Will Ferrell’s newest comedy, Casa de mi Padre, opens in a small number of theaters this Friday. That may sound appropriate for the occasional drama he does: Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda; the Charlie Kaufman-esque Stranger Than Fiction; or Everything Must Go, in which he lent his chops to a Raymond Carver short story. What differentiates Casa de mi Padre, a pastiche of Mexican telenovelas, from Elf and The Other Guys is, as the title suggests, a biggie: It features Ferrell speaking Spanish with surprising credibility. Ferrell’s epic journey to speak another language has understandably dominated the press on the film, conceived by him but written by Andrew Steele and directed by Matt Piedmont, both Saturday Night Live and Funny or Die vets. Not that he can speak Spanish fluently. Still, his Latino co-stars were impressed. “[He] speaks well,” says co-star Gael García Bernal. “Maybe not such that he can do Don Quixote or a whole traveling monologue or rap in Spanish. But he was able to understand everything we’d say, so it would have been very dangerous to say things behind his back.” Ferrell spoke to PW about his language odyssey, the difficulty it created in improvising on set, and his history with G.W. Bush.
PW: How comfortable are you with Spanish now?
Will Ferrell: Sadly, I’m not any more proficient, really. I would say my comprehension’s a lot better, for sure. I can understand things better. I had this big fantasy of taking Spanish class and being ready for the junket, and impressing people with my Spanish. And then that never happened.
PW: What prevented it?
WF: Just life. [laughs] I didn’t take advantage of everything I got under my belt. But it was really more of a crash course. I had a basic understanding of Spanish, but it was really just an exercise in getting the scenes down, and pronunciation, too. That didn’t lead to a ton of retention.
PW: Were the other Spanish-speaking actors and crew impressed with you?
WF: They thought it was good. At least that’s what they said to my face. On the first day of filming, I had this two-page monologue about my character’s idea of a perfect woman, and I was like, “Oh, geez. Be careful what you wish for.” But the first time I did the scene everyone was saying, “Oh, that’s not bad. He sounds OK!” I think people didn’t understand that wasn’t going to be the joke of the movie, that I wasn’t going to be saying “Ho-La! Como Es-tass!” I was actually going to commit to sounding authentic.
PW: You come from a long history of improv. I imagine it was difficult to improvise in a language in which you’re not fluent. How was that?
WF: Absolutely impossible. [laughs] I had to find moments, physical moments to improvise in. It would be subtle reactions. I couldn’t just do off-the-cuff ad-lib. There were a couple moments where I’d ask someone, “How do you say so-and-so?” And that was my form of improvisation. But that was OK. I think I’m getting asked that, that there’s this sense that I was feeling like I was in a straitjacket. “I’ve got to be able to improvise!” But I never felt that way, because I knew that if I served the script, and I articulate things, and my accent is decent, that will be a feat in and of itself, that it will be OK.
PW: Did you find it strangely freeing to not have to improv?
WF: Yeah! It’s a two-way street, the movies where you get to improvise. It’s so thrilling when your brain clicks into a thing and you come up with a brand new joke. On the other hand, you’re sweating it out a little bit. The projects where I’ve just been able to commit to the script and just work on using those words differently, with different intent and feeling, it’s almost like it’s a whole new exercise for me. I don’t mind it.
PW: What was it like working with Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, given they’re dramatic actors doing comedy?
WF: I’m so used to it from SNL . I always maintain that our best shows were when we had straight dramatic actors who weren’t trying to be funny. They were just trying to play these characters in these scenes. Those shows were always hilarious because they would commit. That’s all these guys did, they just committed to these characters and in the end showed they’re actually, for all the drama they’ve done, they’re great comedic actors, too. When we met them, they shamed us because they have this great sense of humor in English, in both languages. And we can only joke in one.
PW: What has the reaction been like in Mexico?
WF: That remains to be seen. It doesn’t open there until the beginning of May. The interesting thing is it’s going to be a bigger release there, than here. It’s committed to 500 screens, which is a decent size release in Mexico. That’s awesome.
PW: You’ve often said you’re a comic who doesn’t have a dark side. But Adam McKay has said you secretly do. Does that manifest itself in how you seem to like to mess with people?
WF: I don’t have a dark side in the sense that I’m pained or I put my fist in a mirror or something like that. But I have a devious side, for sure. I’ve always loved watching Andy Kaufman. I love it when you can do something that makes 75 percent of the audience laugh and 25 percent, it drives them crazy. That’s a good little ratio.
PW: You were one of the more prominent comics who was exploiting the Bush era for jokes. What’s it like in the post-Bush era? Obama is not overtly hilarious.
WF: I think there’s always fodder, but I think the previous president was just more adept at stepping in it.
With all the shaky zoom-lenses, deliberately cruddy production values and self-consciously melodramatic, heightened dialogue, Casa de mi Padre is purposefully shitty, employing some elbow-to-the-ribs fake backgrounds, wooden prop horses and an aura of smirky incompetence.
When you’re talking, you’re training your vocal system to be able to be good at the language you’re speaking. Even though I’ve been speaking English since I was 10, I will always have an accent. Everything is shaped differently.