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Will Ferrell is deep in conversation with his publicist. "Hi," he says, as I enter the room. "I’m telling my story of being named “worst autographer."" Most people don’t have tales of their signature-signing reputations. But most of us aren’t A-listers with a name that practically guarantees box office success.
When I meet Ferrell in Amsterdam it’s three days after Autograph Magazine (yes, it exists) dubbed the 45-year-old "worst signer"—and he gleefully finds it baffling. The mag has claimed he "mocks people, taunts and embarrasses them when they ask for autographs." Is it true? "You know these “pros” who have stacks of photos?" he asks with a grin. "Those are the ones I give shit to. The kid with the little autograph book? No problem!"
Ferrell has been the king of goofball American comedy for nearly 20 years. Since his seven-year stint on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, the California-born writer-performer has starred in several of the biggest comedy movies of recent years. He’s donned glittery Spandex as ice skater Chazz Michael Michaels in Blades of Glory, searched for Santa (and yelled "Santa!" a lot) in festive classic Elf, and teamed up with "Marky" Mark Wahlberg in police comedy The Other Guys. There’s an OTT macho-ness running through many of his characters, but in person Ferrell is calm and softly spoken, pondering his answers as if he’s been asked to work out the square root of pi. He splits his time between New York and Orange County, along with his wife of 13 years, Swedish actress Viveca Paulin, and their sons Magnus, Mattias and Axel.
So it’s hard to square the man himself with his most famous creation: bombastic news anchor Ron Burgundy. Nine years after its release, Anchorman still has a huge following, spawning quote-a-long screenings and tons of merchandise (you can even sting your nostrils with "Sex Panther" aftershave, if you wish). It’s this loyal following that has made Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which hits cinemas this week, the most highly anticipated comedy movie of the year.
Anchorman 2 is the first sequel you’ve made, but not the first you’ve been offered: you turned down $29 million to make a second Elf movie. Why?
The script was terrible, even for $29 million. Seriously, I was in a position where that movie was not going to be good, and I would’ve been stuck in an interview situation like this where I would have had to say, “I couldn’t say no, it was $29 million,” and I don’t want to do movies for that reason.
What was different about Anchorman 2?
Well, philosophically speaking, Adam [McKay, Anchorman co-writer and director] and I were generally against sequels. It didn’t interest us. But Anchorman just kept getting more and more of a cult following. And I remember seeing George Clooney or Brad Pitt doing press for the hundredth Ocean’s Eleven movie and I thought: Maybe we should do a sequel. Those guys make these sequels, they don’t get criticized!
Clooney and Pitt are dramatic actors, though, and you’ve only taken on a couple of less goofy roles. Would you like to do more serious parts?
Now that I haven’t done one in a while a lot of journalists say, “I’ve really liked your dramatic work, are you going to do more?” When you do one, though, the same people say, “How do you feel about those who say you’re just looking to be taken seriously?” You were just asking me why I don’t do more! So it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m constantly keeping my eyes open, but you never know if it’s the right thing.
Do you ever worry that if you were to do something genuine or heartfelt people would just think you were trying to be funny?
I think that’s where I’m limited, from a casting position. There are definitely a handful of directors who, while they respect what I do comedically, won’t cast me because they think, “Oh, the audience are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.” But what can you do about it? It’s too late.
Can we talk about your butt now? You’ve whipped it out in a few of your movies...
I am the Lady Gaga of comedy. Or she is the Will Ferrell of pop music.
Do you have to work hard to keep it in shape?
No. It’s naturally perfect.
Would you consider doing full-frontal?
I would, if the circumstance dictated it. But full-frontal’s a whole other ball game. Full-frontal’s very revealing. The most revealing!
Ron Burgundy doesn’t get naked, but he does say a lot of inappropriate things. Why do you think people still warm to him?
He’s not hateful. He’s insecure and blustery and comes off like he’s pompous, but he’s really just constantly seeking approval. He was chauvinistic, but he’s learned not to be now. He’s not racist, but he’s ignorant and misinformed—he just doesn’t know the rules: [adopts Burgundy’s voice] “Oh, that’s not what you’re supposed to say? I beg your pardon! Thank you!” And then when he tries to fix things he makes them even worse.
Anchorman is set in the ’70s; this sequel in the ’80s. Is there something naturally funny about that era?
It seems ridiculous when we look back. As I assume the 2010s will in 2040. People will be sitting in spacesuits going, “Can you believe people used to wear that?” But we didn’t set out to make a movie about that time period, it was idea-specific. The first movie’s about sexism, and the first time a woman worked with a man in the newsroom was during that era. Then 1980 is a pivotal year: the launch of CNN, of ESPN, of mainstream cable TV... the perfect place for the next chapter.
You’ve won plenty of awards for your work, but you performed a song at the Academy Awards about comedy being snubbed by the judging panel. Should there be an Oscar for comedy?
No, because I don’t know if there’s an Oscar-worthy comedy every year. But in those years when there is an exceptional comedy, I just wish the governing body would be flexible enough to put it in the same category as the rest of the films.
Finally, Christmas is coming up. What are your plans for the festive season?
We always have our Swedish Christmas party in LA, where we drink Aquavit and sing songs.
Do you have one tip for getting through a family Christmas?
Hmm... I would say: invite a special guest star. Then, if it’s tense, it can’t get too tense because no one wants to have a fight in front of the new person.