[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/83363?ns=guardian&pageName=Zach+Galifianakis%2C+from+Hangover+to+Hollywood%27s+go-to+weirdo%3AArticle%3A1313677&ch=Film&c3=Guardian&c4=Film%2CCulture+section%2CHBO%2CComedy+%28Film+genre%29%2CComedy+%28TV+genre%29%2CComedy+live+%28Stage%29&c6=James+Kettle+%28contributor%29&c7=09-Dec-05&c8=1313677&c9=Article&c10=Feature%2CInterview&c11=Film&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FFilm%2FHBO[/img]The impressively bearded star of The Hangover muses on 'turning into the very thing I despise'
Zach Galifianakis lives in a world of his own. In his wildly acclaimed stand-up shows, he comes over like a cross between a perpetual schoolboy and an impossibly wise mystic. These performances, packed with ludicrous digressions and mixing silly jokes with moments of awkward bleakness, have made this impressively bearded North Carolinan a cult favourite among comedy fans on both sides of the Atlantic. But this year, it looks like he's finally crossed over into the mainstream fame, thanks to his glorious turn in 2009's biggest comedy, The Hangover.
After years of unsuccessful movie roles (the nadir was probably 2001's Out Cold, a snowboarding comedy starring Lee Majors), now Galifianakis finds himself firmly in the spotlight. He's at the heart of everything that's great about The Hangover, where he plays Alan – the agent provocateur whose unwise stag-night drink-spiking experiments set the movie's off-kilter plot in motion. Galifianakis relates to his character's fish-out-of-water status – a solitary geek among alpha males. "I think we've all been, at least, I know that I've been, the fifth wheel, or the person that maybe got invited out of … pity. I've felt that before in these social situations," he says.
Weirdly, for a guy who drugs people he barely knows with roofies and, we are told, is banned from going too near a school, Alan remains a likable, sympathetic figure. Part of the character's appeal is his innocence; when he's ripped from his normal closeted universe and exposed to the Vegas world of call-girls and gambling, it makes for great comedy.
Galifianakis was keen to keep Alan as gentle as possible, even down to his language: "I didn't want him to curse. It drives me crazy, every R-rated movie has people cursing for no apparent reason. Once you allow that kind of stuff into the language it loses its thing, its like, 'Well, we've got to come up with other words!' **** in the United States is the only thing we have left here. I know you guys use it as a comma over there." Well, up to a point.
The Hangover is now the highest-grossing R-rated comedy in US movie history. Galifianakis thinks this was partly down to the freshness of the gags, but also the "grittiness" that director (and former documentary-maker) Todd Phillips brought to the project. He also thinks the absence of marquee names among the cast perversely helped: "No one knew who the cast was. People like to get behind a funny movie that doesn't have a load of goddamn Hollywood horseshit people in it."
'My sister calls me a weirdo. I love my sister but I'm the weirdo? You buy a magazine with pictures of celebrities' children in them!'
Despite his best intentions, Galifianakis is firmly enmeshed in the Hollywood horseshit now. Already he's finding himself getting recognised on the street by fans of The Hangover, and for him it's an uncomfortable experience. "I'm terrible with it. I hate it. I'll deny that I'm me, I'll run into bathrooms. I'm getting like, 'How can I avoid going to this 21-year-old cashier at a gas station because I know that they've probably seen The Hangover?' I'll just shoplift."
Part of the issue Galifianakis has with fame (not that he expects anyone to have any sympathy), is that he's always hated the excesses of celebrity culture. "To me it's strange that, you know, my sister calls me a weirdo. I love my sister, we get along, but I'm the weirdo? I'm the one that's weird? You buy a magazine with pictures of celebrities' children in them so you can read about children in magazines, and I'm the fucking weirdo?"
But now he's a Hollywood star, he's becoming part of the problem. As we speak, Galifianakis has just been asked to present at the Oscars. "In a way," he says, "I'm going to turn into the thing I despise."
It's possible that Galifianakis's disdain for the tackier elements of showbiz is a result of his much more down-to-earth upbringing in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. "Growing up it was famous for having the world's largest chicken plant," he says. "and also for moonshine. It was a wild town where moonshine and marijuana were the trades. From moonshine came Nascar, the speed-racing thing, which started in that part of the States with the moonshiners and the policemen. The outlaws running from the policemen, and then it got organised into races, and that's how Nascar started. That's my home town."
While it's the movies that have made his name, it's Galifianakis's bizarre, usually semi-improvised and often completely ramshackle stand-up that sees him at his best. Gigs see him drifting from tightly written one-liners to more out-there digressions that flirt with pure melancholy as much as comedy.
'To me stand-up's such a freefall. My goal is to go out there with no material'
"To me stand-up's such a freefall," he explains. "My goal is to go out there with no material. I don't want to do it selfishly, but there's something interesting for me and the audience when I wing it. And sometimes out of that freeform, it goes into some flippant corners and sometimes it's more sad. I think sad's funny."
While negotiations continue on a possible sequel to The Hangover (Galifianakis alludes to there being "red tape" involved, and worries that "we're going to end up like the Police Academy franchise") he can currently be seen in one of the latest additions to HBO, a spoof-noir comedy drama Bored To Death, based on a McSweeney's short story by Jonathan Ames. "It's about a guy who goes on Craigslist and says that he's a private detective," he explains. "He's an alcoholic, doesn't-know-what-he's-doing kind of detective, who's also a freelance writer. And I play his friend."
Galifianakis jokes that he enjoys the intellectual cachet that comes with being on a highbrow TV show ("I get to benefit from being on a show that makes a lot of literary references. It makes me feel like I'm hanging out at the Harvard Business School") but also pays tribute to the qualities of his co-stars, the unlikely pairing of Wes Anderson alumnus Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson of Cheers and Three Men And A Baby fame. "They're such gentlemen. I would rather say the opposite, but I have to be honest. You know, Ted texts me and says, 'How you doing?', and I text back and say, 'Don't text me Ted, we're only friends on set.'"
On top of a possible second series of Bored To Death (and the potential Hangover sequel), this in-demand maverick is currently filming a road-trip comedy in the New Mexico desert with Robert Downey Jr. It seems that right now, when Hollywood want a weirdo, they call Galifianakis. He's sanguine about the potential for typecasting. "One thing I don't want to be is 'the fat guy'. 'The weirdo guy' doesn't bother me, but 'the fat guy', that I don't want."
Oddly for a Hollywood star (especially one of his comic talents), he's got a strange kind of humility. "I think I just have to strike while the iron's hot, because I know I'm going to **** this up somehow. I know that like in 11 years I'll have an old beat-up bus, and a PA system, and I'll be dressed as my character from The Hangover, and I'll be driving round Vegas going, 'Oh yeah, we shot the chapel scene right here.'"
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Guardian: Zach Galifianakis, from Hangover to Hollywood's go-to weirdo
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