Don’t go into an interview with Zach Galfianakis expecting him to provide you with straight answers. Like when asked a throwaway question of what band he’d like to jam out with onstage, the actor and comedian pauses, strokes his famous beard and stares at the ceiling, as if deeply pondering the most important question he’s ever been asked. You’re unsure for a second: Is he really thinking about the question? Maybe mentally rifling through his record collection? Finally, with a hint of glee in his eyes, he leans forward.
“The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
Zach Galifianakis is not like most people. He’s the actor who’s portrayed a person with mental illness in this fall’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the human leader of guinea pigs in G-Force and, of course, the scene-stealing, not-quite-all-there, pager-wearing Alan in The Hangover. He’s become a breakout star known for portraying bizarre characters and for straddling a line of comedy and insanity that makes audiences feel uncomfortable and crack up at the same time.
When Galifianakis asked, “Can you really trust your mind?”in a rare serious moment during his stand-up comedy documentary Live at the Purple Onion, he might have given more of a glimpse into his real self than he intended—and why he chooses the roles he does.
“I think we’re all a bit off-kilter in our own way,” he says. “Everybody has got an issue, whether they want to admit it or not.”
Galifianakis uses the term “off-kilter” with authority. For him, the notion of reality can get so skewed, sometimes even he doesn’t know where his characters end and he begins.
His public guise is a steel-fronted mixture of offbeat humor and absurdist irony, mixed with a healthy dose of darkly comic audience-baiting and self-lacerating observations. Under the layers, it’s often hard to penetrate to the real Zach, to tell what’s authentic and what’s a well-timed joke. “Maybe I have a mental disorder,” he laments in the documentary The Comedians of Comedy. “Reality is becoming a joke. It really is. I don’t know how to put it in words.”
Then he waits a beat, chews on a nail and shrugs his shoulders. “Eh … oh well.”
It’s not that Galifianakis is known for having a mental disorder or anything (well, beyond a crippling claustrophobia). His surreal and caustic view of life from the stage just makes you wonder if he does.
“I think there’s a gravitational pull in the entertainment business toward people who are [messed] up already,” he says, “and the business makes them even worse.”
It’s that draw to the unpredictable Galifianakis’ “messed-up-ness” that keeps audiences coming back for more. This fall, he is the scene-stealing star of Due Date (co-starring Robert Downey Jr. and out today) and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Has the business really made him “worse”?
“Zach is such a friendly, nice, smart guy in real life—not like the characters I’d seen in his stand-up or other movies,” says Ryan Fleck, co-director of Funny Story.
In fact, in “real life,” Galifianakis is, well, normal. He has a girlfriend of several years, and he owns a farm in North Carolina that he says he wants to turn into a “self-sustaining writers’ retreat.” An accomplished pianist, he often incorporates improvised songs into his act. And like any musician, he geeks out a little bit about recently playing with one of his favorite bands, My Morning Jacket: “It was a five-hour concert, the last of their tour, and I was up there onstage with them.”
All of these often-conflicting perspectives into “who Zach is” just lead back to the initial question that keeps everyone on their toes. Is Galifianakis kidding … or serious?
The Man Behind the Persona, Behind the Myth, Behind the Enigma
Even though his wit and intelligence are keys to his success, everybody knows: it’s all about the beard. “Everyone always asks me about that,” he says, perhaps annoyed, perhaps amused. “Would you ever say to [actor] Adrien Brody, ‘What’s the deal with your nose?’ But the scabies is the worst part about having a beard.”
So where did Galifianakis—the beard and the man—come from? It’s a lot more ordinary than you might suspect. He grew up in rural Wilkesboro, N.C., with his parents: Harry, an oil heating vendor, and Mary. After majoring in communication at North Carolina State University—but dropping out one credit shy of achieving his degree—he moved to New York in 1992 to pursue his comedy career.
As far as childhood influences go, Galifianakis and his brother and sister were raised in his father’s Greek Orthodox tradition, although today he says he’s unsure about his beliefs.
“Well, it is hard to argue the teachings of Jesus—whether you believe or not,” Galifianakis told That Other Paper, an Austin, Texas-based alternative weekly. “The Sermon on the Mount is all about turning the other cheek. I think if Jesus were to come back, He would more likely hang out with lowlifes and perhaps be in a really bad cover band but do His good work. … The Bible has too many typos.”
“I grew up Greek Orthodox, and I wish I knew more about the Bible,” he told Brian Palmer in an online interview. “But I haven’t really made my mind up about it. I think it’s all mythology. It would be nice to believe in something, just in case. I mean, what do you have to lose? We can be all scientific about it, but just in case. I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it.”
What does “still thinking about it” mean? Galifianakis says, for him, life is lived in the now. It’s a theme echoed in the carpe diem message of Funny Story. Galifianakis says it’s all about being present. “I am a big believer in ‘live for today,’” he says. “I don’t necessarily live for the future, and I find that for those who live in the past, their best days are already over.”
“You go back to your hometown and there’s still people talking about high school,” he continues. “There’s more to life than high school! That’s not the pinnacle of your life. There’s an author, Eckhart Tolle, who’s made a lot of money preaching that message, and I listened to his book and I was like, ‘I already do that in my own life.’”
A Quirky Trip to the Top
Despite his rampant fame and viral success, it’s puzzling—and refreshing in a world where TMZ exists—that we don’t know much more about Galifianakis other than his taste for oddball punch lines. Perhaps this is why he lives on a farm in rural North Carolina. He rarely talks about his personal life without being prodded, and the more he seems to garner mainstream recognition, the more he deliberately tries to keep his privacy.
“I don’t want my personal life to change. I don’t understand why people strive for [fame],” he told Esquire last year. He’s also admittedly wary of seeing his name in print. “You say something to a reporter, and it shockingly gets reported, so I’ve had to edit certain things. I’m not as free as I used to be,” Galifianakis says.
After chatting with Galifianakis, one is left just as puzzled as before. His public antics range from silly (appearing as his “twin brother Seth” on Jimmy Kimmel Live, shaving his beard mid-sketch while hosting Saturday Night Live) to surprisingly low-key (taking his girlfriend to a stuffy Metropolitan Opera House gala). Behind closed doors, he is carefully close-guarded and wary of the omnipresent media spotlight.
He’s a walking paradox: the private celebrity who simultaneously embodies an attitude of comic frankness and pragmatic discretion. The incredibly caustic comic who’s also a nice guy. Put it all out there, but play your cards close to the vest. He’s a J.D. Salinger who lives in the public eye.
It’s easy to suspect most of Galifianakis’ zaniness as an actor is just that: a performance ramped up for laughs, and then discarded when the lights go down. But beyond all of that, who is the real Zach: the quiet, somewhat vulnerable man reluctantly being interviewed, or the brash comedian with the unhinged one-liners?
When one meets Zach—or as anyone seeing his movies—are you granted a glimpse into the Galifianakis psyche, or just witnessing another performance? Perhaps with Galifianakis, you have to make peace with the most solid fact you can dredge up: everyone’s a little off-kilter, including him.