If you were to ask people who they would most want to take a masterclass in comedy from, Will Ferrell would surely be near the top of the list.
Yet ask the star of Anchorman where his humour comes from and the answer will likely disappoint young devotees of both his films and Funny or Die, the phenomenally popular spoof comedy video website he co-founded in 2007.
“You can’t take a stand-up comedy class to learn how to be funny,” Ferrell says. Possessing the funny gene goes back to adolescence. “Being funny was a way to make friends in school and a way to meet girls – even though it still didn’t work for me.”
These days, things are working just fine for Ferrell, 47. He is one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors, making up to $20m a film, and his latest film, Get Hard, will reinforce his status as the leading star of outrageous comedies of manners.
Yet he can’t make sense of his humour. “It’s not anything that I try to think about,” he says. “I’m at the gym today and a sketch popped into my head of a guy who listens to heavy metal thrash music on his headphones while he’s working out and sings way too loud,” Ferrell recalls. “He’s asked for a spot and he says, [adopting an effete voice] ‘Yeah, sure.’ I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if [you had] a guy who was super effeminate when he talks but when he puts his headphones on, he screams at the top of his lungs in a heavy metal voice. That’s just the way the brain works.”
James King, the hedge fund millionaire he plays in Get Hard, is lacking in the brains department. It’s another Ferrell portrayal of a character overflowing with what he is fond of calling “unearned confidence”. King, about to be incarcerated for fraud, pays an African-American car-wash owner of his acquaintance (rising star Kevin Hart), to prepare him for prison on the mistaken, racist assumption he’s done time himself.
At the film’s recent premiere at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, controversy erupted over its racial jokes and accusations of homophobia. The N-word is used and Ferrell’s character declares himself a racist and expresses distaste towards homosexuality in prison. It remains to be seen whether America, coping with the aftermath of the Ferguson unrest and still engulfed in a cultural battle over gay marriage, is ready for the film. (Hart did not help matters by informing critics, “If you don’t like it, what I want you to do is go in the middle of the street and kill yourself.” Ferrell adopted a more conciliatory tone saying, “Send me handwritten notes. Hopefully on nice stationery.”)
While Get Hard’s gay and racial jokes are causing offence, Ferrell proudly declares the intention was to lampoon the elites. “With all due respect to anyone who went to Harvard, including our director [Tropic Thunder co-writer Etan Cohen], I was thinking Harvard a**hole,” says Ferrell, a graduate of the University of Southern California, when asked who he based the role on. “As much as my character knows about financial dealings and how to make a lot of money, he really is completely ignorant about the rest of how the world works.”
Ferrell in person exudes an air of unruffled irreverence. He frequently interrupts his train of thought to launch into comedic routines in the manner of a distant relative seeking to lighten the mood at an awkward family gathering. He jokes that he visited 50 prisons to prepare for the role of a felon only to then seriously advocate a day trip to Alcatraz, the notorious San Francisco prison-cum-tourist attraction: “I recommend it to anyone. It’s an interesting historical site.”
He says Get Hard taps into ongoing unrest at Wall Street excess: “First and foremost we set out to make a funny movie. That having been said, I do think there’s definitely a perception that people in banking or Wall Street get away with a lot of stuff and so that’s what we’re commenting on too.”
Ferrell doesn’t elaborate on his distaste for Wall Street ethics, perhaps partly because he is one of Hollywood’s most successful entrepreneurs himself. In addition to Funny or Die, Gary Sanchez Productions, the company he runs with filmmaker Adam McKay, produces comedies including Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters with Gemma Arterton and Leslye Headland’s edgy wedding farce Bachelorette with Kirsten Dunst.
Ferrell personally recruited Kevin Hart for Get Hard, though they have known each other for a decade since they played together in a celebrity entertainment basketball team. (Ferrell is obsessed with sport – he has been to two World Cups, many of his films are sports-themed and last week he played for 10 minor-league baseball teams as part of a charity video stunt.)
A native of California, Ferrell made his name on Saturday Night Live, where he was renowned for impersonations – his take on President George W Bush even wound up being extended into a 2009 Broadway show). Following a string of supporting comedy roles, his breakthrough hit in a lead role was as Santa Claus’s cheery helper in Elf. He turned down the opportunity to star in Elf 2 because he feared it would be a disaster, yet the sequel he did make, a reprisal of his role as clueless TV presenter Ron Burgundy in Anchorman 2, underwhelmed. Ice skating comedy Blades of Glory was a huge hit in 2007 but a year later, basketball movie Semi-Pro flopped.
Best films to watch in 2015
Best films to watch in 2015
1/9 Suffragette - 11 September
Meryl Streep is bound to make a formidable Emmeline Pankhurst in Sarah Gavron's new film about the British women's suffragette movement of the early 20th century. Streep is again working from a screenplay by Abi Morgan who also wrote The Iron Lady.
2/9 Far From The Madding Crowd - 1 May
Thomas Vinterberg turns his hand to Thomas Hardy and British costume drama. Memories of the John Schlesinger version with Alan Bates and Julie Christie will be hard to exorcise. Carey Mulligan and the mercurial Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts star as Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak.
3/9 Jurassic World - 12 June
The third Jurassic Park sequel is finally here starring Chris Pratt. The storyline goes something like this - theme park gets dinosaur to attrack visitors and it all goes horribly wrong. Should prove a fun one among cinema-goers.
4/9 Terminator: Genisys - 3 July
Arnold Schwarzenegger kept his promise - he's back and he's trying to stop Judgement Day.
5/9 Spectre - 6 November
Bond is back for the 24th time. So is arch-villain Blofeld. Director Sam Mendes did a sterling job with Skyfall but the last movie ended on a very downbeat note with poor old Judi Dench signing out of the series. The challenge now is to reinvigorate a franchise that is already well into its 50s.
6/9 Cake - 20 February
It's Rachel from Friends as you've never seen her before as Jennifer Aniston plays Claire Bennett - a woman who initiates a relationship with a widower while battling hallucinations of his dead wife.
7/9 Suite Francaise - 13 March
It will be intriguing to see how Saul Dibb’s long-awaited adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s novel deals with a problem that has often confounded British film-makers: how to portray French characters played by English-speaking actors in Nazi-occupied, wartime Paris without slipping into ’Allo ’Allo!-style caricature. Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas lead Dibb’s promising cast.
8/9 In The Heart Of The Sea - 13 March
Chris Hemsworth plays tough seafarer Owen Chase in this dramatic Moby Dick movie.
9/9 Cinderella - 27 March
Kenneth Branagh's live action remake of Disney's classic tale stars Downton Abbey's Lily James. Helena Bonham-Carter and Cate Blanchett also star as the Fairy Godmother and evil stepmother.
Does Ferrell, a multi-millionaire business owner, now possess an acute sense of how his films will fare at the box office? “Sadly no,” he replies. “I have still no sense whatsoever. My barometer hasn’t gotten any sharper. I think anyone who says they know right away, they’re lying. When you see the edited film, you just have to feel, ‘We made something that feels different, fresh and new and it has a strong point of view.’ It’s up to the gods at that point. You never know when a movie is going to hit the zeitgeist for whatever reason, whether it’s release date, what’s out there at the same time, are people in the mood to see a comedy at a certain point? All those factors you really aren’t in control of. I don’t feel like my gauge is sharpened in any way.”
Sporadically, Ferrell has attempted more dramatic roles playing an alcoholic salesman in Everything Must Go and a tax official who discovers he’s a character in a novel in Stranger than Fiction. I ask him which films he feels he’s made that have gone underappreciated. “We did this movie Casa de Mi Padre which was entirely in Spanish. That is an example of, ‘Really! An American comedy star does an entire movie in Spanish, who doesn’t speak Spanish, and all the studios go, ‘Hmmm… we don’t know how to distribute it.’ That’s one where you go, ‘That seems weird especially when a lot of the statistics say the Hispanic audience is one of the largest movie-going audiences in America.’ You just have to feel good about what you’re making and truck along.”
For such a big star, Ferrell’s personal life is distinctly low-key. He lives in LA with his wife Vivica Paulin and their three sons. A friend of mine in New York spotted Ferrell some years ago on the subway and the actor, realising he had been recognised, held his finger to his lips in a gesture of silence to avoid a scene. This sense that Ferrell assiduously guards his privacy is heightened by his lack of involvement in social media even though every Funny or Die video gets hundreds of millions of views. “People are mad they can’t get to Will,” notes his Get Hard co-star Kevin Hart. “People that see I post pictures of Will who don’t follow me now follow me because they want to see what Will’s doing.”
Social media is too much of a chore, Ferrell insists. “I was on Twitter for four days and for me personally it just felt like a burden, like something I’ve got to keep up,” he says. “A lot of people are funny on it but I just knew it would become a burden.”
Cue another routine: “I haven’t sent out a tweet in six months. I should send one out: “Hey everyone! Look at this picture of a sandwich I made. Hey looks like it’s going to be cloudy again. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” He pauses before further emphasising his unease with modern forms of communication: “I have an old Blackberry; I’m just a complete technophobe.”
Ferrell recently finished shooting James Franco’s 1960s Hollywood drama Zeroville and his films in development include playing sexploitation director Russ Meyer and acting in a comedy about a Shakespearean troupe. I have no idea if he’ll continue to corner the market in comedic studies of unearned confidence or whether his career will go in a more serious direction. But I’m certain that sketch of the heavy metal gym rat will go viral – and Ferrell won’t be tweeting it when it does.
‘Get Hard’ is released on 27 March