Zach Galifianakis gives what is arguably his most low-key performance to date in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s brazenly nutty showbiz satire “Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” as a Broadway producer trying to keep calm as his show’s creator (Michael Keaton) suffers a mental and creative breakdown. For the actor, the change of pace should come as a surprise to his legion of fans who know him as Alan, the socially inept and totally unpredictable breakout character from “The Hangover” trilogy. But as anyone close to Galifianakis could probably tell you, his participation in something as bold and critical of the industry as “Birdman” was a long time coming.
A day before the film screened as the closing night film of the 2014 New York Film Festival (it opens in select theaters Friday, October 17), Galifianakis sat down with Indiewire to discuss the project, what it shares in common with his Funny or Die comedy show “Between Two Ferns,” and why “Birdman” spoke to him on such a deep level.
This feels kind of meta considering the scene where you come in and haul those journalists out of your actor’s dressing room after a reporter asks him an inappropriate question.
I don’t remember anything. I just had to see the movie last week again because there was so much to take in and I wanted to make sure that I could answer the questions properly. The second viewing, there’s a lot to take in in the movie. It’s layered. Did you first see it in Telluride?
No, I just saw it at a little thing a few months ago. Just a little screening room. I haven’t seen it in a theater or anything like that with an audience. But, the second viewing, I thought it was more profound than the first viewing. I missed some things. Even though I’ve read the script — part of it. It’s not lost on me, but I’m just really happy, really proud of the movie. I think it calls the entertainment business out on a lot of things, that I actually happen to agree with it.
Like what, specifically?
Well, not so much over the head, but it kind of hits on celebrity worship a lot. It makes fun of that. I love that when the theater critic says to one of the characters that “you’re not an actor, you’re a celebrity.” I feel like celebrity has become more important than anything and even the marketing of movies has become more important than the movies themselves. For the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking is anyone interested in just making good movies or are they just interested in marketing the hell out of movies? Even the [“Birdman”] poster’s different.
Everything about this movie is refreshingly different and that feels good because it’s not copying anything. It’s bold. It’s trying to be different and I think it works. Sometimes when you try to be different, it doesn’t work. I think the director is — he has art in his heart and I think that’s the big difference. He’s a real artist. He’s not just a director. He could probably be an amazing painter, if he isn’t already. So, that’s a huge thing when you work with a director like that. That makes a huge difference. It’s the way I wish it were. I wish the movie business were like this. It calls out the critics. Everybody’s a critic nowadays and it’s so easy to write things and be negative and Edward Norton saying “at least he’s trying. He’s not sitting around writing about it.” A think a lot of people would like to say that to critics. It calls out actors for being self-centered. It gets into the psyche of Michael Keaton’s character of Riggan and that’s where it lives. The movie lives in his psyche. It’s honest. It’s an honest approach, even though the movie is far-fetched in ways, it’s an honest movie in its tact and emotion.
You just gave me so much to unpack.
[Laughs] I was telling my friends about this even before I even started or knew anything about this movie. The way Hollywood presents itself is gross. All it does is brag about how much money it makes. That’s important. Not what is good, but how much money a Michael fucking Bay movie made. That’s where we are? That’s not interesting to me because the capitalists and the marketers have taken over the movie business. So, when Alejandro, an artist, seeps through, it’s the greatest thing and it’s rare these days. And I’m guilty of it. I’ve been in big, R-Rated sequels. That kind of thing. There’s other ways to tell stories and it’s just refreshing when a new story comes along and it’s told in a different way. I’m proud of it. I’ll say that.
Have you always felt this way about the industry, or was “Birdman” the film to make you see the light?
No, I’ve always felt this way.
So, that begs the question, why “The Hangover” sequels?
Well, I’m proud of “The Hangover” sequels. I don’t want to disparage those. I’m happy to be a part of that for sure. But, it seems like all of movie making has become that now. Super heroes, sequels, kids movies — where do you see a “Kramer vs. Kramer” being made? Except if you do, you’ll see it come out in October.
Like this movie.
Right, exactly. So, I don’t know. It’s silly. Hollywood has become just a silly business. What do I know. I just observe. I drive through Los Angeles. I don’t see many movies. But, that’s where I find out about movies. I’m forced to see billboards. It’s all kinds of weird. I just wish that Hollywood would have some balls and take more artistic approaches some times. That’s all. That’s my big beef. Me being as guilty as wading in the shit as anybody else.
Well, you have to make a living.
I’m 45 now, so your perspective gets a little changed. And to be honest, I’m lucky because I was in those “Hangover” movies. That’s what made me be in this movie. If I weren’t in those movies, I wouldn’t be allowed to be in in this movie. There’s room for everything. But, it just seems that right now, there’s only room for big, loud, non-thoughtful films. Mostly. And that gets a little tiring. It’s clear you’re making an effort to veer from the studio projects that made your name. On top of “Birdman,” you appeared in Matthew Weiner’s indie comedy “Are You Here” this year, and coming up you have Justin Chadwick’s 17th century romance “Tulip Fever.”
Well, you try to change and do things that you think are a challenge or are refreshing. You can keep doing the same thing, but I think audiences — and more importantly — I get tired of it. If you’re a comedian, I think there’s this thing that “oh they only know how to do one thing.” I got to say that when you look at Jim Carrey in a serious role — comedians can play serious roles more than than dramatic actors can play comedic roles. Comedy is much harder. No offense to those dramatic actors, I can name them all. So knowing that, I don’t want to be the chubby dude falling down all the time. I love doing that, don’t get me wrong, it’s fun. But, there’s other things and art to explore.
That said, your comedy isn’t purely just slapstick. In the third “Hangover” movie you explore a pretty deep state of depression, but still somehow make it funny.
Well, I think emotion in comedy is always lacking. I’ve always thought that it’s fun to watch someone cry. If you try to make it as real as possible —
Which you do.
Then it makes it, the emotion helps the comedy I think. I just did a movie with Jared Hess. I don’t think we have a title for it yet, but he’s the director who did “Napoleon Dynamite.” The movie doesn’t really need that much emotion in it. But, we decided lets try to make it more emotional. And he agreed with me that emotion in comedy is very helpful instead of just being silly.
I try not to be just silly. I don’t know. Crying makes me laugh. I don’t know what it is. But, I cry all the time in real life. All the time. It’s embarrassing when I cry constantly.
Like “Birdman,” “Between Two Ferns,” your Funny or Die show, pokes fun at the notion of celebrity.
Yeah, it’s mocking celebrity. I know the irony of saying that in an interview. But, I’ve always thought it was so silly — the aweness that we put on celebrity in this world. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not innate in us, in human beings. It’s man-made. It’s manufactured. So, I’ve said this before, but if I had a show where I was a 45-year-old man where I am talking about teen pop stars, the way these adults do, it would be seen as really creepy. But, “Entertainment Tonight” does it and it seems normal. It’s like overproduced pedophilia. [Laughs]
It’s this weird obsession and I get to meet actors and of course they’re just normal people. But, sometimes you go because — I think Patton Oswald said once in jest and said “I want to be so famous, I’m never told the truth again.” [Laughs] I always thought that was such a great quote. It’s a poison that environment. You have to make sure that you keep yourself in check and not buy into that horse shit, that you are special. That’s the way I see it.
You’re outspoken on the industry you work for. How do you stay employed?
I think people agree with me. I’m not saying anything radical. I’m saying these things to a lot of people. The fact that there’s an award show for everything, and this movie — hopefully Michael [Keaton] is nominated for an Oscar. I feel sorry for him because he has to go fucking talk about it for about a year. Nothing is worth talking about for that long! Nothing! I’ve seen my friends go campaign for their Oscar thing and I’m like ‘is it that important?’
That could happen to you with this movie.
I’m 8th fiddle in this movie. I don’t think so.
Supporting! You never know.
Yeah, but, by the way, great movies should be talked about. I’m not saying that because the great reflections of our society and a movie like this can make you fake and that kind of thing. But, we don’t talk about books or award books or real people. It’s the celebrity. It’s the glitz and the glamour. I’m not interested in being a celebrity. I’m interested in doing my work and then having a regular life. And those other people that are into celebrity, something is missing from their core. They’re ghosts. Something is missing and it ain’t my responsibility to pay attention to them to fulfill them. You know what I mean?
I don’t know what that is and I may be way off. It might be that I’m bitter at 45. I’m not bitter though. I’m not bitter at all. It’s just that comedians and comedy in general is a bullshit detector. As a comic, you can smell bullshit. I know that actors have a way that they need to be, but I’m a comedian at first. So, you call it the way you see it. And I can’t look at it. Nobody wants to hear that bullshit. I gotta stop cursing.