The breakout star of this summer's funniest flick discusses prosthetic penises, septuagenarian sex and a tussle with Tyson.
Blame it on the scraggly lumberjack beard, the daunting last name or the widespread fear of any performer labeled “experimental,” but mainstream audiences have been surprisingly slow to embrace one of the brightest comedic minds in the business today, Zach Galifianakis. Expect that to change this week when moviegoers get a taste of him opposite Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms in The Hangover, Old School director Todd Phillips’ uproarious tale of a Vegas bachelor party gone horribly, horribly awry. As Alan, the socially awkward, mentally unhinged third wheel of the ensemble, Galifianakis is easily the funniest aspect of this year’s funniest film to date.
In an exclusive interview, an almost shockingly normal Galifianakis discussed the nuances of taking a punch from Tyson, staging a sex scene with a septuagenarian and choosing the proper prosthetic penis.
You spend much of your screen time in The Hangover in various states of undress. Was all of your character’s nudity called for in the script, or did you volunteer some of it?
Zach Galifianakis: "With the jock strap scene, I had said to Todd, ‘I’ve seen tighty-whities in movies before. I’ve seen many guys do it. But I’ve never seen a jock strap.’ A guy wearing a jock strap with a tuxedo is really funny to me. I said it, and as soon as I said it, the wardrobe woman went looking for a jock strap. But then you forget — because we were making the movie back in the fall or whatever — and then all of the sudden you go to a screening of the movie, and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I was wearing a jock strap.’ It’s this weird disconnect."
"Todd talked me into being bottomless with the tiger. That was a big discussion. I didn’t want to do it, but there’s something about Todd — he’s very persuasive. He was like, ‘All right, whatever, you fag,’ and I’m like, ‘Todd, it’s not about that.’ Anyway. Yeah, I ended up pantless in it. But you know, when I was a kid, me and my cousins and my brother, we used to do that kind of stuff like in our room with no pants on. I’m even talking about when we were older, into our twenties. I’d go knock on somebody’s door and not have pants on. It’s just funny to me. But then all of the sudden you do it in a movie, and it loses its street cred."
In the photo sequence that runs during the film's closing credits, there’s a particularly provocative shot involving you and an elderly woman. Did I see what I think I saw?
ZG: "You’re asking if that was real? That woman came with a penis in her mouth already."
ZG: "No. That was awkward, too. I gotta tell you: I’m a snob. I really am, even though I think that stuff is hilarious. All of a sudden, you’re picking out rubber dildos [to find] which one to use, and there’s, like, nine of them. ‘I don’t think that’s too ... I think that one’s too small ... and this one ...’ So no, [the penis] wasn’t mine. Then the woman shows up, and she’s like 77 or something, and you have to have this awkward [conversation]. I was much more embarrassed than she was. She didn’t care. She didn’t care at all. It was strange. You would think that I wouldn’t be the one who was embarrassed; I was extremely embarrassed. I really didn’t even want it in there. I offered Todd’s assistant a lot of money to convince him to take it out of the movie. I did. But it made it in there."
I’m astonished that shot made it into the final cut.
ZG: "Someone told me today that that could get an NC-17 rating. That they think that the ratings board didn’t bother to look at the credits."
Going into the shoot, what gave you the most pause: handling a baby, working with a tiger, or taking a punch from Mike Tyson?
ZG: "Taking the punch from Mike Tyson. Specifically ... right before he gets ready to punch me, I’m looking at him because I have to look at him in an unexpected way, because I don’t know that he’s gonna punch me. The character doesn’t know — of course I know. So after 30 takes and looking in Mike Tyson’s eye, and he’s getting close — I can feel it on my beard — it was very nerve-racking. There’s no other way to put it. I just numbed out and I just kind of Zen’d, and I thought, ‘Well, if this is the way that I die, it’s gonna be a really funny funeral.’"
Were you surprised at the amount of freedom Todd Phillips gave you to shape your character and improvise?
ZG: "Well, I’d never worked in a capacity where I had a big role. Usually, it was ‘Bellhop Number Two’ or ‘Chubby Sidekick Number Four.’ I wasn’t too surprised because when I met with Todd a couple of times, I could tell that he wanted it, right from the get-go. He wanted the jokes that surprised him — to entertain him — while he was sitting behind [the monitor] watching us. So he encouraged it very, very much. And that’s why you hire somebody with a comedy background, because it’s just easier to do it that way, for me. Reciting lines is hard; making stuff up is much, much easier. But a lot of it was on the page already, for sure."
I was a little shocked to see that Warner Bros. is already working on a sequel to The Hangover.
ZG: "You’re not the only one. I don’t mean it like that. I mean, just let the movie come out. Then we’ll see. But yeah, there are plans. It’s probably some kind of marketing technique that somebody researched at Harvard, and all of the sudden it’s a business plan ... ‘The human condition: If they think that there’s going to be a sequel, they’ll go see the first one.’"
If they do indeed move forward with a Hangover sequel, where would you like to see your character go?
ZG: "Well, I’d like to see the movie … I think Todd is doing it this way. I think it’s going to be in a foreign country, and I think it has to be in an exotic place. I asked Todd if Alan could be really ... when you see him take his shirt off, he could be really in shape and muscular. Todd’s like, ‘No. Nobody wants to see that.’ Because I was trying to get a trainer for free, to lose some weight, just for an excuse. And he totally was like, ‘There’s nothing funny about being trim.’"
You could make it funny.
ZG: "I know! I could. I used to go to the set, and Todd would be like, ‘Zach, we don’t need you here. Nobody’s falling on a banana peel in this scene.’ But Alan’s character, I would like for him to be more of the same. It works, so you don’t wanna mess with it."
With all the buzz surrounding this movie and so many high-profile projects in the pipeline, do you think we're entering a Zach Galifianakis golden age?
ZG: "I personally think that I’ll be on the streets in a couple of years because something about this business will ultimately drive me crazy … It’s good to have work; it’s new to me. I’ve worked for a while, but not steadily. It’s good. Hopefully, it’s something that will keep going, but Hollywood is very youth-oriented. There’s a machine behind it, and that machine is pretty scary. You see this, you see how it goes and you think, ‘There’s nothing glamorous about this whatsoever.’"
In addition to various film and TV projects, you also host "Between Two Ferns," a talk show on FunnyOrDie.com. How do you go about choosing your guests and what guides your approach to interviews?
ZG: I don’t really ‘choose’ the guests; I try to convince people to do it. Jon Hamm — he was one of the guests — is a comedy nerd, so he wanted to do it. Michael Cera, I did it live with him once in a theater in L.A. Natalie Portman, we kind of had to ask her. She wanted to do something funny. And then Jimmy Kimmel, I knew him. My approach is anti-publicity junket. It’s a guy who doesn’t care. He himself seems put upon that his guests are there. They don’t want to be there. So it’s just kind of this honest approach. He doesn’t know anything. And he’s stupid. I do it because I think rudeness is funny. Because I don’t consider myself in real life to be a rude person. A lot of times I might come across that way, but I do it because it’s funny. But in real life, in public, I hate rudeness. And so it’s kind of making fun of rudeness.
The Hangover opens nationwide this Friday, June 5, 2009.