Zach Galifianakis, Reluctant Superstar: The Rolling Stone Cover Story

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"This is going to sound so Norman Rockwell," Miles says, "but one time Iwas at the farm, and Quinn had found a bunch of kittens on the side of the road and was taking care of them. One night, she was sitting on the porch with all these kittens in her lap, and Zach walked around the corner on the other side of the screen door and gasped and covered his mouth.  He was just so taken by that scene.  That's a little peek into what he really cares about – those little moments of beauty."

Galifianakis' life hasn't changed much, materially speaking. He still lives in the same ramshackle house in Venice, California, he's had since his shitcom days. He still drives the same old '98 Subaru. He says the only things he splurges on are good food and repaving his parents' driveway, and he doesn't even know how much he got paid for The Hangover Part II. When I tell him the reported figure was $5 million against four percent, he stares blankly. "I don't know what that means."

Basically, if this movie earns as much as the last one did, he gets $10 million.

"See, you say that. But I don't even know how to access my bank account. I don't know the thing."
So how does he get money?

"I have $10,000 in a Bank of America account. My accountant, whom I've had since I started doing open mics, occasionally I'll e-mail him and say, 'Will you tell me what's what?' And he does. It's kind of embarrassing. I'm smart, but I don't know what things mean. There's a lot of business terms – like 'fiduciary'? I don't know. I gotta educate myself more."

He rubs his eyes, like just thinking about money gives him a headache.

"But what is one to do?" It's not a rhetorical question.

"It's new to me," he says. "I see these people with mansions and stuff – I just find that bizarre. I don't know. I'll probably end up giving it away." He pauses, realizing how this could sound. "Not because – only because I'm lazy. I shouldn't say I'm giving it away. I don't know. I gotta get a rein on things."

Later this year, he has a small role in the new Muppets movie, playing a guy named Hobo Joe. (It's the fourth time he's played a homeless guy. He really likes it: They hardly have any lines.) He's also shooting an election comedy with Will Ferrell called Southern Rivals, where they play sparring politicians. For the first time in a while, he won't have a beard. He'd like to write something for himself, although he doubts he can pull it off; he's talked before about a screenplay called Schindler's List 2: Let's Get This Party Started, but that's probably a joke. He also fantasizes about holding up trains. "But in a Robin Hood way – with bows and arrows. No one does that anymore.

"But now they want to do a Hangover III," he continues. "I'm getting fricking phone calls already." He's excited about this one: According what he's heard, they ditch the format of the first two and help his character escape from a mental institution. Still, it's hard for him to take any movie too seriously when he's been to Malawian villages and had parents beg him for a pencil so their kids can do their schoolwork.

"It's a constant thing," he says. "If you're on the phone, talking about doing a movie with Ryan Reynolds, it's like – well, yeah, do a movie with Ryan Reynolds. Because then you can open a . . . "

A what? A school? A clinic?

He doesn't say. "You can do anything you want."

If Galifianakis is hesitant to open up too much about this, it's probably because he worries about sounding too Angelina – like he'd cheapen what he really cares about by making it into a thing. "Honestly," he says, "if I could talk about what means the most to me in life and stuff, I would. Eventually that's what I want to talk about. But I don't know if I can yet. It's hard."

Hard why?

He rubs his head again. "Because it's not jokes."

It's getting late now. Galifianakis is telling stories. He talks with reverence about the old Greek traditions, how his dad used to kiss him on the lips when he dropped him off at high school. He says he has fond memories of visiting Greece when he was 14, watching his great-aunt squat on the dinner table to demonstrate the proper way to take a dump. He wants to live in Greece before he gets married, to try to reconnect with something true about himself.

For all his outré weirdness, Galifianakis is kind of old-fashioned. He doesn't like to curse. He thinks reality TV is a scourge – that we're not far off from Celebrity Toilet Cams or World's Funniest Gay Bashings. When little kids tell him they loved The Hangover, he'll tell them they have terrible parents. "And I mean it."

"I saw that Ke$ha woman the other day," he says. She'd e-mailed him about getting a drink, and a few days later, he ran into her in a bar. "She was sitting by herself, and I walked up to her and said, 'Lis- ten, I got your e-mail. Your music is really bad! I don't know who listens to it, but I imagine it's, like, six-year-olds – and it's a bad message.' "

Phillips says Galifianakis can do pretty much whatever he wants at this point: "He's a phenomenal actor." But his true love, Phillips says, will always be comedy. "It's such a joyous thing for him. When you laugh at one of his jokes, his eyes just light up. It's not like he's desperate for it. But there is no greater joy to him than the sound of people laughing."

Cooper agrees. "Zach has a need, deep down, to find humor all the time. It kind of gives him meaning." He says that when his father died last year, Galifianakis was the first call he made from the hospital. "I can't remember what he said, but within minutes, we were just laughing so hard."
But this approach does have some drawbacks. "I can get away with anything," Galifianakis says. "But when I try to be sincere, people just roll their eyes." He tells a story from about 10 years ago, when he gave a toast at his little sister's wedding. "I started crying in the middle of it, because I love my sister. There were 300 people there, and they all started laughing. Same thing happened at my brother's wedding – I got choked up and everyone laughed. Except that time I made a bit out of it, because I didn't want to suffer that again."

It's a generous thing, what Galifianakis does. Whether he's asking Natalie Portman if she shaved her V for vagina or yelling on a crowded subway platform, "The choo-choo is coming! The choo-choo is coming!" what he's really doing is sharing his gift – opening the door to the wonderland that is Zachworld. Come on in, he's saying. Laugh with me.

Of course, even when the door is open, sometimes he's the only one inside. Which is also part of what makes him great. "Let me tell you about the hardest I've ever laughed by myself, ever," Galifianakis says. He was home from college; he and his parents were at church on Christmas Eve. At one point during the services, everyone gets a candle, and they all take turns lighting their neighbor's. It's supposed to represent fellowship and togetherness.

"So I get my candle lit," Galifianakis says, "and I'm trying to light my father's. But my dad has a really bad wick. He's trying and trying, but he just can't get it. Everybody's singing 'Silent Night,' and my dad is getting more and more frustrated."

He starts to giggle. "Finally, after two minutes, he gets it lit. And the timing of it was unbelievable. As soon as he raised his candle up – this look of elation and relief on his face – everybody else blew out their candles."

He's full-on howling now, laughing at the memory. "It was the most poetic thing I'd ever seen!" he says. "It was so perfect. I screamed." The whole congregation turned to stare at him – his mom and dad were mortified. But Galifianakis couldn't help himself. "When you get that release of laughter," he says, catching his breath and wiping a tear from his cheek, "it's just the greatest thing in the world."

This story is from the June 23, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

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