Zach Galifianakis on His Concerns Debuting 'Between Two Ferns: The Movie' in "Meaner Times"

Ted Sarandos and Zach Galifianakis - Getty - H 2019
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

The actor talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of making his popular sketch into a film.

Judging by the star-studded turnout at the premiere of Between Two Ferns: The Movie, Zach Galifianakis hasn’t alienated the entire Hollywood community.

Of course, Galifianakis’ awkward, off-putting celebrity interviewer, made famous by a series of intensely viral interviews with notable names — including non-Hollywood figures like President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — is just a character, and when he expanded the sketch into a full-fledged feature for Netflix, the stars lined up to trade improvised barbs with the comedian onscreen.

So it was no surprise that a parade of the celeb cameo players showed up to support the premiere at ArcLight Hollywood, including Jon Hamm, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, and Adam Scott, as well as fans like Kaley Cuoco, JB Smoove, Matt Walsh, "Weird Al" Yankovic and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, many of whom made a point to playfully pose with Galifianakis amid the fern-heavy backdrop on the arrivals line.

Even with the onscreen support of famous friends (cameo appearances are also made by Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Keanu Reeves, Matthew McConaughey, Tessa Thompson, David Letterman, Tiffany Haddish, Will Ferrell, Rashida Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch and Hailee Steinfeld), Galifianakis admitted he wasn’t initially confident that the concept could be blown up into a feature-length format.

"It was difficult because it's a sketch," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's a small little, very stark — if that's the right word — bleak sketch of people talking to each other, and how do you expand that? So you take that attitude of the sketch, and you try to put it everywhere we are in every scene. It was a concern of mine."

"We really struggled with it weirdly enough for a while," agreed director Scott Aukerman. "We wanted to do just a fun improv movie, and then I think we got a little bit in our heads about what it could be and started thinking too much about it, and the plot got very complicated. And then I just kind of put it away for a while and I was watching other movies, like Wayne's World or Borat or [This Is] Spinal Tap. They're a lot like this movie, and it just came to me very quickly of 'let's throw away all the plot and do something really super simple.'"

Added Galifianakis, "The other concern of mine, which I told people, is we're living in meaner times now. And I'll be honest with you, I don't know if it's going to be accepted differently because of that, in a good way or bad way. It might work to our positive."

Still, despite some hesitancy to play too heavily into the shouty, combative rhetoric that plagues 2019, Galifianakis does savor skewering the fawning culture of adoration that accompanies the televised celebrity interview.

"I just think the on-air, sycophantic worship of celebrities has always been bizarre to me," he explained. "We're just actors. We're not solving anything. We're entertaining people. And that's why we have a celebrity president, because of this worship of us. [Interviewers] have their jobs to do, and I understand that, and people need to be cordial, but there's a lack of honesty in some of it … which I think we could do away with down the road."

The improvisational quality led to a unique shooting script, which was essentially rough outlines of scenes filled in with the actors’ inspired riffs during shooting. "The script really looks like a serial killer's manifesto," laughed Aukerman. "It just was like a lunatic wrote it or something, because it was super long with just half-sentences written on it sometimes. … But to their credit, the whole crew really got on board with how we were going to shoot it. It's unlike any other movie they've ever done. And I think it was really fun. The hardest part was just whittling it down to the 85 minutes that it turned out to be."

Aukerman praised Galifianakis not just for his laser-focused wit, but also for his ability to bring genuine dramatic heft to scenes. "You always know that he's going to be there comedically, and just doing the interviews with him, you know he's going to be super funny, but he's also a great actor as well," said the filmmaker. "And so there are some scenes in the movie that we genuinely wanted to do some touching stuff, and he could turn it on immediately, give you something really just powerful, and then drop it immediately and go, ‘Oh, how was that?’ He's an incredible actor and also an incredible improviser. None of us really knew that he was going to be able to stay in scenes the way he did, and it came out great."

Aukerman was also impressed with the game quality that the celebrities, not all of whom were known as accomplished improv performers, brought to their scenes with Galifiankis. "Benedict Cumberbatch is someone where they went into a three-minute argument that seemed very, very real, and then you call cut and he's laughing — that was one where it's like, 'Wow, these are two really good actors sparring with each other,'" he said. "Matthew McConaughey, it was very hard to cast his part because we're basically asking a major, A-list Academy Award winner to not only be insulted but be squirted in the face with a powerful hose."

"I truly was so impressed by Keanu Reeves," said co-star Lauren Lapkus. "I thought he was awesome, and he was down for everything. He even shared a poem with us. Yeah, he got really into it. He was great."

But even among the professional go-for-it ambiance, seasoned improv pros like Lapkus sometimes couldn’t help but break character and fall into giggling fits during some of the antics on set. "When we're getting washed down the hall with all the water rushing us over, Zach kept getting up and falling down with the ferns, over and over again," she recalled. "It was the funniest thing I've ever seen. He would not stop falling down."

Between Two Ferns: The Movie is set to bow Friday on Netflix.