I don’t know what made me open IG on a random Monday afternoon. Pandemic-induced addiction to social media had taken its toll, so I turned off all notifications and moved the app over a few screens to slow down my screen time numbers. Yet on that Monday after an anguish-filled virtual workday, I caved. I clicked on one of the pulsating circles with the “Live” label at the top of my feed, not remembering who’s handle I was clicking, or why I decided to roll the dice at what could’ve been a former co-worker who I never interact with, or spam from my old yoga studio. Thankfully, it was the feed of BILLIONS actor Kelly AuCoin, who I followed for no reason other than I saw him on THE AMERICANS and thought he’d have some humorous posts. I was not prepared for what was perhaps the most bizarre but lovely capsule of pandemic content I’ve encountered, one that played directly to my niche affinities for a certain type of actor and spontaneity. On this IG Live with an audience of 25, I miraculously stumbled into AuCoin’s conversation with none other than Paul Giamatti.
Copious amounts of celebrities and influencers are creating virtual, crowd-pleasing streams for the masses in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic. There’s been a PARENT TRAP reunion facilitated by Katie Couric, Verzuz Hip Hop battles with Gucci Mane and Jeezy. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went on Twitch to promote the election and play AMONG US. Yet this Paul Giamatti conversation is one that operates in another realm, a fragment from the pre-social media era, and an ode to digital non-natives. It’s because Giamatti’s never had social media until this moment. His candid conversation with AuCoin is drastically different from those I’ve named, mainly due to the fact that Giamatti is tech-illiterate, extremely private, and at the same time, one of the biggest celebrities in Hollywood.
To have an extremely notable person with absolutely no clue how to use social media in both his personal and public life create an Instagram for the occasion (@Je_Suis_Paul_Giamatti was his username that has since been deleted), wading into this ecosystem of access and intimacy, was disarming. Paul Giamatti and Kelly AuCoin’s Instagram Live was an event with the stream-of-consciousness vision of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE and the humor of an elder relative’s commentary at a Zoom wedding. This was the most populist medium in these times, with a raw performance, radically more stripped down than an off-off Broadway theater. It was joyously unprecedented, a cultural artifact bursting with a starry-eyed innocence.
The pair started off with what was effectively Road Trip conversation in all its honest splendor. AuCoin and Giamatti could have been packed into a RAV4 on their way across Virginia, but here we all were, just chilling on Instagram, conversation as off-the-cuff as what ends up on the cutting room floor from an episode of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. During the chat, the 20-odd IG users spectating are commenting, and liking. A portion of this audience were fellow actors and family members of AuCoin and Giamatti poking fun. It was a pastiche of improvisation with a scant audience and brutal comedic timing which made the laughter all the more sardonic.
The conversation flowed in a familiar way, a way we speak to one another amongst close friends, in particular those over the age of 40. Giamatti and AuCoin discussed singing meditation bowls, and Paul Giamatti’s casual foray into the practice. His “aw-shucks” approach to mindfulness, with a genuine interest, was a bit unexpected. I would have thought Giamatti was more skeptical, but he felt free in this low-attended digital abyss. For all the staging crafted by Katie Couric and broadcast personalities-turned-influencers, Kelly AuCoin could not be bothered to keep up the veneer of a fossilized medium. Paul Giamatti was as uninhibited as I’ve seen him, but so was his counterpart, and the interview was all the better for it.
This was further highlighted as the two crossed over into a variety of pop culture topics as I gripped my phone with anticipation—SOLID GOLD, the 1980s syndicated music television program that featured pop hits of all genres, and notable dancers, decked out in gold lamet outfits, was a major topic of discussion. What would have never passed muster of a late night host outside of perhaps the early days of bizzaro David Letterman, Giamatti and AuCoin spent quite some time obsessing over their shared appreciation of a rather esoteric topic. The debate persisted over the name of the host, with Giamatti in error. He had named the other 1980s music program DANCE FEVER’s host, and his affinity was for Deney Terrio, not Andy Gibb. We were all on the same campy sojourn down the path of forgotten music culture of another epoch. There was no destination in mind, just another meander.
There were tangents about how Richmond, VA is an awesome place, as is the city’s brand of summer stock theatre, how Paul Giamatti has been inspired to draw in quarantine, and how he actually wanted to be an artist before he became an actor. Us spectators could open a Safari window for a quick search, to learn his black-and-white drawings are actually showing in a Brooklyn gallery starting late October. No plug, no reference to this drove an eager attendee to click around the internet to find it, just the will of a captive, curious audience.
The two men, and in particular Giamatti, were as everyman as you’d dream. The conversation flowed past 30 minutes without a compass or structure. It was an unrelenting voyage with a Giamatti whose comfort in this space was congruent to an older relative who mocks himself in light of his digital shortcomings.
The climax of the interview was, perhaps, AuCoin and Giamatti’s foray into a discussion about the concept of time and leap year. The discussion began with what felt like a marijuana-infused dorm room question by AuCoin: “How do they like, keep track of time for the world?” Giamatti then recounted the oral history of the important individual stationed in Greenwich, England who is responsible for time-keeping, the arbiter of our modern society. He was very passionate about this individual, and how much rides on the person’s unique career, how this practice of time-keeping is done, and our dependence on this individual to correctly alter the clocks for leap year. If he messes up, humanity is screwed.
Paul Giamatti is all about existentialism, though, and if his choices of acting roles inform us of his real life character, over and over he has given us men on the brink. Yet we cannot compare the actual Instagram Live Paul Giamatti, and the one we see on talk shows and movies. This is, in fact, the man in all his simple, domestic glory.
Giamatti then pitched this concept as a movie: the leap year watchmen makes a disastrous error, and forgets to change the time of humanity’s clock as scheduled. The whole world goes into a tailspin, and global chaos ensues. Would this have happened if Giamatti was on a major network, or even a red carpet interview? I was floored. Creativity sparked, the two men laughed on the IG Live screen, enjoying another parlay into a universe outside the here-and-now of this corner of the internet. Who wouldn’t want to see that movie? If anything he was the best part of SAN ANDREAS. “Why would we deprive the world of this beautifully concepted movie?” I had to comment under my username, but alas no acknowledgment. I too was shouting into the void. Even though it’s a small theater, with a tiny stage, it’s much easier to ignore your audience in the digital landscape.
Even when everything is virtual, we are still a society saturated with content and celebrity. Before 2020, the ecosystem of media and entertainment continued to insulate a highly-cultivated, approachable image of fame. Across the spectrum of podcasting and broadcast, from Jimmy Fallon to Leta Powell Drake, actors maintain a positive “I’m just like you” demeanor. Add Twitter or Instagram to the mix, and it is difficult to discern in actuality what an icon actually thinks outside of marketing a film or retweeting another person of equal or greater fame. The hopes, dreams, and fears are lost in a cloak of audience-testing and face-tuning.
Yet during the pandemic, while the world is forced to virtually share our lives and homes in a much more intimate fashion, this cannot persist. Whether it is children interrupting conference calls, or a gifted vintage poster with emotional meaning in the backdrop, it is now the new normal for strangers. While the average person has a few loose layers of insulation between their public and private self, a celebrity has an armored car and a public relations team. In 2020, this has all been shattered. Even if Paul Giamatti and Kelly AuCoin spoke to their respective “teams” about this digital journey, there was scant evidence of it, nor a roadmap for conduct.
Throughout the entire hour of this stream, as mentioned, there were only 25 individuals in the audience, including family members of the stars and actors’ friends. Perhaps it was the size of the scale, or the impermanence, that gave way to the pastiche of topics. Regardless, the entire ordeal was a spectacle for both its level of celebrity and diminutiveness. When he signed off, Giamatti left the scene like any aunt or uncle departing a family Zoom call.
“Oh I mean I can keep going, I’m not doing anything,” he says, just like so many of us in quarantine have echoed over the last few months, departing our audience to do laundry or take an experimental baked good out of the oven. When AuCoin and Giamatti finished the conversation, Giamatti was walking through his house, a plain mid-century, dark home, the light freckling his video, as he traveled down a modest hallway. Here was a superstar, strolling through their house to find some light or internet connection. It was a gloriously plebeian sign-off in a “2020 is chaotic and strange” way. While social media is breath-takingly equalizing, a household name’s arrival is still electrifying and captivating. Our digital landscape is a window that allows the world to see an unfiltered self, one that is still performing, albeit less produced, and in fact human.