Zach Galifianakis’ role is kind of a hybrid in 'It's Kind of a Funny Story'

Ed Symkus

There was a Hollywood acting career for Zach Galifianakis well before his breakout role in “The Hangover,” in which he played the card-counting, baby-toting, tiger-finding crazy guy Alan.

His standup comic days led him to continuing parts on the TV series “Boston Common” and “Reno 911!” as well as a dramatic role on “Tru Calling,” and small roles in films including “Into the Wild” and “What Happens in Vegas.”

In his new film “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” which opens Friday, he gets to mash together the serious and the funny as Bobby, a possibly suicidal patient in a psychiatric hospital who inadvertently becomes a mentor to a confused teenager (Keir Gilchrist) who has committed himself.

In person, at least when he’s not doing standup, Galifianakis, 41, is laidback and soft-spoken. Sprawled out in a chair in a Toronto hotel room, he talks candidly about the hurdles of switching from comedy to acting, and how he’s handling success.

“I auditioned for years in California, for comedies,” he says of his early days trying to break in. “For the first two years the only audition I got a laugh for was in a drama. And they were laughing at me because my acting was so bad. I was thinking, ‘I’ve gotta get out of this. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ But I guess you just persevere, if you have no other options.”

When “The Hangover” came his way, he saw it as just another part in another movie.

“I was a standup comic and I was offered a job,” he says. “I just took whatever I could get, because you’ve gotta pay for your Subaru. People ask me, what drew you to that role? Well, nothing. I needed work. Hopefully now that won’t be the situation anymore, at least for a while.”

That certainly wasn’t the situation with the new film. Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck actually called him and asked if he would talk with them about it.

“I met with them and we chatted about the tone of the movie and they asked me if I would do it,” he says. “I didn’t even have to audition, which is always a plus because that’s usually where I lose a job.”

But he was happier about a lot more than just landing the part; it was a role that was more understated and serious than other things he’d been offered, and that was appealing to him.

“I think the Hollywood machine kind of sees you as one thing, especially if you’re a comic,” he says. “I was purposely looking for something that was a little bit more mature and subtle. As far as me being a moviegoer, that’s the kind of movies I prefer – more subtle, not so crazy over-the-top stuff. I like doing that broad stuff, but as far as watching I prefer something more subtle.

“Comics are not as respected sometimes as being able to tell other kinds of stories,” he adds. “And that’s frustrating. People don’t understand that comedy’s more difficult than drama. Comedy has another layer to it: You have to make people laugh. It has to have that return, or it’s not working.”

Galifianakis had some unexpected assistance in getting Bobby’s serious side across. The film was shot in an abandoned wing of a working hospital, which made for a dreary atmosphere.

“It was very depressing,” he says. “But it helped with the feeling of the story a little bit. I was really grumpy during the whole time we were shooting. I don’t know if that was a conscious thing. I had a lot of lack of sleep and my patience for the young ones (in the cast) was kind of low. But I thought it was funny to be the curmudgeon.”

He shifts back into the difficulties of being known as a comic.

“Sometimes they just want to laugh,” he says. “It’s automatic, I guess. At my sister’s wedding, I stood up and gave a toast, and I got very emotional, and I cried. But everybody thought I was joking so they were laughing at my crying. That was bad. And the same thing happened at my brother’s wedding.”