Will Ferrell: aEUR~ Ignorance is a key part of comedyaEUR( tm)

Will Ferrell knows exactly how to build us laugh. Hes back with Mark Wahlberg for his latest movie, Daddys Home, and will shortly return as Mugatu in Zoolander 2. Tim Adams fulfills him to assure whats behind the most expressive jowl in America

Half an hour before I interviewed Will Ferrell I attained the mistake of watching a clip of him interviewing himself. In one of Ferrells many Saturday Night Live( SNL) incarnations he did a celebrated spoof of the long-running American arts demonstrate Inside the Performer Studio , in which James Lipton presents cerebral interrogations of Hollywood starrings. Ferrell donned a bald wig and beard, sat with a pile of Liptons opted blue notecards and went through a parody of the questions he might have asked: Whats your favourite curse word? he asked of himself. If heaven exists what would you like to hear God say when you arrive? And, of acting in general, and slapstick including with regard to: Is it craft or is it crap?

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 dependable comic creation. There is no suggestion of a created eyebrow , no ghost of a giveaway grin. It eludes 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 abruptly lame-sounding and hopelessly predictable lines of enquiry.

As it runs, in the hour in which we talk, Ferrell is unfailingly polite, friendly, thoughtful, engaged. But even so, all the time, I cant quite shake the sense that I am clearly the fool with the blue cards; that somewhere, style 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.

Team players: with Mark Wahlberg in Daddys Home. He represents the lion male to my kitty cat Photograph: Paramount Pictures/ Photoshot

Its something like this expression that Ferrell wears for large parts of Daddys Home , the most recent pitch-perfect instance of what he calls broad commercial slapstick the genre he has, for a decade, induced pretty much his own. Ferrell plays Brad, the worlds greatest stepdad, who are interested nothing more than the vaguest emotional acknowledgement from his wifes children, and who is undone in that passion by the return to the family home of their wayward biological father, Dusty, playing with suitable subversive danger by Mark Wahlberg. The double act is a reprise of Ferrell and Wahlbergs good-cop-bad-cop routines in 2010 s The Other Guys . Ferrell had been aware, long before they worked together, that he could find some giggles playing off Wahlbergs pumped-up intensity. Mark is the guy who could walk down the street in a movie with his own theme song, he says. People will step aside. He generates that dynamic without saying a word. He represents the lion male to my kitty cat

As a teenager Ferrell spent a lot of time watching Steve Martin on SNL . The results of that survey are everywhere apparent in the way he occupies the suburban certainties of Brad, the latest in a line of regular guys he has created around whom all the craziness happens.

He is so emotionally available on an nearly 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 only loves where he is.

You watch Brad with the sense that Ferrell, who grew up in sunny Irvine, California, did not “re going to have to” search too hard within for him. Hes always watched the comic potential of that threatened all-American way of life, of Norman Rockwell idealism, and its close proximity to more anarchic urges.

Model behaviour: as Mugatu in Zoolander. Photo: Everett/ REX Shutterstock

One of Ferrells first appearances on cinema 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 “hes having” 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 screaming at his kids to GET OFF THE SHED!

He chuckles 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 get off it mattered so much. Playing those types of guys who turn on a dime is really fun to do.

The shed guy displayed the sudden irrational rage that even the calmest mother understands. Ferrell is the father to three sons, aged 11, eight and five. We talk a little about how the only real model of parenting any of us has is observing our household growing up. Ferrells own daddy 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 theaters and bars. He and Ferrells mother divorced when Will was eight. Im guessing his papa was more Dusty than Brad.

Its 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 actually became Brad-like. Me and my brother spent a whole summertime with him my mum took a trip-up 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 posture. He wanted to know when all the PTA meetings were and so on. He didnt take any more tasks on the road. I think he saw the meaning in what it might be to be are dependent upon 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 doesnt truly acknowledge it now, perhaps one result of seeing that transformation in his own father was Ferrells ambition for nothing more than a nice stable job and a family.

The stereotype you stimulated fun of as a kid was the job in the bank. But to me that always voiced all right. Nine to five and you know where youre running. You get a decent wage and vacations and get to carry a briefcase. I was fine with that notion. 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 examined sports journalism] I knew that guessed would eat away at me if I didnt dedicate it a shot. Thank God with the success Ive had Ive been able to have stability, too. When Im 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 spouse if she ever wants to go back and analyse I will be happy to stay home and pack up work and drive the boys to all their athletics practises. 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 considered 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 pits. Even so, to combine his flow of comic invention with such equilibrium of temperament seems like an unusual trait. Ferrell sets it down to his never mistaking anxiety for creativity.

Family guy: with his partner Viveca Paulin and their children. Photo: Jim Smeal/ BEI

I have never actually had a shortage of notions, he says. I think it is the absence of ideas that is the cause of pain and annoyance and thats when novelists or comedians will say they cant be in relationships too long or cant be tied down, they have to set run first. But I have simply never felt that. The notions have always come fairly easily, and when they dont for a while I dont think to blame the people around me.

Strange, I say and eminently useful for a comedian not to be beset by neediness or doubt. The second point 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 beset by doubt. A real moment when I believed I had lost them and now I am never going to get this task. I mean I was playing with cat dolls on the floor of a stage to complete silence.

Doesnt all comedy require a degree of fearlessness? Its more ignorance, I think. I simply filmed this thing with Jerry Seinfeld. Component of his series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee , where we had a whole dialogue about ignorance being a key component of comedy. If you know too much you will be totally paralysed. To begin with I didnt know enough to be fearful. And even though I have got to know more, plainly, I have tried to hold on to that.

[ youtube https :// www.youtube.com/ watch? v= arhMMJx7tCU]
Trailer for Daddys Home

Since he left SNL , he has done an nasty plenty 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 $40 m. Does he have trouble saying no?

No, he says, but I can make it appear that way. I have a run ethic that received from being on Saturday Night Live . I realised early on that if I had an idea I didnt 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 notions. If I dont have anything thats 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 days we live in is that there is no shortfall 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. Doesnt he seem such a calm moderate guy these days?

The afternoon we gratify, the news is full of Donald Trumps announcement about shutting American borders to Muslims. Is Ferrell not tempted to have a combover and do a Donald; surely his country needs him?

Hi Buddy: in 2003 s Elf. Photograph: Rex Feature

Well, he says, You know things are getting crazy when Jeb Bush calls person unhinged for being too extreme. I mean these are certainly the kinds of things that induce you wish you were still on Saturday Night Live . But you do also fret how big is that silent minority that seems to be being given a voice suddenly. Everyone maintains 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 persons under 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 foes, or even satirists, to land a square blow.

Yes, Ferrell says, he has become masterful at both putting these notions out there internment camps! and then saying, Look I dont wishes 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 situate 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 sentiments and postures weve watched and heard from people and put a funny spin on them.

Fathers day: at the premiere of Daddys Home with co-stars Alessandra Ambrosio and Linda Cardellini. Photograph: REX Shutterstock

Is there a danger of reality overtaking irony before a cinema get built?

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, its just what we find funny at the time.

It seems the kind of broad irony he does so intuitively is being scrutinised ever more closely for signs of offence and political correctness. Ben Stillers Zoolander 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 seems as a transsexual. A boycott is unavoidably 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 didnt feel like a thing for that movie, 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 giggled hard, but the movie is entirely racist, how did you get away with it? And then thats 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 cinemas have not procured 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 dont 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 Carvers 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 racism against what you have done. I get, They think you are so funny, but they just cant believe you in this role

If there is a regret, somewhere in Ferrell, that might be it but hes not letting on. Before he goes I mention my fatal mistake in watching his Inside The Actor Studio sketch, the way he has got his reprisal in against all interviewers before they even sit down.

Strangely[ James] Lipton loved it, he says. But he was also fucking crazy at me that I would never actually do his depict. I would say, When I have done something worthy enough as relevant actors, if I win an Oscar, I will. I neednt have worried, because by that time it was: Jennifer Lopez: In The Actor Studio .

Comedy, I say: craft or crap?

Ferrell chuckles. Its always hard to talk about comedy, he says. Better just to try to do it.

Daddys Home is released in cinemas on Boxing Day

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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