Zach Galifianakis understands that his breakthrough success in last year's "The Hangover" has left fans with certain expectations. They want a sequel to Todd Phillips' comedy about guys gone wild during a pre-wedding Vegas trip, and they'll get one in 2011. But more than that, they want Galifianakis to make them laugh.
He gets to do that in "It's Kind of a Funny Story," Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's lighthearted adaptation of Ned Vizzini's 2006 novel about a suicidal teen's retreat to an adult psych ward; the movie opens Friday.
Yet his character Bobby, the slyly perceptive patient who seems to be running the asylum, gives Galifianakis, 41, a revealing showcase for his impressive dramatic range.
It's not that Galifianakis has avoided serious roles — he earned one of his first big breaks playing a soft-spoken coroner on the TV drama "Tru Calling," though he doesn't recall his two-year stint on the show fondly.
"If you're a stand-up comic and you're offered a job, you take it," he says. "Nothing drew me to the role — I needed work. You've got to pay for the Subaru somehow. I was desperately trying to get fired from 'Tru Calling.' When the show got canceled, the producer called us together, 70 members of the cast and crew, and he's like, 'I've got bad news.' We'd been replaced by a show called 'The North Shore.' I raised my hand and asked if he knew the casting director for 'The North Shore.' Nobody laughed."
Galifianakis thanks "The Hangover" for putting him in a position where he can be more discriminating about the projects he takes.
He's frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of respect for comics trying serious roles, which partly explains his attraction to Fleck and Boden's "Funny Story."
"I don't like crazy, over-the-top movies so much," he says. "It's fun to make them, but in terms of the films I like to see, I prefer drama, subtlety. I was a big fan of [Boden and Fleck's 2006 story of a drug-addicted high-school teacher] 'Half Nelson.' 'The Hangover' was fun, but that's not the kind of movie I tend to watch."
"This is definitely the most grounded role we've seen Zach in," adds Fleck, a Berkeley native who discovered his passion for film attending double features as a boy at the UC Theater. He says, "He's so charming, thoughtful and down-to-earth — all we asked him to do with Bobby was a little bit of himself in the role, and we knew it would be something electric that audiences haven't seen before."
IF YOU GO
Starring Keir Gilchrist, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Lauren Graham, Zach Galifianakis
Written and directed by Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
Running time 1 hour 41 minutes