Funnyman is a 'sweet, gentle alpha male'

Actor Will Ferrell says he learnt as a "nerdy good student" that trying to be funny was a quick way to make friends.
Actor Will Ferrell says he learnt as a "nerdy good student" that trying to be funny was a quick way to make friends.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

You do not often get to see Will Ferrell being serious.

When he is on-screen, the 49-year-old funnyman rarely breaks character - not just in hit comedies such as Elf (2003), Daddy's Home (2015) or the Anchorman films (2004 and 2013), but also in his talk-show appearances and on-camera interviews, where he often assumes his trademark over-the-top comic persona.

The Straits Times catches a rare glimpse of the star in powereddown mode, however, when he and actress Amy Poehler speak about their newest film, The House, at a recent press event in Los Angeles.

Opening in Singapore tomorrow, it sees them play suburban parents who launch an underground gambling den because they cannot afford their daughter's tuition fees, then slowly get carried away with their new criminal lifestyle.

There are no cameras rolling when they are paired to speak with a handful of print journalists in West Hollywood. For a while, the interview proceeds soberly, the actor noting that the movie's premise is not entirely far-fetched, given how expensive American universities are.

Ferrell received a sports journalism degree from the University of Southern California, one of the priciest schools in the country, with annual fees of more than US$51,000 (S$71,000). "I had a lot of student debt. I was writing cheques for US$50 a month and barely paying off the interest," he says.

A career-making stint on sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL) from 1995 to 2002 changed all that for him.

"When I got SNL, I was able to finally write the final cheque and pay off the rest of my debt. So that was great."

But ask why it took so long for him and fellow SNL alumnus Poehler to star in a film together and he whips out his finely honed deadpan, which is given away only by a subtle glint of mischief in the eyes.

"It was an endless negotiation," he says as Poehler starts to giggle. "And then it became a thing where it was, like, 'Guess what - Amy capitulated, she'll do it!' And I'd be, like, 'It's off!' We love the conflict."

The House director Andrew J. Cohen tells reporters that between takes, Ferrell could not be more different from his character.

"He's very reserved and gentle. He has such an approachability and sweetness - he's not at all like the characters he plays.

"But when the camera is rolling, he's almost possessed."

Poehler, on the other hand, says Ferrell is "this big alpha male", even though he often portrays "lowstatus, fragile, insecure dummies".

"I've called Will 'alpha' a lot and, to me, it's a high compliment," she adds. "What I mean by that is that he is a natural captain, and when you are a leader, you don't always have to tell everybody you are..."

"You just urinate on them," Ferrell interjects matter of factly. "You mark your territory."

Apparently, it was a lot like this on set too, with both actors using their improvisational comedy backgrounds to go off-script and come up with their own jokes.

As their characters Scott and Kate became more thuggish, it was Ferrell's idea to put on oversized women's sunglasses and pretend to be an Italian mobster.

"As we were going through the script, we talked about the fact that at a certain point, they would go over to the dark side," says Ferrell, who is married to Swedish actress Vivica Paulin, 48, and has three sons aged seven to 13.

"And as we were coming up with their looks, I sent Andrew an e-mail saying, 'What if Scott thinks it's so cool to wear what he thinks are Italian sunglasses and smoke cool Italian cigarettes, but he's mistaken and they're actually women's sunglasses and Virginia Slims?"

This love of making people laugh dates all the way to his childhood, the actor reveals.

A "nerdy good student" as a boy, he learnt that "the quickest way to make friends was either through sports or trying to be funny".

"On the playground, I figured out how to run into a door, kick the bottom of the door and then throw my head back as if I'd smacked into the door.

"I did it one day and the class was laughing. And I was, like, 'Okay, that will be a go-to.'"

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2017, with the headline 'Funnyman is a 'sweet, gentle alpha male''. Print Edition | Subscribe