Proud of his new Mexican spoof in Spanish, funnyman Will Ferrell tells Siobhan Synnot why learning the language was such a serious business
A STUFFED, talking Bengal tiger acts as spirit guide. A Whiter Shade Of Pale is sung, in the Mariachi style. A close-up of a villain’s sunglasses shows a crew member in the reflection, eating a sandwich. And let’s not even start to discuss the sex scene that involves a mannequin body double.
Will Ferrell has made some very goofy comedies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Elf), but never quite like Casa De Mi Padre, an exuberant love letter to incompetent Mexican soap operas which also manages to poke fun at American-Mexican relations, the drug wars and 70s westerns along the way.
However, unlike most Ferrell movies, he’s unlikely to have the best lines of Casa De Mi Padre shouted at him in the streets because the blood feuds, slo-mo hair-tosses and romantic passions of Mi Padre’s ranch family are conducted entirely in Spanish, with Ferrell playing the dimmest of the clan, in dark sideburns and some snazzy south-of-the-border Stetsons.
The only non-native Spanish speaker in the cast, Ferrell approached filming equipped with little more than three years of high school Spanish. “In the fourth year, my Spanish teacher asked me not to come back,” he says. “Not a good sign.”
Hollywood studios proved even more resistant to the idea of a Latino Will Ferrell film: “I’d say, ‘In this picture, I speak Spanish for the entire movie.’ Then they’d ask, ‘With subtitles?’ And when I said yes, there would be silence, then laughter.”
All the studios passed, and in the end Mi Padre was partially financed by Mexican TV giant Televisa, which saw the funny side in poking fun at their vintage burrito melodramas with their awkward edits and student TV special-effects.
To bring his Spanish up to screen fluency, Ferrell spent a month working with the film’s translator. “It was every day and every night; just this total immersion. I even started dreaming in Spanish,” he says. “I took it pretty seriously just because I didn’t want the joke to be that I spoke Spanish poorly. I think we’ve seen that kind of joke before.” During the shoot, his co-star Gael Garcia Bernal, who has worked in both languages, pronounced himself impressed by Ferrell’s authentic accent, inflections and large sweary vocabulary.
Not that Ferrell swears in interviews. In fact, the first thing you notice about Ferrell, apart from the fact he’s 6ft 3 with deep-set blue eyes, is that he’s more polite, soft-spoken and poised than you’d expect. He feels no obligation to turn an interview into a manic routine or a role-playing exercise. Perhaps the arrogant egomaniacs of Anchorman or Blades Of Glory lurk beneath the surface, but if they do, Ferrell is a pretty deep pool.
It turns out that Casa De Mi Padre is an idea that has been simmering away for with Ferrell for ten years. Then two years ago, some big-budget projects suddenly fell apart, freeing up his availability. Hollywood had decided it needed to scale back, and amongst the projects that fell under the axe was Anchorman 2, the sequel to Ferrell’s 2004 hit film about always classy newsreader Ron Burgundy.
Ferrell was initially irritated, then decided this was an opportunity to change tack: “I haven’t done a ton of independent movies so I thought I’d explore this whole other world where the budgets are smaller, but there’s possibly more creative freedom.”
He isn’t shy about chasing opportunities. When Steve Carell left the American version of The Office, he got in touch with the producers and offered himself for a guest star spot, which developed into a four-episode arc. When Anchorman 2 ground to a halt, he moved quickly, appearing on Broadway as former President George W Bush in You’re Welcome America, and starred in the dramatic independent film Everything Must Go, in which he played an alcoholic salesman forced to sell his possessions on the front lawn of his house. It resulted in some of the best reviews of his career.
Casa De Mi Padre is the last of these projects to appear because it had to cast around for distributors, even though the film was shot in 24 days on a £4 million budget, with Ferrell drawing only a scale salary. It went into profit within a few weeks at the American box office, while the combination of Ferrell and Mexican actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna has resulted in the film being more widely screened in Mexico than the US.
The unpredictability of the box office is something Ferrell is familiar with, of course. “Around Christmas time, I always get people coming up and telling me how much they enjoy Elf, which is funny for me because I remember running around New York in a pair of tights thinking, ‘This could either be a really big movie, or the end of my career.’ ”
Does he enjoy taking the temperature of his movie choices directly from the public? “Well, if someone takes the trouble to walk up to you they are usually going to say something nice,” he muses. “But when we were on holiday a while back three guys passed us getting into the elevator and one of them said to me, ‘I love your work.’ So I said thank you. Then one of his buddies shouted after me, ‘Except for Land Of The Lost.’ ”
There have been a few misfires on Ferrell’s CV. The tepid TV spoof Land Of The Lost was one, and Bewitched with Nicole Kidman was another. But in general, studios are happy backing Ferrell comedies like The Other Guys, Step Brothers, and The Campaign, which opens in August with Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as rival southern politicians vying for election.
Ferrell could have been content to coast along this line of work, but every so often he’ll appear in something like Everything Must Go, Woody Allen’s Melinda And Melinda or Stranger Than Fiction. Yet despite good notices and some award nods, the industry hasn’t been breaking down his door to offer roles in straight dramas.
“No-one called to say The King’s Speech was mine,” pans Ferrell. “It’s human nature to want to try to do different things but whenever it’s a dramatic actor doing a comedy, it’s celebrated – ‘I didn’t know they were funny – what a revelation.’ But if the reverse happens and any of us think about doing drama, people get really thrown. Maybe we’re just used to our comedians doing one thing. Maybe it’s too jarring to watch a comedian act real, but I’ve always felt that, even in the comedies, you should play it very real. I try to approach it seriously, no matter how outlandish a character might be.”
In contrast to the chaotic man-child characters he often plays in his films, Ferrell treats work seriously, and a little obsessively. It sounds as if it has always been that way; when he was a bank teller he says he would complete a transaction then shut his counter for 15 minutes to check everything had gone through correctly. Although it’s been years since he was a regular part of the Saturday Night Live team, he’s still haunted by stress dreams about writing and performing a live TV sketch show. “I’ll be making a quick change back stage, and not hear that the show has started. So I have to run out on to the set in the middle of a sketch, and figure out where I am. Things like that.”
He relaxes by running, and is about to take his annual long holiday in Sweden with his wife of 11 years, Viveca Paulin and their three children. Before that, however, he’s agreed to turn over some ideas for Anchorman 2 with his frequent director and collaborator Adam McKay.
Yes, proving once again that the movie industry relies on cycles, it’s just been announced that Anchorman 2 has been given the green light by Paramount, but Ferrell says that if Casa de Mi Padre makes enough at the box office and in places like Latin America, then he might consider another adventure in Spanish language film. He’s also prepared to investigate other foreign opportunities in future. “I want to get a piece of that Eurovision song contest,” he says gravely. “That’s what I really want to get involved in.”
Casa de Mi Padre is in cinemas from 8 June
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