The Will Ferrell who greeted me at his Upper East Side hotel room this past Saturday was nothing like the bombastic characters he plays in his movies. Nor was he the larger-than-life personality we know from the talk-show circuit. The Will Ferrell I met was the kind of guy who greets you with a smile and a pastry. As we spoke, I came to the conclusion that Will Ferrell is a very insightful and interesting man -- one who happened to be dressed in a powder-blue-and-brown snap-up cowboy shirt better suited for a six-year-old.
Ferrell is promoting his new film, "Casa de Mi Padre." In the film, Ferrell plays a rancher who is unwittingly caught up in the evils of the drug trade after discovering that his brother works for a cartel. Oh, yeah, the movie is almost entirely in Spanish. Purposely presented as a low-budget film with terrible editing, "Casa de Mi Padre" gets its humor from presentation, not plot. Did I mention that it's almost entirely in Spanish?
In our wide-ranging discussion, transcribed more or less in full below, Ferrell discussed the risks of making a Spanish-language movie, the likelihood of a "Step Brothers" sequel, the debt "Elf" owes to "Anchorman," and his first season of "Saturday Night Live."
Hi, Mike. Would you care for a muffin? Or a baked good?
Oh, no thanks.
So Moviefone ... was it literally started by the guy with the voice? I've seen his reviews.
It was. He sold it, but he still works here. His name is Russ Leatherman.
Russ Leatherman? For real? "Leatherman"? [Laughs] There was a sketch on "SNL" we did a couple of times called "Lether Man." He owned a shop that was all leather. [Makes the leather on leather sound.] Anyway, I digress.
By all means, digress away. By the way, I'm fascinated by your movie.
Though, do you worry that there's only so many times that you can tell a person, "This whole movie is in Spanish?" Do you worry about the guy who gets mad halfway through because he didn't know?
You know, in general, I never worry about it. Once someone writes a check for you to make something -- that's it. For better or for worse. I've been asked, "Who do you think this is for?" It's our job to just fight for creative ideas -- then it's up to the marketplace whether they get it or don't. If it works, you live to see another day. If it doesn't, then, I don't know. I don't think audiences get enough credit for being smart. In the studio world, where you do the testing and you try to find the balance between something that plays for everyone but you don't want it too homogenized -- like that continual game? It's just nice to do something on the smaller scale where, creatively, it's just "keep it in the confines of this $5 million were giving you, but have at it."
But you don't get discouraged? When you look at someone like Adam Sandler, who experimented with movies like "Punch Drunk Love," his audience didn't turn out and it looks like, now, he just makes movies that he knows will do very well financially. Do you get frustrated when something like "Everything Must Go" doesn't draw as much of a crowd as "Talladega Nights"?
You know, "Everything Must Go" was this great creative experience. And if someone is going to give me that opportunity and it's something that I'm interested in and I get to do it, that's worth it -- and I watch it and it came together in a way that I like. As for whether it came or went, that's kind of up to the people who marketed it, the people who released it, the people who only had it on a certain number of screens. I just don't feel responsible from that point on.
I'll admit, that was a selfish question because, personally, I like it when you take risks.
Right, but I also just feel like as long as you have some capital to spend, why not do these things? And also, too, I got to work with friends. Of course we want to make something that's funny and hopefully works, but at the same time, we're all just sitting there going, "We're doing this, right? We really are doing this?" And we get to play with the house's money. I just hope that I can keep doing it.
What's interesting about "Case de Mi Padre" is that the story itself is not funny.
It's a very cliché story.
I've tried explaining the scene with the gun ...
Oh, you can't explain that. I mean, he could have shot me like six times. Those are the things that I think are just the unspoken things about comedy where, if you write that out in a script, that would never be funny on the page. And I don't even know if that joke resonates with a lot of people, but it's just really funny to create those moments.
Did you know Spanish?
I had three years of high-school Spanish and then two semesters in college. It's enough where I can kind of read it and pick out verbs and nouns.
If a Mexican journalist wanted to interview you in Spanish, could you do it?
I could probably listen. My comprehension is decent, but answering back is still weird.
One of my favorite moments on "SNL" is from when you hosted in 2009. The Billy Joel, "Goodnight Saigon" sketch.
Oh, yeah! Yeah.
How did that sketch come about with that song? I'll never forget while watching that thinking, This is glorious.
I thought so, too. You know, it was just one of the writers, Colin Jost. He wrote this sketch and it was just all from his mind. And I really liked it, but I had the same question and he's like, "Oh, I just always really loved that song."
I couldn't tell if it came from the mind of someone who loved that song or hated that song.
Yeah! And then Lorne loved it, because I think he loves to end the last scene of the last show of the season with a big cast piece. And I loved the sequence: it kind of broke the fourth wall with this weird, bizarre thing. And the next thing you know, whoever was there that night ...
Artie Lange showed up on stage.
Paul Rudd and ... Anne Hathaway? [Laughs] She was there? And that was kind of it. It was not my idea; I was just blissfully handed it, going, "This is great! Let's do this."
I've read enough interviews with you and the rest of the "Anchorman" cast being asked about the sequel to know that it's never happening. Unless we count "Austin Powers," you've never done a sequel. Do you even have any interest in doing a sequel to anything?
We're kind of starting to talk about it. We're entertaining the thought of doing it more and more.
Yeah. Because we used to feel super purist about it. Like, "Just think of a new idea." But then, gosh, they got to make those five "Ocean 11" movies and have a great time. And no one seemed pick them apart.
"How dare you, George Clooney? You sold out!"
Right, "How dare you?" So I was like, "Why can't we just have fun with our characters?" So we are kind of kicking around the idea of one for "Step Brothers." I mean, "Anchorman," we tried. But we like the idea of "Step Brothers," because it's kind of an anti-sequel sequel.
I don't know what that means.
Meaning it's just like the movie that you wouldn't choose, necessarily. I mean, "Talladega Nights" makes a lot of sense on paper. "Anchorman" is kind of written. "Step Brothers," it's crazy how it's grown and grown and grown, now that it's been out there in the world -- I always get more "Step Brothers" references from college kids than I get anything else.
I wouldn't have expected that.
Yeah, so, we're loosening up to the thought of doing something and trying to make a sequel feel original.
I feel Adam Scott doesn't get his due credit for that movie. And he was in that before he became well known.
Yeah. He's awesome. No, it was fun, we've gotten to -- to say we've "discovered people" seems too cocky. It's not that we've done that at all. It's just fun to have gotten to cast a Steve Carell as Brick Tamland or Adam Scott in that role. Or Richard Jenkins in a way that you've never seen him -- things like that. It's always so fun to take a chance on these people who are not "comedy people." But we're like, "No, if you do it real and in the right way, it's going to be huge." Which is what's cool about Diego [Luna] and Gael [Garcia Bernal] -- they really jumped at the chance to get to do something they've never done.
How important do you think "Elf" was to your career? A lot of people saw that who didn't see "Old School." Was the rest of this possible without that movie?
You know what? The movie is always so funny to talk about because I never could have predicted that would have become this thing. Only because I was literally running around the streets of New York in tights going, "Hm, this could be it."
Right, "This is how I'll be remembered."
"Oh well, why did he go and make that thing?" And somehow, some way, we found this movie that obviously worked for families, but somehow worked for the hipster, college crowd.
That's a hard thing to do.
It's so hard to do! I was expecting to get blasted on that other end, but it allowed "Anchorman" to get green-lit and it kind of opened that door. So it's really a fortunate run: When I think back to leaving "SNL," and my first three movies were "Old School," "Elf" and "Anchorman."
I can re-read your quote in "Live From New York" about bringing a briefcase full of money to your first meeting with Lorne Michaels, and forgetting to give it to him, and laugh every single time.
Yeah! The whole thing -- the bit I never pulled off. And who comes to an interview like that with a briefcase?
And a leather briefcase. Not even like a satchel.
When you started on "SNL," they pretty much recast the entire show from the season before.
And you never had to be a featured player, fighting for your one or two minutes of airtime a night.
Yeah, they had to use us.
That had to be an advantage?
Oh, absolutely. That's the last time a big group has been added. The rest of the players have been kind of piecemealed either one or two at a time.
Right. In 2005 they did add Wiig, Hader, Sudeikis and Samberg, but as featured players.
True. And I guess that's the next-to-last time a larger group was added.
But you guys were pretty much all new.
We were all new and it was an all new writing staff as well. Lorne just had to trust us. He just had to use all of us, and it was such an advantage. I mean, it was very scary because it was at one of those low ebbs on the show. It was either go in and figure it out and continue or we'd be the last cast. But I was so fortunate to come in with a whole group. We all had to rely on each other, and it was super exciting. Everyone forgets, too, at that time, all the other networks sensed it -- so they threw up "MADtv,' they threw up Howard Stern.
And not in that time slot, but also "The Dana Carvey Show."
"The Dana Carvey Show" and Roseanne [Barr] got a show. So we weathered four different late-night shows during that first season alone. Then it was "MADtv" that stuck around and we kind of battled it out. But it galvanized everyone to just all try to work together. it was actually a great thing to go through.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter
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