Will He Or Won't He?

By Jeff Jensen ,
Entertainment Weekly - 2/28/03

Will Ferrell is trying very, very hard not to fall down. Maintaining balance requires more than the usual amount of concentration in situations like this -- when you're officiating a ''loser guy on hot babe'' wrestling match in an inflatable kiddie pool filled to the thighs with ''personal'' lubricant.

It is March 2002, and Ferrell is still the star attraction of ''Saturday Night Live'' -- still the show's squinty President Bush, still Craig of the perfect cheer, still just a part-time movie actor. The moonlighting gig that currently finds him sporting a zebra-striped ref's jersey is called ''Old School.'' Costarring Luke Wilson (''The Royal Tenenbaums'') and Vince Vaughn (''Swingers''), the DreamWorks comedy charts the misadventures of three men who flush their dignity down the toilet to start a fraternity for fellow arrested adolescents.

Today's scene is a rare instance in which Ferrell is not the butt of the R-rated movie's broad gags. All he has to do is play umpire in a frat party ''K-Y wrestling'' contest between Wilson and a coed. That, and not slip and go splat. And he doesn't. He remains focused. Even the career-altering decisions weighing on him are momentarily forgotten. Director Todd Phillips (''Road Trip'') calls, ''Action!'' Wilson gets kicked in his (heavily padded) crotch. He crumples. Ferrell's long face squishes into a that'sgottahurt pucker. ''Cut!''

''I'm really trying to decide the best thing to do,'' Ferrell says during the break, joy jelly dripping from his elbow like grease from a slice of pizza. He's talking about leaving ''SNL'' after seven years, about making the movies a full-time job. New Line Cinema is wooing him for ''Elf,'' a comedy about a normal-size human raised to become one of Santa's helpers. Then again, movies are risky, and the ones he's appeared in to date, most notably the ''SNL'' spin-off ''A Night at the Roxbury,'' have been laughable -- and not in a good way. Hence, he's torn. ''There's an argument that maintaining a presence on the show means you have a nice platform in front of the public,'' says Ferrell. ''At the same time, at some point you just have to take a flying leap. So...I don't know.''

He excuses himself for another take. ''Harder,'' Phillips instructs the actress. ''Really kick him in the nuts this time.'' She does. Ferrell winces sympathetically. He is trying very hard not to fall down.

Nearly a year later, Will Ferrell's spongy mass of Goldilocked hair -- a very elfin 'do -- says it all. He made his choice: Last spring he bid adieu to ''SNL.'' ''I wanted to leave while I still thought of it fondly, as opposed to leaving after a year that was miserable,'' the actor says over lunch during a quick L.A. weekend break from shooting ''Elf'' in Vancouver. ''I was just ready to challenge myself with the next thing.''

Good for him -- but will it be good for moviegoers? There's no denying the dude is funny. ''I can watch Will Ferrell eat lunch and laugh,'' says Phillips. ''He just looks like a funny guy.'' Ferrell has known as much about himself since second grade, when he made the girls giggle by punching himself in the head. ''I was like, Okay, there's something here,'' says the 35-year-old Southern California native, who still lives there with his wife of 1 1/2 years, Viveca.

Ferrell is certain the currents of anger in his intense comic stylings are rooted in his parents' divorce (he was a child when they split); at the same time, he says he really hasn't psychoanalyzed the matter. In high school, he cracked kids up by re-creating skits he'd seen on ''SCTV.'' He later attended USC as an aspiring sportscaster, but the idea of paying his dues at some station in Nowhere, North Dakota, made him reconsider.

Within two years he was a member of the L.A. comedy troupe the Groundlings; a year later, in 1995, he was on ''SNL,'' where he would eventually become an Emmy nominee. His is an aggressively overcommitted kind of comedy -- one that's completely at odds with his affably low-watt offscreen demeanor. ''Will is like a sniper,'' says ''Elf'' director Jon Favreau. ''He's real quiet. He waits for the opportunity, then goes for the kill shot. He's not a guy who puts a lot out there when we're not rolling. He's very demure and soft-spoken. He doesn't take over a room when he walks into it like other comics.'' But he is fearless (while filming a streaking sequence in ''Old School,'' he refused to wear a robe between takes), and he has those eyes -- small orbs tucked under a sharp ridge of brow, capable of switching from cuddly to crazy in a blink. ''He's got this total thousand-yard stare that's scary-hilarious,'' says Luke Wilson. ''There were times in a scene where I couldn't look at him -- I'd look just off to the side of him -- because otherwise I'd crack up.''

Still, for every Eddie Murphy that has successfully segued from ''SNL'' to movies, there have also been about eight Joe Piscopos. Which is why Ferrell has a plan, cooked up with his managers, who also helped Jim Carrey make the transition from ''In Living Color'' to ''Liar Liar'' to ''The Truman Show.'' Phase one: ''Old School,'' which Ferrell says he took more for the bittersweet scenes that track his character's unraveling marriage than for the goofball shenanigans. ''Todd said to me, 'You're going to play a three- dimensional person. Nobody has seen you do that yet,''' the actor recalls. ''He totally delivered on that promise. He allowed me to play it -- dare I say? -- at different levels.''

Phase two: ''Elf,'' his first solo star turn. ''We were interested in tackling the big commercial vehicle -- to see if we can crack the code,'' says Ferrell, who took the project only after bringing aboard the indie-minded Favreau to direct and overseeing several rewrites meant to give some edge to the Christmas flick's softness. If ''Elf'' (due out in November) boosts Ferrell's clout, he wants to use it to produce more offbeat projects -- like ''Anchorman,'' a satire he's written about local newscasters, or a TV miniseries about an inept Bob Vila-like home repairman. ''If 'Elf' only opens the door to a string of kids' movies,'' he says, ''no offense to kids' movies, but that won't be a plus.''

He'd also like to try drama -- and given how thoughtfully he presents himself in conversation, it might not be a stretch. ''But that's way in the back of my mind,'' he says. Right now, it's all about not slipping and falling in the precarious pool of Hollywood. ''I just want to avoid ending up in a ditch,'' he says with a chuckle, ''sad, lonely, depressed, and destitute.'' And, of course, covered in goop.