Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Will Ferrell likes not having to be the funny guy

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Will Ferrell relaxes into a stuffed armchair, legs crossed, his shoeless feet propped in front of him. Wearing plaid shorts and a red polo shirt, he looks like your brother-in-law after a round of golf.

Most people have come to know one side of the comedy icon: the loud, guffawing goofball with a knack for physical comedy and over-the-top impressions. In person, Ferrell barely resembles his public persona. With no hint of sarcasm or a longing to please, Ferrell casually talks about his broadcast journalism studies at the University of Southern California, asking as many questions as he answers.

He's made a fortune playing broad comedic characters on television and in movies, but his silliness has always belied a calmer nature.

In his new movie, "Everything Must Go," Ferrell gets another chance to present his more serious side to audiences. He plays Nick Halsey, an alcoholic salesman who has recently fallen off the wagon, an unfortunate slip that results in him losing his job and his wife. As he figures out how to piece together his fractured life, Halsey struggles to come to terms with his own complicity in his fall from grace. The script features few strictly comical scenes, which came as a welcome relief for Ferrell.

"It's very freeing to just know - because it becomes very apparent to the audience very early in the movie that this is going to be different - that it's something that is not going to be reliant on laughs the whole way through," Ferrell said. "It's probably the opposite that you would guess. I think there's an impression that the director was having to talk me down. If anything, if (director Dan Rush wanted) something to be `funny' in quotes, let me know, because I was going to play everything down here."

"Everything Must Go" does not mark the first time Ferrell has explored more nuanced dramatic work. He starred in 2006's "Stranger Than Fiction," a small and dense comedy about one man's existential crisis. Though the film earned Ferrell a Golden Globe nomination, it did not exactly reinvent his career à la Robin Williams following "Dead Poets Society."

Ferrell took the middling praise in stride, acknowledging - but not complaining about - the fact that once an actor finds himself typecast, it can be a struggle to change people's perceptions. He says that following "Stranger Than Fiction," he remained open to the idea of more dramatic work. When writer-director Rush approached Ferrell with "Everything Must Go," the actor embraced the opportunity that he says inspired some fear in him.

"I think it's much scarier to play someone extremely real," Ferrell said. "Streaking down the middle of the street in `Old School' is easy compared to having to play a character like the guy I play in `Everything Must Go.' That's just play acting. But when you're given a role that's close to a real person where you have to reveal some things about yourself and show real emotion, those are the scary things. I just liked the fact that we were just going to tell the story and give a real honest performance and laughs would hopefully come at certain points. Or not, and it would be OK."

This unencumbered approach to work echoes Ferrell's private life, in which he says he's never put pressure on himself to be especially funny. Ferrell doesn't appear to possess that "broken gene" that motivates the art of so many comedians and makes them yearn for attention. As a result, the "Saturday Night Live" veteran admits he believes he constantly lets people down when they meet him because he is not always "on."

In his professional life, however, the actor who has spent a career making people laugh with even the slightest smirk remains vigilant about complacency.

"I feel super fortunate to have had things that worked with audiences and have hit , but there's still no sense of being able to rest on your laurels and think, `I'm good. I can just walk out there and no problem,'" Ferrell said. "In terms of movies and that sort of thing, there's almost, like, more pressure in a way. It's that weird balance: You want to do new stuff, but a certain part of the audience likes this thing …"

His last sentence trails off, and it seems surprising that a man who sits atop his field still struggles at times to understand his role in that world.

Ferrell expresses deep appreciation for the career he's been able to have and says he has no intention of abandoning acting.

Still, the curly-haired comedian likes to speculate about what he would do if Hollywood ever decided it was through with him.

"I think I could make coffee," Ferrell said of a possible venture with his wife. "I could probably teach. Maybe coach, coach P.E. … I'd be a really good mailman."

He's kind of joking and he's kind of serious. If you get a little too comfortable, it can be hard to tell.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986