Why Will Ferrell is subdued, existential and elfish
San Francisco. Balmy day. Clift Hotel. Chic. Hotel doesn’t have its name on the front of the building. Beyond chic. The doorman doesn’t smile.
Interview. Will Ferrell. Twenty minutes. Curious. Excited. Cool guy. Loved his Saturday Night Live sketches. Baby Don’t Hurt Me —hilarious. His Janet Reno—transcendent. Funny in Old School.
The elevators. Dimly lit. Moody. Different colors. One red. One green. Christmas shades. Ironic. Will Ferrell stars in Elf, a Christmas movie. Plays a 30-year-old Elf who grew up with other elves in the North Pole after accidentally crawling into Santa’s bag one Christmas. Funny concept. Funny movie. Funny guy.
The 17th floor. No Ferrell. TV crew preps for an afternoon interview. Lots of garland around. Beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Down in the lobby. Two young interns. I’m in a troika. Back to the elevator. The green one. Seventh floor. Doors open. Make two quick rights. Carpet is taupe. No … fawn.
Big hotel suite. Lots of bottled H20 around. Ferrell—tall, blue eyes, big smile, curly hair. Gives good handshake. Firm grip. Make a note of it.
Ferrell heads to bathroom. Toilet flushes. Ferrell’s back in the room. No shoes. Tres cas in a sweater and trendy jogging pants. Gray tones. Ordinary.
We Dialogue. What it sounds like:
Yeah. Great. Hmm?
Liked the movie.
Thoughts running through my brain: Ferrell’s seemingly short answers suggest a relaxed, laid-back guy who has very little emotional investment in whether people approve of him or not. Did he have a strong family base? Is this origin of his confidence? Is this the genesis of the sweet, unintimidating vibe emanating from his spiritual pores, that “yeah, hey let’s chat, whatever, uh-huh, OK, great” vortex of energy that apparently has accompanied him into this room, this suite, this film junket? I’ve been amused by Will, entertained by Will, counted on Will. Will the nut, Will who burst onto the SNL scene in the ’90s. Will the SNL icon, Will the comedian, Will the guy who, until now, has made over-the-top cinema his delicious forte. Yet that creature is far from the real Will Ferrell, is he not? Because the Ferrell standing before me—OK, now he’s sitting down on the muted amethyst-toned chair, crossing one amazingly long leg over the other, perhaps wondering when lunch will be delivered or what the interviewer in front of him might drag out of him—is an everyman, so very neighbor-next- door, so not Chevy Chase reincarnate. Ferrell was fine in Elf. Yeah, I teared up at one point. Maybe it was my hormones that day, I don’t know, but I did get a lump in my throat, didn’t I? Yes. I suppose I did; sucker for Christmas, that’s what I am. But dear lord, Elf is a damn fine Christmas flick—all that good cheer and Will Ferrell as a misplaced human named Buddy who grows up among toy-making elves in the North Pole. And the movie’s theme—smacks of “accept the differences in people.” And Ferrell’s costars: James Caan as the long-lost dad; Bob Newhart as Ferrell’s guardian elf; Ed Asner as really real Santa. And the director—Swingers’ Jon Favreau pulls this off. So, hmm, this is Ferrell. This is the man who walked around in yellow tights and green elf shoes and got paid millions to do it. Not bad. Not bad at all. I think I’ll pick up some Christmas cards on the way home; mail them early; maybe call mom. Damn. Mom. Wouldn’t it be nice to see her for Christmas? Hmm. Have I awakened my inner elf?
Good Times: So, how was it walking around all the time in those banana yellow tights?
Will Ferrell: It was hard to get used to at first, especially walking around the streets of New York. The first day of shooting was the Lincoln Tunnel. It was 7 a.m. in the morning—in that outfit. You know, usually you get some time to warm up and this was like a thrust right into people. We couldn’t block off the traffic and all these cars are honking and people are pointing at me and everything like that, but once I got over the fear, [the tights] were quite comfortable.
GT: Do you have a strong attachment to Christmas or Christmas movies?
WF: Yeah … not abnormally so, but I always liked Christmas; couldn’t wait for it; was really upset when I found out there wasn’t a Santa Claus.
GT: That’s a killer.
WF: Yeah, killer moment; still shielded it from my younger brother, though. I found out and I still didn’t tell him.
GT: How much younger was he?
WF: Three years younger. I gave him a couple more years, a little padding; little things like that. But I can’t say that we had, you know, where some people are like, ‘It’s my absolute favorite time of the year!’ and go crazy … but it was obviously a very positive time of the year.
WF: Why were you drawn to this movie?
GT: There were a bunch of different factors. It was a script that had been brought to my attention, I want to say, like, five years ago. It was one of those things were it was a funny concept but the script wasn’t there all the way. And we thought, gosh, if we can get all the right elements with the right director and all these things, this could have the potential to be, hopefully, a funny movie but also something that was a different thing to see me in; this would potentially would open me up to a whole new audience while not excluding people who would go see Old School. So that was kind of the appeal. And I also thought it would be challenging to do a film that wasn’t an out-and-out comedy; something that had different levels to it; that had a heartfelt quality to it. But we knew we wanted to get the right director for it and that’s where we were able to get Jon Favreau and even then we wanted to make sure the script was right, so it all kind of came together piece by piece. it wasn’t something that just happened overnight. It’s a totally different thing for Jon to do, too. You know, a lot of people were like, ‘Why is Jon Favreau directing?’ He did Swingers and Made and those types of films and I think we both shared the same kind of attraction to a project like that for the very same reason: to see if we could pull it off.
GT: How would you define the essence of Elf?
WF: Let’s see … I guess its essence is that hearkens back to the kinds of films where there really isn’t an ounce of cynicism in the movie. The character I play is very pure, earnest, and in terms of the message, it’s the kind of movie—not to get too deep, but it’s about acceptance and accepting people for their differences and that’s what was fun to play about this character. He’s the most unbiased, nonjudgmental person and he kind of butts up against the world that thinks he’s crazy for being that way only to change everyone in the end.
GT: How has comedy has enhanced your life?
WF: I would say … I just feel lucky that, Number One, I get to do something that I’ve always wanted to do and that is so much fun to do, and Number Two, I’m lucky that that thing makes people laugh. You know, I kind of pinch myself every day that this is what I get to do.
GT: You’re lovin’ it?
WF: Yeah, yeah. I can’t imagine [anything else] and hopefully, I get to do it for a while. It’s nice and fun to be creative. I can’t imagine ever being bored doing comedy.
GT: A lot of roles you have taken on are ‘out there.’ Are you like that in real life or are you shy?
WF: I’m a little more reserved. I get shy at times, sure. I wouldn’t consider myself a shy person. A lot of people are surprised when they meet me. I’m definitely not Robin Williams. I not always on and I never really was. I don’t know why. I w as funny in school but I was conscientious about it, too. I wasn’t that obnoxious kid who was so funny, that wouldn’t stop and got kicked out of class. I knew the limits … and the boundaries. So I would come in and do my thing and go and do my homework. I was that kind of kid. I always had that weird mixture. I love doing this stuff but I don’t necessarily need it. A lot of my friends who are stand-ups are like, ‘I have to go up on stage every couple of days just to feel that interaction and keep that thing going,’ but [for me] it’s never come from a needy, look-at-me kind of place. That being said, it’s fun getting the attention too.
GT: Tell me something people don’t really know about you.
WF: Huh … I’m trying to think. I don’t know how exciting this is but I have this system for my shoes in my closet. I have an order where they are placed because growing up, I always had that thing where, well, you know how you have that favorite garment, that favorite thing where you tend to wear out because you like to wear it so much? I always felt bad for the other pieces of clothing that didn’t get worn as much, so I do this rotation thing where I give everything an equal play. I’ll do it with shoes. That said, I’m not so OCD about it. I mean, if I have a pair of tennis shoes that I am supposed to wear next and I have to go to a black tie event, I’ll still wear a pair of dress shoes. It’s this weird little system.
GT: Nice. Everybody gets the right amount of attention.
GT: Do you have a favorite Christmas or holiday moment?
WF: I’ve been asked that a bunch in conjunction with this movie. My wife is Swedish and she grew up having this Swedish Christmas party every year and 50 to 60 friends would come over, and somebody would have to play the Swedish Santa, and the second year [we were married], they asked if I could do it and I was petrified of playing the Swedish Santa. The Swedish Santa is supposed to be a little bit tough with the kids. You don’t just give a gift, you have to make the kids earn it—you know, do five pushups, learn a language … and I have to say, that was the most fun. Some kids were afraid of it, some kids loved being teased. Even though you are this guy in a Santa suit, they look at you like you are a rock star.
GT: So, James Cahn and Bob Newhart as costars …
WF: That’s one of things we feel we lucked out on in this movie; to work with these legendary actors and actresses. It was a thrill. Everyone was so committed to the project. People really put their heart into it. We are finding the response to seeing Bob Newhart and James Cahn … and one of the things that adds to the movie is to see these people perform in ways you haven’t sent them perform before. [Ed] Asner plays a great, sort of cantankerous Santa.
GT: “White Christmas” or “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer?”
WF: “White Christmas,” just by a nose, no pun intended.
GT: Eggnog or hot cocoa?
GT: Ribbons or bows.
GT: Lite Brite or Etch-A-Sketch.
WF: Etch-A-Sketch was fascinating but hard to do.
GT: Tinsel or garland.
WF: Tinsel. It’s more fun to put on the tree.
GT: An angel or a star on top of the tree?
WF: Growing up, we had this little mouse ornament that we put on the top of the tree. My brother had this little mouse with a sleeping cap and that’s what we put on the tree.
GT: Which part of the Nativity do you identify with the most?
WF: Um, let’s see … Hmm. I’d say one of the three wise men and I don’t know why, really.
GT: Is it the Frankencense and Myrrh?
WF: I always wondered what F&M was, actually—an herb, or something?
GT: Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph?
GT: The best stocking stuffer?
WF: Well, we always got these pieces of fruit. Oranges.
GT: Where did you grow up?
WF: Orange County.
GT: Fitting, and healthy.
GT: What’s the most interesting thing you learned about yourself lately?
WF: I am about to learn a whole lot. Come March, me and my wife are having a baby—the first.
GT: It will be a Pisces.
WF: Yes. March. Very good. I’ve usually heard very good things [about Pisces]. I don’t think I heard one negative, “Oh a Pisces!”
GT: Yeah, it’s a water sign. They usually have the ability to tap into their emotions. What sign are you?