‘Ignorance is a key part of comedy’
Will Ferrell knows exactly how to make us laugh. He’s back with Mark Wahlberg for his latest film, Daddy’s Home, and will soon return as Mugatu in Zoolander 2. Tim Adams meets him to see what’s behind the most expressive jowls in America
Sunday 20 December 2015 11.30 GMT
| Will Ferrell: ‘He looks like he could have walked out of a pensions plan ad.’ |
Photograph: Pål Hansen for the Observer
Ferrell is capable of grotesque facial extremes – from the self-obsessed gurnings of Ron Burgundy in Anchorman to the annual festive rapture of Buddy in Elf – but his straightest face, a thing of perfect innocent blankness, is his most effortless and reliable comic creation. There is no suggestion of a raised eyebrow, no ghost of a giveaway smirk. It defies you to project knowingness. It is this face that Ferrell assumes throughout his interview with himself as Lipton: courteous, slightly puzzled, charming, doing his best to answer, while inviting dark laughter at the pretentious absurdities of any such encounter. And, of course, having watched the clip, it is this face that I dread seeing as I contemplate interviewing Ferrell in a high-ceilinged London hotel room, while rehearsing my own suddenly lame-sounding and hopelessly predictable lines of enquiry.
As it goes, in the hour in which we talk, Ferrell is unfailingly polite, friendly, thoughtful, engaged. But even so, all the time, I can’t quite shake the sense that I am clearly the fool with the blue cards; that somewhere, way beneath that impervious surface, under the rollneck sweater and mop of hair, the easy smile and frank handshake, the sometimes earnest, always affable answers, he is choking an uproarious belly laugh.
|Will Ferrell with Heidi Klum|
“He is so emotionally available on an almost sickening level, reading the script made me laugh every time,” Ferrell says. “You know that line in the movie where someone says: ‘No one likes smooth jazz…’ He is hands-up: ‘I do!’ He loves benign and mediocre; he loves his Ford Flex. It might drive someone else nuts, but he just loves where he is.”
You watch Brad with the sense that Ferrell, who grew up in sunny Irvine, California, did not have to search too hard within for him. He’s always seen the comic potential of that threatened all-American way of life, of Norman Rockwellidealism, and its proximity to more anarchic urges.
One of Ferrell’s first appearances on film was in 1995, in the showreel audition he did for Lorne Michaels, the legendary producer at SNL, and his writing team. Watching it now, you have the sense of Ferrell arriving at that audition, then aged 27, almost fully formed. He chose to do a short sketch he had written about a guy not unlike Brad who is greeting guests at a backyard barbecue, his gentle conversation as he flips burgers interrupted by his ever more insane yelling at his kids to “GET OFF THE SHED!”
He laughs when I mention it. “I still love that sketch. Partly because it was what I auditioned with, but also because you never knew exactly what the shed was and why getting off it mattered so much. Playing those types of guys who turn on a dime is really fun to do.”
You know things are getting crazy when Jeb Bush calls someone unhinged for being too extreme
The shed guy displayed the sudden irrational rage that even the calmest parent understands. Ferrell is the father to three boys, aged 11, eight and five. We talk a little about how the only real model of parenting any of us has is observing our family growing up. Ferrell’s own dad was also in showbusiness, a singer and musician, Lee Ferrell, who toured with bands including the Righteous Brothers before embarking on a solo career in theatres and bars. He and Ferrell’s mother divorced when Will was eight. I’m guessing his dad was more Dusty than Brad.
“It’s true, he was on the road a lot when I was little. He had some of that,” he says. “But then a sort of seismic shift happened and he really became Brad-like. Me and my brother spent a whole summer with him – my mum took a trip to Japan for a month – when I was 9 or 10 and it turned out to be a huge opportunity for all of us. After that he had a changed attitude. He wanted to know when all the PTA meetings were and so on. He didn’t take any more jobs on the road. I think he saw the meaning in what it might be to be relied on and he maybe felt love for the first time in a way that had not been tangible to him.”
|The shallow end: with Jim Carrey in a sketch for Saturday Night Live in 1996 |
called ‘Jacuzzi Lifeguard’.
Photograph: Getty Images
Though he doesn’t really acknowledge it now, perhaps one result of seeing that shift in his own father was Ferrell’s ambition for nothing more than a nice stable job and a family.
“The stereotype you made fun of as a kid was ‘the job in the bank’. But to me that always sounded all right. Nine to five and you know where you’re going. You get a decent salary and vacations and get to carry a briefcase. I was fine with that idea. But then I also realised at a young age that I loved writing. I was doing little comedy bits. I never had the guts to realise I might be a performer. But by the time I graduated college [he studied sports journalism] I knew that thought would eat away at me if I didn’t give it a shot. Thank God with the success I’ve had I’ve been able to have stability, too. When I’m at home with the family now it is a blissfully boring existence.”
Does he never get restless with that? “Not at all. In fact, I am often saying to my wife if she ever wants to go back and study I will be happy to stay home and pack up work and drive the boys to all their sports practices. I would love that.”
Plenty of Hollywood Walk of Famers, with their multi-million dollar contracts and endless development projects, say that the most important thing to them is their family life, but not that often do you believe it to the extent that you do with Ferrell. It is, I suppose, partly because he seems so grounded that his more baroque creations have such mainstream appeal. He can send up the prejudice and paranoia of middle America for all he is worth – in Ricky Bobby, the Nascar redneck of Talladega Nights, say – because deep down middle America has seen enough of Ferrell to trust him. He looks like he could have walked out of a pensions plan ad in which he just completed 18 holes. Even so, to combine his flow of comic invention with such equilibrium of temperament seems like an unusual trait. Ferrell puts it down to his never mistaking anxiety for creativity.
|Family guy: with his partner Viveca Paulin and their children. |
Photograph: Jim Smeal/BEI
“I have never really had a shortage of ideas,” he says. “I think it is the absence of ideas that is the cause of pain and frustration and that’s when writers or comedians will say they can’t be in relationships too long or can’t be tied down, they have to put work first. But I have simply never felt that. The ideas have always come fairly easily, and when they don’t for a while I don’t think to blame the people around me.”
Strange, I say – and eminently useful – for a comedian not to be plagued by neediness or doubt. The second item on that old SNL audition reel is a sketch in which Ferrell plays a businessman who calls through to his secretary not to be disturbed, and then lies on the floor for quite a long while pretending to be a cat and playing with cat toys. Arguably a fairly high-risk strategy to hang your future on, I suggest.
“Actually,” he says, “that was a moment, halfway through that, where I was plagued by doubt. A real moment when I thought I had lost them and now I am never going to get this job. I mean I was playing with cat toys on the floor of a stage to complete silence.”
Doesn’t all comedy require a degree of fearlessness? “It’s more ignorance, I think. I just filmed this thing with Jerry Seinfeld. Part of his series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, where we had a whole conversation about ignorance being a key component of comedy. If you know too much you will be totally paralysed. To begin with I didn’t know enough to be fearful. And even though I have got to know more, obviously, I have tried to hold on to that.”
Since he left SNL, he has done an awful lot of films – 35 by my count – many of which he has written as well as starred in. They encompass both inspired revivals (2005’s The Producers) and regrettable ones (Bewitched, also 2005). In that year alone he earned a reported $40m. Does he have trouble saying no?
“No,” he says, “but I can make it look that way. I have a work ethic that came from being on Saturday Night Live. I realised early on that if I had an idea I didn’t write, someone else would invariably land on the same square and do it. I learned to not ever let an idea go on too long before attacking it. I have never put pressure on myself to, you know, sit in a room and have six ideas. If I don’t have anything that’s OK. But when I have what I think is a funny idea I try to get it done immediately.”
The great thing about the strange times we live in is that there is no shortage of material. Throughout the first decade of this century Ferrell had an alternative life as an uncanny George W Bush impersonator, a role he retired after a valedictory Broadway stage show in 2009. Watching those sketches now is almost an exercise in nostalgia.
“Yes. Doesn’t he seem such a calm moderate guy these days?”
The afternoon we meet, the news is full of Donald Trump’s announcement about closing American borders to Muslims. Is Ferrell not tempted to have a combover and do a Donald; surely his country needs him?
“Well,” he says, “You know things are getting crazy when Jeb Bush calls someone unhinged for being too extreme. I mean these are certainly the kinds of things that make you wish you were still on Saturday Night Live. But you do also worry how big is that silent minority that seems to be being given a voice suddenly. Everyone keeps saying Trump is one misstep away from being done, but it is not happening.”
Trump has, I suggest, that invaluable and dangerous political quality in the age of 24-hour news and social media, a quality he shares with the greatest comedians: he is entirely unembarrassable. That makes it hard for opponents, or even satirists, to land a square blow.
“Yes,” Ferrell says, “he has become masterful at both putting these ideas out there – ‘internment camps!’ – and then saying, ‘Look I don’t want to do this. But what else are we going to do?’”
When politics is becoming so polarised, and apparently mainstream opinions so extreme, does it become harder to locate exactly where American caricature might lie?
“All we try to do is to hold up a mirror to what is going on,” he says, “or what we think is going on. I mean Adam McKay, his long-term writing partner] and I are kicking an idea around for a film about two guys who go down to defend the border [with Mexico]. So that will definitely be a political comedy. We try to illustrate opinions and attitudes we’ve seen and heard from people and put a funny spin on them.”
|Father’s day: at the premiere of Daddy’s Home with co-stars Alessandra Ambrosio |
and Linda Cardellini. Photograph: REX Shutterstock
Is there a danger of reality overtaking satire before a film gets made?
“That is what was crazy about the movie Zach [Galifianakis] and I did, The Campaign,” he says. “We did a bunch of outlandish, cynical things as politicians, and people were like: ‘Ha, imagine that!’ and now much of it is really happening. But then there will always be something else to make fun of. I try not to analyse too much, it’s just what we find funny at the time.”
It seems the kind of broad satire he does so intuitively is being scrutinised ever more closely for signs of offence and political correctness. Ben Stiller’sZoolander sequel, in which Ferrell will return to the role of deranged fashion designer Mugatu, has already been widely criticised by LGBT activists on the basis of a trailer in which Benedict Cumberbatch appears as a transsexual. A boycott is inevitably threatened. Did Ferrell find himself thinking about any of those sensitivities when he was writing the unreconstructed racism and sexism of Ron Burgundy in Anchorman II, for example?
“It didn’t feel like a thing for that film,” he says. “But I noticed it, say, at an early screening of Get Hard at the SXSW film festival last year. The movie played through the roof. And then the first question that comes up in the Q&A with our director is: ‘Boy I loved that movie, I laughed hard, but the movie is totally racist, how did you get away with it?’ And then that’s the headline that gets carried – wherever we went it became a question we had to answer. Those things have a life of their own. The moviegoing audience, the people who watched it, never even mentioned it.”
Given his reliance on instinct in knowing what works, I wonder if he gets downhearted when films have not found their audience or have been panned critically.
“Not at all,” he says. “I have always taken the view that this whole thing has been a crap shoot from the beginning. I have been invited to this black tie party and no one has noticed I don’t own a tuxedo.Until that happens I am going to keep eating crackers and drinking champagne and having a good time. And hopefully no one ever taps me on the shoulder and asks me to leave.”
Ferrell has done a couple of serious dramatic roles, notably playing an alcoholic in the adaptation of Raymond Carver’s Everything Must Go. He would like to have done more, he says, but his straight face seems to get in the way. “I will sometimes read something I love, but whatever level you are at in this business there is always someone who has a prejudice against what you have done. I get, ‘They think you are so funny, but they just can’t believe you in this role…’”
If there is a regret, somewhere in Ferrell, that might be it – but he’s not letting on. Before he goes I mention my fatal error in watching his Inside The Actors Studiosketch, the way he has got his retaliation in against all interviewers before they even sit down.
“Strangely [James] Lipton loved it,” he says. “But he was also so mad at me that I would never actually do his show. I would say, ‘When I have done something worthy enough as an actor, if I win an Oscar, I will.’ I needn’t have worried, because by that time it was: ‘Jennifer Lopez: In The Actors Studio’.
Comedy, I say: craft or crap?
Ferrell laughs. “It’s always hard to talk about comedy,” he says. “Better just to try to do it.”
Daddy’s Home is released in cinemas on Boxing Day