As he prepares to return to our screens in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, American actor Will Ferrell talks to Ben Williams about Oscars, rap music and George W Bush.
Will Ferrell is deep in an animated conversation with his publicist. ‘Oh hi,’ he says, as I enter the room. ‘I’m just telling my story of being named “worst autographer”.’ Most people don’t have anecdotes about their signature-signing reputations. But then most of us aren’t A-list actor-comedians with a bank balance that swells by US$20 million (Dhs73 million) with every major movie role, and a name that practically guarantees box-office success.
I met Ferrell in Amsterdam in November last year, three days after Autograph Magazine (no, we didn’t know it existed either) dubbed the 45-year-old funnyman ‘worst signer’, and he obviously finds it gleefully baffling. It’s not the first time he’s been slammed by the niche rag either, which claims he, ‘mocks people, taunts and embarrasses them when they ask for autographs.’ So, is it true? ‘You know these kind of “pros”, who have stacks of photos? Those are the ones I give grief to,’ he admits with a grin. ‘The kid with the little autograph book? No problem!’
Ferrell has been the king of goofball American comedy for nearly 20 years. Since his seven-year stint on NBC’s sketch series Saturday Night Live (he was the show’s highest paid cast-member, earning US$17,500 per episode) the California-born writer-performer has starred in some of the highest grossing comedy movies. He’s donned glittery spandex as ice skater Chazz Michael Michaels in Blades of Glory, searched for Santa (mainly by yelling ‘Santa!’) in festive classic Elf, and teamed up with Marky Mark Wahlberg in police comedy The Other Guys.
But it’s bombastic, moustached news anchor Ron Burgundy that Ferrell’s best known for. Nine years after its release, Anchorman still has a huge cult following, spawning quotealong screenings, hordes of merchandise and a generation of teenagers who claim ‘I love lamp’.
It’s this loyal following that means, nearly a decade later, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is shaping up to be most-anticipated comedy movie of the year.
Anchorman 2 is the first sequel you’ve made, but not the first you’ve been offered: you turned down US$29 million to make a second Elf movie. Why?
‘Because it was terrible. The script was terrible, even for US$29 million. Now I’m like, “Gosh, it’s so hard to get paid now, maybe I should’ve taken that!” No, I was in a position where that movie was not going to be good, and I would’ve been stuck in an interview situation like this where I would’ve had to say, “I couldn’t say no, it was US$29 million,” and I don’t want to do movies for that reason.’
So what convinced you to sequel up for Anchorman 2?
‘Well, philosophically speaking, Adam [McKay, Anchorman co-writer and director] and I were generally against sequels. It just didn’t interest us: we have so many other stories we want to tell, and other characters we want to do. Cut to: Anchorman just keeps getting more and more of a cult following, and we’re going: “What is going on with this movie?” And then I remember seeing George Clooney or Brad Pitt doing press for the 100th Ocean’s Eleven movie and I thought: maybe we should do a sequel, those guys get to go off and make these sequels, they don’t seem to get criticised!’
Clooney and Pitt are dramatic actors, though, and you’ve only taken on a couple of less goofy roles. Would you like to do more serious parts?
‘Now that I haven’t done one in a while a lot of journalists, very generously and nicely, say, “I’ve really liked your dramatic work, are you going to do more?” When you do one, though, the same people say, “How do you feel about those who say you’re just looking to be taken seriously?” You were just asking me why don’t you do more! So it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing. I’m constantly keeping my eye open, but you never know when it’s going to happen, and if it’s the right thing.’
Do you ever worry that you’ve dug yourself into such a deep pit of irony that if you were to do something genuine or heartfelt people would just think you’re trying to be funny?
‘I think that’s where I’m limited, from a casting position. There are definitely a handful of directors who, while they respect what I do comedically, won’t cast me because they think: “Oh the audience are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.” But, you know, what can you do about it? It’s too late now.’
Rappers seem to be big fans: you’re referenced in tonnes of lyrics. Why are you popular with the hip-hop community?
‘Isn’t it crazy? I’m very flattered by it. I love black culture. Let’s face it, we all aspire to be rappers, it’s the coolest part of culture, and it’s great to crossover like that. But do I have a theory? It’s weird to talk about yourself in that regard. The only thing I can think of is that rap and hip-hop is unabashed, it doesn’t hold back. And I don’t hold back in the comedies I do; I don’t ever wink at the camera, I fully commit to the characters and I’m still trying to make choices that aren’t safe, and that sort of thing, I guess? But then I sound like a jackass talking about myself that way. I don’t know. It’s a crazy phenomenon!’
Some would say your butt is another phenomenon. You’ve whipped it out in a few of your movies…
‘I am the Lady Gaga of comedy. Or she is the Will Ferrell of pop music.’
The first film’s set in the 1970s, the second ten years later. Is there something naturally funny about that time period?
‘It looks ridiculous when we look back. As I assume the 2010s will to people in 2040. They’ll be sitting in their spacesuits going, “Can you believe people used to wear that?” But we didn’t set out to make a movie about that time period, it was idea specific. The first movie’s about sexism, and the first time a woman works with a man in the newsroom took place during that era. Then 1980 is a really pivotal year: it’s the launch of CNN, of ESPN, of big mainstream cable TV as we know it – so it is the perfect place for the next chapter.’
There were lots of cameos in the first film, and there are even more in Anchorman 2. Who were you particularly pleased to have nabbed for a guest appearance in the new film?
‘There were a bunch. But I’m not at liberty to say, I want it to be a surprise. I will neither confirm nor deny.’
Okay, then is there someone you’d love to do a cameo in a future film? George Bush perhaps?
‘Hmm, no, I’ll let him continue to do his paintings in his gate-guarded community. I get asked those questions: are there people you want to work with? Is there a passion project you’ve never done? I don’t sit around and think of those, like, “Gosh, I still want to do a remake of Serpico!”’
You performed a song at the Academy Awards about comedy being snubbed by the judging panel. Do you think there should be an Oscar for comedy?
‘I don’t, because I don’t know if there is an Oscar-worthy comedy every year. But on those years when there is an exceptional comedy, I just wish the governing body would be flexible enough to put it in the same category as the rest of the films, which they have a hard time doing.’
Do you feel, in general, comedy is an under-appreciated movie genre?
‘There’s just no question. It’s not even an opinion, it’s a fact. And there’s no one who appreciates comedy more than the most talented dramatic actor. I don’t know how many times I’ve had Christian Bale
or someone go, “Hey man, I just wanted to say hi.” But, critically speaking, that never gets translated. And I think that’s because if a comedy’s working it doesn’t look like it’s work.’
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is out in cinemas across Dubai on February 20.