that first holiday season without loved ones near them, and the ways it was hard on them. It all comes back to thos small moments in life.
“It’s why I believe you shouldn’t just be jumping from gig to gig, you’ve got to take breaks and have balance the best you can, visit friends, travel whenever possible, because those are the experiences you need when reading a script like this. How else can you relate if you’re not allowing yourself to be in a position where you see these things happen around you?
“Plus, for a movie like this, those connections can help you find the humour within difficult subjects.”
There are things the cast are reluctant to reveal, however, with the techology behind the ever-roaming glass eye worn by Giamatti frequently coming up in interviews, with neither actor wanting to reveal the secret as to how the filmmakers pulled off this practical effect (“the studio made us sign NDA’s”, offered Randolph, “nobody will ever get us to talk about how they did that”.)
The Holdovers has been heralded as one of the finest movies Giamatti has ever made, which considering his extensive back catalogue, is saying something. But I’m curious to how he thinks it compares to a film he made 22 years ago, which he has previously held up as one of the greatest in his filmography, to the point he once told Conan O’Brien it was “one of the high points” in his career.
I’m talking, of course, about the 2002 British kids comedy Thunderpants, the story of a child born with two stomachs who farts uncontrollably, whose wind is only taken under control when a scientist friend (played by a fresh-off-Philospher’s–Stone Rupert Grint) builds him the titular underwear. In the movie, Giamatti appears as a NASA employee who hears about the gas-prohibiting device, believing that the thunderpants are the only thing that can save a space mission which has gone out of control.
Thankfully, it turns out that he still feels the same way about this important work of British cinema, beaming as he tells us that: “Thunderpants is one of the most remarkable movies I’ve been in, and one of the most unique – I think it’s brilliant, I’m not kidding when I say this.
“I don’t remember ever calling it the best movie I’ve ever been in, but I will always stand by it: it’s a truly great movie.”
I left the interview to the sound of Giamatti explaining the plot of the fart comedy to his Holdovers co-star – who I sincerely hope added it to her watchlist – and began hoping that, if he does win the Oscar for his latest role come March, he begins his speech by saying he should have already won two decades ago for Thunderpants.
The Holdovers is in UK cinemas from Friday, 19th January.