In a few hours Henry Zebrowski will leave our interview to audition for a sitcom character described as having 'a body like a loose army duffel bag,' which makes his anecdote of filming a naked airplane orgy with Leonardo DiCaprio all the more surreal.
"It's so fun to hear the reaction from Martin Scorsese as he sees you nude for the first time," Zebrowski laughs. "One of the cooler moments I'll ever experience in my life is being a part of a Scorsese tracking shot, feeling the camera come through the aisle and just being like, 'Use what God gave you.' For a second I was like Margot Robbie with a hairy back. The perfect body for the perfect situation. He was just like, 'You're disgusting! This is perfect! Absolutely perfect!'"
"You're disgusting… Perfect!" should be engraved on Zebrowski's (eventual, way down the line) tombstone, encapsulating the simultaneous revulsion and magnetism he's known for in the New York comedy scene, and which he displays with gusto in Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." The rotund, red-headed 30-year-old just had a banner year, nabbing the lead role in the well-rated Adult Swim show "Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell" and seeing his 10-year-old sketch group Murderfist hailed in the New York Times for their singular brand of "crude, punked-out chaos." "Wolf of Wall Street" -along with its kid-tested/mother-approved five Oscar nominations- is more than the cherry on top, it's major mainstream exposure for an actor whose onscreen presence seems as much a non sequitur as his line "All nuns are lesbians."
"It's ludicrous," says Zebrowski of his initiation into Scorseseland. "I walked into a room, I improv-ed a monologue, the next week I met Scorsese and he hired us in the room. We did a group improv callback and he said to everybody, 'We'll just hire all of them.'"
In the film his mustachioed manchild Alden Kupferberg (a.k.a. 'Sea Otter') goes from "selling meat and weed" in Bayside, Queens to working as a stockbroker under his childhood pal Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio). When he's not bilking people out of their life savings over the phone, Sea Otter is usually inches-deep into prostitute du jour or staring someone down with the actor's patented psychotic intensity.
"What are you gonna do? He's a tiny fat man with a mustache, that's great!" exclaims Zebrowski of Sea Otter's look, which helps him stand out in a virtual "Where's Waldo"-sized cast that includes Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau and hundreds of others on the Stratton Oakmont floor. "Thank God they gave me the mustache. I wanna be dressed ridiculously! I was wearing suspenders that have naked women embroidered into them. It becomes bacchanalian. It was so much fun to just explode."
He describes his time on "Wolf" as "a gigantic mosh pit: six months of screaming, just being animals, covered in scratches and bruises from fighting each other, beating each other." That Caligula-level of debauchery began with a solid week of rehearsals, which ultimately informed Terence Winter's Oscar-nominated script.
"We did a series of improv rehearsals with the main cast, DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Scorsese, literally just joking around," he says. "It felt like I was writing sketch. We'd improv improv improv, the assistant took notes, put it all together, we'd rehearse it, improv again. Leo would type it up and go pitch it to Scorsese. Scorsese was throwing in jokes. It was one of the most incredible times I ever had. It was nuts in the fact that it was incredibly normal for me, that group work."
On stage with sketch comedy group Murderfist, Zebrowski has played everything from a genie selling marmalade made out of semen to a lawyer who will represent anyone real or imaginary (except gypsies). Working with Murderfist's large roster of equally unhinged performers (including his sister Jackie Zebrowski) helped prepare him for the first day of "Wolf" madness on set.
"It was the beach house scene with the quaaludes, we did all the slow motion work that day," says Zebrowski. "I thought I was gonna throw up. That was the day all the actors were like, 'We just wanna do really good and hope he likes our work.' The AD was like, 'You'll know if you're doing bad work because you'll disappear.' (laughs) Every time we'd do something Scorsese would come out and go, 'You're all a bunch of filthy fuckin' animals,' and we'd be like, 'Yeah we are! Yeah!' It was amazing, I got to do my skillset."
His standout scene as Kupferberg comes early in the film, when the core group of Belfort's compatriots (including actors Jon Bernthal, Kenneth Choi, and Brian Sacca) sit down at a diner for an inspiring pow wow about how "everyone wants to get rich quickly":
KUPFERBERG: There was this one time that I was sellin' pot to this Aim-ish dude, you know those guys that got, like, the beard with no mustache or some bullshit? Well he says that he only wants to make furniture.
BELFORT: What the f**k are you talking about?
KUPFERBERG: I'm not puttin' words in your mouth or nothin' but you just said that everybody wants to get rich. Like Buddhists, they don't give a s**t about money, they're wrapped in sheets. They're not buyin' s**t.
"There was a real guy who threatened to sue the company," says Zebrowski of his character's real-life counterpart. "I'm based on a real guy, but Kupferberg was one of the producer's family names. I met him, I'm like the sexy Hollywood version of him. He had a different nickname. The character description was 'short fat man with short arms and legs.' I was like, 'yep, that's my character type right there, I can do that.'"
It was an especially apt project for Zebrowski's sloppy energy since the 71-year-old Scorsese was abandoning the more Old Hollywood stylings of recent efforts like "The Aviator" and "Hugo" to obtain what the director coined "a new ferocity."
"Yeah it’s a movie about excess and wanton greed, but I can't think of a movie that does it to this extreme," Zebrowski explains. "It leaves you fully exhausted. It spends your energy as an audience member. You have a great climax scene where the dude you loved so much pops his wife in the stomach. He's a monster. I love it, I've seen it four times in theaters and every single time I see it the audience's face drops 'cause they're so guilty 'cause of how much fun they just had."
This "gut punch" to the audience partly explains the divisive attitude "Wolf of Wall Street" has sparked in the press, the most controversy for any Scorsese movie since "The Last Temptation of Christ." While many critics have championed the irreverence of it, others have shamed the filmmakers for what they call a three-hour glorification of stock market excess.
"It's retroactive guilt," Zebrowski insists. "You're all just so mad because nobody got punished in 2008. I would have loved to take all those dudes like Bear Stearns and put them in stocks and spank 'em, tar and feather 'em. None of them did. Now everybody's like, 'We've got to make a stand against this film, how dare they celebrate this!' You all sat and watched 'Big Bang Theory' while they took money out of your pockets a long time ago. You didn't take to the streets, you didn't do anything. This is it, you're just watching it, and it makes people upset."
"That's why there was so much blow use in the movie," he adds, "because Jordan was like, 'It never stopped. It never stopped. It was everywhere. Constant.' F**king in the bathroom happened. Blowjob in the elevator happened. The stuff that didn't make it was the hours and hours of orgy footage that had to be cut to not make it NC-17. A lot of f**kin'. There was a whole yacht orgy that was cut just so humans could see the movie."
Zebrowski describes his newly ferocious director as "a modern King Tut, a guy who has all the power in the world, but when it comes down to it he's very human and normal." Like many others, his favorite Scorsese picture is "Goodfellas," though "The King of Comedy" has more personal resonance insofar as he understands the desperation of De Niro's Rupert Pupkin all too well.
"Try to be an actor in Los Angeles or Hollywood, see what that's like," he says bluntly. "It's a tower of clouds and everyone's making up their fucking ladders. I'm a weird type. You have to make a mold, or I'll end up living under a bridge and never book anything. I'm also classically trained, it's just like now what do I do? My comic voice is very specific, but there's not one way, I'm just gonna do it in a way that only I can do it."
Part of carving his own path has included a little weekly dive -ass first- into the occult titled "The Last Podcast on the Left." Produced out of Long Island City's stand-up oasis The Creek and The Cave, it pairs Zebrowski and his longtime buds Ben Kissel and Marcus Parks as they go deep down the rabbit hole of subjects ranging from spectrophilia (ghost sex), The Illuminati, Japanese war crimes, reptilian conspiracies, and the boys' own fantasy serial killer draft. Somehow they manage to make even terrifying real-life 911 calls a laugh riot.
"'Last Podcast' helped me as an actor to understand where people come from and build characters," says Zebrowski, who hopes his explorations of strange logic will make him a modern-day Dan Aykroyd, as if one Aykroyd wasn't plenty. "It's not just the information about aliens and ghosts, it's the people who put together the websites and write the books that are incredible, because they're all just shattered people. You watch them put their own personal motives into the information they give out."
These on-air dissections of the Heaven's Gate incident or the Jonestown death tape most certainly helped him tap into the mindset of Jordan Belfort's hall of worship at Stratton Oakmont, depicted through the lens of Scorsese as nothing less than a cult masquerading as a firm.
"You have a bunch of schlubby dudes and you put Leo next to them," he says. "Who is the pinnacle of male-ness in America? Leonardo DiCaprio. He works really hard. I watched him pound himself in the face until he had a bloody nose. He can do something exactly the same ten times then try something totally new and do that ten times. Then he leaves from set on a private jet and parties with models in a lagoon in Australia, then he goes to Africa and does a thing for environmentalism. He's a giant of a human, and it's easy to fall into the cult. I'm worshipping him. There's a scene they cut out where he's like, 'I want them to spend everything they've got so they have to come back to me and I have to put money in their pocket and they have to spend all of it.' It becomes this alpha-beta cycle."
As the interview winds down and Zebrowski's coffee runs low he becomes more contemplative, cautiously looking forward to auditioning for an Orbitz commercial on Monday before flying to LA "to go tapdance for the networks for pilot season."
"I love reading for a character I have no business reading for," he says. "I tested for one part that was described as 'Mark Ruffalo-like cop' and another that was 'slick political player'. Then I have the opportunity of, 'He has to be ten-times more charming to be considered a slick political player.' It's an acting exercise. The idea that the character is perceived as good-looking even though he's played by a tiny, ugly man is very funny."
"You just keep living your life," he goes on. "Yeah, I'm in a Scorsese movie the next two months, then I'll do another Time Warner Cable commercial. That's how it is. I'll end up working at a f**kin' Dairy Queen probably. Yeah, sure, it would have been awesome to be in a show called, like, 'Herman's Honkies' on CBS at 8 o'clock and I play a character called Hamburger who wears a Hawaiian shirt and goes, 'Hey, get outta here!' That would have been awesome when I was 21. Now I'm interested in doing good work, interesting work. I live on my career, so it's fine. I'm not starving."
Even though he seeks to pattern himself on the Jonathan Winters/Dom DeLuise/Danny DeVito model of character actor, it's possible that someday the powers that be will seek "the Henry Zebrowski type," which he opines is either "mush-mouthed clown" or "raving maniac."
In true Dickensian fashion, the recent accolades "The Wolf of Wall Street" has received gave Zebrowski perspective on the true meaning of success, like "A Christmas Carol" with a lot more F-bombs: "It's really sad when a gigantic Martin Scorsese movie comes out and the first thing you think of is, 'I hope this bumps my YouTube numbers.' It's the saddest thing. It being nominated for Best Picture made the petty s**t go away. Originally I was very concerned about if it was gonna get me some work. There are a lot of good actors who work forever and never make one good thing. I made one good thing."