Funny or not? Will Ferrell's next chapter includes drama
NEW YORK (AP) -- Will Ferrell is trapped.
Dressed sharply in a grey suit, he's trailed by a team of publicists and makeup artists. But the parade stalls as soon as it reaches a narrow hotel hallway. Around the corner comes a call to hurry up, already.
"An orchid fell over and we were trapped for like half-a-second," says Ferrell, beaming from his excuse and immediately cracking up everyone within earshot.
Whether it's tumbling flowers or Hollywood studio recalcitrance, Ferrell has lately been outmaneuvering obstacles with eagerness and creativity.
Though the big comedies are still coming — last year's "The Other Guys" and the animated "Megamind," and the coming "Southern Rivals" with Zach Galifianakis — Ferrell has recently looked to increasingly diverse choices.
After starring on Broadway as former President George W. Bush in 2009's "You're Welcome America," he has guest starred on "The Office," shot a Spanish-language comedy, "Casa de Mi Padre," and is now releasing a dramatic independent film, "Everything Must Go."
The new direction was partly precipitated by studio decisions in early 2010, when budgets were tightened, release schedules slimmed, estimated international revenue was increasingly put at a premium, and seemingly surefire hits like a proposed "Anchorman" sequel for Paramount were rebuffed.
"It was sort of like, if studio movies are going to get this tricky all of a sudden to get all the pieces together, then great, I'll just go explore this whole other world where it's smaller budgets but possibly more creative freedom," said Ferrell in a recent interview. "Just open up a new chapter, in a way."
In "Everything Must Go," which is loosely based on a Raymond Carver short story, Ferrell plays a character who loses his job and his wife on the same day. Locked out of his suburban house, he starts living on his front lawn and descending further into alcoholism.
Ferrell, who has received good reviews for more dramatic turns in earlier movies such as "Stranger Than Fiction" and Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda," says "Everything" is the most challenging role he's had.
That's partially because Ferrell, who has typically favored ensemble productions, is often starkly alone in the film. At times, he said, he felt like he was "walking on the moon."
"He's really doing things out of passion, not about `I need to reinvent myself out of necessity,'" says Dan Rush, the first-time director of "Everything Must Go." "He's making choices based on material that he responds to and things that he wants to say."
Ferrell is aware of the strange hypersensitivity many have over comedians trying their skills in drama, acknowledging "that's the story line."
"It's not me trying to make a statement or anything like that," he says. "Any creative person is going to want to change and do something different. It's as simple as that for me."
"So Mark Wahlberg comes and does `The Other Guys' and it's like `We didn't know Mark was that funny!' not `Enough with these dramatic actors going into comedy! It's not right!'" says Ferrell, laughing.
Lest anyone think Ferrell is taking himself too seriously, his promotion (reliably one of the highlights of a new Ferrell project) for the limited-release of "Everything Must Go" has included shaving Conan O'Brien's beard and donning a morning suit for Prince Williams' wedding on "The Late Show."
Letterman called him "the go-to guy," sensibly omitting exactly what Ferrell is the go-to for. The answer would seem to be: Everything. He has always had incredible comedic range, with characters including the self-sure clueless (Ron Burgundy), swinging academics (Prof. Roger Klarvin), egotistical crooners (Robert Goulet), smiley innocents (Buddy the Elf), straight men (Alex Trebek) and unhinged lunatics (Chazz Reinhold in "Wedding Crashers").
"Molly Shannon and I used to always talk about that we really felt strongly that we were comedic actors, that we weren't comedians," says Ferrell. "You just played things real and the comedy came out of the context. In terms of applying that to a dramatic role, it's the same kind of transfer."
Ferrell, who modeled himself after the wide-ranging "SNL" veterans Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman, has sometimes been pigeonholed for man-child characters (taken to the hilt in "Step Brothers"), which he says is perplexing to him.
"Some of these things are studies in retarded adolescence for sure, but going back as far as the Marx Brothers, that's kind of what male comedy is, in a way," says Ferrell. "That always feels like such a shallow observation."
Ferrell is exceptional from many comedians in that his comedy doesn't seem to eminent from insecurity. The 43-year-old was raised happily in Irvine, Calif., the son of a teacher and Roy Lee Ferrell, a guitarist for the Righteous Brothers (surely an inspiration to his comic yet serious singing).
"My kind of wanting to be funny didn't come from need, necessarily," says Ferrell. "The closest I can analyze it is that it was an easy way to make friends, I found out. It was just a great kind of social tool."
Adam McKay, who has been Ferrell's creative partner and friend since "SNL" and directed him in numerous films, says Ferrell is an "oddly driven" guy with the discipline to run marathons and learn instruments for movies. The two formed the production company Gary Sanchez Productions, which has facilitated their expanding interests, like the website FunnyOrDie.com.
"He's got this level of freedom going right now that's really fun to see him mess with," says McKay. "He's always been a guy who just likes to do what he likes to do. Now, we're just seeing more of that. I mean, the Bush show made no career sense, whatsoever. There was no money involved, basically. Yet he just wanted to do it and was excited, as was I. Same with `Everything Must Go' and same with `House of My Father.' These are just projects he finds challenging."
Ferrell laments the erosion of the "middle-class of moviemaking" — films with moderate budgets — and the increased reliance on financial considerations, like foreign sales and demographic predictions.
Adapting, though, has been rewarding.
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