As the new bossman on The Office this spring, Will Ferrell got to play a darker, weirder, and just plain meaner character than his oblivious goofballs on Saturday Night Live and in Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Elf.
Fans of Ferrell’s newfound dark side needn’t worry once the The Office is closed for the season. In the new movie Everything Must Go, based on a Raymond Carver short story, Ferrell plays a newly unemployed alcoholic whose wife has just left him, depositing all their belongings on the front lawn on her way out. No, it’s not a comedy.
The role came as much of a surprise to the actor as it will to audiences. “My wife read the script and said, ‘Wow that’s a great script, why do they want you?’” Ferrell says, talking in his hotel room while visiting New York for the Tribeca Film Festival. “And we started laughing. I said, ‘I had the same response.’”
Ferrell went so far as to try to dissuade the film’s director, Dan Rush, from casting him. “I said, ‘I’m really flattered you think I can pull this off, but I just want to warn you against casting me because this will be viewed through a different lens if I’m the star,'” he says. “If you get Russell Crowe, you’ll get celebrated, hopefully, for the beauty of your writing and the story. If you choose me, you might get that, but you might also get, ‘Why did they choose a comedian?’”
In making the move from comedy to drama, Ferrell joins a long list of funny men ( Robin Williams in Awakenings, Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine, Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon, Bill Murray in Lost in Translation) who have brought unexpected gravitas to dramatic roles. But he says he didn’t talk to any of his peers (John C. Reilly, his Talladega Nights costar, frequently plays dramas) for the role. To prepare for the part, he watched The Verdict with Paul Newman, to see how to play an alcoholic. “Anyone who’s drunk is trying to act not-drunk,” he says. “That’s kind of the whole key.”
The startling thing about the film is how naturally Ferrell assumes the role of an almost-catatonically depressed middle-aged loser. As his character confronts the mess he’s made of his life, Ferrell telegraphs pain and despair with the slightest of gestures: a hunch of his shoulders, a grimace, a wince; the way he sinks defeatedly into his recliner (which, like the rest of his furniture, is newly planted on the front lawn.) It is not so much a performance as a revelation.
“I don’t really have depressive thoughts,” says Ferrell of how he prepared for the role. “But even as a little kid, I had real periods of feeling lonely, and that’s what I drew upon.”
“I was just born with a sunny disposition,” he says. “I don’t really have depressive thoughts. But even as a little kid, I had real periods of feeling lonely, and that’s what I drew upon. I used to go grocery shopping with my mom, and this was in the ‘70s when you could leave your kid in your car, and I would stay in the car and listen to sad songs on the radio and stare out the window and feel melancholy. I think also, even though my folks had a very amicable divorce, it was the saddest, most traumatic time of my life. I would think back to those feelings. It is hard to get there, and then when you’re in that zone, it’s almost cathartic, in a way.”
As bleak as it can be, the film also has moments of subtle humor, such as when Ferrell is awoken by his lawn’s sprinklers after spending the night in the recliner. Another actor might have pushed the moment toward black comedy, sacrificing Nick’s humanity for the absurdity of the situation. “Even when I’m doing comedies, there’s never that impulse to find the funny part,” Ferrell says. “Even if I’m doing the craziest character, I try to approach it from what that person would be thinking or doing. If this were a comedy, the moment of waking up each morning and getting hit by the sprinklers, you’d play that differently, you might stumble more, you’d make that more of a shtick. But I felt very comfortable just trying to play it super-real.”
At the end of a day’s shooting, he says, he was so exhausted he sometimes had trouble remembering what had happened. Still, he’d welcome more dramatic roles. “I’m curious to see if this film has any impact in terms of other directors seeing it and thinking of me for other things,” he says. “That would be neat. Once you know you can make people laugh, you start searching for that next thing.”
Jennie Yabroff is a staff writer at Newsweek covering books, movies, food, and art.