While You Were Sleeping hits all of the compulsory beats of the ’90s rom-com: “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” plays over the opening credits. It stars one of the Big Three rom-com leads (Sandra, Julia, Meg) underplaying her good looks with big sweaters and Chinese takeout containers and cats. It’s set in Chicago (cheaper than New York, with similar romantic cachet). It takes place around Christmastime. The hotter man is the wrong one. Someone falls while ice skating. This deeply soothing predictability means that While You Were Sleeping lulls you into a gentle Midwestern stupor — but not (and this is important) a coma.
Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for Peter Gallagher. What sets While You Were Sleeping apart from its rom-com peers is that one of its biggest and most charismatic stars spends the majority of the movie totally unconscious. Gallagher plays Peter, a cute yuppie lawyer whom Lucy, Bullock’s lonely CTA token-taker, falls in love with from afar. When Peter falls weirdly onto the tracks for a reason that’s unclear to me even as I rewatch the scene while typing this (someone seems to be mocking his very long scarf?), Lucy jumps down and rescues him. As Peter lies pleasantly comatose in a local hospital, a series of confusing conversations leads Peter’s boisterous Irish family to believe Lucy is his fiancée. She lets them run with the idea — until she falls in love with his mumblecore, furniture-maker brother (Bill Pullman) instead.
As a longtime fan of Gallagher, the sort who has committed season one of The OC to memory and finds him attractive even as he sleeps with his wife’s sister in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, I wanted to know: What was it like to let his incredible eyebrows do literally all of the work for a 105-minute feature film? So I called up Gallagher — who’s currently pulling double duty as a dad with a rare neurological condition on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and as Jane Fonda’s new husband on Grace & Frankie — and we had a delightful, animated conversation about falling asleep on camera, how he improvised his way through a poorly rewritten script, what sort of grooming work goes into his eyebrows, and the time he was almost run over by Roger Ebert.
Before we start, we should talk about when we first met. At the March for Our Lives in 2018, my friends and I spotted you and I couldn’t help but yell, “We love you, Sandy!” And then you turned around —
Oh my God. I remember that. We were on Central Park West, right by the museum. I totally remember that moment … [adopts Sandy Cohen voice] “Just so you know, Sandy Cohen loves you.”
That’s what you said back! I wanted to ask you how often you say that to people who approach you.
You know, whenever! Whenever somebody gets excited about seeing Sandy, I just want them to know that the way they felt about him was warranted.
Do you feel like the world’s Jewish dad?
No, I don’t feel like I’m the world’s anything. I just love — there’s a bunch of characters I’ve played over the years and that’s one of my favorites. I certainly love to be a dad. I guess I was struck at the outpouring of response over the years, not only when the show was on, but ever since. I can chalk it up to the fact that so many of us dads came up a little short somewhere along the line, so people have this deficit need for affirmation. I know I did. I was always trying to get my dad to talk to me, and respond to me, and he was just of a generation where it was, I guess, difficult for him to do so. So I get it.
That made me tear up a little bit. I didn’t know we were going this deep this early!
It’s hard. Nobody ever tells us really how to be men or husbands or fathers. Nobody tells anybody anything, really. Unless you have the good fortune of living with a good example. My dad was a good man, he just didn’t say much.
Well, let’s talk about While You Were Sleeping. It’s such a fun, sweet little movie and I love that you’re just completely unconscious for most of it.
[Giggles.] That was delightful for everyone on the set, let me tell you. Jon Turtletaub directed While You Were Sleeping and he’s directed two of the episodes of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. And when he walked in and saw me, he said, “What is it with you?! Every time I do something with you in it, you don’t say anything!” And I said, “Lucky for you!” But what I remember about that movie is that we had a script that we all loved, and then we got to Chicago, and they changed it completely.
What’d they change?
They just changed a lot and they made everything sort of, in our eyes, less good. To credit Jon and the producers, they kinda got that, and gave us some freedom [to improvise]. It was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful cast. Peter Boyle, whom I’d admired as a young actor — I guess he played my dad in that, but we were more like brothers, because we were two Irish Catholic kids. He actually went to the Seminary, so he’s way more Irish Catholic than I was. We’d just hang out, walking around Chicago talking about all the trouble we were never going to get into. We just laughed our asses off.
Jack Warden, another hero of mine, had wounded his foot in Korea — his leg bone just rubbed directly onto his ankle. But you’d have no idea. For him to stand, it would reduce most of us to a puddle of tears, but he was just rock-solid. I’d say, “Hey man, I’m going to the driving range, wanna come?” And he’d say, “Sure!” And he’d sit back and watch me hit one bad shot after another, and say, “You could do better than that! You could do better than that!”
And Glynis Johns! We’d all just hang out and talk.
Talk to me about the challenges of coma-acting.
If I was going to be in a coma, I was gonna be out; if that was the only thing I had to do, I was gonna try and do it. I was concerned about staying out too late the night before, because maybe I’d be so tired I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep at work. I just had to surrender any kind of self-consciousness with regard to what my body might be doing while I’m sound asleep. We won’t even go into all the embarrassing things that can happen when you’re sound asleep and the camera’s rolling, and people you respect are standing around. You figure, hey, I didn’t come all this way to pretend.
Were you ever awake, or were you asleep the entire time?
No, they’d wake me up when we were done! First of all, it’s very hard to pretend to be in a coma, or to pretend to be asleep. Just the act of trying to be calm and relaxed, invariably your eyes are gonna twitch, or your lips are gonna go funny, or all you’re thinking about is breathing: Why am I breathing so much? So I thought, well, go to sleep. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard a rumor that Martin Scorsese saw the film and said, “Boy, Gallagher does the coma well.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m gonna put it on my epitaph. I may put it in my Twitter bio. I’m sure it’s probably just made up or I dreamt it. But I heard something like that. Thank you Martin! That’s right, I was asleep! Thank you for noticing!
Your ability to fall asleep is astonishing. How do you do it in front of all those people?
It drives my wife crazy. I remember in the early years of our marriage, she couldn’t understand how anybody could take a nap. I said, “Honey, if I don’t get a good 14–16 hours, I’m just no good.” I remember coming off the road, to one of our first apartments in New York and I was dead, and she said, “I’m cooking dinner, can you please just keep me company?” And I said, “Okay, but can I lie down right here next to the refrigerator?” [because] when I was a little boy I used to sleep by our refrigerator in the kitchen. It’s not like I grew up in an insane asylum. Well, maybe I did. I found the warmth and the noise comforting. So I said, “Can I please?” I laid on that floor and I was out in seconds.
In a sense, you were born for this role.
I was. I didn’t know it. But obviously they did. I probably peaked and I wasn’t aware of that. Because I’d been asleep.
I know one of the earlier script changes was that Sandra’s character Lucy was originally a man, but was changed to a woman because people found a man lusting after a female coma patient creepy. Did you find Sandra’s character creepy?
No. Only when she throws me over in two seconds for my brother [Jack]. She didn’t even give me a chance. But that’s okay. [Laughs.]
What specifically was worse about the second script, and what did you improvise?
I can’t remember exactly how it changed, but it wasn’t grounded as well. It was unnecessarily arch. I remember at a table read, everybody’s around, and I said, “Why are you spending so much energy trying to make [Peter] such a bad guy? What’s he guilty of? He’s successful in business, and he’s not ready to get married yet. Do you know anybody like that?” All of these guys were like, [adopts aggro, New Jersey–esque accent] “He’s gotta be a piece of shit!” And I said, “Why burden the audience with a character they hate, when they can cheer when he accidentally makes the right decision, which he had nothing to do with?” [And then] he’s saved from a situation that he clearly wouldn’t be successful in.
But when they pick the handsome guy to be the asshole, it’s like, “Okay, we’re done!” Which is pretty fair. The way I looked back then, all you had to do was take one look at me, and you’d be like, “Fuck you!” [Laughs.] I know that’s how I would’ve felt if I saw myself. I think when I was younger my looks got in the way a little bit.
In the way of your career, or your life?
Nah, not in my life. I haven’t been that conscious of it. Just in terms of how people responded to me: “He’s too good-looking. I don’t see him with a gun in his hand. [Indiscriminate faux-yammering].”
How’d you make Peter less of a dick?
I don’t even think in terms of dick, which my wife will be pleased to hear! Just more of a credible person. You don’t have to go out of your way to gild the lily there. It’s really a love story about my brother and Sandra Bullock, so my character should be allowed to be — he doesn’t have to be a super-jerk or the devil. Unless he is the devil! I just have to be the guy that happened to be there on his way to work: “I’m not big at relationships, but boy can I make money!” That way, we can embrace the rather narrow variety of humanity we displayed there and it elevates the comedy and the story.
When you were offered the part, was any part of you like, “I don’t want to be unconscious for a whole movie”? Or did that feel exciting, somehow?
I don’t know that it was exciting. It would’ve been nice to have been the guy that gets the girl a few times. But if you’re not gonna be the guy that gets the girl, you might as well be the guy that’s important to the story they’re telling. And within that, if you can make a little elbow room for yourself to try to appear like a human being, I feel like I get away with something. Surprise people by being funny or believable.
You do play him in a very bewildered way when he’s awake. Was that all you?
Jon was actually saying his favorite line in the movie was an ad-lib I made, which was, “Do I like Jell-O?” Because I was thinking, Okay, if I really have amnesia, and I believe it, how the hell do I know anything? [Begins to sing the alphabet, which Peter does in the film to see if he remembers it.]
Did you ad-lib the alphabet part too?
Yeah. And I did some stuff around the squirrel [plot], too. What was nice was that Jon gave me [directions], rather than, “Okay, now’s your chance to be a fucking asshole, go!” That’s a lot more interesting, if I actually believe the circumstances.
What do you remember about the first time you met Sandra?
I don’t know if it was the first time I met her, but first of all, she was captivating and warm and open and beautiful. What I was really impressed with was how she behaved and conducted herself as the star of the movie, at a pretty young age, with all of these experienced cast members. She took the No. 1 position on the call sheet with a real generosity of spirit. She took responsibility for that position. And I thought to myself, I hope this girl becomes a big star because she’s gonna do it right. She treats people well. She understands her position as a leader of the company.
It was all fine except for the fact that she dropped my head on a railroad spike when she lifted it up! And I think, Oh, now I gotta stay relaxed while my head hits the railroad spike.
Yeah! [Laughs.] She looked up, like, “Oh my God, what’s going on?” And boom. She didn’t really hurt me. Just bruised a little bit. At least the train didn’t hit us.
How did you film that scene, where the train is barreling toward you on the tracks?
I remember laying on the tracks and hoping they’d contacted the [CTA]! And everybody crossed their T’s and dotted their I’s. Having grown up in New York, lying on the tracks was not anything I’d aspired to.
So you didn’t have a body double? That was all you?
Oh, yeah. I don’t think I’m lying to you. Unless they did it in the dark of night and reshot it. And Sandy was right next to me. I should’ve known better: If the No. 1 on the call sheet was on those tracks with me, you know they crossed those T’s and dotted those I’s.
Were you guys recognized as you filmed around the city?
I was usually hanging out with [Peter] Boyle. I’m sure if anybody would recognize anybody, they’d recognize the other Peter, not me. This is totally crazy: I remember walking back to my apartment late at night. I was alone. I don’t know if I’d been out with Peter or what; we’d been out to dinner, it was late. I felt like I was alone in the city. It was beautiful. I’m stopped at a light, a big thoroughfare of cars going by. I step out into the thoroughfare and a Lexus is speeding by. I throw myself back and the car zips by — and it’s Roger Ebert.
I thought, Holy shit. You don’t mess around. When you don’t like a performance, you don’t quit at the review, do ya? You wanna get the job done! Wow! I better check to see what pissed you off! He’s actually said some lovely things about me over the years, and some less lovely things. I miss him. I’m sorry he’s no longer with us. But I just thought, Wow. Had I not stepped [back] off the curb … it would’ve been a good headline.
Your eyebrows do a lot of the work in this movie, considering your eyes are mostly shut. And now they are famous. At that point in your career, were you aware of the power of your eyebrows?
Maybe by then I’d heard about them enough. But honestly, the whole eyebrow thing I was so surprised at. Stunned is a better word for it. When I was growing up, the thing that caused me the most problems was my lips. I had these big lips and a smaller face. I was constantly getting into fights over my fat lips: “Hey, fat lip! Hey, Galla-goo! Fuck you!” All of my high-school yearbook pictures are of me trying to smile with thin lips. It’s really pathetic. In my earliest movie reviews, the criticism was that they couldn’t get Brooke Shields, so they got the next best set of eyebrows in Hollywood. I thought, What the hell are they talking about? What’s wrong with my eyebrows? But I guess there’s a whole mythos about them.
How much grooming do they require? How much attention do you personally pay to them?
Not much, to be honest. They’re highly trained professionals. The older I get, the crazier they get, so depending on the role I’m playing, they’re a little crazier or grayer. A white patch is sort of in there that sometimes gets blended in so it doesn’t look like I have a hole in my head. But they’re pretty drip-dry. Sometimes I do maintain them with my Swiss army knife. Because sometimes my wife and my kids are like, “Okay, Dad. You gotta go back in. You can’t go out looking like that.”
You play another semi-conscious person on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Did you think about the similarities in the roles at all?
I’m conscious, just not expressive. So not really. Only when Jon was coming to direct it, I was thinking, This is gonna be so funny. You know, my mother had Alzheimer’s for 20 years. PSP, or progressive supranuclear palsy, which [creator] Austin Winsberg’s dad had, has some similarities to Alzheimer’s. So that’s what occurred to me — I had a lot of experience with that. But really what drew me to this is that it really reminded me of The OC, in terms of another perfect story to be telling in the world that we’re in. The OC was a perfect response to the post-9/11 burgeoning xenophobia being promoted in some circles: That we should close the borders, distrust people who aren’t considered to be red, white, and blue. And I love Sandy Cohen, because here’s this Jewish guy from the Bronx married to a shiksha from Orange County, living in this conservative Christian enclave, and he doesn’t forget who he is. Or his sense of humor. Or his willingness to embrace others.
And that to me was America. This family has everything. Here’s this guy who’s a lawyer providing indigent defense because he believes in it — and because he’s married to a rich girl, so he can afford it. And they open their home to kids that need it. In the same way that Zoey’s is really about the fact that everybody has a story, and you don’t know what that story is until you listen.
Do you keep in touch with your OC castmates?
I spoke to them all just a couple of months ago. Everybody was supposed to come over to my house in August, but then, like usual — Adam [Brody] had to go somewhere and I … had to go to Vancouver to do Zoey’s! That’s right. Oh, and the crazy thing is: Ben is working across the street from my daughter in Jagged Little Pill on Broadway, and my daughter is in the same theater where I did Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1986. And she sent Ben a cake and it said, “Welcome to 44th Street, Bitch.”
I love those kids. I’m constantly wishing them well. Mischa [Barton] is coming out the other end of what must have been a really trying adolescence. She came to work with us when she was 16 years old. When I think about what I was like at 16, I’m glad I wasn’t let out of the house, much less being on a TV show. It’s to her credit that she’s still among us and still swinging for the fences. I love those kids.
To wrap up our original topic: When was the last time you watched While You Were Sleeping?
Oh, I don’t know that I’ve seen it since the [original] screening.
You remember it so well!
Come on! It was Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, Glynnis Johns. And everybody loves that movie. Everybody. And I don’t even really get tired when somebody says, “Ho, man! You woke up!” [Affects very serious voice] “I haven’t heard that one before. Thank you.” That just means that it means something to people. And that’s what we try for.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.