Zach Galifianakis, Reluctant Superstar: The Rolling Stone Cover Story

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For nine weeks in 2002, VH1 made the half-visionary, half-moronic decision to give Galifianakis his own talk show, Late World With Zach. He was a compelling host, which is to say, a terrible one. He couldn't care less what his "celebrity" guests (Art Alexakis! Wayne Brady!) had to say. He'd zone out, or slyly insult them; for a while he lobbied to have a trap-door installed under their chairs. (The episode with a then-unknown Bradley Cooper is worth YouTubing.) When the show was canceled, the network kept him on the air for a few more weeks, and that's when things got really good: He did a monologue at a preschool ("Don't you hate it when you eat red Play-Doh and it ends up tasting like a blue crayon?"), and another on a city bus ("Tough bus, tough bus"). He called Rupert Murdoch a warmonger and VH1 executives pigs. It's around this time that you can start to see the DNA of the Web series he hosts now, Between Two Ferns, which is his fantasy version of what a talk show should be. (To Bruce Willis: "When you were making The Whole Ten Yards, were you ever worried it would be too good?")

Galifianakis has said he never wanted to be a star – that he was perfectly happy to play Bellhop Number Two and smoke his pot and have his little thing. On the other hand, A.D. Miles remembers him once chasing Chris Rock down the street to ask for advice, which is not an act of someone who lacks ambition. "Honestly," says Phillips, "I think the hating of Hollywood is a little bit of a defense mechanism. There's a truth to it – Zach has a very severe bullshit detector – but I think some of it has to come from dealing with rejection for so long. Living in a van. Having to go to audions in Burbank. People not getting it."

Now, everyone gets it.  His Hangover lines ("The real Caesar's Palace," "ruhtard") are modern classics, his visage a guaranteed laugh.  He kind of wishes this weren't the case. "Nothing funny comes out of comfort," he says. "I think for a comic to get accolades goes against what brought them there in the first place. I get mad at the audience: 'How dare you like me?' I want them to be judgmental. But when you're making movies and stuff, that kind of goes away."

One night, Galifianakis does an unannounced stand-up set at a tiny theater in Manhattan. He emerges from a black curtain (he calls it "Precious' vagina") to surprised, rapturous applause, and pulls out a green five-inch-by-seven-inch Mead notebook into which he just scrawled a bunch of new jokes. "I'm gonna do some readings of sentences," he says. "They're supposed to be jokes – but right now most of them are still just sentences."

He flips the notebook open to the first page. "You know what I like to avoid when I put suntan lotion on my sister? Eye contact."

He turns the page. "This is a character I've been working on for a while called the Wrong Gesturing Guy." He clears his throat. "So I met this woman the other night. She, uh . . ." – he mimes a well-endowed chest – "has breast cancer."

(Galifianakis' characters are some of his best bits. There's the Timid Pimp: "Hi – Amber? Hi, it's Marcus. . . . Yeah, I can hold." The Pretentious Illiterate: "Uh, I told you. I don't know how to read." The Forgetful Vegan: "Man, that sure was good pepperoni pi— fuck!" The Guy From Queens Who's Obsessed With Cargo Shorts: "What are those, cargo shorts?" And a personal favorite, the Kid Who Doesn't Know, Down in His Living Room, That His Uncle, Upstairs, Has Suddenly Gone Deaf: "Uncle David? Uncle David . . . Uncle David!")

He flips another page.  "What other goof-abouts do I have? OK. This is what I imagine it's like to be on the phone with James Franco." He holds his phone up to his ear. "Hello? Oh, hey, James. Oh, really? Good for you. Oh, you're doing that, too? That's cool, I didn't realize. Oh, really, no way. Wow, that too, huh? Oh, that's cool. Oh, you must be excited about that. . . ."

He flips the page again. "I'm not reading that one. It just says, 'I killed a dog with an air horn once.' "
After the set, he's outside on his phone when two fans walk up. They apologize for interrupting. "It's OK," he says, covering the mouthpiece. "It's just both my parents in the hospital." They snap a photo and walk away giggling.

Just a few steps later, he's stopped again.

"Hey, aren't you that guy from The Hangover?"

"No, no," he says, "I get that all the time."

"Really? You look a lot like him."

"No. I hate that guy. I think he's a terrible actor. And he's fat."

When Galifianakis says The Hangover ruined his life, he's only half-joking. He can't go five minutes without being approached – probably because he seems so approachable. His life is a constant barrage of minor intrusions. "I'm terrible about people wanting to take pictures with me," he says. "I'm a giant baby about it. They treat you like a cartoon. There's nothing you can do except make light of it. That's if I'm in the mood – sometimes I get superbummed."

He has a few different strategies when people ask for a picture. Sometimes he'll thank them, say he's a private person, and ask if he can shake their hand instead. Other times he'll deflect it with a joke: "Sorry, could we not? I'm with my husband. We haven't seen each other since Haiti." If he really wants to avoid them, he'll fake a phone call ("When's the funeral?"), and if he's trying to eat and some-body bothers him, he'll pretend they're a server: "Yeah, could I have the veggie burger, please? And the yogurt." A couple of weeks ago he was at an Indian restaurant when he caught a teenager trying to sneak a photo. So he gave him the finger. "I thought it was funny. A grown man giving a 15-year-old the finger. But they all put their cameras down. I felt terrible."

It's not any worse than what any famous person has to deal with. The difference is, Galifianakis is out there. He doesn't have a publicist. He doesn't have an assistant. He makes no attempts to cloister himself in VIP sections or corner booths – not because he likes the attention (he clearly doesn't) but because to do otherwise would be a concession to something, the first step down the road to becoming the kind of celebrity he hates.

Galifianakis says he has struggled with depression before. (Usually he follows his dad's advice: "Go to a park and talk to old people.") There's a great scene in one of his live DVDs where he talks about "the fragility of the human psyche," and how he thinks all comedians are a little mentally ill. It spooks him, the idea that his fame is outpacing him.

"I'll be honest with you: I'm not adjusting to it well. I don't mean that as a complaint. Most people wouldn't be well-adjusted. I just get confused by people asking me questions. For years, nobody asked me a question, ever. So now when someone says, 'Oh, you're going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone,' my first reaction is, 'Ehhh, I don't think that's a good idea. I mean, it's cool – but does it have to be the cover? What's Blink-182 doing these days?' "

He takes another sip of wine. "I think it's made me more guarded," he says. "I just like jokes, and I'm private, and I'm emotional, and I drink too much. I don't know. I have to figure it out."

After a few drinks, we decide to share a cab back to Brooklyn. "Taxi!" Galifianakis says, whistling at a passing bus. Eventually, a real cab stops, and soon we're zoom-ing across the bridge under a 20-foot bill-board with his face on it. He talks about how he ate a bunch of pot chocolates last night and walked around listening to the new Fleet Foxes record. I tell him that sounds like fun, and his eyes get wide: "Do you want to come over to my house and eat pot chocolates?"

We pull up to his apartment, on an industrial block in Brooklyn across the street from a pita bakery. "That fucking place," he says. "It's keeping me up at night." Then he catches himself, and slips into a mock-TV-announcer voice: "We'll be right back, with Millionaires Complaining!"

Inside, he's embarrassed by the luxury of the apartment. "HBO is renting this for us," he says. "We do not live like this." In the kitchen, his girlfriend, Quinn, is doing the dishes. They've been together for several years; she runs a nonprofit that helps fund Third World charities. When you ask Galifianakis if he has any crazy stories from filming The Hangover Part II in Bangkok, and he says Quinn has a great story about going to a Cambodian sex-slave camp, he's probably not joking. "Quinn is the coolest," he says. "The coolest."

They make drinks, and we head out to the roof deck. There's a single bird singing in the darkness. "He's lonely," Galifianakis says. "He doesn't have any buddies."

He mentions Quinn was in Africa recently. I ask her where.

"Epcot Center," he says, spitting tobacco juice into a Snapple bottle.

Quinn smiles. "I was in Malawi."

I make a dumb joke about them adopting a kid.

"Yeah," Galifianakis says, "where is that kid?" He spits again. "Kate Middleton was his name. We named him while we were watching the wedding." He scratches his head. "We gotta find that kid."

He jokes, but he really does want to be a dad. "I've been wanting kids for 10 years. I'd love to adopt, have them naturally – all of it. I want, like, 15." He used to be a Big Brother to a boy with Asperger's. He also fantasized about adopting a kid and driving around the country in his orange Volkswagen van, doing stand-up in people's living rooms. "I was kind of obsessed with it for a couple of months. Then I found out it's very difficult for a guy with a van to adopt a kid."

Back inside, Quinn puts on a Beatles record. Galifianakis cuts up a pear. "Try this," he says. "This is the best pear you've ever had." It's a pretty good pear. On the other hand, we're also very high.

(He and marijuana go way back. When he lived in Vancouver a decade ago, he had a girlfriend named Watermelon who sold pot cookies on the beach.  He has also said he took G-Force – that Disney action thriller about crime-fighting guinea pigs  because he was stoned when they asked him to audition.)

He says they need to get back to the farm.  They have 70 acres in North Carolina, near the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Galifianakis called it Farmageddon. (You may have seen him there, riding his tractor in the video he shot for Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing.") They grow pumpkins, blueberries, grapes; he recently planted a walnut tree.  He also built a toolshed, and a barn for some goats. There's no cell service, no TV.  Their closest neighbor is a dairy farmer named Junior, who calls Galifianakis "Hollywood" and gives him manure. It's the one place in the world where he can hang out and eat Bojangles' sausage biscuits and almost pretend like nothing has changed.

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