Except to fans of the movie Bucket Of Blood, Will Ferrell was essentially unknown when he made his debut on Saturday Night Live in 1995. By the time he left, seven years later, he'd become one of the most long-tenured and widely liked cast members in the show's history. Alternating abstracted but strangely convincing impressions of George W. Bush, Janet Reno, Alex Trebek, and James Lipton with several much-revisited characters, Ferrell brought a sometimes-spooky level of glassy-eyed conviction to his roles. When he left in 2002, Ferrell was among the few SNL cast members to receive an on-air send-off, and the gesture seems to have brought him good luck. After playing small parts in the first two Austin Powers movies, Dick, Zoolander, and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, as well as larger roles in the SNL-derived Superstar, The Ladies Man, and A Night At The Roxbury (which he co-wrote), Ferrell made an indelible impression with his portrayal of Frank The Tank in this spring's college comedy Old School, bringing intensity and surprising poignancy to the role of an overgrown party animal. Ferrell plays a different kind of man-child in Elf (opening November 7): a grown man raised by Santa's elves, traveling to New York to reunite with dad James Caan. Numerous projects are in the pipeline, too. First up is Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, a comedy written by Ferrell and director Adam McKay, about a '70s news team dealing with the addition of a woman to its staff. Ferrell is also due to appear in The Wendell Baker Story (the directorial debut of Luke and Andrew Wilson) and an untitled Woody Allen movie. And, if the stars finally align, he'll play the self-styled genius protagonist of A Confederacy Of Dunces, the much-delayed adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's novel. Ferrell recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his past, his future, and running marathons in Sweden.
The Onion: How does one prepare to play an elf? Or a man who thinks he's an elf? It seems like it would be difficult to research that role.
Will Ferrell: You mean, considering they don't exist?
WF: Well, it wasn't so hard. The only thing I really had to go on was that the character had to be played totally straight the whole way through. To me, it was obvious that it would be someone who was in a sense a big kid, not having any preconceived notions about how he was supposed to behave. Not knowing human behavior, and not knowing the dos and don'ts of conduct, the way you're supposed to act or not act, would just be the way I would play him. Not having those filters that we don't have as kids, but that come into place later.
O: One thing your parts have in common is that you have absolute conviction toward the character you're playing. There isn't a lot of winking.
WF: No, no. That's what I think works the best, and what I think makes the best comedy–something that's completely committed and more approached as an acting exercise, as opposed to being worried about whether to be funny or not. The comedy comes from the context.
O: You seem to be phasing into larger roles. Do you think your background in improv is a good way to prepare for that versus, say, stand-up?
WF: Gosh, I think improv gives you the skills to… You have to listen a lot, and you have to be open and ready to adjust to anything. It kind of provides a framework that you use all the time. You never really shut off that part of your brain when you're doing something. It's invaluable to have.
O: How does your approach to doing impressions differ from when you're creating a character from scratch?
WF: I don't really feel that strong as… I don't even consider myself an impressionist, really. The few impressions that I did, there was just an essence that I found. One of the writers once told me that when I did Janet Reno, I sounded the way she looked. It didn't sound like her, but it sounded the way she looked, the way you thought she might sound. I would usually just try to latch onto something like that, or just a small physicality, or something that would allow the viewer to get the essence, and allow me to commit and perform freely within it without worrying about whether I technically sounded perfectly like the person.
O: With Elf, did you find it difficult to balance laughs and heart, for lack of better terms?
WF: That was a big struggle for me. Hopefully, we did find the balance. That's where I think [Elf director] Jon Favreau and I complement each other. Jon's big concern was that the whole thing worked as a film. I think he didn't worry that it wouldn't be funny enough, and instead just worried that it was heartfelt. Whereas I was like, "Don't worry. It's going to be heartfelt enough. We need to just make sure it's funny." I would err more toward the comedy side, and he would want to err more toward story and real performance. Between the two, I think we hopefully found that happy medium. I definitely didn't want it to feel too sappy, and yet I knew that that would be part of the game, and I would hope that it was funny enough at the same time.
O: After being on SNL for so long, is it still strange, in your second year away, to not be there?
WF: There are still pangs here and there… There will just be things that you see and think about and go, "Oh, that would be a fun sketch." When Bush landed on the aircraft carrier in that flight suit, I immediately thought, "From now on, just do Bush in the flight suit. Every single time." Just these little impulses. You get in shape, so to speak, doing that show. It's this muscle that you build. There definitely are moments where that rears its head, but for the most part, I'm really kind of done with the show. Not… I don't mean that in a "good riddance" type of way, but more in terms of a fond looking back at something that probably will be the single most important thing that I did in terms of getting a start to a career. It's something I dreamed about doing, so it fulfilled so many different things. I couldn't have had a better time, and yet it felt right to go. There is a point where everybody has to leave that show, and I wanted to leave while I still liked doing it.
O: Did you?
WF: Yeah. I loved that format so much, and I loved the ensemble. Heck, I probably could have done it for 15 years. It does get grueling every now and then, and the weeks that you can't think of anything to write aren't that much fun. But aside from that, it's amazing.
O: Have any of SNL's former cast members served as a model of what kind of film career you'd like to have? It seems that when people leave the show, it really can go either way.
WF: It would be great to be able to follow in the footsteps of Bill Murray. I really respect his ability as a comedian, obviously, but even more so as an actor. To be able to swing from big movies to little moves to comedies to dramas that may be funny… All that variety is appealing to me. I kind of hold him up there.
O: Are you doing A Confederacy Of Dunces?
WF: Yeah. It's now kind of gone back into a bit of a holding pattern. When the money is there, it's definitely something that the producer and director want me to do. I would be thrilled if it finally gets together, but it's been fraught with peril for a long time.
O: Would you gain weight for the part, or have you thought that far ahead?
WF: I have. Whatever the health issues would be, there's a part of me that would love to do the De Niro Raging Bull thing. But I hear that actually wrecked his metabolism, and he's had to battle that ever since he did that.
O: And you're a marathon runner.
WF: Yeah, I've been doing that. So I don't know. I'm hoping that prosthetics will be good enough.
O: How did you get into marathon running?
WF: That just happened in the summer of 2001. My wife and I always enjoy going for a jog, and we were vacationing somewhere where we were running every day. And one day, we just kept going until we realized we'd gone, like, seven miles, and it felt great. It felt like we could have gone forever. We figured, "You know what would be fun? If we ran a marathon." We got into the New York Marathon, ran that, ran the Stockholm Marathon, and then I ran Boston.
O: Which was the hardest?
WF: New York was the hardest, because it was the longest, and I had the least amount of training. Stockholm I did in 4:22, but it was 80 degrees. One of the selling points is that they average about 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and of course we run it the day it's over 80. They don't start the race until 2 in the afternoon because it stays light so late there, so it's right in the heat of the day, and it felt like it would never end. But this last one I did, Boston, which is supposed to be the most hardcore, was the most fun. I broke four hours, and the crowds were just amazing. How can you go wrong when people are chanting "Frank The Tank" as you're running?
O: Is that the character you get recognized as the most?
WF: At least for right now, it is.
O: Was that a different experience for you? It seems like there's a lot of thought behind that character.
WF: I guess it's different. It didn't feel that different in terms of, like, a foreign thing to play, but it was different in the sense that I hadn't gotten a chance to do that, to play the closest thing to a real guy, as opposed to a real character. That made it different, obviously, but I had kind of done the rowdy party guy before. Still, it was nice to play someone like that, who's a little lost and goes off the deep end at times, but is just a kind of sweet guy who hasn't really found his calling, other than being in this fraternity house.
O: One of your bios lists Austin Powers as your first film. But weren't you also in Bucket Of Blood?
WF: Have you caught Bucket Of Blood? Starring Anthony Michael Hall? Yeah, I was in Bucket Of Blood. And then a classic called Men Seeking Women.
O: I think that's being reissued now, with your picture on it.
WF: Oh my God. Of course!
O: Not a good one.
WF: It's not terrible, for what it is, but you're not going to sit and say, "Wow! This is a little dark horse of a movie." It's kind of pat. We're three buddies who are tired of the world of dating, so we pull our money together, which is like $6,000. I always thought, "That's really not that much money." I mean, it is, but it's not like $50,000. Anyway, we're vying for it, and the winner is whoever can be in a relationship for six months. I was, like, the "C" story. All my dates always ended in a comedic/tragic way. I was with a girl and the car breaks down. I was kind of the comic relief.
O: The comic relief for the comedy?
O: Was that during Saturday Night Live?
WF: That was the summer after my first season of SNL.
O: When it wasn't clear that you would be there for seven years.
WF: Also, it was kind of a no-lose situation, because it would either be a movie that no one would really see, unless it got re-released with my picture and name on it after I'd have some success… [Laughs.] Or it would catch lightning in a bottle and be a fun Sundance movie that would get some acclaim.
O: Why a '70s anchorman?
WF: Most of the ideas I have just start with a germ, and this was another prime example. I've always loved watching the news on TV. As a kid, I loved watching Walter Cronkite, for some reason. The idea for this character came from watching a documentary on Jessica Savitch. And there was this guy from Philadelphia, the first anchor she worked with. This station in Philly, they were the first to ever have a man-and-woman news team. There was this guy Mort Crim, and even though he'd probably been out of the business for 10 years, [adopts TV anchor voice] he still talked like this. [Crim is actually still active in Detroit and in radio syndication. –ed.] And he was saying, "You have to remember: Back then, I was a real male chauvinist pig." It just made me laugh that this guy was actually saying these words. I called up my friend Adam McKay and said, "We should write a comedy that takes place in the early to mid-'70s, before women were in the newsroom. It's like the number-one anchor and the number-one news team of a mid-market station, and they have to work with a woman for the first time. And they're just scotch-drinking, cigarette-smoking chauvinists who have to deal with this very capable female journalist, and they don't know what to do."
O: So it's a '70s joke, but with a message?
WF: Uh… You know what, there are some '70s jokes, but the only reason we set it in the '70s was because you need that era. But we strayed away from making the '70s jokes, and the ones we make are, I think, the smarter ones. People constantly litter, and things like that. We didn't do the wide collars. Obviously, we have newsman looks and stuff like that, but we didn't want it to be disco jokes and this and that. It was more about the context and the social structure of that time.
O: You seem to be developing a habit of working with friends and people you've worked with before. Is that a way of ensuring you'll be in quality material?
WF: A little bit of that, and frankly, why not work with your friends? It's working with people you know, and you share the same sensibility. Especially in a business like this, it's a fun way to share the journey. That's the way I've always viewed it.
O: In SNL movies, it seems like parts are kind of assigned. You seem to be choosing your projects carefully now. Is that a reaction to the SNL model?
WF: Well, it's interesting, in a way–with the whole Saturday Night Live thing, the perception of it is that things are assigned, but they really aren't. Those few Saturday Night Live movies I did were offered to me. I kind of viewed them as great work experiences in film while I did the show. It's funny. I always asked, "Do you really feel when Lorne [Michaels] is picking the next sketch to get made into a movie?" And there's really none of that. It just happens. Everything is so randomly done there. [Laughs.] He probably would have an amazing system in place if he did say, "Take that sketch and write it into a film," but he really doesn't do any of that. If you want to take it upon yourself to write, say, the cheerleader movie, we could have totally done that, and he would have said, "Great. Show me the script. I'll look at it." But there's no moviemaking mill in place. Now, that having been said, it seems like there's a distinction between the quality of projects that are being offered to me now, as opposed to then. We've said no to a lot of stuff where people were willing to pay me a lot of money to be Chicken-Man. Name a bad premise, and it's like, "C'mon… It'll be great." It's nice to be in a place where I can be a little more selective, and to be sought out for ideas that I have.
O: What's the dream role?
WF: I don't know. I don't really think in absolutes. I'd like to continue to work, number one. And it would be fun to have a career where you don't know where you're going to go next. Except for Chicken-Man 2.