Paul Giamatti is truly a man of many faces. The Italian-American actor, who is currently starring in director Alexander Payne’s Sideways – currently in theaters – has built a hefty resume as a talented character actor. He’s chased around a scheming Frankie Muniz in Big Fat Liar, ordered about a non-obedient Mark Wahlberg as an orangutan in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake and, just last year, played comic book inventor Harvey Pekar in the critically acclaimed American Splendor, for which he was named best breakthrough actor by the National Board of Review.

And hey, if that’s not a long enough list of credits, here’s another – Giamatti also provides the voice of Tiger Woods’ golf-club head cover in select Nike television spots. Groovy.

All kidding aside, though, Giamatti is somewhat serious when it comes to talking about his role in Sideways from co-writer/director Payne – who also brought the hilariously satirical Election and About Schmidt to theaters around the country.

His latest creation follows old friends Miles (Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) – a recently divorced failed writer and soon-to-be-married washed-up actor, respectively – as they journey up north to the "wine country" for a weeklong trip. The getaway allows them to explore the territories of their respective mid-life crises by ingesting alcohol, questioning past decisions and rehashing memories of old relationships. All the while, Payne – a master at blending sarcastic wit with pain and suffering – makes the film enjoyable to watch.

Before you shot Sideways, had you ever been up to the Santa Ynez Valley or the "wine country" before?br> No … I’ve never been in the Central Valley part of [California], but the place was very important, it seems.

What was it like, up there in Solvang?

It’s a very weird area. It’s kind of remote feeling even though there’s all that stuff going on. It’s not hugely populated. It’s just strange.

Did you think it was fun gaining all that knowledge about wine through filming in and experiencing wine country for Sideways?

Well, the drinking the wine part of it was fun (laughs).

So, you drank real wine in all those scenes you filmed?

Actually, we had this non-alcoholic wine which we were drinking, which was horrible. It gave me and Tom (Haden Church) horrible headaches because we had to be banging this stuff down at 7 o’clock in the morning. There were some times when we used real wine, occasionally. There were a couple of scenes where we drank a fair amount of real wine.

So now you can be considered an actor and wine connoisseur , right?

[In regards to the wine knowledge], I don’t have any and I didn’t pick up any. I’m like a wall for that information.

So what about spouting off all those facts?

Well, it was all written down so I could fake it. What was more interesting to me was just the way those people are, their behavior and the persona those obsessive wine people adopt.

Did you ever feel bad about the fact that you weren’t really learning about wine?

It just didn’t … I mean, I hate to say this, I really should be creating more of a mystique about the craft of acting, but I didn’t feel like it was that important to know all of the stuff about different wines. I really did feel it was important that I knew what those people are like and what they do – that I paid attention to. How they do it, the sounds they make and what they say. That stuff was important. But it all depends. I just did a movie about boxing (the upcoming Cinderella Man with Russell Crowe), where I actually learned a lot about boxing beforehand.

Your character in Sideways is kind of down-and-out. He’s going through a midlife crisis and he’s also a failed artist who must deal with the fact that his art is largely ignored by the entire world. As an artist yourself, have you experienced things like this? And, even more importantly, how do you get yourself past it?

I think you’ll probably always feel that people don’t get what you’re doing exactly right. Something will never be exactly right about it. Nobody will ever get everything that you’re trying to do. I imagine it’s always dissatisfying. Even when people love what you do, it’s like, ‘Well, I didn’t mean exactly that, I meant … .’ It’s always going to be that kind of thing. I think having a family and stuff like that helps, having to actually pay bills and things like that.

Between your character, Miles, in Sideways and playing Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, do you ever find it hard to play characters that are so depressed?

No. This one was a little bit more [depressing]. … The Harvey Pekar thing was not as bad ’cause it was sort of fun. He was a more fun guy, actually. [It’s not difficult] because, ultimately, I don’t really walk around with it. I get to just pretend. And there’s something fun about it actually, perversely, something that’s so extreme in a way that it’s funny, kind of, which is what’s sort of nice about the whole movie. Some of it’s so grotesque and extreme that it’s funny. I mean, the guy’s so depressed that it’s just pathetic. So it’s really kind of fun, actually, to be that depressed.

And, interestingly, your characters in both Sideways and American Splendor are not only depressed, but they’re kind of unlikable. What’s up with that?

I find it interesting to play unlikable people. There’re many unlikable people in the world, so it’s a more realistic portrait of humanity to have a lot of unlikable people. I just find it more interesting, I guess, [and] it’s harder sometimes to play a likeable, happy person.