As an endlessly adaptable on-screen everyman, Paul Giamatti has proved he’s one in a million.
Now, in “Billions,” his new Showtime drama, he portrays Chuck Rhoades, the powerful and perverse U.S. Attorney engaged in a political cage match with hedge-fund titan Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (played by British heart-throb Damian Lewis).
You might say comedy is a ruckus between fools, while drama — solid drama — is a clash between smart people who are driven by compelling creeds impossibly at odds. The latter applies to “Billions,” which, premiered at 10 p.m. Sunday, is a delicious drama of two alpha males on a collision course: Rhoades wants to prosecute Axelrod for financial fraud, but only if his case is ironclad, while the slick, calculating Axelrod dares him to try.
“It’s super-complex and Byzantine, with Machiavellian behavior from both of us that gets extremely complicated,” says a pleased-looking Giamatti. “It’s really fun.”
Interestingly, Chuck and Bobby seldom appear in the same scene, but such is the fever pitch of their rivalry that, whenever one is on the screen, the other is present viscerally, as if in the ether.
“They operate pretty separately,” says Giamatti, “but their awareness of each other becomes quite powerful. It’s really cool.”
“Cool” is a frequent Giamatti affirmation as he meets with a reporter over coffee in Brooklyn Heights, where he lives with wife Elizabeth, a film producer, and son Samuel.
Cool is something he exhibits himself, a brand of regular-guyness befitting an actor who uncovers a fresh measure of truth in each character he plays, from the exasperated wine enthusiast in “Sideways” to the divisive music manager in “Straight Outta Compton” to Founding Father John Adams in the eponymous HBO miniseries.
According to each character, his eyes are stormy or woeful, his smile benign or wild, his soft voice, when he chooses, as commanding as a roar.
Meanwhile, his average-guy mien and puddin’ face spurs journalists to reach for their most colorful descriptives.
“How many synonyms ARE there for ‘balding’?” says Giamatti with a chuckle.
But no argument from him: As a movie star, he’s no Brad Pitt.
“Brad Pitt’s great,” he says, “but I love Boris Karloff. And Ernest Borgnine! He didn’t look like Brad Pitt either, but he played cool parts. Ned Beatty: amazing actor! I did a film with him once (a 2002 effort called ‘Thunderpants’) mainly so I could work with him. I thought: ‘Maybe that’s the kind of actor I could be if I get good enough.’ ”
Giamatti, 48, grew up in New Haven, Conn., the son of Bartlett Giamatti, a comparative literature professor at Yale who later became president of the university and then commissioner of Major League Baseball. The younger Giamatti studied literature as an undergrad at Yale before getting his masters in acting.
In between, the stagestruck Giamatti moved to Seattle, then a mecca for young actors.
“I did theater and industrial films,” he recalls. “I did an infomercial, for reverse mortgages, I think. I’ve done everything an actor can do except porn and performing in an amusement park.”
He is somewhat at a loss to account for his professional ascent.
“I think it was a lot of accidents leading to other accidents,” he says. “I was always willing to just go, ‘OK, sure, I’ll do that.’ ”
He said, “OK, sure,” to a six-hour filmed opera, “River of Fundament,” masterminded by the avant-garde artist Matthew Barney. He said “yes” to playing God for an episode of “Inside Amy Schumer” after bumping into the comedian on the street.
“I throw myself into things, trusting that I know what I’m doing,” he says. “But I don’t really know what it is I do.” A pause. “Well, I do. But I don’t know how to talk about it. It’s always different.”
Playing Chuck Rhoades is different.
“This guy is vain in a way that lots of characters I’ve played aren’t,” he says happily. “I gotta look RIGHT for this guy! Prop-wise, style-wise, the way my beard’s shaped — it’s all carefully thought out.”
Even so, in “Billions,” as with every role, Giamatti seems to share something essential with his character-actor idols.
“Those guys were having a really good time, I think,” he says. “I take joy in it, too. I think for a long time I wasn’t willing to admit that, because it makes me sound like a bubblehead. I wanted to sound more SERIOUS. But I have serious FUN!”