Will Ferrell interview: Megamind, Anchorman and playing a villain

Interview Ryan Lambie 2 Dec 2010 - 12:55
Will Ferrell

As Megamind hits cinemas, we caught up with star Will Ferrell to discuss the film, Anchorman, comedy and playing an anti-hero…

In Megamind, comedy actor Will Ferrell provides the voice for the swaggering, dome-headed outsider of the title, a blue-skinned anti-hero who specialises in fancy capes and nefarious schemes.

As the film hits cinemas, we enjoyed a round-table interview with Mr Ferrell to discuss his work in Megamind, the classic Anchorman, and his comedy influences…

What was your inspiration behind Megamind’s voice?

Well, in terms of vocals, I was just trying to go for… he’s this villain who, under a different circumstances, could have been the good guy. He’s alienated to the point where he thinks, "I might as well be evil, it’s what I’m good at"

Tom McGrath, the director, and I, we spoke about how he should be approachable and sweet, and someone you’d root for. And at the same time, I thought, his whole life and demeanour and the way he acts is based on the idea that he thinks he’s very intelligent. That’s where the voice came from. A kind of a Madonna-esque affectation. Faux articulate. [Laughs]

Did you see what he [Megamind] looked like before you took the part?

Yes, yes. They have that all drawn up. It’s so sad when you’re in a movie with Brad Pitt, and even his animated version is chiselled and beautiful, and I have an ugly blue head. [Laughs]

A lot of your comedy is visual, obviously. How difficult is it to just project your voice to get the effect you want?

That’s the interesting process in a way, because at first you feel like you’re on this island, and you have to trust the director. I didn’t have a problem diving into it, and trying to be funny was one thing, but what tripped me up was the scenes where you kind of have to down-shift and come off very sincere. Any of the scenes that had an emotional through-line were hard to articulate with just my voice.

The things that you’re used to drawing on are not there, and I felt like I was struggling at times, but Tom was like, “Oh no, you were great.” But there were times when I was trying to come off as sad in a scene, and I’d think I’d really nailed it, and Tom would say, “Okay, let’s try that again.” [Laughs]

I’ve a lot of respect for people who can easily do that.

But it works well, when you see the finished film, doesn’t it?

Yeah, and they have your back, too. Tina Fey used to say, when we did interviews together, “They made me seem like a much better actress than I really am,” because they [the animators] give you that expression and nuance.

What emotions do you draw upon when you’re doing the voice work?

What do I draw upon? Do I think about dead kittens, or something like that? [Laughs] Oddly enough, I think about dead kittens a lot [Laughs], but you just try to be very sincere in those moments, and try to be as real as you can within the context of the script.

You’ve worn numerous crazy costumes in your movies. Was it a relief to not have to worry about those?

Yes, absolutely. Even though I think that was such a brilliant part of the character, that here’s this guy who really thinks about how he’s going to look, and designs his capes. This kind of rock ‘n roll persona that he’s thought off for himself, that goes against the fact that he’s just trying to seek acceptance from people.

Did you have a lot of acting time alongside Tina Fey and Brad Pitt?

Tina and I had to do a couple of recording sessions together. As you guys probably know, the norm is to be by yourself. You record with another actor, but usually not with the actor you’re in the scene with. So Tina I got to do a couple of sessions with, which was great, and Brad refused to anywhere near me. [Laughs] I don’t know why.

Your character’s very much an anti-hero, which was once, you could say, the preserve of films like Scarface

Yeah [Laughs].

…whereas now you’ve got anti-heroes in family films. Why do you think now is the right time for villainous characters to take a central role in family movies?

I think maybe all the other avenues have been exhausted. [Laughs] To the point where someone thought, “Oh, let’s tell the story of the anti-hero.” I don’t know. I think that’s the innovative part of the movie, that it’s the story of the villain told from his perspective. It is an interesting examination of what happens when the anti-hero gets what he wants – how does that play out? As we find out, it’s not everything he thought it would be, and it’s an empty existence.

Who’s your all-time favourite movie villain?

You know, I’m not an aficionado on the whole superhero genre, in a way. I do remember in the Michael Keaton Batman Returns film, with Danny DeVito as the Penguin. I remember thinking, here’s the guy from Taxi, and he's a really creepy, evil and weird villain. That’s one that sticks out for me.

What do your kids think of Megamind?

Well, it was interesting, because this is the first movie I’ve done where they have an awareness that I was in it. They couldn’t decipher the fact that I was Megamind, and asked, “Are you in a costume?” I had to explain that it was kind of like a cartoon.

It was fun. [It was] the first time they got to go to a premiere, and they got to go to France. The best part about it was, when I asked my three-year-old if he liked it, he was like, “Yeah, I really liked it.”

But my six-year-old, he’d seen the trailer and stuff, and he saw the movie and was laughing at the jokes. I asked him, “What did you think?”, and he was like, “Oh, um… you were fine.” [Laughs]

And I said, “Remember you were laughing at the phone and smells like a hero and all these things?”, and he says, “Oh yeah, I know. You were fine.”

His attitude was like, “Don’t ask me again, or I’ll have to tell you what I really think.” [Laughs]. Tough Love!

Do they appreciate what you do for a living?

The oldest one is just starting to know. I think because his friends at school say, “I saw your dad.” Last summer, he pulled me aside and said, [adopts conspiratorial voice] “I know what you do.” It was like, “Hey, buddy, let me talk to you for a second.” [Laughs]

I said, “What is it that I do?”, and he said, “You’re an actor.” And I asked him how he felt about that, and he said, “Okay. I’m fine with it.” [Laughs]

You’re a fairly regular visitor to Ireland, with Step Brothers and Talladega Nights. Are you thinking of doing a film there anytime soon?

As soon as the studios let me, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Because the country could really do with a boost right now. [Laughs]

I could save the economy with one movie! Are you kidding me? I’d love to work over there. It’s funny doing interviews in France – this is only the second movie where I’ve been able to go there. And they’ve said, “You don’t like coming here. Why?” [Laughs]

And I tell them, it’s not me, it’s the studios. They’re not willing to promote the movie over there.

The characters in Megamind remind me of rockstars. Was that a conscious decision?

Yeah. In talking to Tom, there was a conscious decision to have Megamind based on Alice Cooper, someone like that. And part of his whole persona is the pageantry of what he thinks a bad guy should be. With the AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses music, I don’t think you see that in a family movie for the most part, so I think that’s part of the charm of the character.

What film has come the closest to how you initially intended it to? Is there one or two in particular that you look back on and think, “That was perfect”?

Gosh. In comedy, I don’t know if there’s ever one that lands on its feet in exact way you’d pictured, because it’s such trial-and-error. Actors and comedians who say “I knew from the first day this would be a hit” are usually full of it.

Of all the stuff Adam McKay have done, we’ve always said “I don’t know if anyone else will like it, but I think that’s funny.”

Elf has become this big holiday movie, and I remember running around the streets of New York in tights saying, “This could be the last movie I ever make”, and I could never have predicted that it’d become such a popular film.

Anchorman has to be the one movie that would be the closest to what you’re talking about, because that was such a crazy movie at that time. The studio didn’t understand it. The head of marketing was openly telling the media, “I don’t get it.” [Laughs]

We didn’t care, because we got to make exactly what we wanted to make, and we were happy, even if it was the last movie we ever made. [Laughs]

Is that the one that gets quoted back at you most? Do you get people shouting lines of dialogue?

It depends. I guess I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in a number of things that are fairly quotable. It just depends on the crowd. A number of movies get shouted back at me, to the point where… I was shooting this film, which was at the London Film Festival, called Everything Must Go, a small indie movie. And we had done the last shot of the day, and I was riding a bike, and this woman pulls up next to me and screams, “Why are you sweating so much?” [Laughs] “Why are you sweaty?”

And she’s smiling. So I say, “Oh, I was just riding a bike, so…” And she says, [Bangs fist on table] “No! It’s from Step Brothers!” [Laughs] “Oh, sorry.”

What was it like to get the Forbes [most overpaid actor] award?

I think it’s a badge of honour. Aren’t we all striving to be overpaid for what we do? It’s funny. Two years ago I was in Australia, and a journalist said, “You’re on the top ten list of most bankable stars.” Then all of a sudden it flips. I don’t know who’s doing the calculations. But now, I’ve had two hit movies, so maybe I’ll descend the ranks into profitability again.

I know how to fix the balance. I wanna be in the next Terminator movie, and do it for one dollar. And then it’ll make a few million, and I’ll be real value for money. [Laughs]

Where did you get your comedy shaping from? Who influenced the way you perform?

I think I got a general love of comedy from my parents, in a way. And then I loved the first, original cast of Saturday Night Live. I just thought that was a collection of five or six comedic actors that were so good that it’s amazing to think they were on the same cast.

My dad turned me onto Peter Sellers as a kid. I loved the fact that he was a unique combination of being extremely subtle and over-the-top all at the same time, and that’s a hard thing to do. I admire that.

The other influence is Steve Martin. When he came on the scene, he was doing silly comedy that didn’t follow a linear path – if you were to write down what he was going to do, it wouldn’t make sense. I think that’s inspired my generation, and it’s happened a lot of times when writing a script, and the studio… [In Anchorman] DreamWorks wanted to take the out the Steve Carell character, Brick Tamland. “He doesn’t make sense! Every time he speaks, he doesn’t make sense! Lose that character.” But that was the point. [Laughs] That’s why he’s in there.

I presume people look up to you now…

No. [Laughs]

Did you plan to get into movies after Saturday Night Live?

I got lucky. I left Saturday Night Live without a film to go to, and I’d filmed Old School while I was in my last season of the show, and that hadn’t come out yet. I was a free agent, in a way, but I knew it was time to leave the show and test the water. The first three movies leaving the show were Old School, Elf and Anchorman, so I had those three in a row that were good ones.

Will Ferrell, thank you very much!

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