Battle of Wills

Kyle Smith

Will Ferrell the actor has been a high-energy nutcase ever since he started on “Saturday Night Live” in 1995. He spread “Spartan spirit” as one of SNL’s famous “cheerleaders,” sported a fez and a bad accent as one of Dr. Evil’s henchmen in the “Austin Powers” movies, memorably reinvented Alex Trebek in a series of unforgettable “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches, and, perhaps most famously, fearlessly streaked through suburban streets and gulped from a beer bong as restless newlywed Frank “The Tank” Ricard in this year’s “Old School.”

But Will Ferrell the interviewee is boring. He’s also really tall.

Neurotic and quirky onscreen, Ferrell’s humor finally shone in all its brilliance in “Old School.” The Southern California native’s combination of calm, childish rage, cartoonish theatrics and surprisingly subtle physical comedy gave the film that golden rewatchability factor — dirty DVDs of the film will live forever on the floors of fraternity rooms.

Promoting his new movie “Elf,” Ferrell is draped in a white button-down shirt and loose-fitting khaki pants anchored by worn tennis shoes. The cuffs on his shirt are lazily buttoned, with the mid-wrist button undone on both hands.

The hotel notepad in front of him has been converted into a plate for the oatmeal raisin cookies he’s been nibbling all day. Ferrell finishes a cookie, then starts picking at the crumbs on the pad, lazily talking about shooting “Elf” in New York City.

Ferrell sports a ridiculous elf costume for most of the movie. The costume, like the movie, is decidedly inspired by the claymation Christmas TV specials of the early ’60s, particularly the forest green couture and back-breaking belt buckle of would-be dentist Hermey in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Ferrell comes to life when discussing the cartoon, impersonating the screeching voice of the head elf. It’s as animated as he gets during our interview, except for an extensive and hilarious impersonation of “Inside the Actors Studio” host James Lipton.

“It takes about 30 minutes to put the makeup on,” Ferrell begins, talking about when he went on Lipton’s show in 2001, “and [Lipton] stood over my shoulder, looking at me, saying ‘The transformation has begun! YOU are becoming ME!'”

As a celebrity impersonator, Ferrell’s variations on characters like Lipton and President Bush are legendary. Yet with the burgeoning cult status of “Old School” (“that movie, man” laments Ferrell), he’s seeing himself as more of an icon. “When I start seeing someone impersonating me, that’ll be weird,” he says. “And that usually signals the decline.”

Ferrell has the classic comedian complex — he’s most comfortable being someone else. Yet Will Ferrell has a lot going for Will Ferrell, including a child on the way with his wife Vivica (fittingly, the chick he lost his virginity to in “Night at the Roxbury”). He is a respected marathoner and would make a great ESPN sportscaster; he majored in Sports Information at USC and has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the subject.

Still, most of Ferrell’s responses are awkward, disjointed and shy. It’s obvious that he understands what kind of movie “Elf” is; it’s not the kind where you can easily work a junket. There’s only so much to say about a film where a human, raised as an elf, must return and adjust to civilization while winning over everyone he meets with the indomitable Christmas spirit.

“The same thing that attracted me to this project was also a concern of mine. I hoped a different audience would see this, and that it wouldn’t necessarily be the ‘Old School’ crowd — although hopefully some of the ‘Old School’ crowd might come and see it with the expectation that it’s obviously a different movie,” Ferrell says.

“I don’t have all these categories that I’m trying to fulfill in terms of a career, like ‘okay, next I have to make a kids movie,'” he quips. And he’s not lying. Right now, Ferrell is slated for major roles in David Gordon Green’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” as Darrin opposite Nicole Kidman’s Samantha in “Bewitched,” and alongside Robert Duvall in a sports movie that Ferrell describes as “kind of a ‘Bad News Bears’ meets ‘The Great Santini’ in the world of youth soccer.”

Ferrell spoke of how “Elf” director Jon Favreau wanted the film to match the tone of Tom Hanks’ 1988 hit “Big.” “We felt that if we could get close to that in any way it’d be great, because the way he played that character and the way that it was such a nice blend of a thoughtful movie with comedy in it,” Ferrell says.

They fail, but a Hanks-like career trajectory might not be out of the question for the ambitious Ferrell. His off-screen persona is fairly moribund compared to the visceral insanity he’s known for, but perhaps such a contrast will facilitate a Hanks-like turnaround.

If, like former “Bosom Buddy” Hanks, the mild-mannered Ferrell can convert his one-note brand of humor into dramatic performances, perhaps he’ll ditch his currently inescapable “Frank the Tank” identity. And as his upcoming performances demonstrate, the demand for Ferrell shows no signs of slacking.

But if that ever happens, he can still fall back on his trademark ridiculousness. “Double Celebrity Jeopardy,” anyone?

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