A conversation with Zach Galifianakis: On comedy, confidence and more

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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galifianakis_nys3_2014Zach Galifianakis, the most successful actor sitting in a room full of actors gathered to hear him speak at NYS3 in Woodfin Saturday evening, may have been the least confident of them all.

Reflecting on his lack of self-assuredness as an actor, recalling how stand-up comedy led him to Hollywood and noting his love of Asheville, Galifianakis talked for an hour before a crowd of about 100  people Saturday evening at the New York Studio for Stage, Screen and Voiceover’s studio space in Riverside Business Park.

NYS3 offers a variety of workshops, classes and training sessions aimed at working actors. NYS3 opened in 2012 with Richard Handy and Shannon Rupert at the helm, along with a professional faculty. The acting school has hosted other similar talks with actors (similar in style to Inside the Actors Studio). Just a few weeks ago, NYS3 hosted actor Bryan Cranston, a star of the hit TV series Breaking Bad.

Time and again during his hour-long talk, Galifianakis talked about his stage fright, his feelings of inadequacy and his overall lack of confidence on stage as he answered questions from interviewer Tom Chalmers, a well-known Asheville actor, before a crowd of about 100

The awkward, shy persona that Galifianakis has developed over two decades of very public work as a stand-up comedian and actor comes from a very real place, Galifianakis told the rapt crowd. He said he asks questions on movie sets to cover for his lack of confidence. Once so nervous while giving a talk at a wedding that he began to cry – an emotion the audience took as a joke – Galifianakis said he covered by making a joke and moved on.

“Have you ever had a roomful of people laughing at you while you’re crying?” It’s a really weird feeling,” he said.

Galifianakis grew up in Wilkes County, about two hours north of Asheville. He described his family as a tight unit that stuck together while the parents of his friends were divorcing.

“I grew up in a very loving family,” Galifianakis said. “My dad used to kiss me on the lips.”

In college at N.C. State, Galifianakis said he set his eyes on going to New York to work as an actor. He left college immediately after the death of a close friend. He was one credit shy of the requirements for graduation. The friend’s death put something inside him “in gear” to follow his life’s dream, he said.

But New York wasn’t easy. “I went to New York to learn how to be a good actor, and I found out I was an excellent drunk,” he said.

In acting classes, Galifianakis said he never felt comfortable and often found himself laughing at the comedy of the situation – classes filled with self-centered people just there to tell their stories, seeking to be heard, rather than perfecting a class. He gravitated to the city’s lively stand-up comedy, and specifically to what was then known as “alternative” comedy, he said.

“It goes in waves,” he said. The 1980s saw a lot of comics wearing thin ties and making observations about airplane food, he said. Today, stand-up is over-saturated with the use of four-letter words. Galifianakis was drawn to comics like Sarah Silverman who were trying new approaches, he said, challenging audiences and themselves.

“I want to make someone laugh, and then stop for a moment and hate themselves for laughing” at a joke, Galifianakis said of his comedic style. “Comedy is all about surprises.”

The magic lies in those twists and turns, Galifianakis said, noting that for awhile, he toured with a baby grand piano and would vamp a melancholy soundtrack beneath diarrhea jokes. The piano eventually became a crutch and he gave it up. But he said he continues to seek out comedy, and work, that goes against the grain. “That’s what we’re supposed to do” as comedians, he said.

Which can be difficult in an industry town like Los Angeles, he said. People are so self-possessed that Galifianakis said he used to post a sign outside his apart door banning people from talking about their pilot shows. And Hollywood is a “shit factory” that plays to the lowest common denominator, he added.

But good projects can still succeed. The massive success of The Hangover came as a bit of a surprise, Galifianakis said. The movie, filled with unknowns at the time of its 2010 release, initially slid under the radar. He said he had a great time making the films, but said he had to be talked into doing the sequels, noting his instinct to walk the other. Also, the money is difficult to turn down, he said, with a self-deprecating mention of his own hypocrisy.

Galifianakis said Asheville was the perfect location for his current project, a comedy about an armored car robbery that is based on a real event in 1997 in Charlotte. It’s known as the Loomis Fargo movie, and Galifianakis said he convinced producers to film in Asheville because of the lush mountain topography.

Asheville is also a town Galifianakis said he grew up visiting and loving. He said the food, artists and cultural, as well as all the quartz in the surrounding mountains, give Asheville a great feel. (Yes, he  specifically pointed out the quartz.)

“There’s a good vibe here.”

Cover image courtesy of NYS3 in Asheville

Image link for Zach Galifianakis.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

  • 1

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