When Will Ferrell calls, it’s hard to know what to expect. Maybe he’ll be an unpredictable comedic maniac who spews jokes faster than Robin Williams and Jim Carrey combined. Or perhaps he’ll assume the arrogant attitude of a $20 million-a-movie star with little time for inane questions. It turns out Will Ferrell is none of those things.
There’s something down-to-earth, relatable and even sweet about him, qualities that illuminate his latest turn as a kindhearted but desperately dull IRS auditor in “Stranger Than Fiction.”
“Just after college and before I started making the leap into comedy and acting, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” the “Saturday Night Live” alum recalls. “I had a job as a bank teller, and I was living at home again. … I’ve had little, tiny periods like that where I’ve felt isolated and lonely. I’ve often thought that if I wasn’t doing what I get to do and if someone said to me, ‘You can be comfortable and can work in a steady job and you don’t get to have a family,’ I’ve often thought I could kind of live that life.”
In “Fiction,” that kind of life takes a drastic turn for Harold, whose routine existence is shattered after he begins to hear an author’s voice (Emma Thompson) narrating his behavior.
It’s tempting to suggest that this is a completely out-of-left-field choice for Ferrell, 39, but close trackers of his career know that that’s not true. The University of Southern California grad made a name for himself on the big screen by starring as a beer-funneling frat guy (“Old School”) and an oversize Santa’s helper (“Elf”), but the actor also has appeared in a Woody Allen film (“Melinda and Melinda”).
For whatever reason, Ferrell has an on-screen tendency to strip down to his skivvies (or less). “Within a certain context, it seems to be funny,” he says. “There’s definitely nothing like that in ‘Stranger Than Fiction,’ and it’s definitely not something I have to do. But when I get a reaction from people like, ‘Why do you do that?,’ it makes me want to do it again and again.”
Despite his career — he topped a Forbes magazine list of last year’s best-paid actors — he continues to turn down invitations to appear on “Inside the Actors Studio.”
“I just feel slightly shy about going on there,” he admits, noting that host James Lipton has invited him multiple times. “I feel like that’s the show where he’s interviewed Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, people like that. Then again, maybe he has done all those people, so he’s got to get to the bottom of the barrel.”