Will Ferrell film opens new chapter

After starring on Broadway in 2009, actor Will Ferrell, known for his comedic prowess, has branched out into a more dramatic role in the independent film “Everything Must Go.”

NEW YORK -- Will Ferrell is trapped.

Dressed sharply in a gray suit, he's trailed by a team of publicists and makeup artists. But the parade stalls as soon as it reaches a narrow hotel hallway. Around the corner comes a call to hurry up, already.

"An orchid fell over and we were trapped for like half-a-second," says Ferrell, beaming from his excuse and immediately cracking up everyone within earshot.

Whether it's tumbling flowers or Hollywood studio recalcitrance, Ferrell lately has been outmaneuvering obstacles with eagerness and creativity.

Though the big comedies are still coming -- last year's "The Other Guys" and the animated "Megamind" and the coming "Southern Rivals" with Zach Galifianakis -- Ferrell recently has looked to increasingly diverse choices.

After starring on Broadway as former President George W. Bush in 2009's "You're Welcome America," he has guest starred on "The Office," shot a Spanish-language comedy, "Casa de Mi Padre," and is now releasing a dramatic independent film, "Everything Must Go."

The new direction was partly precipitated by studio decisions in early 2010, when budgets were tightened, release schedules slimmed, estimated international revenue was increasingly put at a premium, and seemingly surefire hits such as a proposed "Anchorman" sequel for Paramount were rebuffed.

"It was sort of like, if studio movies are going to get this tricky all of a sudden to get all the pieces together, then great, I'll just go explore this whole other world where it's smaller budgets but possibly more creative freedom," said Ferrell. "Just open up a new chapter, in a way."

Dramatic turns

In "Everything Must Go," which is based on a Raymond Carver short story, Ferrell plays a character who loses his job and his wife on the same day. Locked out of his suburban house, he starts living on his front lawn and descending further into alcoholism.

Ferrell, who has received good reviews for more dramatic turns in earlier movies such as "Stranger Than Fiction" and Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda," says "Everything" is the most challenging role he's had.

That's partially because Ferrell, who typically has favored ensemble productions, is often starkly alone in the film. At times, he said, he felt like he was "walking on the moon."

"He's really doing things out of passion, not about, 'I need to reinvent myself out of necessity,' " says Dan Rush, first-time director of "Everything Must Go."

Ferrell is aware of the strange hypersensitivity many have over comedians trying their skills in drama, acknowledging "that's the story line."

"It's not me trying to make a statement or anything like that," he says. "Any creative person is going to want to change and do something different. It's as simple as that for me."

Comedy and drama

Ferrell notes the rules that divide comedy and drama, a subject he (with John C. Reilly and Jack Black) famously parodied at the 2007 Oscars.

Lest anyone think Ferrell is taking himself too seriously, his promotion for the limited-release of "Everything Must Go" has included shaving Conan O'Brien's beard and donning a morning suit for Prince Williams' wedding on "The Late Show."

Letterman called him "the go-to guy," sensibly omitting exactly what Ferrell is the go-to for. The answer would seem to be everything. He always has had incredible comedic range with characters including the self-sure, clueless (Ron Burgundy), swinging academic (Prof. Roger Klarvin), egotistical crooner (Robert Goulet), smiley innocent (Buddy the Elf), straight man (Alex Trebek) and unhinged lunatic (Chazz Reinhold in "Wedding Crashers").

"Molly Shannon and I used to always talk about that we really felt strongly that we were comedic actors, that we weren't comedians," says Ferrell. "You just played things real and the comedy came out of the context. In terms of applying that to a dramatic role, it's the same kind of transfer."

Stepping out

Ferrell, who modeled himself after the wide-ranging "SNL" veterans Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman, sometimes has been pigeonholed for man-child characters, which he says is perplexing to him.

"Going back as far as the Marx Brothers, that's kind of what male comedy is, in a way," says Ferrell. "That always feels like such a shallow observation."

Ferrell is exceptional from many comedians in that his comedy doesn't seem to eminent from insecurity. The 43-year-old was raised happily in Irvine, Calif., the son of a teacher and Roy Lee Ferrell, a guitarist for the Righteous Brothers.

"My kind of wanting to be funny didn't come from need, necessarily," says Ferrell. "The closest I can analyze it is that it was an easy way to make friends, I found out. It was just a great kind of social tool."

Adam McKay, who has been Ferrell's creative partner and friend since "SNL" and directed him in numerous films, says Ferrell is an "oddly driven" guy with the discipline to run marathons and learn instruments for movies. The two formed the production company Gary Sanchez Productions, which has facilitated their expanding interests, such as the website FunnyOrDie.com.

Ferrell laments the erosion of the "middle-class of moviemaking," films with moderate budgets, and the increased reliance on financial considerations, such as foreign sales and demographic predictions.

Adapting, though, has been rewarding.

"I don't mean to come off like I'm settling for something," says Ferrell. "It actually just opened my eyes."