Seated in the Venice coffeehouse Abbot's Habit, just hours before the Hollywood premiere of his road comedy "Due Date" last week, Zach Galifianakis was expounding on various subjects — New York fauxhemians, improvisational acting techniques, dog masturbation — when a memory from his not-so-distant past stopped the actor-comedian mid-sentence.
"I used to wash my feet in the bathroom here," Galifianakis recalled, suddenly wide-eyed.
He owns a home nearby and when construction workers turned off its water valve for retrofitting in 2000, the then-struggling actor and stand-up comic resorted to washing himself in the coffeehouse's sink. "I made sure my feet were clean because Jesus said if your feet are clean, your whole body's clean," Galifianakis said, rolling his eyes at his self-contained logic.
So, um, did he scrub any other body parts?
Glancing guiltily around Abbot's Habit, the bearded actor's eyes darted toward his lap. "That's why they have a sanitation level of D-minus," he explained, quietly.
The exchange — self-lacerating and loopy while rejoicing in the inappropriate — is vintage Galifianakis. It could well have been an outtake from "Due Date," a rollicking travelogue in the "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" vein that's due in theaters Friday.
The movie follows two wildly mismatched companions — blunt-smoking wannabe actor Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis) and rageaholic architect Peter Highman ( Robert Downey Jr.) — who get ejected from a cross-country flight thanks to an ill-timed terrorism joke and a trigger-happy sky marshal.
The travelers must journey by car from Atlanta to Los Angeles, where Highman's wife is scheduled to give birth. En route, Galifianakis' and Downey's characters' ever-widening personality rift results in violations of international law, ethical conundrums and overstepping most boundaries of good taste.
Like Grace Kelly
"Due Date" reteams Galifianakis with America's preeminent raunch-comedy writer-director, Todd Phillips, who enlisted the actor to play Alan, a portly ne'er-do-well with bromance in his heart and Rohypnol in his pockets for 2009's bachelor-party-from-hell feature " The Hangover." That surprise hit grossed more than $467 million worldwide. And in Galifianakis' case, it thrust a relative unknown to the forefront of mainstream comedy.
"We have the same sense of humor," Galifianakis said of the director. "We both like making people laugh. And then having them say, 'Oh my God, I can't believe I'm laughing at that.' "
Phillips recently began work on "The Hangover 2," his third consecutive film costarring the actor, explaining that unlike some movie comedians who have to bend over backward to win moviegoers' affections, Galifianakis immediately captures the audience's sympathies. "Alan is the most-loved character in 'The Hangover,'" Phillips said on the new movie's set earlier this fall. "He loves the people who hate him and hates the people who love him, but you never hold that against him."
Gently chided that Galifianakis had become a kind of Grace Kelly to Phillips' Alfred Hitchcock, the director jokingly vented some spleen at the 14th annual Hollywood Awards Gala last month.
"I always thought the idea of a muse was sexy," Phillips said. "And in my head, I imagined my muse would look like Mila Kunis or Rashida Jones. In fact, my muse looks like [comedy writer] Bruce Vilanch without the funny T-shirts."
Unlike "The Hangover," "Due Date" aims to warm viewers' hearts. But developing a convincing emotional interplay between Galifianakis' self-delusional character — a skinny-jeans-wearing hipster who's mourning his father's recent death by carting his ashes cross-country in a coffee can — and Downey's father-to-be — a guy known to spit on dogs and punch children in fits of pique — would prove crucial to that effort.
According to Galifianakis, the actors and director took daily meetings on set to strike the right funny-sensitive tone.
"It was more of an argument than a meeting," the actor said, again rolling his eyes. Phillips and Downey "would hash it out and it was really funny: two guys with strong, thick-skinned egos. I begged them to let me film it! In the end, we thought instead of this being a raunchy, R-rated movie, we said, 'Why don't we add a layer of emotional development? Where it's about fatherhood: the loss of a father, about becoming a father.'"
A long gestation
Not necessarily the kind of thing you'd have expected given Galifianakis' early career run. In the mid-'90s, the Wilmington, N.C., native landed a small part in the short-lived sitcom "Boston Common." But after establishing his bona fides through underground comedy performances, he won a gig as host of VH1's "Late World With Zach," a sendup of mainstream chat TV that survived less than half a season.