Interview: Giovanni Ribisi on Middle Men

As I walk into the room, Giovanni Ribisi grandly sings my name in an operatic style and informs me that we're going to be conducting the entire interview in song, asking if that's all right with me. I agree, of course, and although we don't end up singing the entire time, this sort of enthusiasm and kindness was evident throughout the interview. We're there because of his recent film Middle Men, in which he plays one of the two men responsible for the advent of pornography on the Internet as well as the ability to use a credit card to make a purchase online. Ribisi is fantastic in the role, alert and lively, positively crawling up the walls and stealing every scene he's in. He's just as alert and lively when answering my slew of questions, and we end up discussing everything from mathematics to modern music.

Amanda Mae Meyncke: What is it that you want most in your life?

Giovanni Ribisi: For my daughter to be happy, I guess for my daughter to stay interested and curious.

AM: How are you facilitating that?

GR: That's just an infinite question. There's no manual, you know, every parent has to figure it out. Just sort of go as you can and I think that, for me, there was a moment I remember distinctly where my parents realized it was important to try and make communication safe with their kids, and so I don't know if I do that though.

AM: You currently live in Los Angeles?

GR: Yes, born and raised.

AM: What are your feelings towards L.A.?

GR: It's a mixed bag. I go in five-year phases where I think it's an incredible city, and then at certain times I think that it's hard to really have a different perspective, as much as you travel, as much as an actor will travel over the course of their career. I think that right now, I feel like there's other things outside of Los Angeles that are more interesting to me.

AM: Like what?

GR: Self-possession. No, I'm kidding [laughs]. I think I've been really interested in mathematics and computer science and you kind of realize you can do that anywhere.

AM: Are you pursuing it?

GR: Yeah, I've been pursuing it for a while. It's more of a curiosity, if anything, with mathematics. And then I moved out to the beach recently and that's been fantastic, and it's well enough removed to where it's a different life, a better community.

AM: That's one of the problems of Los Angeles.

GR: It's the biggest ghost town in the world. It's not uncommon, to speak the obvious, to not even know your neighbor by their first name, and to a greater or lesser degree that's OK. It might be happening on a global level with the Internet and with people needing this via for communication. I think that as well is a mixed bag, because in my opinion, while it's a different form of communication, it's more prevalent, and people are communicating more. Which is a good thing, but at the same time, I don't know how that affects human behavior and human sociology.

AM: I read something that said the phone call is too invasive now; the reason text messaging is so good is people can have communication at their pace. We can choose whether we're going to interact with people. It seems kind of self-centered to me, though.

GR: You have to take into account it was the cell phone that became what the modern-day concept of a phone call is, and this is a device that's attached to your hip 24/7. Before that there was "leave a message" and before that there was "hopefully you're home." Evolution is progressed by necessity, in large part, and I think that's what people needed to be able to be free, and a cell phone allows you to do that. And allows people to have a little bit more security but at the same time, it probably became a little bit overwhelming.

AM: What have you been reading lately?

GR: Gilbert Strang's Linear Algebra book.

AM: Are you starting at the basics and working forwards, maybe looking into a PhD?

GR: No, not for status, it's just curiosity.

AM: I really wanted to do a physics major in college, but I was never good enough at math.

GR: Neither was Einstein, though. I mean, he was good at math in relative terms, but I think he finished last in his class at the Polytechnic in Zurich.

AM: I once heard a story that his father told him it was too easy to come in first in his class, so he would tell him he had to figure out how to come in third in his class.

GR: Really? Oh wow. I don't know, apparently his wife, Mileva [Maric], was better at math than he was, and a lot of people conjecture that she was a big part of the theory of relativity and in helping him do the math behind that. But I don't attribute it to brain proportion -- that just doesn't make sense to me -- but I think it has to do with somebody's interest and fixation on something. I think you'll find a lot with people who are really maybe not necessarily technically inclined, but they have imaginations, and I think Einstein said something like "Imagination is more powerful than knowledge."

AM: What music have you been into lately?

GR: I love the Black Keys. I just can't stop listening to their latest record, Brothers. Fantastic. I've seen them once, and it was just incredible. I felt like I was possibly taking a glimpse back into being a young man back in the '60s, and what it would have been like to see one of those bands that were incredible.

AM: What decade of music would have been interesting to you to be a part of the scene?

GR: I would say now is as good a time as any, although I do believe that it's really strange. I think there's this perpetual feeling that because of the Internet and because of the accessibility of everything, what people are able to do, there's this perpetual Wild West nature that goes on. I think even 15 years after the fact of [the Internet] becoming as predominate as it is now, people are still trying to figure it out, their ethics and human behavior and how that works. Piracy, for instance, and all that. I think the possibilities are incredible, are endless, as far as being a musician and what you can do on a commercial level or on a creative level, but it's not necessarily being exploited in the way that I would think would be good. I think that rock and roll is so saturated and there's so many different factions of rock and roll that it's almost dead. When have we had a musical revolution as profound as the '60s?

AM: Do you see us progressing towards that?

GR: I think it takes a group of disparate people, or elements that coalesce into some sort of renaissance, and I don't know, I'm interested. I think that you have these defining epochs in musical history with the romantic music, the classical music, jazz, and blues, and then culminating in rock and roll. It's hard to see where it's going. It came from culture, but when you're saturating and homogenizing culture, and it starts to become one and the same and all in one, then I guess definition becomes a little more challenging there. Either that or I'm just becoming an old curmudgeon. I'm sure my daughter would have a different viewpoint. 'Cause alternative is now not alternative at all.

Giovanni Ribisi stars in the film Middle Men, in theaters this Friday, August 6.