TORONTO - "Yes, I know. I've heard." Will Ferrell sighs. "I suppose it is disappointing to meet me. I get that quite a bit. I always let people down in public. I'm a bust - I can't tell a joke, either."
He's not being facetious.
His face is not dour or stony or the grim mask of a comedian who has given up on the sunshine of comedy for the wind and the rain of drama. He's more, oh, apologetic.
His latest movie is Stranger than Fiction, and though it's melancholy, it's also playful and surreal. Ferrell plays an IRS agent who slowly realizes the movie's narrator (the crisp voice of Emma Thompson) can see and possibly control his every whim. He can't claim the high ground of serious acting quite yet. He doesn't run around in his underwear or anything. But it's not totally unimaginable.
He's just not a funny guy.
Not a funny interview.
This is during the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and everywhere he goes the consensus is that Will Ferrell is kind of shy and retiring in real life, not always doing a routine like Robin Williams or naturally funny like Steve Martin (but not a perpetual grump like Christopher Guest, either).
For instance, he walks into a room with Dustin Hoffman, his Stranger co-star, and Hoffman (who is as much of a ham in public as Ferrell is not) announces to the room: "Will anyone put up $1 for Will here to do 30 seconds of his George Bush impression?"
The best Ferrell can do is:
"It'll take more than $40."
He is sheepish. He wears a red and white Puma track suit. When he sits down for an interview, he is polite but has the pained look of a man asked to improvise a toast. He is watchful and focused and gracious but replies to questions with all the joy of the losing manager of a World Series team at a postgame press conference. The best joke he cracks is this: I ask if the atmosphere on a set full of accomplished actors (Hoffman, Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal) is all that different from the day-to-day production on a comedy like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. He says it was "obviously intimidating working with two legends ...
"And Zach and Marc."
Zach is Zach Helm, the first-time screenwriter, who sold the script when he was in his mid-20s, barely out of DePaul University in Chicago. And Marc is the Swiss filmmaker Marc Forster, acclaimed for his hits, Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball.
"I felt like I was being placed on an all-star team but I was just hired to play defense, you know? I just wanted to learn from them and hold my own if I could. But really it was a great experience."
Then he adds a joke:
"I learned you don't need to prepare that much. I learned you need to be on time. I learned hygiene was important. That's all."
Not bad. Not Ron Burgundy.
But not bad.
Forster said he had Ferrell in mind the minute he watched Anchorman. Ferrell was so ordinary. Helm said he never considered Ferrell, but when the comedian was suggested, "I thought it was a brave choice. When you come to Los Angeles, they hand you these books on screenwriting and they say to write with an actor in mind, but I don't. And if I did, I doubt I would have thought of Will. He is such an intangible thing. But he has the right soul. He seems innocent, and what I like is when he gives a performance, he is often doing the most simple thing to get a laugh. Like Peter Sellers."
Were you worried that once Ferrell was brought on, you'd be asked to include a scene in the film with a guy who runs around in his underwear?
"No. But that does happen."
Ferrell said Helm's script came to him as "one of those hot Hollywood scripts everyone wants to read." Asked if the idea of a very structured script, as opposed to the loose, improvisational nature of many of his movies, was intimidating, he replied: "The opposite. I found it really freeing, to play a character in this way, for lack of a better term, to play someone who is real, or as real as I have ever gotten to play. It wasn't an acting exercise for me but a thematic stretch of sorts."
It's the reason people who are known for funny movies often leap again and again at serious movies, even as their audience groans - call it the Bill Murray Disease, but it's reverse inertia, more natural for a human being to be at rest than getting laughs.
"Being taken seriously is not an obsession of mine," Ferrell said - ever the student of all the Saturday Night Live alums who have spoken his very words before, only to renege. "It's about interesting stories. It would be nice to be thought of as a certain type of actor who can do both, but it's really not a goal of mine."
Dustin to the rescue.
Hoffman, moving through the room, overhears Ferrell's last line and cuts in, "Every time we did a scene, he would say to me, 'Do you think I will get nominated?'•"
"You've been nominated, what, seven times," Ferrell says.
Hoffman waits a beat and says: "Not enough!"
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com
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