Ron Burgundy, Buddy the Elf, Ricky Bobby, and even George W. Bush are just a few of the countless characters and personalities that actor and comedian Will Ferrell has generated to cement himself in entertainment history. On Thursday April 16, UCI’s Department of Drama welcomed Ferrell to Smith Hall as their esteemed guest for a 90 minute Q&A conversation about his life and career. It proved to be a thrilling experience from this extraordinary star, who rocked Smith Hall laughter while sharing a world of information about the workings of the various fields of film, television and theatrical entertainment in which he excels.
Ferrell is a relaxed individual who has a more controlled energy than that of his highly eccentric and, at times, scantily clad and rambunctious onscreen personas. However, he still maintains his signature quick wit and impeccable comedic timing. Born and raised in Irvine, he grew up around the arts because of his father, a musician. His early performances and sketch writing began while attending University High School where he, along with a friend, gave scripted morning announcements lampooning current events, faculty, and students. While his writing and performing talent flourished, he had little interest in the arts as a career as he felt he needed to pursue a “real job.” A passion for sports and being an athlete himself, he decided to continue his education at the University of Southern California for Sports Journalism. After graduating he found himself living back home with his parents.
So how did a person who wrote off acting as being a viable career come to pursue it? Ferrell proudly says the reason he is an actor is because of his mother. As a Christmas present she bought him nine weeks worth of acting classes at the Tony Award winning South Coast Repertory Theatre. It was there that Ferrell was introduced to scene study, voice work, movement, and performance. This time spent at SCR was where he began to realize that a “real job” could, in fact, be that of an actor. He described this choice as being a “crazy crapshoot so I might as well go for it!”
He was candid in describing his early struggles chasing his dreams. While seeking projects as an actor he supported himself as a bank teller and various odd jobs, living paycheck to paycheck. “It was like this for four or five years,” he said. “I for sure struggled and I often thought – is this ever going to work?” When he sought his father’s advice, he explained “just know that there is a lot of luck involved, but if you’re prepared for the opportunity when it arises, you’re ready for it.”
His father’s words proved to be right when Ferrell, a company member of the renowned improv comedy troupe The Groundlings, was asked by a producer to audition for Saturday Night Live in 1995. Unbeknownst to him, he would present at his audition impersonations and characters that would not only land him a spot in the cast but also become some of his most memorable work.
While he is mainly viewed as an actor and comedian, Ferrell is also a gifted writer. He credits his experience with The Goundlings as the place that gave him the tools for writing. He would utilize these skills on SNL sketches and as a means to create his own work in hit films such as “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Talladega Nights,” and “Step Brothers.”
When sharing how he handles celebrity, he is well aware that his career is one that places him in the public eye. Dealing with paparazzi, admiring fans, red carpet and press events is simply the territory that comes with it. However, he does not let his profession flood into his personal life, especially with his own family. He says that since he is private person he is generally left alone.
One audience member asked what his process and preparation for roles was and Ferrell simply explained that each project and character is different, but he always attributes work ethic and commitment as vital to his craft. He places zero pressure on himself to discover character or a scene quickly. He did share that since he is primarily a comedic actor he does have days on set where he feels like “I am not funny.” A simple bit of advice he had for dealing with negativity and thoughts of failure is to “work hard, but don’t be too hard on yourself.”
When asked how he views his life and career, Ferrell humbly said, “Fortunate. I am very fortunate. I have lived a charmed life and sometimes I still find it hard to believe how lucky I am.” For the over 200 audience members in attendance, how lucky they must have felt to meet the person behind the characters, the heart behind the laughter.