Your character in Zombieland is looking for the world’s last Twinkies. You’re a vegan and a raw-food advocate, so what’s the last time you ate a Twinkie?
It’s been at least twenty years. I used to eat burgers and steak, and I would just be knocked out afterwards; I had to give it up. The first thing was actually dairy–I was about twenty-four years old, and I had tons of acne and mucus. I met some random girl on a bus who told me to quit dairy, and all those symptoms would go away three days later. By God, she was right.
What do people get wrong about you?
A lot of people look at me as just being strange. There might be some truth in that, but I’ve always looked at society as strange.
Is it to your advantage when people underestimate you?
I don’t worry about that, except when I underestimate myself. A lot of times I have destructive self-doubt. Not acting–that’s when I feel completely confident. I feel like I could play a homeless black octogenarian if I wanted to. But writing, I get so strangled by my own criticisms. I have a play and two screenplays, all exactly three-quarters written.
What have you been working on lately?
I did a bunch of movies that are in the can, including Zombieland and 2012, so I wouldn’t mind taking a year off. I don’t think that’s going to happen; my agent likes to keep my nose to the grindstone. I’m a good worker–but I’m a world-class slacker. I mean, I love loafing.
When do you know that you’ve got the handle on a part?
Not until I can improvise in character, and that’s almost never until a week in. There’s tons of things that help you get there. You know, if your character is a serial killer, you study all the serial killers. Maybe you write a personal journal from that perspective, just to get your mind clicking into that cadence.
Do you watch one of your old movies if it comes on TV?
I don’t channel-change at home. But if I’m at someone’s house and they’re flipping through and it lands on something, I’ll sit and start nitpicking.
You’re one of a very few actors who has made movies with both the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men) and the Farrelly brothers (Kingpin). How do they compare?
Both sets of brothers are geniuses in their own way. And they can finish each other’s sentences. With the Farrellys… I’m one of those guys with a lot of ideas. Not all of them are great, but they would always say “let’s try it.” The Coens, I’d come to them with my ideas–mostly stuff that I got from the book–but they were pretty locked in with the script. I have to give them credit, they were really patient.
My agent convinced me to take the job on No Country for Old Men. It’s just a little part–it seemed to me like they could get anyone. I’m really glad I listened to him, because I love those guys. They’re just the most unassuming, cool guys. They could be so high on themselves, and nobody would even blame them.
Who would you be excited to meet these days?
Noam Chomsky. Arundhati Roy [author of The God of Small Things] was another one. I was talking with an Indian actor at Sundance and I asked him if he’d ever met her.
Because India’s a small country and everybody knows each other.
Yeah, it was random, but she’s the one Indian I would most love to meet. And he says “She’s a good friend of mine”! A few minutes later, he hands me a cell phone. And I never talk on cell phones, but I said, well, I’ll talk to her.
Why don’t you talk on cell phones? Are you worried about microwaves?
It’s not something I read, I could just feel it when I first tried it. Within a few minutes of talking on a cell phone, my brain felt like it needed to explode.
So after twenty years and three daughters with Laura Louie, why’d you finally get married?
You know, some people are stubborn and can’t see the light, just clinging to their hedonism and their single lifestyle. But I finally convinced her. (laughter)
Now that your oldest daughter is sixteen, do you find yourself becoming a stereotypical dad?
One time, I was visiting Lenny Kravitz and he was talking to his daughter Zoe–at the time she was fourteen. She had a really revealing outfit on. She was at the top of the stairs and he’s at the bottom: “You’re not going anywhere like that.” “Oh yes, I am.” “Oh no, you’re not.” To see this whole discourse with this guy who has done it all–it just made me laugh. Little did I know the clock was ticking for me.
What’s the most uncool thing about you?
Probably my tendency to over-preach. I’ve at least gotten it down to where I’ll wait until someone asks me.
Did getting on Cheers impact your ability to get girls?
Yeah, I wasn’t really great at talking to girls. I felt pretty shy. I still do–last night at dinner, this beautiful waitress came up, and I couldn’t talk at all. So I can’t credit myself with being some suave, capable guy. It’s amazing what a high TV-Q rating will do for you.
What have you learned about yourself?
I used to think I was ego-less. And then about ten years ago, I realized, Jesus, I’m completely selfish.
Do you ever find yourself getting caught up in superficial stuff?
To this day, I’ve never gotten into clothes. I drive around in a white VW Bug–it’s never clean. In terms of other stuff, sure. I wish I was better looking, I wish I had more hair, I wish I had been in a Mensa club. But overall, I’m extremely grateful. I’ve had an unbelievably lucky life.
Interview by Gavin Edwards. Originally published, in a slightly different version, in the October 2009 version of Maxim.