When actors have to do a round of morning interviews the night after they stayed out late for a movie premiere, they’re usually not expected to be on time for the scheduled interview, let alone show up early. But when I sat down with Zach Galifanakis in Toronto, the morning after his dramedy “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” had its world premiere and after-party at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, I have to admit I was very surprised that he was about 10 minutes early and ready to start the interview.
Part of that surprise comes from the fact that Galfianakis is known for playing kooky, irresponsible characters — and comedic actors rarely play characters that are the complete opposite of their real personalities. In real life, Galifianakis is more introspective, more grounded — and yes, more professional — than the image he portrays on screen. In “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (set primarily in a New York City psychiatric hospital), he still plays a wacky character (Bobby, a troubled guy who frequently checks himself into psychiatric institutions as a way of taking a vacation), but the movie does not have the kind of broad, slapstick humor that made Galifanakis famous in the 2009 blockbuster comedy film “The Hangover.”
“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (adapted from Ned Vizzini’s 2006 novel of the same title) centers on a depressed 16-year-old named Craig (played by Keir Gilchrist), who checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, only to find out that the hospital’s youth ward is temporarily closed, so he has to go in the adult ward, where he befriends Bobby. Galifianakis says that he welcomed the opportunity that “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” gave him to play a role that shows more of his serious side. During our interview, I also asked Galifianakis about “The Hangover 2” and “Due Date,” and he talked about some real-life moments he experienced that were unintentionally funny.
How did you get involved in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”?
If I remember correctly, the directors/writers — Ryan [Fleck] and Anna [Boden] — just asked if I could chat with them about it. And I met with them, and I had seen their other two movies [“Half Nelson” and “Sugar”], and I’d really liked them a lot … So we chatted about the tone of the movie [“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”], and they asked me if I would do it. I didn’t have to audition or anything like that — which is always a plus, because that’s where I usually lose a job. “If I don’t have to audition, then yes, let’s do this thing!”
Is not having to audition a recent change in your career because of “The Hangover”?
I’ve got to tell you, I think if you’re in a big movie and it does well, those audition days — unless you’re in a couple of stinkers — they’re gone. It’s the greatest thing. I auditioned for years in California for comedies. For the first two years, the only audition I got a laugh in was a drama — and they were laughing at me because my acting was so bad. [He laughs.] It was one of those things where I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to get out of this. I don’t know what I’m doing.” But you just persevere, I guess, if you have no other options.
Out of all of the people you’ve worked with so far in your career — whether they are actors, comedians or people who work behind the scenes — who makes you laugh the most in real life?
As far as people I’ve worked with? I’m in a TV show [“Bored to Death”] with Jason Schwartzman. He is ridiculously funny to me and the nicest guy. And also Ted Danson, who’s also on the show. It’s so much fun to work on.
Did you have any idea when you were making “The Hangover” that it would be the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time?
I would go to dinner with [“The Hangover co-stars] Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper. And after the fourth week of filming — I’d never been in anything good before — I said to them, “This is going to be a good movie, right?” The feeling was we kind of felt it a little bit. We just thought it was going to be good. But as far as the amount of people who saw it? No, there’s no way [we would know].
What about the first time that you saw “The Hangover”? Did you have a feeling then that the movie would be a big hit?
I didn’t go to the premiere. When I saw it for the first time, I think it was in Europe. I kept hearing, even before they released it, that they were going to do a sequel.
Speaking of “The Hangover 2,” can you clear up any of the rumors about it? There were some Internet reports that it was going to be filmed in Thailand. So what’s going on with the sequel?
We’re shooting in three weeks. We start in three weeks.
I don’t want to say yes or no, because there’s been some social upheaval in Thailand. I think that was one of the reasons why they didn’t want to say [if “The Hangover 2” was being filmed there.] I don’t know why Todd [Phillips, the writer/director/producer of “The Hangover” movies] doesn’t want people to know, but every time I open my mouth, I get an e-mail from him: “Will you shut up?” So I’ll just plead the Fifth [Amendment], even though we’re in Canada.
Your character Bobby in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is more understated than the wacky characters that you usually play. Was that subtlety part of the appeal for you to be in this movie?
Yeah. I think the Hollywood machine, they see you as one thing often, especially if you’re a comic. I was purposely looking for something that was a little bit more mature and a little bit more subtle, because as for as me being a moviegoer, those are the kinds of movies I see. I prefer more subtle, not-so-crazy-over-the-top stuff. I like doing that crazy, over-the-top broad stuff, but as far as watching, I prefer more subtle stuff.
So you wouldn’t normally watch a movie like “The Hangover”?
[He says jokingly] I only see movies that I’m in! [He says seriously] Listen, if you’re a stand-up comic and you’re offered a job. … I just took what I could get, because you’ve got to pay for your Subaru. I needed work. Hopefully, that won’t be the situation anymore, at least for a while, and I’ll be able to have some more options. Maybe, I don’t know.
The ending of “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is open to interpretation about what happens to the characters. What did you think of movies that end this way?
I think sometimes it’s good to have a story open-ended. I watched it last night. And it was the first time I’d seen it with an audience … And I can understand why people feel a little bit, “What’s the answer?,” but you run out of time sometimes in the edit room. But [a clear-cut ending] was never written in [the script]; it was nothing that we filmed.
Did you imagine what would happen to Bobby after the story in the movie ended?
To be honest with you, I didn’t. I just wanted him to be fragile in the last scene with Keir’s character. And the directors wanted me to play it fragile and a little bit of a question mark.
Does it ever frustrate you that people might think you’re not capable of doing drama? For example, lot of people might now know that you had a dramatic role in the TV series “Tru Calling.”
I think comics are not as respected sometimes as telling other kinds of stories. It’s frustrating. People don’t understand that comedies are more difficult than dramas to me. Comedy has another layer to it. You have to make people laugh. It has to be that return or it’s not working.
“Tru Calling,” I tried to get fired from that show desperately. I was trying to so hard, but I took that job because I wanted to see if I could be in a straight [drama] type of thing. Turned out, I didn’t like it that much. When the show got cancelled, the producer called everybody [and said], “We still have to work for two more weeks.” And there were 70 people there, cast and crew, at 6 in the morning. And he was like, “Guys, I’ve got some bad news.”
And I’ve been waiting for this moment for a year-and-a-half. “We’re being cancelled. We’re being replaced by a show called ‘The North Shore.’” And I raised my hand, and he goes, “Yes, Zach?” [I said], “Do you know the casting director for ‘The North Shore’?” And no one laughed. It was too early. People were losing their jobs. I was so ecstatic though.
In “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” what was it like to do the fantasy sequence with you and other cast members playing rock stars performing the song “Under Pressure”?
That scene, I was little bit apprehensive about that because that can really come across as a very cheesy scene if it wanted to, but I think they edited it and handled it so well. That was, I think, the last day of shooting. And we shot for probably 12 or 15 hours, the same thing over and over.
Having to hear that song in a seemingly endless loop could be either good or bad.
[He says jokingly] Yeah, it’s on my ringtone! [He says seriously] It didn’t really bother me, to be quite honest. I liked it. And also, it was the last day of shooting, so you kind of get excited about that — and putting on all the costumes and the face makeup. It was so theatrical. I had never done anything like it. I really liked it. It was fun.
And how about the hair you had in that scene?
Yeah, they made a wig for everybody. It was a specialized wig.
Do you have any musical abilities in real life?
I kind of play the piano.
What was the atmosphere like on the set of “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”?
Well, we shot in a real, abandoned wing of a working hospital, and it was a little depressing. It was very depressing. And it was pretty fitting also, because it helped with the feeling of the story a little bit. I remember I was really grumpy the whole time we were shooting. I don’t know if that was a conscious thing, but I had a lot of lack of sleep. And my patience for the young ones was very [lacking] as well. [I was] the curmudgeon.
Were you being facetious in the production notes for “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” when you said you consciously avoided the teenagers on the set of the movie? [He laughs.] I don’t have anything in common with a 17- or 18-year-old. I hardly have anything in common with people my age. So I honestly think that when I meet teenagers, they just think that I’m weird and they’re too cool, but that wasn’t the case here. Zoë Kravitz is the nicest, coolest person. She’s really, really cool.
Did you get to improvise in any of the scenes?
Yeah, but when I was watching the movie last night, it wasn’t as much as I’d thought. The basketball scene where I [as Bobby] kind of imitate Noelle was I think probably the heaviest improv thing. And they took out something that I kind of wish they hadn’t. He’s like, “Oh, hi, Noelle. What are you doing?” “Oh, just cutting my face.” And they thought it was a little [sick]. I guess it is. Those guys know what they’re doing.
Do you like to play basketball in real life?
I used to. I put on some weight. It’s hard to do.
How is it working with two directors on one movie, compared to working with one director on one movie?
I don’t think there’s anything different about it. Ryan is the spokesperson, so what they do is they talk, and then Ryan comes in and tells you what Anna and he had discussed. And sometimes Anna will step up and say something. They’re very collaborative
Whether it’s two directors, one director or 17 directors, it’s very helpful to have people that want to hear you out. And those guys really wanted my input. It was a really great experience … With this acting thing, you don’t have a lot of times to be proud and stuff, because a good movie is a coincidence sometimes. There are so many variables that have to happen, and I was really happy about the outcome.
Did you read Ned Vizzini’s book “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”?
I have the book and I didn’t read it. I asked [Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden] if I should read it, and they said, “No, the script is changed enough that you don’t need to do that.” But I was talking to Ned the other night, and I’m going to read it now for sure.
With a dark comedy or dramedy, there’s always the risk that viewers will laugh at the wrong parts. Now that you’ve seen “It’s Kind of a Funny” with an audience, what do you think of the reaction to the film?
I think that’s why I was pretty excited about it. James Schamus, who runs Focus [Features], said that the most important parts for him — and I agree — are the quiet parts. And the audience got it: when to be quiet. Because sometimes if you’re known as a comic, they automatically want to laugh. I think when I first walk in [a scene in the movie], there’s a little bit of laughter. And it’s kind of a burden of being a stand-up comic, I guess.
At my brother’s wedding and my sister’s wedding — not that they got married to each other; two separate weddings — at my sister’s wedding, I got up and gave a toast and got very emotional. I cried. And everybody thought I was joking. So they were laughing at my crying. I was like, “Oh, God! This is bad!” And the same thing happened at my brother’s wedding.
So you have to be careful with how you guide an audience. And I think that’s done also with Anna’s editing. The pace of this helps the audience responds to it — at least I thought last night — perfectly.
In the scene where Bobby asks a kid for a cigarette, do you think that was supposed to be funny?
I think if you say things with a straight face, you get away with it. I want people to question whether things are funny or not. I don’t want to hand-feed them.
What was it like making the movie “Due Date” with Robert Downey Jr.?
I’ve seen that movie. It’s really good. It’s the same director who did “The Hangover”: Todd Phillips. And it was a process. Robert’s intense, and I’m pretty laid-back. Robert and Todd are alpha males, as if they were raised by Michael Vick. So there was a lot of discussion.
But I’ve got to tell you, I was in heaven, because Robert’s really funny, and Todd’s really funny. And Robert’s very eloquent in his funniness and very smart. And I’m not very eloquent. And I literally can’t speak that well.
And he would insult me. Like, he came up to me, and we were on a plane (shooting on a stage), and there are 45 extras. And he just marches up to me and says, “You need an acting class!” I know he’s joking. The extras don’t. It was, like, silence. And I turned to the extras and went, “He plays an asshole in this movie, and conveniently, he’s one in real life!” It was that kind of stuff.
What do you think about some of the supporting actors in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”?
Those actors are really great. Adrian Martinez, the guy with the hair that I [as Bobby] insult. The guy who plays Solomon [Daniel London], the guy who plays Muqtada [Bernard White]: really great casting. They definitely need to be mentioned.
Me and the guy who plays Humble [Matthew Maher], the bald guy who drew the beavers, and [Adrian] Martinez — the three of us kind of hit it off, and I could not stop laughing. It was funny, because we were the adults, and the teenagers were like, “What are they laughing at?”
Does it make you a better actor when you’re doing a scene with someone like Oscar nominee Viola Davis, who plays one of the doctors at the psychiatric hospital?
Yes. I was watching her all the time.
For more info: “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” website
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