Certifiably Zach: Funny Story Unmasks the Many Faces of Galifianakis

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If you thought Zack Galifianakis was the life of the party at the Toronto International Film Festival, then perhaps you’ve watched The Hangover one too many times.

Sure, he attended the late-night premiere party for his newest film, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but “I left ’cause it was too loud. I’m getting old,” lamented the 41-year-old actor and comedian in a recent interview. “I want to hear people talk about the movie [but instead] it’s Lady Gaga in my ear.” (We assume that means her song was playing really loud; otherwise, that was some party after all!)

In fact, it may come as a surprise that Galifianakis lives a rather simple, unassuming life on a quiet Southeastern farm with no television, with the nearest movie theater an hour away. “I live in a small house; I drive a Subaru from 1998,” said the portly, bearded one, who also currently stars in the HBO noir comedy, Bored to Death.

And now he’s defying preconceptions on-screen as well, as he shows off unexpected range in the dark comedy FunnyStory, the film adaptation of author Ned Vizzini’s semi-autobiographical book about a stressed-out teenager named Craig who checks himself into a mental hospital. In an understated performance that combines his offbeat comedic persona with tragic pathos, Galifianakis plays Bobby, a patient battling crippling depression, who tries to snap his new teenage friend out of his funk.

To prepare for his role, the actor visited several mental hospitals. “One of the common things I kept hearing is that the difference between the patients and the people that work there -- there’s not much of a difference… and I found that to be true,” said Galifianakis. In fact, he was utterly convinced that one of the employees he met was a resident trying to trick him, even after she invited him into her office. “But then she was pulling things out of her drawer, so it was confirmed” that she worked there, he added.

Keir Gilchrist, the 18-year-old actor who plays Craig in Funny Story, called his co-star “a polite southern guy” who, despite his quiet nature, was frequently cracking everyone up with his on-camera improvisations. “A lot of takes were ruined in this movie because the camera was shaking. The whole camera crew was laughing,” said Gilchrist, best known for his TV role as Toni Collette’s son Marshall in the multiple personality comedy (sensing a theme here?) The United States of Tara.

Galifianakis will be giving audiences a lot more to laugh about in the near feature, thanks to a recent surge in offers stemming from The Hangover’s overwhelming success. He will star opposite Robert Downey Jr. in the road comedy Due Date this November, and has just begun work on the highly anticipated The Hangover 2. “I’m more exposed than Betty White,” joked Galifianakis. But “it’ll probably all go away, so I’m just gonna strike while the iron’s hot.”

Not that he’s looking to seize upon every opportunity that crosses his path. According to Galifianakis, he’s already turned down a host of bad scripts as well as some potentially lucrative endorsement offers. Regarding the latter: “I don’t crave those things,” he explained. “And I think when you see actors do those, they have big mansions and all that stuff so they have to do it to pay for it.”

To avoid overexposure, he also plans on eschewing the kind of gratuitous celebrity cameos that one often sees during award show season, which at this point basically is year-round. “I try desperately not to attend these things, the MTV things… the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards. I’m a grown man!” he laughed.

So if Galifianakis truly intends on not letting fame change him too much, it stands to reason he won’t be getting rid of that trademark beard anytime soon. “I don’t like shaving,” he said. “You get 15 more minutes of sleep if you don’t have to shave, and that to me is worth it. I mean, you meet less women…”

Having said that, he already shaved his beard on television last year when he hosted Saturday Night Live, and would most definitely do it again if it meant landing a part. “I had people… for years try to tell me, ‘You gotta shave that thing off; you’re not going to get any work,’” said Galifianakis. Of course, that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for him anymore.