Leo’s Last Days


Actors Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy Talk Tolstoy

In New York, The Washington Diplomat held interviews with American actor Paul Giamatti (“Sideways,” “Cold Souls,” “John Adams,” “The Illusionist”) and Scottish actor James McAvoy (“Atonement,” “Wanted,” “Penelope,” “The Last King of Scotland”) to talk about their new movie, “The Last Station,” about the last days of Russian literary giant Leo Tolstoy. Giamatti plays Vladimir Chertkov, a controlling advisor to Tolstoy and the Machiavellian head of a utopian social movement in which Tolstoy serves as a sort of spiritual leader. McAvoy plays Valentin Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s young, naïve secretary and confidant.

“The reason I think the character is interesting is he’s the bad guy,” Giamatti said of playing Chertkov. “He’s motivated by, in theory, good things. He’s trying to do something good. He believes in what he’s doing. He’s just got other complicating factors going on and questionable motivations and questionable methods of going about what he’s doing. So hopefully, it’s a kind of ambiguous character so people can’t figure out what’s really going on.

“I feel like I’ve played a lot of ambiguous,” he added. “I definitely get a lot of these kinds of guys that you can’t really tell what’s up with them. I just did this movie called ‘Barney’s Version’ in Canada with Dustin Hoffman where I play a guy who … you see 30 years of this guy’s life, and he’s just an absolute shit hill in a lot of ways. He may have or may not have even murdered somebody in the course of it. And you’re supposed to sympathize with this guy. And hopefully, you actually do.

“I like doing that kind of thing,” Giamatti said. “I don’t want it to be comfortable for people. I like people to have a problem with something. That’s probably not the greatest thing in the world as an actor to want to do — to make people uncomfortable — but I kind of think it can be interesting.”

McAvoy clearly found the experience of making “The Last Station” an interesting one. “Yeah, loved making this. Had a really good laugh on it as well. Everybody on this film was a right laugh, a real hoot — Paul Giamatti being foremost amongst the humor makers,” McAvoy said, noting that co-star Helen Mirren had a great sense of humor as well. “We had a cracking time. And we liked the drama as well…. I think when you can have a laugh with somebody, you’re obviously connected to them. It makes whatever happens on screen better I think.

“We had a bit of funny in the film, which is really what attracted me to it and made it for me a slightly different animal from your usual costume drama-period biopic about a historical artistic figure,” McAvoy continued. “I’m not used to seeing that with comedy in there — and sometimes quite overt, base, broad comedy. I was waiting for the rubber chicken and the sliding on the banana skin to come out at one point. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pushing for them. So it just made it a wee bit different for me, and I liked that.”

The actor said he also enjoyed being able to portray the full range of his character, rather than relying on outside effects to convey those emotions. “Valentin Bulgakov sneezed when he got nervous. What an incredible, incredible thing! And just to be able to be so obvious and overt with your acting as well instead of doing the usual, ‘I want you to do nothing, and we’ll put nervous music over it. That’s how we’ll know you’re nervous as we gaze into the windows of your soul that your eyes are.’

“Instead, ‘You’re nervous — I want you to sneeze all over his face 20 times.’ So everything becomes overt. When you feel something, it fills the room in this film, and I like that. Some people have said that’s a Russian thing. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s how it is in this film. Filling the room with what you feel. Feeling bad and not being afraid to show it.”

McAvoy explained that he also drew on Bulgakov’s admiration for Tolstoy to shape his character. “I think love is a big thing. He was in love with the idea of somebody. He was in love with the idea of Tolstoy, or an image he had in his head of Tolstoy. That love blinded him to so much in life and left him appearing, for his age, particularly naïve. He wasn’t a kid; he was 23. That was my main key into it: his love of Tolstoy, and his idea of Tolstoy. And the deconstruction of that love becomes what the story is about, really.”

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.