Why there's no cockiness with Will Ferrell

The deadpan funnyman now earns more than Tom Cruise. But it won't go to his head, he tells Gill Pringle
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The Independent Culture

'To get to run around in tight, tight shorts has always been a dream of mine," deadpans Will Ferrell, extending his 6ft 3in frame across the couch. And having earned $20m per film for at least five of the movies he's made over the past two years, one might argue he's earned the right to wear anything he pleases. Which he does.

Off screen he dresses to blend in, jeans and T-shirt, although recent roles have seen him squeezed into figure skating pant-suits for Blades of Glory; green figure-hugging tights for Elf; outlandish haute couture in Zoolander and, today, the tight nylon basketball uniforms of the Seventies for his new comedy, Semi-Pro.

Its just as well that Will Ferrell doesn't take himself too seriously. Having starred in some of the funniest movies of the past decade, the 40-year-old knows only too well that success is fickle. Launching himself on Hollywood 13 years ago, Ferrell's CV notes his first film role as "Young Man" in a dubious-sounding 1995 TV movie called A Bucket of Blood. Today he is more successful than Tom Cruise, thanks to hilarious turns in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Old School, Wedding Crashers and Anchorman.

Remind Ferrell of the fact that his $20m-a-movie salary places him leagues above Tom Cruise who – while earning fractionally more per picture, actually works far less – he feigns shock: "I am? Really?! I love it! I'm going to print up T-shirts that say that!"

Suddenly serious, he says: "But I don't think about it a lot. When you're in the midst of something like this – for me – there's no air of cockiness. Ever. I know the nature of comedy, and you never know what will happen with the next movie or whether people will find it funny. Maybe audiences enjoy the fact that I'm committed to these characters, and I never really wink at what we're doing.

Watch the 'Semi-Pro' trailer

"I think I'll go places that a lot of people won't go, and hopefully you're always surprised at stuff you see in a movie that I do. I feel very fortunate that, with being seven years on Saturday Night Live, it's all happened at a very gradual pace that's allowed me to not be too overwhelmed at any one time.

"But I don't take anything for granted. I grew up in an entertainment family, and so I saw how susceptible you are to the ups and downs of this business. So I just learnt to not take anything for granted," says Ferrell, whose father, Lee, played keyboards and saxophone for The Righteous Brothers.

"As a kid, I'd say – I'm not going to do what dad does. I'm going to have a real job. But then I couldn't fight this nagging thing that said I wanted to try comedy, so I guess I'm happy I didn't fight it too much."

Ferrell has experienced very few downs: "I guess I haven't. So far. Although, I remember when Talladega Nights came out, I think it was Entertainment Weekly that wrote: 'He's back!' And I thought, 'What? Did I go somewhere?' And they whipped through the past year [2005] in which my films in one year were Kicking & Screaming, Bewitched, The Wendell Baker Story, The Producers and Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda. And they cited that as a year that was rocky.

"But meanwhile Melinda and Melinda, that was considered – at least in a lot of stuff I read – that I held my own in a Woody Allen movie; Kicking & Screaming turned out to actually be a really big hit with families; Bewitched didn't perform I think in the way they thought it would, and it was the poster child for what's wrong with Hollywood – and yet it made domestically $125m, which still seems OK... and then The Producers, which only made about $40m; but they categorised it as my movie, which I was only in maybe six scenes, for which I was nominated for a Golden Globe, so that was my bad year... So, yeah, I survived."

While Ferrell knows no boundaries on-screen, frequently dropping his pants or appearing naked, in his private life he seems the more modest member of Hollywood's much-touted "Frat Pack", a group which includes Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn among others.

No relationship issues, no drunken bar brawls or drug problems appear to plague him and he admits that, unlike many other comedians, he has no dark side. "I don't think I've had a dark moment in my entire life. Well, maybe once," he grins.

"But my comedy's never come from a dark place. Never. That having been said, I'm a fan of dark comedy and writing dark comedy, but its never been a by-product of feeling down and depressed."

Having honed his comedic skills on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell seems to have emerged intact despite the tragic legacies of former SNL stars John Belushi and Chris Farley. "That kind of lifestyle never held any appeal for me," he says today.

A life-long basketball fan, working on his latest film, Semi-Pro, was more like fun than work. Ask him who had the best moves on the court between himself and co-stars Woody Harrelson and Andrew Benjamin, he smiles: "Well I did, of course. Pretty much. Woody was very good at trick-shots. To entertain the crowd – he was the master. But in terms of basic fundamentals? Me."

'Semi-Pro' opens on 29 February