There are a lot of comedians who seem to harbor deep, dark secrets beneath their effervescent exterior. There are others who either enjoy or feel the need to be "on" all of the time when they're talking to the press and public. And then there's Will Ferrell, quite possibly, the most normal-seeming, well-adjusted guy who's ever made you wet your pants laughing. At the recent Los Angeles press conference for The Other Guys, for example, Ferrell was in fine form, offering fewer genuine answers than guffaw-inducing non-sequiturs. But immediately afterward, he was mellow, thoughtful, and even a little bit serious as examined the same character he'd previously cracked up a press core talking about.
Cinematical took the pole position for an exclusive interview right after that press conference, and yes, Ferrell was occasionally funny. But his bemusement was less trying to impress a journalist who, to be honest, already thought he was hilarious, and more him talking about stuff that sometimes made him laugh – like the idea that an actual story was a new and unusual addition to his repertoire of films with longtime collaborator Adam McKay, who directed The Other Guys. Alternately amusing and introspective, Ferrell reflected on the challenges of playing a cop both for real and for comedy, and offered a few insights into being a funnyman, even if he doesn't feel the need to be funny all of the time.
Cinematical: One of the things that jumped out to me about your character is that he was a lot tougher and more assertive than maybe you've played in the past. How important was it that he was more of an equal to Mark Wahlberg's character?
Will Ferrell: It was actually the main focus. It was 100 percent commitment to getting that across, because in the first couple of drafts of the script or maybe the first read-through, I was really concerned and said, "let's really go against Mark is this tough guy and I'm 'I don't know how to handle a gun!'" I knew I should definitely be someone who is not from his world, but at the same time, even though I'm very eccentric, and a bit of a weirdo when you think about it (laughs), I don't lack self-confidence. I didn't want it to be those stereotypical relationships you see in movies, and I wanted this guy to be in his own way, yeah, just as tough as Mark. When Mark gets in his face, he turns around and says, "are you kidding me? You wear a leather jacket – really? When was the last time you voted?" Something that you would really think about in real life – like how are the skills that you are kind of espousing really valuable to you when I really know what's up in the real world? That was a dynamic we really worked hard on to make sure that was there – and I'm glad that you kind of saw that, because I think it makes it unique in that on first appearance, maybe I look like a nerdy wimp, but I'm not at all.
Cinematical: Because of your comedic pedigree, do you see a role like this as any sort of transitional device for you to be taken more seriously so you could do, say, a serious cop movie, or is it just a comedy pure and simple?
Ferrell: I mean, there wasn't any sort of attempt to have this character parlay into something else, but I think what's nice is it is a performance that's pretty reality-based. He's fairly grounded, and then you get to kind of go into the alter ego of gator and that stuff, which is really fun. But I don't know; it was one of the more fun characters to play, because he's kind of a reactive character. Mark gets in his face, and he's got to turn around and kind of respond in a way that's not necessarily over the top, and yet there are moments where I do go over the top. But I think all of that was kind of – I don't know if it was a new thing for me to get to do, but I guess in a way, yeah. But the objective wasn't to have this be a transitional acting role for me; it just happened as we wrote the script – it just kind of developed. And we knew that these guys would try to be close to being real guys.
Cinematical: When you conceived this, was The Other Guys supposed to be a parody of action movie conventions, or did you want it to be a straightforward action movie that just had more comedy in it?
Ferrell: I think we wanted it to be a sincere action movie. We wanted to take a few moments where we deconstructed things, but we didn't want it to all be about deconstructing the genre. So it all kind of goes through that, but it kind of does both. The beginning with Sam and Dwayne, that's like a mix of it looks really good, it's legit, and yet it's making fun of it all at the same time. That was the idea, and Mark's John Woo thing sliding across the table is obviously a total homage all of that stuff, and yet us kind of having that fight in the parking lot – well, I'm not fighting, I'm just watching (laughs) – that's pretty straightforward action. But we didn't want it to be a spoof of these movies, but even now and then we wanted to comment. Mostly, yeah, it set out to be a legit action movie.
Cinematical: Do you have a specific process for getting comfortable with improvising? For example, do you have to know the character really thoroughly, or do you discover him through that improvisation?
Ferrell: You know, it's probably more discovery along the way as we film, because it's not like we do an intensive rehearsal process. We definitely do rehearsals, but that's just reading the scenes, getting them on their feet, and trying a few things. I would say within the first week or two weeks of filming, I start to see what this person will say and do, and that becomes more clear, and that kind of leads you down the road in terms of improvisation as to what direction it would go. And yet, it's always such a hodgepodge, especially working with Adam, because he will also just throw things out at you that you're like, oh, I never even thought of that. I'll give that a run. But I would say, I don't know if it's a totally set thing going in; it's usually discovery along the way.
Cinematical: Do you make specific choices with roles or films that challenge you in certain ways, or do you just generally look at any role as an opportunity to refine your craft? Because this and Anchorman are very much of a piece with one another, but this is much more sophisticated as a whole.
Ferrell: Anchorman was just sort of shooting from the hip for the first time and there was obviously a rough quality to it – and that's the beauty of it. We didn't ever question it; we just [said] what's the craziest thing we can do at this moment? That was the spirit of that film, and this is kind of graduated in a way, partially because of the subject matter. We knew this was going to have a story (laughs), dare we say it, which was the hardest part. We were like, okay, if point A goes to point B, it seems like it skips over C, and how does D [work]? We knew fairly confidently that we can make this part funny, but it's got to make sense – are you figuring it out that it's the police pension fund? Is that okay? Does it all make sense in the end. All of these things like that.
I'm kind of just trying to challenge myself with each new thing, in a way, and in a weird way make it slightly different from previous stuff. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn't.
Cinematical: How easy is it to integrate people who are not sort of in your core group into this environment and create something that sustains their process and your own?
Ferrell: Well, it's fairly easy if everyone's just willing to trust. I think we've found in these films that we've done where we've used quote-unquote straight actors, they come in with a certain amount of trepidation, but then they start to get the feel of it. Adam couldn't be more encouraging, and the idea is really to create a dynamic where you don't feel like you can make a mistake. Because it's true – and I've learned it about myself: you just learn that like 70 percent of what comes out of your mouth is terrible or won't work (laughs), but that gets you to that 30 percent. That gets you to that "tuna fighting the shark" run – just like going down these roads where you're like, oh, this is terrible, and then all of a sudden it clicks. And once you can kind of foster that in everyone, then everyone relaxes and has a great time. So as long as you're not resistant to that, we've never had a problem, which is great. And I think people watch the films later and think, okay – I'm glad I trusted you guys.
The only sad part of that is we let people just go and go and go, and we end up having four-hour cuts and there's just obviously no way you can use two and a half hours of that (laughs). So sometimes people are like, oh, yeah, right, all that stuff we did that day is not even in the movie; we're like, I know, but this one part is really good. That's the only downfall of it.