Zach Galifianakis: A Comedic Actor Takes A Dark Turn Actor and comedian Zach Galifianakis is best known for his shaggy red beard and his hilarious role in the bachelor-party comedy The Hangover. He tells Terry Gross how he prepared himself for his latest part -- a dramatic role as a mental patient in the film It's Kind of a Funny Story..

Zach Galifianakis: A Comedic Actor Takes A Dark Turn

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(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. Im Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, Zach Galifianakis, may be best known for his role in last year's hit comedy "The Hangover," about four friends who travel to Vegas for a bachelor party, one big night on the town that goes horribly wrong. Galifianakis played the odd man out, the guy who is there only because he's brother of the bride-to-be. Galifianakis also co-stars in the HBO series "Bored to Death," as a comic book illustrator. The new season started last Sunday.

He got his start in the world of alternative comedy through his stand-up and online videos, including his faux interviews series "Between Two Ferns." Now he's starring in a new film "Its Kind of a Funny Story." It begins with a high school student so terrified by his own thoughts of suicide that he goes to an emergency room. Sitting next to him is a man played Galifianakis, wearing a doctor's white coat, who strikes up a conversation.

(Soundbite of movie, "Its Kind of a Funny Story")

Mr. KEIR GILCHRIST (Actor): (as Craig) How you doing?

Mr. ZACH GALIFIANAKIS (Actor): You got a cigarette?

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) No, sorry.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Whats wrong with you?

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) I just dont smoke.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) No, I mean, why are you in the ER? It's 5:00 on a Sunday morning.

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Well, I guess there's just been a lot going on in my mind lately.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Go ahead.

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Okay, well, this is sort of difficult to explain. But, see there's this girl.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Yeah, gotcha.

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) And this summer school application that I'm really nervous about.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Summer school?

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Yeah. It's like this super prestigious kind of...

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Why would you want to be in school in the summer? You should be in Coney Island bird dogging chicks.

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Are you a doctor?

DAVIES: No, he's not really a doctor. Zach Galifianakis' character is actually a patient from the psychiatric unit, admitted because of his multiple suicide attempts. He becomes an eccentric mentor to the high school after the student is admitted to the unit.

Terry recently spoke to Galifianakis about the film and his career.

TERRY GROSS: Zach Galifianakis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Did you write a backstory for this character to understand why he tried to kill himself six times?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Yes. I do that a little bit. I kind of imagined, you know, what his life was like. You kind of think about maybe what kind of car, what kind of music he listens to. That's not - doesnt end up in the movie at all.

I had gone to a couple of mental facilities in New Mexico to do research and I've never done any research on anything. But I went and I kind of based the character on some things that I had seen there. And one of the things that was interesting to me was that, you know, you go to these places and there's a number of people that seem like they can make it on the other side, but there's something behind their eyes, a little darkness and some anger and sadness and I kind of based it on that.

GROSS: I think you got that sadness in your eyes.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I was really tired when we were shooting that movie. That was just a mistake because I wasnt sleeping for some reason and I think that sadness is just a lack of sleep.

GROSS: Why weren't you sleeping?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I dont know. I have sleep issues. And luckily, my sleep issues were haunting me during that and I think it actually helped the character a little bit.

GROSS: What do you do when you can't sleep?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Try to sleep.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: What do I do? I will read. I will go for a walk. Sometimes Ill eat something. And it just doesnt happen, sometimes just doesnt - I've had sleep issues all my life.

GROSS: All right. So...


GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I almost fell asleep during my answer, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: But, yeah, I've always - I have sleep issues and I was just saying that in the movie I think the reason I look the way I do is that I was extremely tired. And I remember being kind of grumpy during the movie, making of the movie.

GROSS: You know, you were talking about trying to get the right look on your face as a patient in a psychiatric ward. And I think of your acting as happening so much on your face in general. You have all these, like, looks. You have like this look of disapproval, a look of contempt, one of anger, pain, irony. You often have this look of - I'm just sitting here judging you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I wonder if youre aware of that, of like how much of your acting is just these like expressions on your face that are sometimes like devastating.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I think probably I'm a little bit aware of it but I think it's a reaction to not being very eloquent with your lines. So I'm not - I get very tongue-tied and its really a bad profession to be in when you can't speak very well.

So, but the non-verbal things that I see actors do I really love. I like, you know, I know it sounds kind of actor-y but the expression can say so much and a lot of times you dont have to say anything. And I guess I do kind of concentrate on that a little bit. And I have - I think it helps that I have a really heavy brow. Probably not great for evolution, but probably pretty good for trying to make a point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is Zach Galifianakis and he's co-starring in the new movie, "It's Kind of a Funny Story," and he was one of the stars of "The Hangover," and he's also on the HBO series "Bored to Death."

Let's talk about "The Hangover," huge movie, did enormously well at the box office. So here's the setup in "The Hangover," youre one of four men in Vegas, having their night on the town just before one of them is getting married. And you are there only because youre the brother of the bride-to-be. So youre out of place, you dont dress cool like the other guys, they're just putting up with you. So in the hotel in Vegas, just before your big night on the town, during which absolutely everything that can go wrong will go wrong, you make this toast.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hangover")

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) I'd like to say something that I've prepared tonight.

Mr. JUSTIN BARTHA (Actor): (as Doug) All right, Alan.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Hello. How about that ride in? I guess that's why they call it Sin City.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) You guys might not know this, but I consider myself a bit of a loner. I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack. But when my sister brought Doug home, I knew he was one of my own. And my wolf pack, it grew by one. So where there were - there were two of us in the wolf pack, I was alone first in the pack, and then Doug joined in later. And six months ago, when Doug introduced me to you guys, I thought, wait a second, could it be? And now I know for sure, I just added two more guys to my wolf pack.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) All right.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Four of us wolves, running around the desert together, in Las Vegas, looking for strippers and cocaine. So tonight, I make a toast.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) What have you got there?

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) What are you doing?

(Soundbite of moaning)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) What is that?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Blood brothers.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Oh, Damn it. Why did you?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Here.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Alan.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) No.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No, Alan.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) No, I'm not doing that.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Here. Go ahead, Stuart.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Make him stop.

Mr. ED HELMS (Actor): (as Stuart) Alan, we're not going to cut ourselves. Give me the knife. Slowly. Thank you. Okay.

GROSS: That's Zach Galifianakis doing the toast in a scene from "The Hangover." And, of course, at the end of that scene youre cutting your hand so that you can all be blood brothers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And that is why they are all recoiling in horror. Did you relate to any of the characters in the film? Were you ever the kind of guy who spent a lot of time with the other guys hanging out, getting drunk, going to strip clubs?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: No, I'm not that kind of guy at all. Actually, I used to be a busboy in a strip joint in New York and so I hate strip joints. I'm not that kind of person. I dont really know how I came up with that character. It just kind of unfolded. I mean, I think if you kind of go on a thing where the guy doesnt have any friends, he can't drive a car, there's questionable boundaries physically where he can show up, I think that's enough. And then you kind of - you kind of, you build it around there.

And also, the wardrobe has a lot to do with it. I kind of wanted this guy to be someone in his late-30s who had gone to raves a lot and probably done too many pills and then his brain got fried a little bit and he's still wearing the same clothes that he did at his raves back in the mid-'90s or early '90s, and that's kind of the backstory that I had for him.

GROSS: Which is what? What is he wearing?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Really bad, tight, white jeans that are really out of style. I dont know who can pull that off. And a really bad acid seamed T-shirt.

GROSS: So you said you worked as a busboy in strip joints and that's why you hate strip clubs. Some people might think that it would be like really exciting for a man to work in a strip club. Why did working there make you hate them?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Well, the women were mean. The dancers were mean to me. They were supposed to tip the busboys. I mean, it was kind of a high-end place and it's called Stringfellows in New York. And they never tipped and I guess that said something about it and, you know, its just not a good environment for a young boy from North Carolina who's very innocent.

GROSS: I'm just curious, if this isn't too personal, did it change your idea of what sexy is to see, like, mostly nearly naked women dancing all the time and then not liking them?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: There is nothing sexy about a strip club. I dont understand it. I really dont. I think that men that go to those things, and certainly it's okay to go. I'm not saying, you know, I mean, I'm sure I've been to them, but I think men that go to there, they're kind of lost. They dont understand attraction.

GROSS: So did you find the whole experience depressing?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: It is depressing. I mean it's pretty depressing to be 27 and be a busboy anywhere. But you add the stripper element and, you know, it's, you know what, Terry?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Its a good character builder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: That's what you just kind of keep telling yourself, it's a good character builder. One day you'll have a good strong character. And my roommate at the time, he was the cashier. He and I - I was living in his closet on 8th Street in New York and his name is Miles. And I remember he had lost $1,000 the night before and he had to go face the music. And it was a mafia-owed place and he had lost this $1,000 and I remember - this was the mid-'90s, I guess, and our faucet never turned off the hot water so it was always hot and steamy in this place. I was living in his closet. I was putting on my cummerbund and he was tying his shoe. We were getting ready to go walk through the snow to go to our jobs at the strip joint and he had to face the music.

And I remember him saying to himself - again, this was in the mid-'90s, he said to himself, he wasnt - I wasnt supposed to hear it, as I was putting my cummerbund on, this is worst than Bosnia. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: And I thought, well, that's a hell of a statement.

GROSS: Speaking of strip joints, you were semi-naked in a couple of scenes in "The Hangover." And I'm wondering what it's like to be - I think most of us feel kind of vulnerable when we're not clothed and especially if somebody's like looking at us. So here you are in a movie more or less naked, in a scene that's going to be played for laughs and part of the laugh is going to be how you look because youre wearing a jockstrap under your pants. So is it awkward to be in that naked vulnerable position, knowing that the whole point is that people are going to be laughing at you?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Yes. It is incredibly awkward. When youre shooting it's really awkward. I don't mind people laughing at me. I dont really - I mean, obviously I dont mind that that much. The nudity thing is -you know, you shoot a movie and then, for me, I forget about it. I really, I kind of remove myself from everything. And then the movie comes out and you're like, oh, god, that's right, I was wearing a jockstrap. And then there's a 15-minute discussion on the phone with your mom about the jockstrap...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: ...and how you weren't raised that way, and you agree with her and she has a good point. But youre doing it, I mean, it sounds a little corny, but when you hear people really enjoying it and getting a kick out of it, and if it is not too gratuitous then, you know, it makes me happy to make people laugh, it really does.

DAVIES: Zach Galifianakis, speaking with Terry Gross.

We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Zach Galifianakis. He co-stars in the HBO series "Bored to Death," and stars in the new movie, "It's Kind of a Funny Story."

GROSS: You started in stand-up and I want to play a short excerpt from the opening of your DVD, "Live at the Purple Onion." So this is you doing stand-up.

(Soundbite of DVD, "Zach Galifianakis - Live at the Purple Onion")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) My name is Zach Galifianakis and I hope I'm pronouncing that right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) I'm named after my granddad, my middle name. My name is Zach Granddad Galifianakis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) Growing up, my dad was like, Zach, you have a great last name, Galifianakis, Galifianakis, begins with a gal and ends with a kiss.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) I'm like, that's great dad. Can we get it changed to Galifiana(bleep) please?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's Zach Galifianakis, live at the Purple Onion. Was your name an issue when you started? People who see your name spelled on a page have no idea how to pronounce it, most of them.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I guess it was an issue, but I really wasnt thinking long-term. I just was trying to get on stage and tell jokes and I never really thought about the name thing. I know that my grandfather would be very disappointed if I ever changed my - it's actually shortened, Terry. My real last name is Galifianakisburg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: So, you know, that's an exclusive for your show.

GROSS: But you must've thought about your name. Your opening joke is about how people dont know how to pronounce it.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Well, I mean, there's jokes about it, certainly. But the joke that you just played - Galifianakis, it begins with a girl and ends with a kiss - that actually was a campaign slogan. My uncle was a congressman in North Carolina and he ran against Jesse Helms in 1972 on the Democratic ticket and that was a thing that I guess his campaign came up with and it kind of stuck. And so growing up, we heard it all the time; you know, begins with gal and ends with a kiss. So that was his kind of charming way of letting the people of North Carolina know his last name.

GROSS: Well, speaking of Jesse Helms, you refer to that later in this performance. You talk about how Jesse Helms said, like, what was it, like, we have an easy pronounced name, not like the other guys. You say it. I dont remember it precisely.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I think what happened was, my Uncle Nick was winning in North Carolina in the early '70s, beating Jesse Helms, which is a pretty remarkable thing because Jesse Helms I think was popular, but my uncle was winning. And then, I think around the last two weeks of the election, Jesse Helms came out with the slogan that said, vote for Jesse, he's one of us, which I think if you read between the lines, doesnt have a Mediterranean last name and, you know, olive skin. And it turned the election around. Jesse Helms ended up winning out of anti-Greek rhetoric.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: One of the characters that you - well, a character that you do in your act is your fake twin brother, Seth.


GROSS: Describe Seth.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Well, I dont know if he's fake, Terry. But my brother is an effeminate Southern, I would say, kind of conservative football coach. He coaches a team called the Flaming Arrows and he goes on television sometimes. The first time he went on television, he went on the Jimmy Kimmel show and he just kind of talked crap about me and I thought that was a bit rude. So it's kind of a knee-jerk reaction to people that dont like my humor and it's this kind of other - it's a voice of whoever thinks that I'm not good. It's just kind of, it was a device, I guess, to have my brother go on and make fun of myself.

GROSS: Who is he based on - the voice, the look?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: It was something I used to do in high school, years ago. I used to do it for the black kids in my high school because back then, Seth was effeminate and also racist. And so there was this weird thing where it kind of spread around that if you bumped me in the hallway, that it would bring Seth out and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: And so these black kids would like nudge me in the hallway and then I would say all these terrible things to them and they would die laughing. And they would just, they were really like - really loved it and respect, they knew that way I was poking fun of, you know, some of the redneck racist attitudes that, I mean, you know, everybody grows up with, I think, especially in a smaller town. And so that's where it started.

DAVIES: Zach Galifianakis, speaking with Terry Gross.

We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with actor Zach Galifianakis. He co-stars in the HBO series "Bored to Death," and stars in the new movie "It's Kind of a Funny Story."

GROSS: Youve done a satirical short interview show on "Funny or Die," a series called "Between Two Ferns," in which you and your guests are sitting between these like potted plants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like a really bad talk show set.


GROSS: And your guests are all like genuine celebrities and then you do these like horrible...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...interviews with them. And this is you and Jon Hamm. And you ask him a really funny question.

(Soundbite of "Between Two Ferns")

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) Does it make you sick when you look in the mirror to see how handsome you are and to know that people are disfigured? And dont you think you should think that?

Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (as Self) I never really thought of it that way.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) You never thought, hey, why is Jesus so cruel?

Mr. HAMM (Actor): (as Self) Oh, I thought that.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) How many seasons do you think "Mad Men" will go to?

Mr. HAMM (Actor): (as Self) Well, it's - most shows on cable, they dont do a big...

(Soundbite of noise)

Mr. HAMM (Actor): (as Self) You want a tissue or something?

(Soundbite of noise)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's Zach Galifianakis with Jon Hamm on Zach's kind of satirical talk show. And how did you come up with that question to ask Jon Hamm about feeling guilty because there's so many disfigured people in the world and he's so handsome?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I think that one was just, that just kind of popped into my head, that particular one, if I remember correctly. Because I was sitting really close to him and I, you know, I often wonder that about really beautiful people, that, you know, that's half the struggle in life is that if you have that, then everything is going to go really smoothly. And I find myself staring at people going, my god, look at those features. But Jon is really, really handsome and also, unfortunately, one of the coolest guys I've ever met and it's just the combination of that just makes me sick.

GROSS: You resent the really attractive people who get the perks that you get when youre beautiful?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I do. And also, it really bugs me when they happen to be really nice and charming, too. Because a lot of people, if they're good-looking, that's what they have and it's, you know, they dont really develop a lot of personality. Jon is incredibly funny and quite charming.

GROSS: So one of your accomplishments - one of your short-lived accomplishments...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: that you were on "Saturday Night Live" for two weeks. Is that right?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I was a writer on "Saturday Night Live." I think what they do is they...

GROSS: For two weeks?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Yeah. I think they have like trial periods, but I thought I was being hired as a sketch performer. And then I got there and they're like, no, you're writing sketches for other people, which I had never done and I was really kind of bummed because I had auditioned like two or three times. It's a very, I mean back then, I dont know if it's this way anymore, I dont think it is, is it was very, you know, it's very competitive.

And, you know, for a new person to come in and try to do their sketch -I mean not - they do these things called table reads where you write your two sketches per week, and oh, it was completely quiet the whole time my sketch was being read. It was really awful. I remember Tina Fey, I was sitting next to her, and she just patted me on the back, like, you know, don't worry about it, kid.

GROSS: My guest is Zach Galifianakis and he's co-starring in the new movie "It's Kind of a Funny Story." He's one of the stars of "The Hangover," and he's also one of the stars of "Bored to Death," the HBO series. And I want to ask you about "Bored to Death."

You play a comic book artist. Jason Schwartzman plays a writer who decides to moonlight as a private detective like some of his fictional heroes. So let me just play your first scene from the first season of "Bored to Death." And Jason Schwartzmans girlfriend has just broken up with him and left him, moved out. Youre at a coffee shop with him comparing notes about girlfriend trouble.

(Soundbite of HBO series, "Bored to Death")

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Ray) Well, that sucks. Man, I thought you guys were just mildly unhappy.

Mr. JASON SCHWARTZMAN (Actor): (as Jonathan) It happened all of a sudden. She announced the move two days ago.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Ray) Are you destroyed? Youve got to be destroyed, right? Are you destroyed? Last time I was heartbroken, I felt like someone had put on my head one of those Falcon hoods, you know? And all I could see was complete darkness.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) Falcon hood?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Yeah. Anyway, why didnt you tell me?

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) Because I thought she was bluffing. I didnt think she would actually move out. And then, out of nowhere, these super-efficient Israeli mover guys show up. All of a sudden it's like a raid on Entebbe in my own apartment.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Let me get my computer. What is the raid on Entebbe?

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) It was an Israeli tactical group of (bleep). I dont know. I dont know. You used the word falcon hood.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) I know what a falcon hood is. Everybody knows what a falcon hood is.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) Really?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Yeah. Falcon hood, anyone? Raid on Entebbe? Okay. We're even. Anyway, do you think you can get her back?

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) No, I dont think so. I feel that Suzanne started to think that I was a loser because I'm struggling to write. I mean, this second novel...

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Yeah, I know. Listen, just yesterday, Leah was like why dont you go teach art in a public school? I'm not going to teach art at a public school. I dont wake up until 11 am, go teach art.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) If you did teach it would be steady income.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Dont be disgusting. Those women were into us because we were artists. And then reality hits and no money and no real future and then, you know, Leah's going to break up with me any minute now. I mean, we haven't had sex in weeks.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) We are losers.

GROSS: That's a scene with Jason Schwartzman and my guest Zach Galifianakis from "Bored to Death," the HBO series. Now, does the sentiment your character express in that, is that a sentiment you ever felt, that somebody fell in love with you because they liked that you were an artist and then realized that you were an artist who wasnt making any money...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...and didnt own anything?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: There was a long time where I was an "artist" in quotes, who had no money. But I guess back then I also never had a girlfriend. I mean, I had friends, you know, women that come in and out of your life, but I never had like a steady thing going on for a long, long time. And then I started getting some walking around money and I think I found a girlfriend after that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I didnt try it when I was desperately poor.

GROSS: So it's been really fun to talk with you. I want to thank you so much.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Thank you, Terry. Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Zach Galifianakis spoke with Terry Gross.

"Bored to Death" started it's second season last Sunday. Galifianakis stars in the new movie "It's Kind of a Funny Story." You can see some scenes from the film at our website, Galifianakis co-stars in the forthcoming film "Due Date" with Robert Downey Jr.

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