Interview: The beautifully empty mind of Will Ferrell
05:00 AM, Mar 08, 2013
Last night, just as he was going to sleep, Will Ferrell started worrying about ghosts. Like, what if, right now, a ghost wafted into the room and said, “Hi”? What should he say back? And, more importantly, if it’s a hostile ghost, what action should he take next? Lie still? Move?
He was staying in a rented house in New Orleans. He started planning an escape route, but drifted off in the middle of it. Then, at 5:50 a.m., he awoke, untroubled and unperturbed by any bad mojo or evil spirits. In fact, he didn’t have a single thought in his head.
You would think there would be a million thoughts bouncing around in there. For instance, he could be pondering the movie he is making, a political comedy called The Campaign. Or about any of his other far-flung ventures, the TV show he oversees, Eastbound & Down; the wildly successful comedy website that he helped found, Funny or Die; or his new movie due out soon, Casa de mi Padre, a wacky but droll telenovela spoof done in Spanish with English subtitles. But, no, it’s none of those things.
“Nope, I don’t think there was anything,” he says, sounding a little puzzled himself. But he doesn’t question it. It’s just part of a process that allows him to move forward with no worries, no fears, no real concern about any of last night’s ghosts. “I just make a decision and go and feel good about it,” he says.
Here he comes now, down the street, around a corner, loping forward, a big man with a big head, wearing a suit, no tie, a striped shirt, regular shoes. He stops in front of a restaurant called La Petite Grocery. He says he has heard the margaritas here are excellent. He says he would like one with salt. He goes inside, is seated at a table, does not remove his jacket, sits up straight, orders his drink, sips his drink, orders ice water, orders a salad, orders the fish, and says, thoughtfully, “I can’t tell you where I first thought of Casa de mi Padre and I can’t tell you when, but a light bulb went off that said putting me in a Spanish-speaking movie with the cast being entirely Latino, and myself playing a kind of Latino actor, and the joke not being that I’m speaking poor Spanish, that it would be hilarious. I guess I did it specifically to raise the question ‘Why did you do this?’ It’s one of the craziest things I’ve done.”
And what about his a—, which was first made famous in Old School? Does his a— make an appearance in this movie?
He nods vigorously. “I did full a— in Old School, but this is its longest appearance.” Makeup? “Yes, someone had the either wonderful or horrible task of putting makeup on my ass.” He shrugs. He goes on, “This kind of thing is not a big deal to me. In college, they had this thing where you’d run naked on fraternity row, and if anyone challenged me, I’d be happy to do it.”
Right around then, it becomes clear that Ferrell, 44, isn’t going to be the kind of off-the-wall guy you might think he would be. He does not make goofy faces, does not rage apocalyptically, does not slip into George W. Bush voice, does not strip down and streak to further demonstrate the wonders of his a—, and, in toto, gives no indication whatsoever that he is anything like his most popular movie characters (Ron Burgundy, Frank the Tank, Ricky Bobby, etc.) or anyone from his years on Saturday Night Live, either. In every way possible, he spends the next several hours comporting himself according to all acceptable standards of behavior, mainly because that’s just how he is.
“Well, yes,” he says, forking a piece of lettuce mouth-ward. “Meeting fans, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, hey, how are you?’ And, literally, they’re like, ‘What are you going to do? Do something! Are you sure that’s him? He’s not doing anything!’ Yes, I fear they’re horribly underwhelmed.”
Not to mention disappointed and maybe even a little infuriated. He’s a great guy, no doubt about it. Everyone says so. “He has one of the most freakishly healthy egos of anyone you’re ever going to meet,” says his moviemaking partner, Adam McKay. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he is beloved. “There’s something about Will that is so completely American,” says former SNL cohort Tina Fey. “A tall, white version of America that you used to see in Seventies movies and TV. He’s like one of the Bad News Bears grown up. He’s like a superfunny Jon from CHiPs. He’s the Trapper John of comedy. If I describe it any more, I’ll fall in love with him.” And what makes him so perfect as an American symbol is how like America the characters he plays are: They’re overbearing, and macho, and totally oblivious to their own idiocy. And yet those who know him well say that’s where all such comparisons must end because within his somewhat fleshy and oft-exposed bosom there lies no real darkness, no grisly burdens, no lifelong sadnesses such as bedevil the rest of us. “Normal” is the word usually used to describe him. And so it would seem, as he sits here tonight, all kinds of pleasant and courteous. Then again, he’s a guy who goes to sleep worrying about ghosts but wakes up without a thought in his head and how normal is that?
He was raised in the white-bread California suburb of Irvine, and from the start nothing could faze him. When he was eight, his mother, an elementary-school teacher, and his father, a keyboard player for the Righteous Brothers, divorced, leaving his younger brother, Pat, quite shaken, but Will, not at all. As he said to Pat, “Look at it this way: We’re going to have two Christmases!” He was sunny like that and kind of a dream child for any newly single mother to have. Of course, he got into trouble. Once, after some kid stole the seat off his Big Wheel, Will grabbed it back, tried to throw it at the kid and instead threw it through a neighbor’s window. But that’s about the worst of it. Even when he shoplifted, he got away with it. Always the first one up in the morning, he passed the time playing Monopoly against himself and was always ticked off at how few $500s there were, so one day, at the local drugstore, he pocketed a spare pack of the bills. But that was it. “I never stole anything before,” he says solemnly, “and I never stole anything since.”
In school, he didn’t suffer from lack of popularity. “I learned in first grade how to open a door and have it hit the bottom of your foot and then snap your head back like it hit you in the face, and I started doing that, making the other kids laugh, and it became a new way to make friends. It was also an easy way to talk to girls, to go up and be funny. I was never really bullied much, either. I was big for my age and fairly athletic.”
Actually, more than fairly. He played varsity soccer, kicked for the varsity football team and captained the varsity basketball team. Throughout high school, he continued to make kids laugh wearing pajamas to school, cracking wise over the school PA system and his senior year he was voted “Best Personality.” At the University of Southern California, he could be spotted wearing janitor’s clothes, interrupting classes to entertain his pals. And, of course, as a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, he loved to ditch his clothes and streak.
Graduating with a degree in sports information, he moved home to figure out what to do next, since he’d realized that he didn’t like sports information after all. Then, on a lark, he took an improv class and decided to go in that direction. “One day, I said to my father, ‘I’m thinking of giving the comedy thing a try, what’s your advice?’ He goes, ‘If it wasn’t based on luck, I wouldn’t worry about it, because you have talent. Just know that there’s a lot of luck involved and if you eventually decide to do something else, don’t treat it as a failure. Just know it’s one-in-a-million.’ Those words took all the pressure off, and I just treated it like a game.”
In 1991, he moved to L.A. and struggled. “I remember going to do a scene study, and they said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know how to tell you this, I’m not trying to be mean, but you’re not good.’” Undeterred, he tried out for the Groundlings, the famous improvisational-comedy troupe, was accepted, rose through the ranks prodigylike, and within 18 months wound up on SNL, where he became a hit both with the audience and with the show’s writers. Unlike other SNL luminaries, he’d take on even the smallest of parts, believing he could make something of them anyway. If the writers came up with 40 sketches for a show, Ferrell would be written into 30 of them. He stayed for seven years.
In 1998, he headlined in his first movie, A Night at the Roxbury, co-starring Chris Kattan, and bombed. It looked like his winning streak was over. But then, in 2003, he got his second chance and had two hits in a row, first in Old School, and then in Elf, and he followed them up with two other biggies, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Along the way, he and McKay evolved the perfect archetypal Ferrell character. On the one hand, a guy who is “all puffed up,” as Ferrell says, “with that we’re-number-one attitude, and yet horribly flawed.” On the other hand, he’s a total deadpan absurdist “like when he’s doing Ron Burgundy,” says McKay, “and he’s telling Christina Applegate that San Diego means ‘whale’s vagina,’ and he’s not playing it goofy, he’s playing it real, and this crazy (expletive) thing he’s said sneaks up on you. That’s his favorite kind of laugh.” Those kinds of laughs are what have made Ferrell superpopular, especially among rappers. “He gets mentioned in rap songs a lot, probably because of how he makes fun of the absurdity of white culture, and how full of self-importance and jive white culture is,” says McKay (Jay-Z and Kanye West sampled Ferrell dialogue for last year’s hit “Ni**as in Paris”). “Wherever we go, where there’s a black crowd, they go nuts for him.”
And so it’s gone, with only a few wobbles along the way, like the 2005 groaner Bewitched. But even the biggest of his flops 2009’s disastrous Land of the Lost couldn’t keep him down. Within a year, he was back, in The Other Guys, a buddy-cop spoof that earned $170 million. His attitude has always seemed to be, if this one doesn’t work, then for sure the next one will. As Lorne Michaels once said to him, “You and Steve Martin are eternally optimistic you were raised in Southern California, where it’s sunny all the time.”
And so here he sits, dallying over his margarita, blessed as blessed can be, his Swedish-born wife of 11 years, Viveca, at home in L.A. taking care of their three kids, ages seven, five and two, all blond-haired, blue-eyed boys. If it’s raining anywhere in the world, you wouldn’t know it by him. But then, sit with him long enough, and a few oddities do crop up.
For one, he didn’t have sex until he was 21 and a junior in college. According to him, it was no big deal: “In my mind’s eye, it seemed like the way it was supposed to happen.” And maybe so. Or maybe that’s just how it plays back in his head, another fortuitous byproduct of a sunny disposition. Certainly, his mom thought it’d happened years earlier, while he was a senior in high school, when she concluded he’d slept with one rather loose classmate in particular: “‘I’m telling you now,’ she said, ‘if you slept with this girl, you’d better slap a condom on that pecker of yours.’” Ferrell chuckles while telling this story. Apparently, that’s just how his mom talked.
And he is a little weird about his wardrobe. “I rotate my clothes so everything is equally worn. I rotate my tennis shoes as well, so sometimes that can mean black shirt with orange shorts and red shoes, which I don’t give a shit about, but my wife will be like, ‘Really?’”
And he does have Joan Rivers as an enemy. “In a magazine she said, ‘You have to be careful of meeting your idols, because I met that Will Ferrell and he’s an a––.’ This is where that came from: At the Golden Globes, a producer told me to go say hello to Joan while she was talking to Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, so I do, and Joan is like, ‘Excuse me, do you know who you’re interrupting?’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, they’re very big important people.’ She thought I was being a jerk.” He shrugs. That’s the way it sometimes goes, when he blunders into things. But for the most part, it’s been a nauseatingly smooth ride.
Not even any big childhood illnesses?
“Nope, I’ve been fairly lucky.”
Come on, man, seriously, no adolescent angst ever? No self-loathing?
“No way. Not even close.”
What about pills? Are you on any pills?
“I take fish oil and 81 milligrams of aspirin a day.” He smiles. “81. Science has shown 80 wasn’t effective.”
OK, what about animals you hate. Have any of those?
A long pause. Finally, “I don’t know if I love Chihuahuas.” It’s a careful phraseology, purposefully designed to soften the blow of his opinion to the Chihuahua fans of the world. Which is just like him. He’s Will Ferrell. He’s been fairly lucky. Why should he make it any worse for you, just because you happen to own a Chihuahua?
This is from the March 15th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.