If you've seen one Will Ferrell movie, you can probably see his latest, Blades of Glory, in your head right now. Ferrell plays Chazz Michael Michaels, a sex-addicted alcoholic ex-figure-skating champ who bottoms out when he vomits inside a foam mascot head while on the ice during a children's skating revue and is redeemed when he becomes part of history's first male-male pairs skating team. "The part was written for a young Martin Landau," says Ferrell. "It's a script that's been around for 30 years, just waiting for its time. That time is now."
The part was actually intended for Ben Stiller, but Stiller, who is a producer on Blades of Glory, which opens nationwide March 30, backed out because he felt the role was too similar to ones he had played before. Ferrell had no such qualms even though he has made lots of sports movies (Talladega Nights, Kicking & Screaming and Semi-Pro, a basketball comedy shooting in Los Angeles and set for release in 2008) and is Hollywood's active leader in self-humiliation. Is there a person in the English-speaking world who hasn't marveled at the topography of his naked torso? "I heard the premise and thought, Gosh, that could be really funny." And? "That was it. I'm not a big overthinker, and it's really worked out for me."
Most successful comedians play variations of the same character in variations of the same movie. As a result, they eventually broadcast their resentment for the audiences that make them successful, à la Chevy Chase, or, like Jim Carrey, renounce them in pursuit of broader horizons. Ferrell not only doesn't chafe under the demands of popular taste--"I love playing the macho guy who looks like an idiot," he says--he has reduced movie stardom to a series of unpretentious, unthinking decisions. "Will's stand is, If it's good and it makes us laugh, I'm doing it," says Adam McKay, Ferrell's co-writer and director on Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Judd Apatow, director of The 40-Year Old Virgin and a producer on three Ferrell films, says, "Most comedians are neurotic and needy, but Will is unique in that his process isn't fueled by suffering. He's just this lovely guy who does what he likes."
Tales of Ferrell's personal kindness are legion and, frankly, get a little repetitive. But in his trailer on the Semi-Pro set, he really does come across as the warm, slightly goofy father of two that he is. He's not "on" or overbearing, just engaged. The only giveaway that he's more than just a dude hanging out in vintage polyester basketball shorts is that every once in a while, comedy spews out of him in extemporized, perfectly paced paragraphs. Here, for instance, is Ferrell's description of his character in Semi-Pro: "I'm Jackie Moon, owner-coach-player of the Flint Tropics, but I'm also a one-hit-wonder guy. I have a hit song called Love Me Sexy that I sing at every home game. Then I do the player introductions after I sing my song. Then I introduce myself and take my cape off."
Ferrell, 39, grew up in Irvine, Calif. (his father played keyboards for the Righteous Brothers, and his mother was a teacher) and learned the art of improvisation while with the Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings. By all accounts, he worked hard but was such a natural that it was a given he would follow Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz on the well-worn road from the Groundlings to Saturday Night Live. When Ferrell arrived at SNL during the 1995-96 season, he rapidly pulled off the difficult trick of being both favored by the writers (he was often in 30 of the 40 sketches prepared for the show) and beloved by his hypercompetitive castmates. "When I got there, I played Jane Goodall to his chimp," says SNL's Amy Poehler, who is Ferrell's archnemesis in Blades of Glory. "I studied him because a) he's a supergreat human being and b) he reminds you how fun it can be to make movies or be on live TV. He never seems nervous. Bill Murray always seemed that way to me too."
The Murray comparison is apt in a few ways. Both have made forays into drama without repudiating their comedy (or drawing much attention to themselves; Ferrell's Golden Globe nomination for 2006's Stranger Than Fiction is among the better-kept secrets in Hollywood.) Both are also among the few people who can carry a blockbuster comedy without a net. "When you're doing an out-and-out comedy," says Ferrell, "the notion of preparing for a character--I hope I don't reveal too much of myself here--but, uh, no, I'm not doing anything." he says, laughing. "Obviously I'm going through the script and saying, Oh, this might be a funny thing to try here. But I don't prepare. They're comedies! I'm just trying to live within the scene on that day, and 80% of the time things will pop into my head and out of my mouth."
Given some of the things that come out of his mind and mouth, there are those who find Ferrell's ascent to multiplex stardom somewhat mystifying. "When you look at some of the characters he creates," says McKay, "I mean, it's seriously bizarre that Will's a huge movie star." On the page, most of Ferrell's characters seem designed to give audiences headaches--or a sexually transmitted disease. "I do really enjoy messing with people," says Ferrell of such politically incorrect roles as over-the-top sexists (Ron Burgundy, Chazz Reinhold in Wedding Crashers), fetishists (Big Earl in Starsky & Hutch), a Nazi (Franz Liebkind in The Producers) and an idiot version of Bob Woodward (Dick). "I wouldn't want anyone to feel uncomfortable with what I'm doing, but if that's a casualty of what's happening? Then I'm totally fine with that."
As an undergraduate at U.S.C., Ferrell once delivered a deadpan speech to his fraternity brothers urging them to "go gay" to reduce the risk of being accused of date rape and bring them closer together. When he lived in New York City, Ferrell would find the most ordinary painting in a museum and bawl in front of it. While at SNL, he even cultivated an unusual fondness for bombing. "If a sketch bombs, a lot of times you'll see a performer just hit the beats and get out," says McKay, a former head writer on the show. "Will would drag it out and make it longer, like, 'No, no, you're going to be listening to this for a while yet.' He has no problem with beats of silence and awkwardness. He loves that stuff."