Anyone who has seen The Hangover (opening tomorrow) will tell you that they’re already intoxicated by the film’s breakout star, 39-year-old Zach Galifianakis. The comedian has developed a cult following for his stand-up act and popular Funny or Die web series, Between Two Ferns. But what’s going on underneath his unruly, scruffy head of hair? Galifianakis took time out of his hectic schedule to chat about The Hangover, getting serious with Sean Penn, and what he hopes to do after he’s done with “this whole showbiz nonsense.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re a tough guy to get on the phone. Besides anticipating The Hangover‘s release, what else do you have on your plate?
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: I’m working on this TV show that’s taking up some time. It’s called Bored to Death. It’s an HBO show that will be on in the fall.
What do you play?
I play a comic book illustrator who is sexually frustrated. Jason Schwartzman is the main character. It’s a very well-written show.
I have a feeling that fans will be tuning in to that one, especially since you’ve been garnering plenty of good buzz for The Hangover. And Warner Bros. has already made a deal for a sequel. Are you stoked?
Well, I mean, talk about [setting] it up for a major jinx. Look, it’s flattering that they’re thinking that way, but wait until the movie comes out and see what happens after that. I would like to do it. Very much. It was a lot of fun to film The Hangover. I think we’re doing the third one in…no. [Laughs]
Hey, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a trilogy. In the film, you play Alan, the deranged, jockstrap-wearing, socially awkward brother of the bride. How in the world do you prepare for that kind of role?
Well, I wish I had a concrete answer to that. In my mind, I just gave him [a] history. So the history was that he used to carry records to raves for a DJ. And one time when he was at a rave 15 years ago, he dropped too much acid. He wasn’t born really dumb, but the drugs made him really stupid, and [he's] missing a part of his brain that is responsible for normal social interactions. And then when we shot [the film], these other subplots [popped up], like that he’s not supposed to get near children. But that storyline is not that he did anything malicious. He just wanted to hang out with anybody that would hang out with him, and sometimes those were 12-year-olds. So it was never a sexual thing. It was just, hey, there are kids in the park skateboarding, so I’m going to see if they can be my friend. And the other subplot I think was the fact that he had this kind of adulation for Bradley’s character and wanted to be really good friends with him.
That’s a very specific character that you’ve created. Do you know someone like him?
There’s a guy I know named Zach Galifianakis. Well, I think we’re all guilty of it, [but] not to that extreme of wanting to fit in and wanting everybody to like us. We all know someone that is kind of the fifth wheel. So I wanted him to be — even though it was only four of us — I wanted him to be this fifth wheel. And the only reason that he is there is because his sister is the one that’s getting married. So it’s by force. If that had not been the case, the characters would have never been in the movie. That’s what I like about it. It’s this forced thing.
Was there a lot of improvisation in the film?
Yes. A lot. The one improv that will haunt me for the rest of my life, is the — I don’t know how you can put this poetically — is [the scene where I] make the baby [unknowingly mimic a sexual act]. So that was improvised not with a real baby obviously, but a doll. Often, when you work with babies, they have a life-sized doll. So I just did it. I was like, “Todd [Phillips], look at this.” And Todd, the director, was like, “Oh, we have to put that in the movie.” And I was like, “No.” And then he’s like, “C’mon let’s ask the mom if we can do it to a real baby.” The next thing you know, there’s this conversation and then she agrees, but my fear is that 20 years from now, I’m going to be walking in an airport, and some guy is going to tap me on the shoulder and go, “Are you the dude from The Hangover?” “Uh-huh.” “Well, I’m that f—ing baby.”
With Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper as your costars, I imagine it was often hard to get through a scene without laughing.
Bradley Cooper is a bit disciplined. But I get the giggles. And when I get the giggles, it’s non-stop. And Ed gets them too. So there were a couple of scenes where we had to stop. But I have to tell you, we were pretty disciplined. But that’s the whole reason to do it, so you can occasionally laugh. To laugh during your job is a dream come true. Not to get too heavy-handed, but my father always told me to combine labor and love, and there’s nothing more I love to do than laugh and make people laugh and [to] be able to do it as a job is just wonderful.
You strip down to your skivvies in the beginning of the film. Obviously, you don’t have a problem with on-screen nudity, do you?
That was another improv thing. In the script, it said tighty whities. And I’d seen that in movies before. I’d seen the chubby guy with the underwear on. And I said to Todd, I’ve never seen a guy wear a jockstrap in a movie, especially under a tuxedo. And as soon as I said it, someone’s pulling some jock straps out of a wardrobe trunk. And again, it was another thing I regretted. But for the sake of the joke, it serves the character. It just worked. My poor mother. I’d rather her not have to see her son naked in a film, but maybe if my body were better, my mom wouldn’t mind.
Hopefully the jock straps were clean from wardrobe.
Yes, they were. They weren’t vintage jock straps with opera tickets still in them.
Looking at your film resume, you’ve had roles in movies like Corky Romano, Bubble Boy, and…Into the Wild. It must have been a departure for you to appear in a Sean Penn film.
Well, that movie came about because Sean Penn saw one of those earlier movies that I did about 15 times, he told me. So I didn’t have to audition. He just asked me to come do it.
He saw me in a movie called Out Cold, a snowboarding movie. [Into the Wild] was a bit of a departure. It was a very serious, grounded thing, which, to me, is a lot easier than doing comedies.
Because you don’t have the added pressure of trying to make people laugh.
You don’t have the layer of trying to make it funny. You’re just telling a story. You take away that layer, and it seemed a little easier for me. I would love to do that dramatic stuff. I love to make audiences cry. That would just be the best for me. I think getting people to arouse their emotions is a lot of fun, whether it’s crying or being scared.
But you have to imagine some of your fans went to the theaters to see Into the Wild, thinking, “Awesome! It’s a Zach Galifianakis film!” and got something completely different.
“Oh God! He’s not in a jockstrap!” I don’t know. You just take a job, and acting is kind of hard and you never know your next job is, so you kind of take jobs and hope that people go see it and that it’s good. But the whole point of the element of surprise is to be able to do things that aren’t the same all the time. It’s fun to do, that whole spectrum. Once you start doing the one thing, for me, it’s really, really boring…. The end of it is, if I don’t have a statue of me somewhere, then what’s the point?
Music figures prominently into your stand-up act. Are you a trained pianist?
I am not trained. And as a matter of fact, anybody who is trained will tell you that I am completely making everything up. The only kind of music I do know how to play is melancholic, sad stuff because nothing happy is coming out of my body musically. No, I’m not trained at all.
Did you sit down at a piano one day and start playing?
There was a club in Los Angeles called Largo, and it had a piano there. And I’d been doing stand-up for a few years. And I just sat down with a piano, and put this soundtrack underneath my absurdist jokes. It was this mix that was fun to do.
And it works.
Yeah, [but] it became a crutch for a while. I’ve kind of gotten away from the piano. There were only so many one-liners you could do with sappy music playing underneath it. So I don’t incorporate it much anymore.
Speaking of music, you’ve starred in music videos for both Kanye West and Fiona Apple. How did that happen?
Well, Fiona and I had known each other a little bit through playing at this place Largo, which combines music and comedy. And I had given her a video that I had made for an Anita Baker song, that I just did for myself, because I was bored. And I gave it to Fiona, and she asked me to be in her music video. And then Kanye West came to the same club, Largo, and saw me do stand-up. And he had also seen the Anita Baker video, and he asked me to do his video. And I told him I’d do it, as long as he wouldn’t tell me what to do. And then we shot it at my farm two days later.
That was your farm in the video?
Yeah. In North Carolina. It’s an hour from where I grew up. But I bought the farm about five years ago. It’s about 70 acres. So after this whole showbiz nonsense, I really just would like to nurture the Earth.
Is this something that’s been on the back of your mind for a while?
The last five years, it has been. Well, about 10 years ago, I started feeling like I wanted to make this stuff grow out of the ground. And I have no idea what I’m doing. I find it very therapeutic to drive around on a tractor and walk your land and go, “The blueberries are doing good,” “Oh, look at the grapevines,” “Something’s coming, we made this.” It’s really kind of exciting for me. And the grapevines don’t heckle you.
What are you growing?
Right now, blackberries grow wild. We have blueberry bushes, grapes, [an] apple tree. I did pumpkin last year. I’m missing out on a couple of things. If I were in North Carolina now, I’d be doing beets.
Must be nice to drive around on a tractor during your time off.
I drive around on a tractor. I sip a little moonshine. I act like I know what I’m doing, but I have no clue. And the locals are like, “Who is this idiot?” But they’re very nice to me.
So what does Kanye say when he sees a video of you on your farm driving a tractor?
I don’t think I told him anything. I just e-mailed him the video. And then I called him. And I kind of told him that I wanted it to be as if a couple of farmers were assigned what their own interpretation of what their rap video would be. That’s all it is. We found some local cloggers, those girls that dance in it. We found them in a parking lot of a grocery store dancing and we asked them to be in it and they’re like, “What? A Kanye West video?” So I sent it to Kanye and he’s like, “It’s the best video I’ve ever done.” And I’m like, “You’re not in it!”
Anyone else you’re hoping to field a call from for a music video?
There’s a band I was going to do one with called Brazilian Girls, but we couldn’t figure it out. [But] if Prince said, “Hey, why don’t you remake Purple Rain?” or Bjork — they don’t have to call me. I’ll just go do one. I don’t need their permission. It’s the Internet.
Between Two Ferns, your Funny or Die faux-interview web series, has become pretty popular with Internet surfers. What was the inspiration behind it?
That was part of a pilot for a Fox variety show about a year and a half ago. And they asked me just to do a segment on it, and they asked me what I wanted [to do]. And I said, “Give me two ferns and an actor, and we’ll make it look like a cable access show. And it’s going to be the anti-press junket.” And it also kind of came out of this celebrity worship culture that we have somehow adopted in our American psyche, and it was just a knee-jerk reaction to that. You know, just kind of making fun of the sycophantic interviewers that kiss the Hollywood machine. It was just kind of that. But I didn’t want to prank anyone. I didn’t want it to be mean-spirited. I wanted the people I was interviewing to be in on the joke. I wanted them to have the opportunity to poke fun at me back and be funny as well. So we just started shooting them. My friends that I have to mention, they’re two producers who don’t get any credit because it’s just an Internet thing, but a guy named Scott Auckerman and B.J. Porter help with those. I’ve known them for years and we shoot them in broom closets.
Really? Broom closets?
Yeah. The Natalie Portman one is in a shed. And the one with Jon Hamm, that was in a shed.
Anyone you’re dying to shoot an episode with?
I would like to do Shaquille O’Neal. I would like to do a sports figure. [And] I think the Pope would be good. Some kind of British royalty would be nice. [Or] an older British actress like Judi Dench. Somebody like that would be really, really fun.
So with your fingers is so many different pies, you’ve probably been influenced by plenty of comedians, right?
You know, I’ve gotten this question a lot in the last couple weeks. There have been so many people that I got inspiration from. David Letterman is still incredibly funny. Always has been. Bill Murray. Old W.C. Fields stuff. He had this deadpan Irish look on his face that was just so funny. And also my close friends that I grew up with. My brother and my cousins were really funny people that I just paid attention to, more so than anybody that was on television.
And what do they think of your work?
As far as The Hangover goes, my cousins saw a preview or bits and pieces of it, and my cousin Frank was like, “This is the stuff that you did 20 years ago! You’re just making money doing what you used to do in our living rooms and bedrooms!” And I’m like, “I know, wasn’t that fun when we were kids and we were doing that? Wouldn’t it would be great if you could figure out how to make a living doing it?” He’s totally right. That whole jockstrap thing — I used to go to my cousin’s house back in the day, and he just would answer the door and I’d just be naked. It’s just stupid stuff like that.
So what’s next from you?
I’m in [G-Force]. That’s it. Just trying to figure out another job after this HBO [show]. We stop filming next weekend. So just hopefully do another kind of a big comedy movie is kind of what I’m looking to do, hopefully. That’s about it.
Are you still doing stand-up?
I prefer intimate settings for stand-up. I prefer when there’s 60, 70 people. I really need to go build more material. So I might just hit those kinds of coffeehouses and small kinds of theaters in New York.
One final question: Your beard has become a bit of a trademark. Would you ever shave it off?
Well, I’m not much of a groomer as is, even though I do bathe twice a day. I haven’t shaved it in about three years. So I’m dying to shave this beard off now. [But] if I shave, I look like a fat Jodie Foster.