Eleven minutes and 27 seconds into the premiere episode of Billions, Paul Giamatti eats. In the scene, Giamatti’s character, a district attorney named Chuck, is talking with a colleague who is trying to convince him to prosecute a billionaire named Bobby Axelrod. But Chuck, wedged into his office couch with a greasy takeout box in his lap, thinks the timing isn’t right, and by his own estimation, he’s never wrong.
“Bobby Axelrod is Mike Tyson in his prime,” he growls, picking up a hunk of his sandwich and holding it in the air. “And you do not want Mike Tyson in his prime.” He pops the bite in his mouth, starts chewing. It sounds wet. The next thing he says is essentially irrelevant, as his cheek is so packed with food the words mix into an inaudible slurry. A dirty napkin is wadded up in his hand, because of course it is, and for the rest of the conversation he is either visibly chewing or picking something out of his teeth with his tongue. It’s classic, chef’s-kiss levels of eating-as-acting, and I’m sure you can picture it perfectly, because almost nobody loves to eat and act as much as Paul Giamatti.
In fact, there’s so much eat-acting in Billions that I couldn’t continue past the first episode. See a montage of it here, and please note that most of it is comprised of Giamatti stuffing various noodles into his mouth:
WHY SO MUCH EATING? WHY SO MUCH CONVERSATIONAL WETNESS? These are important questions of our time—and they demand answers.
By the time my boyfriend and I noted this feature of Billions, clocking and calling out eat-acting was already an inside joke between us. It started when I complained that certain actors rely so much on food to get an element of their character across that it veers into parody. And once I said it, we couldn’t stop seeing it—characters talking with their mouths full, taking big sloppy bites, leaving little dribbles of sauce on their lips. It’s one of those phenomena that’s so common you almost don’t notice it, but it’s there: Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street, Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, most movie cops, Gary Oldman in True Romance, Brad Pitt in every scene of Ocean’s 11. Actually, Brad Pitt in everything. But these are just searchable examples—I’d wager the best ones are even more subtle, baked into every movie your college ex was shocked you hadn’t seen.
Characters in movies have to eat, of course, but eat-acting as I define it is a special brand of consumption wherein the food or the act of consuming it are specifically employed to develop a character or help them emote. Often it’s used to portray something like greed or slovenliness or unchecked power through a cliché masculine lens. But the most important feature of eat-acting is that it’s a little unreal; a style of chewing and talking and gesticulating that is more recognizable from the movies than from real life. This is what I find so deeply funny and also embarrassing about it. You get the sense that these actors think they’re artistic geniuses, when mostly it comes off like a tired trick.
When I first started researching whether this brand of acting had a name, I was surprised to find only one old story from Refinery29 that dubbed it “eating-acting” (which I’ve adapted) with a broken slideshow featuring, fittingly, a single image of Brad Pitt sucking on his fingers and a hot take that it was amazing to watch. But I felt like I hit the jackpot when I found this video of Nick Kroll introducing a new bit on Conan that he called “70s eater.” With a tray of food in front of him, he tells Conan to pretend they’re old friends in a diner in a Scorcese movie, then proceeds to lean over the plate and cartoonishly wolf fries and noodles while tossing out lines in a Jersey accent.
It’s the perfect caricature of eat-acting, and it’s funny because it’s both recognizable and under-observed. Who eats like this? Aren’t there other ways for actors to communicate their emotional gluttony? Maybe not. Maybe it’s perfect that Billions features so much eating, but my heart simply couldn’t take it. If I had to watch Paul Giamatti spit out one more piece of errant lettuce while expressing his passion for justice I was gonna freak.
Have you noticed this? Do you find it equally cringey or no? And more importantly, who else is a frequent offender? Any women?? (I feel like maybe Michelle Rodriguez….)
Gif via Columbia Pictures