Read the extended edit of our interview with the comic legend on cowbells, naked cowboys, and the return of Ron Burgundy
Ron Burgundy. Ricky Bobby. Chazz Michael Michaels. Mugatu. Ashley Schaeffer. Gene Frenkle. Gator. Thanks to Will Ferrell, these freaks of nature have irreversibly branded their foibles, witty one-liners and dubious wardrobe choices onto the rawhide of pop culture. For that, and for creating Funny or Die, co-producing Eastbound & Down and generally being the most jocular tall guy on earth, Ferrell deserves our eternal gratitude. This month the 44-year-old gallops back onto our movie screens as Armando Alvarez in Casa de Mi Padre, a Latin cowboy drama. Set in Mexico, it tells the story of Alvarez’s quest to grow some cajones in order to avenge his father’s death at the hands of local drug baron. Along the way he steals his brother’s sexy girlfriend, fails to roll a cigarette and bonds with a mountain lion… all while speaking Spanish. Fittingly, we caught up with the newest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor the day before Cinco de Mayo to talk about animal instincts, cowbells, jazz flutes and, err, his butt…
Dazed & Confused: Will, your butt gets a lot of screen time in Casa de Mi Padre’s big love scene. Did the movie studio ever suggest getting you a bottom double?
Will Ferrell: Well, no, I used my real butt but my butt is not the one you think it is. Mine is the one that looks like the woman’s butt. I have a very petite, shapely, shaved woman’s butt.
How would I go about getting a butt like yours?
Will Ferrell: I don’t think you could. I think it’s genetically impossible. It is God’s gift. You’d have to get a lot of procedures.
Do your contracts specify the need to be naked at least once? Is that a deal breaker?
Will Ferrell: No. I think it just gets highlighted when it happens. This was a rare opportunity in the sense that the writer of the movie basically wrote the scene where there was going to be a beautiful lovemaking scene which was dominated by way too many shots of butts. That was something that I knew had never been captured on film before. I just jumped at the chance to do it, but no there is not a concerted effort on my part to be partly nude in movies. It just seems to happen.
Yes, it might have been inappropriate for Elf.
Will Ferrell: Yeah, that’s a movie where it didn’t happen.
Were you nervous about acting with only Spanish dialogue?
Will Ferrell: No, I had this idea for the longest time of putting myself in a Spanish language film. I felt it would not only hopefully be hilarious, but also something you’ve never seen before. So I just kind of giggled to myself that we were actually getting to make this. I didn’t have any trepidation.
Can you even believe that you’ve done a whole movie in Spanish?
Will Ferrell: It still feels like a crazy dream. I kind of feel that as long as you have some capital to spend in the comedy world, why not use it by taking risks and creating things? I think in the long-term people will think, ‘Wow, he did an entire movie in Spanish.’ I’ll think they’ll add up in the end as things that people will admire and respect.
You’ve called Spanish ‘the international language of love’. What is the most romantic thing you can say?
Will Ferrell: Tus ojos son como mis bragas azules.
What does that mean?
Will Ferrell: Your eyes are like my blue pants.
Aww, shucks. Talking of love, Armando Alvarez bonds with a mountain lion. What animal do you have most kinship with?
Will Ferrell: Probably the bottlenose dolphin. I think that dolphins have massive intellect. They are incredibly smart and I firmly believe there will be some day in the very near future that we will speak with the dolphins. That’s my hope. That’s my crusade.
If you were a bottlenosed dolphin and the Russians asked you to strap a laser to your dorsal fin, what would you do?
Will Ferrell: If the time came and the Russians wanted me to do it, and they would take care of my dolphin family, then yes, I would strap a laser to my back.
In Spinal Tap they say, ‘It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.’ Do you walk that line?
Will Ferrell: No, but I think a lot of the funniest things combine dumb and smart at the same time. There is thought put into that, but I don’t really judge it once it’s out there in the universe. You can only do what you think is funny, and it’s only by chance that a large percentage of other people think it’s funny too. It’s not like you can think, ‘Oh, I’m going to write something that appeals to a big crowd,’ you just have to do what you think is funny. The rest is up to everyone else.
When writing, do you ever worry that the initial idea won’t be as funny when you finally step on set?
Will Ferrell: Over time you get a little better with your sense of how to sustain something for a long time. You learn to give yourself a bunch of options in the edit room so that on the day you can try a joke in ten different ways so that you can change things out if you need a different kind of flavour here and there. Anyone I respect as a comedian is never 100 per cent confident in everything they do. And those that I meet who are like, ‘This is going to kill, I guarantee that this is hilarious,’ are kind of full of it.
You have bucked the classic stereotype of comedians being depressed offstage. Were you ever depressed that you weren’t depressed?
Will Ferrell: (laughs) Yeah a little bit! It’s true, I did sometimes think, ‘Oh, am I not down and out enough, am I going to suffer because I don’t have weird idiosyncratic issues about myself?’ That was a slight worry for half an hour. Yet, that’s not 100 per cent true. Anyone who is artistic in any endeavor has their weird ways of thinking, or going about ways and mine just not that overt.
Your character in Casa de Mi Padre starts off as this coward who grows some cojones. Have you always been confident as a performer?
Will Ferrell: I don’t know why, but for some reason I have never been brash or overconfident, but at the same time I have had some internal mechanism that when push comes to shove I have a quiet calm about me when it’s time to perform. I’ve always had that and there is a total difference between being quietly confident and overconfident. I don’t know if that’s just innate or if it comes from watching my father who’s a performer do his thing, or being a little bit lucky, but I’ve been able to step into that pretty easily.
Do you ever feel the pressure to be on all the time?
Will Ferrell: I don’t, but a lot of people are so sad when they meet me (laughs). It’s like anything else, some days you run into people and you are on, and there are other days when I’m trying to handle all three of my kids somewhere and people ask me to say this or that, and I’m like, ‘Nope, I gotta go,’ and I can tell a little part of their admiration dies. I try not to worry about it too much.
You just announced that Anchorman 2 is on its way. Why do you think Ron Burgundy has become such a cult character?
Will Ferrell: I think because he’s egocentric and yet a buffoon all at the same time. There is also this sweetness about him. I think we love seeing flawed characters like that who are so full of themselves or complete idiots and yet aren’t really nasty people. That’s as close as I can do to figure why he has caught on.
Are you looking forward to donning the turtlenecks again? What’s the rough plot?
Will Ferrell: Yeah, we’re fired up about it. We’re playing around with the idea of Ron Burgundy having to adapt to the 24-hour news-cycle. That’s kind of the broad stroke, but we’re still trying to find that balance between finding the story and also trying to make it as crazy as we possibly can which is what I think people appreciated about the first one.
Do you have a particular favourite Burgundy moment?
Will Ferrell: One that always makes me laughs is when Burgundy is down and out, and they run into him on the street and he has a big, scraggly beard and we say goodbye. I’m walking around with a carton of milk, I drink it and say, ‘Milk was a bad choice on a hot summer’s day’, which I improvised on the moment as a message to (director) Adam McKay because he made me drink it. I was just complaining really, because it was so hot outside and this milk was dripping down my beard. And now I always have people coming up to me going, ‘Hey! Milk was a bad choice!’ It’s hilarious that it resonates with people like that.
If you could only take Frenkle’s cowbell or Burgundy’s jazz flute to a desert island, which would you choose?
Will Ferrell: That’s tough. A jazz flute would be more entertaining in terms of creating music if you were on your own, but a cowbell could help you out if you’re alone and you’re being attacked in need of someone’s attention. I’d probably take the cowbell.
Do you ever sit down and reminisce about all the good times you had banging on your cowbell? That’s not a euphemism by the way.
Will Ferrell: No, because it’s pretty annoying and loud. In fact I don’t think I have any in my house. That’s the irony. They’re all gone; I used to have thousands of them. Somebody robbed the house and left everything but took the cowbells.
You played it straight in Everything Must Go. Do you ever feel trapped by the funnyman box?
Will Ferrell: I think it’s hard enough to just work in this business, and it’s getting harder and harder as studios get more and more discerning about how many movies they’re going to make. So the fact that I still get to do comedy – the thing I dreamed about doing as a kid in high school – I feel far from boxed in. Yet at the same time, I’m getting more offers that are interesting in terms of being slightly more dramatic. I’m interested in trying all sorts of things but it’s not a goal to be taken seriously. People love to try and categorise everyone but it’s kind of up to what the marketplace will offer you. So if I continue to get more dramatic offers and they’re interesting and that I’m appropriate for them, I’ll pursue them and if not, I’ll always do comedy. That’s a given.
What is the wildest character that you’ve played?
Will Ferrell: Ashley Schaeffer is one of the crazier characters I’ve done by far. There’s a point where my wife was watching (Eastbound & Down) with me, saying that ‘that might be the most disgusting person you’ve ever played’, and it just made me laugh. It’s all luck, in a way. I’m just doing it, going insane, and then when I hear back from people who say, ‘That was hilarious’, I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, good,’ without any consciousness of thinking, ‘This is really going to work.’
You received the Mark Twain award last year. It’s a heavyweight list you’ve joined there. How did it make you feel?
Will Ferrell: It was a little surreal. My first reaction was, ‘Are you sure you want to give it to me?’, but it also made me stop and think about all the things that I’ve had a hand in that have been impactful in terms of comedy. I feel proud to be on such an illustrious list. It’s a great club to be a part of.
CASA DE MI PADRE is out now