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Interview: Will Ferrell

It seems like Will Ferrell can make anything funny. Who would have thought that newscasters would be fertile ground for comedy? In Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Ferrell takes on NASCAR. It may seem like the sport is ripe for the satirizing, but the whole film actually materialized in a desperate search for something mainstream.

“This whole thing was actually a byproduct of having a lot of difficulty getting Anchorman made,” said Ferrell. “We knew nothing about NASCAR and every studio passed on Anchorman our first time around and then it really wasn't until Old School came out and it was the usual game of, 'We always loved that script.' But it was just difficult for them to wrap their heads around all of it, that it was a comedy about newsmen. We were just like, 'No. Think of them as crazy characters.' In commiserating over that we should just pick a topic that everyone knows about and is really accessible like NASCAR and it was like, 'That's a good idea.' That's kind of how it started out. Then of course we gained a little more insight after going to track and races and that sort of thing. But I think that in a weird kind of backwards way our ignorance about the sport allowed us to feel free about creating outlandish scenarios and characters that had we known too much might have edited us in a way. So by the time that we started learning about it we had already written a lot of it and so it enhanced what we already had.”

Ricky Bobby is a southern boy who grew up wanting to drive fast. Having impersonated a famous Texan on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell couldn’t help but inject some of that voice into Ricky Bobby.

“That did come out subconsciously. When I actually saw the film I was like, 'God. I sound just like the Bush thing.' It wasn't a conscious thing, but I do agree that it does come out a bit. I should've said that it's my smart little twist that I put on the whole thing, but it just kind of happened.”

Like many Ferrell films, Talladega Nights is full of improvisation. Within the film, Ferrell remains a rock, adapting to anything thrown his way. In the end credits, we get to see outtakes of the times he couldn’t stay in character, like Stephen Colbert trying to say “Filliam H. Muffman.”

“A lot of times it just hits me like a ton of bricks the absurdity of what we're doing or what we're saying and that'll be when I lose it. But it's hard to kind of make me break. And then also, if you're really enjoying the other actors that you're working with it almost heals itself, but for the most part I don't normally have a problem with that.”

Talladega Nights may be a comedy, but all of the driving stunts are real. “What we were hoping to do was obviously make a sports comedy which the sport that's involved has to have some awareness that we're having fun with what they do and that sort of thing. At the same time we made it clear to them that we wanted to make the racing look clear, real and intense and we wanted the footage to be as if it was from a serious racing movie. So we feel like we sort of split the difference. In early screenings of the film with friends and colleagues who were writers and other comedians, most of them having no knowledge of the sport their reaction was like, 'Wow. You really make the sport look really cool.' So we were just trying to split the difference, but it wasn't about making a film of fans in overalls in the stands and that sort of thing because if you go to these races you see a wide range of a type of fan and actually I don't know if we ever really met a drive who is like Ricky Bobby. I mean he is a throwback because the guys that you meet now are real polite and nice and they have so much responsibility that they kind of can't race the way that Ricky likes to race and that sort of thing. So the ultimate goal was to have a fun movie for people who didn't know anything about racing and then also to have a little fun and pay homage to the race fans who enjoy the sport.”

Ricky Bobby was never intended to be a scathing commentary on drivers. He is a pure creation of Ferrell’s. “It was more just someone who would be fun for me to play and cocky and southern were one of my goals. I mean it was also at the same time something that's always fun to have, however idiotic the character is or brace, to have some underlying thing of humanity. Ricky is cocky, but there is a part of him that's like still needs his friends to tell him he's on the right track. So he doesn't even know for sure.”

Ferrell’s next comedy is Blades of Glory, another sports comedy, this time set in the world of competitive figure skating. Costar Jon Heder already broke his ankle during skating training, so Ferrell is playing it safe.

“It's coming along. I've had so many starts and stops with it and August will be when we're doing all of the ice-skating finally. So I can go forward pretty well, backwards crossovers not so good. Jon Heder broke his ankle a month before we started filming so there was this big talk about whether we would still do the movie or do we not, and then this whole thing was worked out where it was a relatively minor break and then if we did all the non-skating stuff it would slowly heal and then he had another movie commitment that he had to keep which he's filming right now and then when he's done with that we start again in August. But he's doing great. He's back on skates.”

This fall’s Stranger Than Fiction shapes to be a more emotional Will Ferrell movie. He plays a man who begins hearing narration, and realizes he is a character in an author’s book. Don’t worry, it’s still funny.

“It's got somewhat of a different tone from your normal comedy and I think that it's the best thing. It's an amazing film just by itself with all of the elements that you hope for in terms of this kind of amazing and touching story and it has some really sweet and funny parts to it and a real emotional center that is great. It's really just kind of an amazing tale and journey.”

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby opens Friday.