Will Ferrell is one of the biggest movie stars going. He rose through the ranks at Saturday Night Live to become one of its MVPs, then moved on from small parts in Austin Powers and Zoolander to the smash successes of Old School, Elf, and Anchorman. Since then, he’s headlined big-budget blockbusters and a few notable flops (Bewitched, Land Of The Lost), but he’s also turned up in surprising places, like Woody Allen’s Melinda And Melinda and the Charlie Kaufman-esque comedy Stranger Than Fiction. The new Everything Must Go fits into the latter strain of Ferrell’s work. Adapted by director Dan Rush from Raymond Carver’s story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, it’s the bleakly funny story of an alcoholic sales rep who gets fired from the company he helped build and returns home to find his wife has changed the locks and left all his possessions on the lawn of their suburban ranch house. Over the next five days, he comes to terms with letting go of his possessions and his past, after waking up in an easy chair surrounded by empty beer cans and the smell of his own urine. The story could easily descend into bleakness, but Ferrell gives the character a subdued warmth that offsets the bitterness of his fate. Midway through his recent four-episode stint on The Office, Ferrell talked to The A.V. Club about being a happy drunk, speaking Spanish, and the loneliness of the field-goal kicker.
The A.V. Club: You’re always described, especially by people who worked with you on Saturday Night Live, as a team player. But when you played varsity football in high school, you were a kicker, which may be the most solitary position in sports.
Will Ferrell: Yeah. It was not by design. I played a lot of soccer, and then they needed a field-goal kicker, and I found myself on the varsity team as a sophomore. It’s a high-pressure, high-stakes position, unless you play for the high school I went to. We were 1-8-1 my senior year, so not a lot of field goals kicked. I think I was four for six. It was just six attempts the whole year. Adam McKay always jokes, because he feels like I’m very good under pressure, or I would never break when we were doing Saturday Night Live—he was like, “It’s ’cause he’s a field-goal kicker.”
AVC: Was that good training for performance? There’s an analogy especially to live sketch comedy, where no matter how much you practice, the few minutes onstage are all that count, and either people laugh or they don’t.
WF: I guess little did I know, when I was alone on the practice field, kicking a ball into a fence—because there’s nothing else for a kicker to do—that repetition… I’ve always had, when I needed it, an extreme amount of focus that I could put into something. That has served me well.
AVC: Your character in Everything Must Go is a persistent alcoholic who loses his job and his wife in one fell swoop, so the film could have been much darker than it is, especially considering the source. Raymond Carver isn’t known for being quirky and lighthearted.
WF: I probably shouldn’t admit, but I will, that I had never read Raymond Carver prior to this. When Dan gave me the short story, the collection it was in, I read it cover to cover, and I loved the starkness of his writing. But it’s true, it’s pretty dark and alcoholic. It just depends on your filter and where you’re coming from. You mentioned that it could be a lot darker. Other people have said to me, “Wow, this is really dark, especially for you to do.” I was fearful of the shot of the shaky hand reaching for the can, like, “That’s going to come off terrible.” A more skilled actor maybe could do it, but for me, and Dan agreed, we just made sure that everything was underplayed, if anything.
AVC: Actors often say that playing drunk is one of the hardest things to do, and the secret is acting like you’re trying not to look drunk.
WF: Totally. I actually had a buddy of mine come over and film me getting drunk one night, just as an excuse to drink 18 beers, but also to see if there was anything I could glean from that.
AVC: Was there?
WF: I mean, more the physicality of it. What happens is, I’m just a very happy drunk. That doesn’t help. I just get silly. But it is that game of someone who’s trying to fight against that and pull off that they’re sober, so yeah.
AVC: Especially in sketch comedy, the physical aspect is one of the most efficient ways to immediately establish a character. But given that you wanted a more low-key, underplayed approach for Everything Must Go, how did you approach that aspect?
WF: I just tried to think of what that would feel like, to be constantly under some sort of state of inebriation and/or withdrawal. It helped being in Arizona, ’cause it was just hot, and it felt sweaty and gross, so I guess that added to it. I don’t really move quickly ever in the movie, I don’t think. [Laughs.] So I just tried to stay in that kind of mindset.
AVC: It’s a little too easy to divide your movies into “the funny ones” and “the serious ones,” but there’s certainly a difference in acting opposite Steve Carell or Jon Heder vs. playing a scene with Emma Thompson. Rebecca Hall seems like an intense character.
WF: Well, she’s very similar to Emma Thompson in the sense that offscreen, they are absolutely just lovely, lighthearted [people]. We joke around all the time. It’s something about the Brits. The camera turns on and [Snaps fingers.] they can immediately go and be that person and then [Snaps again.] “Cut.” I felt opposite Rebecca similarly to Emma, in that I just didn’t want to be the bad one in the scene. [Laughs.] That was my goal.
AVC: As exemplified by Lynn Hirschberg’s 2006 New York Times profile, “A Wild And Uncrazy Guy,” a lot of the articles about you seem to be obsessed with finding the dark side it’s assumed every comedian has, and they invariably come to the conclusion that you’re a normal, well-adjusted person. Why do you not seem to hate yourself and everyone else like comedians are supposed to?
WF: Everyone wants to know that question: “Why aren’t you a darker person?” This got close. What I was able to tap into on this was not so much a dark side, but I’ve not been able to avoid periods of time where I felt super-lonely. Luckily, I have a side that is able to always see the glass as half-full. But I’ve had extreme periods of time where I’ve felt super-lonely, and that’s what I dialed into with this guy. He really is at his loneliest throughout the movie. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is going to visit Laura Dern, but it’s so pathetic, what he’s trying. Sweet, but misguided. Stalkerish.
AVC: Laura Dern’s character is someone he barely knew who wrote something nice about him in his high-school yearbook, and he looks her up trying to find someone who still sees good in him.
WF: Twenty years ago—just, like, really? I swear, I can just relate to that. God, that’s something I would do, like: “By the way, do you remember that one time you said you thought I was handsome? Do you remember that? You don’t? You totally don’t? Never mind. Forget it. Let me get out of your hair.” [Laughs.] So I guess I was able to get to it that way.
AVC: You run marathons as well, which is another very solitary pursuit.
WF: Yeah, right. Oftentimes, even as a little kid, I would get up before anyone else. My brother would still be sleeping, my mom would still be sleeping, so I would literally play Monopoly by myself. I would play board games, I would do things by myself. I don’t know if that was just a function of surviving, in a way. I don’t mind it, I guess.
AVC: Everything Must Go is a concrete, even literal-minded, encapsulation of the idea of an alcoholic bottoming out. Your character sells off his connection to the past, one item at a time. Did you research alcoholism, or draw on people you’ve run into?
WF: Dan and I talked about it a bunch, and I did have a few discussions with people I know in my life who’ve dealt with that. Dan was able to draw on and relate some stories of people he knew. I thought about, “Should I sit in on an AA meeting and see what that’s like?” But I don’t know how I could do that. So I touched on it a little bit, but I know I’m never going to be an alcoholic, and I’ll never probably really know, so I just go to make a close approximation. Like I said, I related it more to despair and loneliness, and trying to find a physical place for it.
AVC: You’re sitting in a chair or standing on your lawn for so much of the movie. You have to do a lot with a little. This guy isn’t going to reinvent himself in a week.
WF: What you’re talking about is what drew me to the project. The containment of the piece, I actually took on with relish. I love the fact that it had to be small, because I don’t get that many opportunities to just be completely real. When I did Stranger Than Fiction—which is, I guess, the closest thing to something like this, in a way, even though it’s a different thing—when I was doing publicity, the question I’d often get asked was, “Was that hard? After they yelled ‘Cut,’ did you want to scream and run around?” I think people don’t understand that comedy is an outlet for me. Comedy allows me to get outside of myself, and exercise this thing that is still kind of scary to me. [Laughs.] It’s the tightrope act that’s thrilling and everything, but that’s not how I live my life, or how I act as a human being. So this was more getting to be a real person, and it was closer to me.
AVC: Some of the underwhelmed reactions to your stint on The Office seem to stem from the assumption that you’d play a bigger, crazier character, where Deangelo Vickers is mostly just a prick.
WF: I heard a whole thing on NPR that was analyzing whether my appearance on the show was a good thing or a bad thing. And I was, like, “Wow, right out of the gate.” I don’t know, I kind of stay away from monitoring any of those reactions.
AVC: These days, most of the projects you work on start with your involvement, and develop outward from that. What was it like to enter an environment where the cast and crew have been working together for almost seven years, and you were the outsider?
WF: I met with Greg Daniels and Paul Lieberstein, and they were like, “So what do you want to do?” I’m like, “You know, I’ll follow your guys’ lead, because I love the writing. Why don’t you guys just create a character, and I’ll take a look at it, and if I have good ideas, so.” It was a little intimidating to step into that world. One of the first scenes on one of the first days was just a big monologue addressing the office. And here’s this cast we’ve all gotten to know so well, and they’re all looking back at me. It was a little bit of a “be careful what you wish for” moment. But once I found my sea legs, it was fairly easy to step into. And once again, I love that even though it’s high-concept at times, it’s still played very real. Even though my final episode starts to get a little bizarre, a little crazy.
AVC: They have to get you off the show somehow.
WF: Yeah. Watch, people will be like, “Why did they do that? That makes no sense.”
AVC: Deangelo is a bit of a slow burner. He seems affable and bland at first, but then all these weird hang-ups and hostilities start creeping out.
WF: Which I loved. At first, is he cut from the same cloth as Michael Scott? A little bit. “Oh, he seems pretty affable.” And it’s just like, behind it all, he’s kind of an asshole. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the underlying themes of The Office, which allows them to sustain the idea that Michael Scott has kept his job for so long, is that everyone else who comes in, even if they seem more competent…
WF: …is somehow worse than him. The other component of doing that show, talking about stepping into something: When I said to them, “I’d love to do something on the show,” and then they came back saying, “Well, if you’re up for it, we’d actually love it if you would be in the last couple of Michael Scott’s episodes, and even do an episode overlapping.” Bridge the gap. I was like, “I’d love to do that.” But I underestimated how emotional it was going to be. Steve’s such a great guy, and so beloved, and there’s a lot of uncertainty with his leaving, so I felt like I was at this party I was not supposed to be at. As people are crying at the read-throughs, then I’m starting to cry, and I’m like, “Wait, I don’t have a right to cry.” So I felt privileged to see that side, be privy to all that, and at the same time, like, “Oh. I shouldn’t be here.”
AVC: The role on The Office is more than a cameo, but you’ve remained willing to turn up for tiny parts, whether it’s a day on a movie set, or a brief appearance in a YouTube short…
WF: Or Bitch Hunter on 30 Rock. [Laughs.] I’m so bummed I couldn’t do the live episode. They’d called me, and I had something going on. Having the opportunity to do those little things, I think, adds to the body of work. I just like the idea of someone watching something and going, “Wait, he’s doing that now? Huh?” It just makes me laugh. Which is why I love that this movie is coming out, and obviously it’s a smaller release, so hopefully people will get to see it. I’m not naïve about the fact that these films, it’s such a tough marketplace, it could come or go, but the fact that I got to do this, and then I got to do the Spanish movie, I think they’re once again adding to this collage of what’s happening next.
AVC: Speaking of Casa De Mi Padre, people have been freaking out about it since the trailer appeared.
WF: Yeah, I know. The response to that trailer, from what I’ve heard about it, has been pretty great. We’ve actually been screening it the last couple days for distribution and everything, but it’s a crazy-ass movie. It was such a crazy experience to do an entire movie in Spanish. We somehow got this great cast, and it was a very similar work experience to Everything Must Go. We shot it in 22 days. I don’t know if I’ve gotten to work on back-to-back things that I’m as proud of that are so different. I know people’s reaction to the idea is like, “I’ve got to see that.” Yet the movie—the bad description of it is telenovela, but that’s not really what it is. It’s actually that, meeting Robert Rodriguez’s style. It’s this crazy kind of mix.