- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

ATLANTA

In the NASCAR comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” opening tomorrow, Will Ferrell plays the title role: a loud, fast-driving, slow-thinking race-car champ who undergoes a crisis of faith in his high-mph skills.

The raucous comedy co-stars John C. Reilly as Ricky Bobby’s equally clueless pal Cal; Leslie Bibb as his hot-trash wife, Carley; Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G) as his gay-and-French racing rival; and Amy Adams as his assistant.

We banked some turns with the fearlessly goofy comic recently on a variety of topics and learned a few surprising things, such as:

Will Ferrell isn’t so funny

At least off camera, that is.

“People are always, continually let down by meeting me and talking to me,” Mr. Ferrell admits.

Unlike some comics, he isn’t driven by inner demons, didn’t survive hungry years in stand-up. He’s not always “on” like the kind of manic performer whose name might start with Robin and end with Williams.

“I’ve always kind of hidden off to the side and watched, and picked and chosen my moments in terms of being funny,” he says in a voice closer to the light, earnest tones of Buddy in “Elf” than of the drunk, shouting streaker of “Old School” — or, well, the rowdy character he plays in his new movie.

“Even as a kid I was considered funny,” Mr. Ferrell says, “but I was not a class clown by any means. I never pushed it.”

He did try stand-up for a year or so, putting together 20 minutes of material. Then he fell in with L.A.’s improv troupe, the Groundlings.

“I just loved ensemble more.” Not for unselfish reasons: “If you failed, you all failed — as opposed to just you.”

An accident waiting to happen

Mr. Ferrell and director and co-writing partner Adam McKay are not geniuses for thinking up the why-didn’t-anybody-else-think-of-that? concept of a NASCAR comedy. Just lucky.

“We went the most backward way about coming up with the idea,” he says. The “Talladega” story line materialized only because they were having a hard time getting a green light for their most recent (and first) feature together, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” The studio suits couldn’t quite get the idea of that surreal 1970s movie.

“As Adam and I talked about that, we said, ‘… for our next thing, we should just think of something that everyone knows either a lot about or a little about — something like NASCAR.’

“We kind of stopped and went, ‘Wait, that’s a good idea’.”

NASCAR is his co-pilot

When approached about the movie, the NASCAR folks hopped into the passenger seat. “Both sides were really just frank with each other,” Mr. Ferrell says. “We said, ‘Look, you should probably watch “Anchorman.” This is our sensibility. It’s a sports comedy, and we’re obviously going to have fun with your sport, but we’re not interested in making fun of the fans’.”

NASCAR said: Cool.

“It kind of shows the confidence they had in their sport and their footing in the culture. They were like, ‘Yeah, let’s have a little fun’.”

Ricky Bobby has no need for speed

When it comes to driving, Mr. Ferrell, Mr. Reilly, Mr. Cohen and Mr. McKay are great big babies.

They did none of their own driving in “Talladega Nights” because of insurance issues — but they did go to the Richard Petty driving school to take a few laps so they could look as if they knew what they were doing in the driver’s seat.

First, a professional driver took each of them for a 170 mph spin around the track; then they waited, along with regular folks, to get behind the wheel themselves. That’s when they started to lose their nerve.

“We were in the middle of 100 other people who had all paid their money to drive eight or 15 laps,” Mr. Ferrell says. “And we all had the same reaction; we were like, ‘Should we just leave now?’ We were being so vocal about how nervous we were, one of our instructors said, ‘Could you guys keep it down? You’re scaring the paying people.’ We were setting off this chain reaction.

“But once you drove, actually being able to do it yourself, it was pretty fun.”

Gettin’ paid just to have fun

Mr. McKay has been one of Mr. Ferrell’s best friends since their “Saturday Night Live” days. They make more money and have more fun than you.

“I’ve probably said this too many times in interviews, and it’s gonna catch up to me, but it feels like we’re just playing around every day,” Mr. Ferrell says. “We kind of pinch ourselves that we’ve gotten to make these last two movies.”

They also pretty much make it all up as they go along.

“Adam was a great improviser when he was at Second City in Chicago. So he’ll just roll the camera and yell lines at you, like, ‘Try this.’” Mr. Ferrell would help him brainstorm some lines, but he says all the actors wound up coming up with some of their own funny bits.

What ‘Frat Pack’?

There is no such thing, officially, as the so-called “Frat Pack,” even if Mr. Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Vince Vaughn and brothers Owen and Luke Wilson all show up in the same movies.

“It’s a complete manifestation of the media,” Mr. Ferrell says. “The truth of it is that you have a group of actors who really do think each other are funny. And say so.”

Come to think of it, Mr. Stiller is producing Mr. Ferrell’s next movie, “Blades of Glory.” And Mr. Ferrell recently e-mailed Mr. Black after he heard a song from Mr. Black’s band Tenacious D on the car radio while he was in Sweden. He also invited Luke Wilson to his birthday party last month.

“But,” Mr. Ferrell says, “there’s not weekly meetings or anything.”

Don’t believe everything you read

(Supposed) upcoming Ferrell projects:

mOld School 2: “It’s listed on the Internet Movie Database, but it’s either happening and no one called me, or it’s not happening, because I haven’t heard anything.”

mLand of the Lost: (a remake of the cheesy 1970s children’s show): It may happen, but Mr. Ferrell says it’s tricky figuring out the tone — would it be a big-budget flick with realistic dinosaurs or a spoof with cheap effects, like the series itself.

“With ‘Bewitched,’ we kind of entered the TV-show-as-a-movie thing,” he says. Pause. “And, you know, it wasn’t so much fun.”

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