Saturday Night Live has spawned multiple generations of comedy superstars, but few are bigger or more successful than Will Ferrell. An alumnus of the influential Los Angeles comedy troupe The Groundlings, Ferrell joined Saturday Night Live in 1995 and gradually became one of the most popular cast members in SNL history, thanks largely to his gonzo impersonations of George W. Bush, Harry Caray, Alex Trebek, and James Lipton. Ferrell dabbled in film throughout his seven-year stint on the show, with little-loved SNL spin-offs like A Night At The Roxbury (which he co-wrote), Superstar, and The Ladies Man, and supporting roles in broad comedies like Zoolander and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.
Ferrell's big break came via a scene-stealing supporting role in the surprise 2003 smash Old School. He graduated to leading-man roles that year with the surprise blockbuster Elf, and followed it up with 2004's Anchorman, which established the ramshackle yet lucrative template for many Ferrell vehicles to follow. Those include Talladega Nights, which reunited him with Anchorman director/co-writer and longtime collaborator Adam McKay; 2007's Blades Of Glory; and now Semi-Pro, a '70s-style sports comedy that casts Ferrell as a player-manager-owner for a struggling American Basketball Association team. Ferrell has also branched out into more dramatic roles, most notably with a well-received lead performance in 2006's Stranger Than Fiction. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Ferrell about his ubiquity in sports comedies, making George W. Bush seem a little too likeable, being named the worst autograph signer in the world, and turning down $29 million for an Elf sequel.
The A.V. Club: After Kicking & Screaming, Talladega Nights, and Blades Of Glory, why do another sports comedy?
Will Ferrell: I'm trying to totally exhaust people's capacity for seeing me in these types of movies. No, it's luck—luck of the draw, in a way. It just kind of lined up that way. Obviously, with Talladega Nights, we wrote that as not even being a sports movie. It was more for sort of cultural observations.
AVC: You were more interested in the subculture aspects?
WF: Yeah, that's what fascinated us. As I was in Charlotte filming [Talladega], my wife and I were watching figure skating, and she literally said, "Someone should make a comedy about figure skating." The next day, I get this call about this script, Blades Of Glory, and I was like "Oh my God, that's ironic—and hilarious." So then Semi-Pro comes along too, and I was like, "Oh great, now I'm setting myself up for that question."
But we talked about Semi-Pro for six years, because Scot Armstrong, who wrote Old School, wrote Semi-Pro, and we kept in touch for a while. So I knew I would have to endure that question, but that having been said, I've always wanted to do a basketball movie, especially in the '70s and in the ABA! It's something I've been fascinated with.
AVC: It seems like you're playing a very similar character in a lot of these movies.
WF: Well, I wouldn't… I like how they deal with the same theme. I think all three of the characters from those movies are distinctly different.
AVC: It seems like there's a lot of Ron Burgundy in Jackie Moon, your Semi-Pro character.
WF: Yeah, maybe. But I don't know, though; Burgundy is more officious, and Jackie Moon is a little more loosey-goosey. They're similar in that they're from the same era, and they think they're very sexy.
AVC: Are they?
WF: Jackie, yeah, of course. He's hard to take your eyes off of. Ron is—I don't know if Ron is that sexy, really.
AVC: Jackie Moon is Mr. Sexy, yet he doesn't have a love interest. Why is that?
WF: Well, he's too busy. But with Blades Of Glory, that was obviously a talked-about thing. It's so funny, because he's supposedly a sex addict, and yet you never see him with a woman, the entire movie. I think Jackie [in Semi-Pro] had too much administrative stuff going on. I mean, having to save his franchise, his life, and the city in a way.
AVC: There's paperwork to keep him busy.
WF: Yeah, he can't be dragged down by women.
AVC: Dana Carvey was famous for having a chummy relationship with George Bush Sr. I'm betting that wasn't the case with George Bush Jr. Have you gotten a sense of how he felt about your impression?
WF: I hadn't heard, but I was glad I didn't hear. You know, there was that stuff written about how the staff loved "strategerie," and how he called them "strategerie meetings." I had a couple of opportunities to go and meet him, and I declined, partly out of comedic purposes, because when I was on the show [Saturday Night Live] at the time, it didn't make sense to really meet the people that you play, for fear of them influencing you. And then the other side of it is, from a political standpoint, I don't want to meet that guy.
AVC: Did you ever worry that you made him seem too nice and too harmless?
WF: Well, someone told me that Tina Fey made the comment that my portrayal almost made him likeable. But I never put any thought into the fact that making him fumbling and bumbling would make him unique and enduring.
AVC: When people talked about W. being the candidate people wanted to have a beer with, it seemed like they almost wanted to have a beer with the Will Ferrell version.
WF: Maybe that's the case, but I think if it was that influential, then we're in trouble as a country. You know, we had heard that for our first debate sketches, the Gore team was showing the sketch to their candidate and saying, "See, this is how you've been proceeding—more woodenly." It's kind of strange how far that reaches out.
AVC: There have been reports that you turned down $29 million to make the sequel to Elf. Do you ever go to a store and see something that costs exactly $29 million and feel pangs of remorse?
WF: [Laughs.] I do. Whenever I'm at the boat show. You know, when I'm looking at these '08 yachts that are for sale, I think "I could have just walked in with a briefcase of cash and put it on the table and walked out with a yacht."
AVC: Is it hard to say no to that amount of money?
WF: No. Well, not when the concept of the sequel didn't feel like it worked at all. In fact, that's the only way I could have made that movie. Because I kept telling the studio, and obviously for them, it's a total opportunity, you know, "Let's make a sequel, da-da-da!" I don't know what the sequel is. It's like a fish-out-of-water story, and he's now in the water. Where do you go? I go "Prove me wrong." The script was kind of written, and I was like, "This makes no sense." And I thought "The only way I could do this movie is to blatantly say, if I was promoting it, 'I did it for the money. The movie is completely flawed, it doesn't make sense as a premise. So yes, I did it for $29 million.'" Because otherwise, it would have been, "Buddy the Elf doesn't fight for the kid, he's kind of indoctrinated, but not really, and he's still fascinated by an ATM!" It just didn't work, so it was a very easy decision.
AVC: You were attached to A Confederacy Of Dunces for a long time. What was your conception of Ignatius J. Reilly? How were you going to play that character?
WF: You know, I don't know if I can begin to answer that question, because we really just did a read-through at the Nantucket Film Festival of the script, and I was asked as a guest to do it, and that's what kind of generated a wave of "I'm attached." I don't even know how real it was for a studio ever to make it. I think it might have been leaks and trade-paper momentum and things like that. It never got to that place of where I started thinking of it. Because I learned enough to know that stuff was talked about all the time, and then it just disappears. So I don't get that in-the-mode with anything until I know for sure that it is happening. That was a heavy thing, though; I thought "Wow, if this happens, this is like a big one to bite off." The book is so talked-about that its fans are either going to be like "They blew it," or "Wow, great job!" So I was like, "Be careful what you wish for on this one." I know that Jack Black was in talks about it at one time.
AVC: When you're doing a film like Stranger Than Fiction, do you have to make a conscious effort not to be funny?
WF: [Laughs.] No. That was actually freeing, to do a movie like that, where you could just be like we are right now, conversational and real. There was no impulse that I was fighting, to run around naked. But I also felt like that was such a strong piece of material, and with that cast, I just kind of plugged myself into that thing and followed everyone else.
AVC: Is it freeing to not have to carry a movie the way you do on a Semi-Pro?
WF: It's nice to come in and be more of the sort of support sometimes, and make an entrance and an exit in a film. And yet, I never put too much pressure on myself when I'm the central thing, just because I don't think I could handle it mentally. I haven't really thought about the implications of carrying a movie. It still has to be just a fun, weird thing.
AVC: You were recently named the worst autographer by Autograph magazine. How does it feel to be the worst autograph signer in the world?
WF: I don't know how I won it. I've never been on a list like that, either positively or negatively before. God only knows, but it's probably because I punched this 8-year-old kid in the face at the airport one day, and he wanted an autograph. What I love is that the poll was conducted by Autograph, and there's even a quote in there, I think, that said: "It's really a shame about Will Ferrell, he used to be great, and now he actually taunts autograph-seekers." So I have no idea what I did, I don't know how I got on the list. I sign a lot of autographs.
AVC: And taunt a lot of autograph-seekers.
WF: I do. I really do. I'm like, "How badly do you want this autograph?" "Are you sure?" "You say you're my biggest fan, really, prove it." I'll do things like that. They have to earn it.