Like many of his contemporaries in the field of comedy, Ferrell came to prominence as a regular on famed US sketch show Saturday Night Live, before making his mark on the big screen in such universally-loved fare as Elf, Zoolander, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers and perhaps his most iconic role to date as the hopelessly shallow and breezily chauvinistic newscaster in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
HeyUGuys were fortunate enough to grab a couple of minutes with the star before heading in for the hour-long Q&A hosted by BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme presenter, Francine Stock (more on that below). The talk was followed by a screening of Ferrell’s new film Everything Must Go (reviewed here) – his second stab at a (semi)serious leading role after 2005’s Stranger Than Fiction.
HeyUGuys: Are you constantly looking for material like Everything Must Go and Stranger Than Fiction as a counterbalance to the broader stuff?
Will Ferrell: I have for a long time, but it really hasn’t come my way so much. Stranger Than Fiction was the first movie I got to do that was a little bit outside of the comedy box in a way, and [Every Must Go] has been the only other thing which has come along similar to that, which is why I jumped at the chance to do it. I think that anyone who is creative likes to stretch and do something different to what they’re known for usually doing, so I loved it.
How did you come across the material?
Dan [Rush, the director] had bought the Raymond Carver short story it’s based on and had found it very haunting. It’s crazy to think this movie is based on a six or seven page short story, but the central image in the story is a yard sale and a guy going through an unspecific bad time, and from that Dan created this incredible world and I loved that it was someone who basically has to live his life in front of everyone and figure it all out again.
Does the serious stuff present more of a challenge?
Yeah. It’s really challenging but at the same times its kinda freeing as you’re getting to exercise different muscles, and it’s frightening as well (laughs), but that made Everything Must Go one of the highlights of my career.
How do you feeling about discussing your body of work tonight?
It’s always slightly awkward to talk about yourself in a way, but it should be fun, I think. I don’t know – we’ll have to wait and see. The moderator may try and make me cry (laughs).
Following a montage of clips made up from his body of work, Ferrell took to the stage in front of a packed-out crowd (he mockingly complained at the absence of a standing ovation), and proceeded to entertain and charm without ever resorting to those Burgundy-like histrionics (although he did at one stage, jokingly ask a rather bemused-looking Stock if she was thinking about kissing him).
The 44-year-old actor was born in Irvine, California. His mother Betty Kay (who was in the audience) worked as a college teacher, whilst father Roy Lee Ferrell, Jr., was a musician with The Righteous Brothers. Discussing the early, formative stages of his life in comedy (“I was a very conscientious class clown”), Ferrell began writing sketches with a group of friends during high school, which he would perform as little skits in front of his fellow students during assembly.
“I remember one night foregoing doing any of my homework to spend four hours perfecting what was essentially a little radio play. I remember thinking to myself that it didn’t feel like work at all, and that if I could do this professionally, it would be fun.”
An avid sports fans (many of his film roles reflect this), before dedicating his life to comedy, he actually toyed with a career as a sportscasters.
“I’m a graduate of the University of Southern California’s esteemed Sports Information Department. The [sportscasters] major was offered for maybe three or four years but was then dropped as it was found to be rigorously-academic. I was suppressing the idea [of comedy] after seeing how tough a life in entertainment was from my father. He’s been a working musician for 40 years now, and I saw the peaks and valleys of how difficult that was. Even though I loved that world, being a sportscasters was, somehow, my version of a real job that satisfied that [showbiz] urge, so that was my initial plan.”
Despite this uncertainty, Ferrell did eventually turn fully to comedy, joining the celebrated Los Angeles improvisational comedy troupe, The Groundlings. A breeding ground for West Coast comedians (it’s past alumni included the likes of Jon Lovitz, Paul Reubens, the late Phil (Troy McClare) Hartman, and Lisa Kudrow), it didn’t all get off to a flying start for Ferrell, however:
“When I first visiting, I actually got pulled up on stage as part of an audience participation improv and we so scared, I just stood in the corner and said nothing. But even then I was really enamoured with the whole process and they [The Groudlings] had their own little school in which you made your way up through the ranks, and they taught improv and sketch writing. It was a great training ground for what I would do on Saturday Night Live.”
Ferrell joined the late-night television sketch comedy and variety show in 1995 and left in 2002 after a successful seven-year stint. Throughout his time there he made a name for himself with his many impersonations of famous figures from US culture (George Bush being probably the best-known to UK fans), but it was the clip of this hilarious skit for a fake advert purporting to be dog-training program (entitled ‘Dissing Your Dog’) which was screened:
Scenes from ‘Anchorman’, Elf and Step Brothers followed, and Ferrell talked about the challenges of working with Woody Allen on 2004’s Melinda and Melinda (“he literally told me that if he had cast himself in the movie, it would have been my part. He directs you in the way the script is written and it’s hard not to act like him”).
Ferrell’s hugely popular comedy website Funny or Die (which he co-founded with regular collaborator Adam McKay) was also discussed:
“We only really did [the website] for fear of saying no and it turned into this huge thing we still chuckle about. It’s wonderful to have this other avenue where the next generation of writers and actors are getting their feet wet, and it’s a kind of platform to try your stuff out.”
Talk ended with a look at Everything Must Go. In the film, Ferrell plays a troubled salesman who returns home, having been fired from his job, to find his wife is gone, the home locks have been changed and his belongings have been scattered over his front lawn. He talked briefly about getting his hands on the material for the first time (“my wife said ‘that’s a good script, why do they want you to do it?’”) and why this non-comedic role appealed to him:
“The movie dares to be ambiguous at times. There are some many films nowadays that spell everything out along the way – they don’t allow us to have that discussion during the car ride home. I think this one encourages debate and challenges the audience to come up with their own hypothesis of what led [the film’s character] to that place. I love that it leaves a lot of things unanswered.”
Many thanks to BAFTA for a fun and revealing evening in the company of a great Hollywood talent who has honed this considerably skills throughout the years in order to make ’em laugh.