Skip to main content

Swan Song for 'Prime Suspect'

Helen Mirren introduced the character of British police inspector Jane Tennison in the first Prime Suspect miniseries, imported by PBS 14 years ago. This weekend and next, the PBS anthology series Masterpiece Theatre presents the last entry: Prime Suspect: The Final Act.

07:00

Other segments from the episode on November 9, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 9, 2006: Interview with Will Ferrell; Review of the television program "Prime suspect: the final act."

Transcript

DATE November 9, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Comedian and actor Will Ferrell talks about his movie
career and his latest movie "Stranger Than Fiction"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is one of the funniest actors working today, Will Ferrell. He spent
seven seasons on "Saturday Night Live" where he did characters ranging from
George W. Bush to James Lipton and Robert Goulet. He starred in the films
"Old School," "Elf," "Kicking & Screaming," "Bewitched," "The Producers,"
"Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights." His new film, "Stranger Than Fiction," has
a surreal premise. He plays a tax auditor with the IRS who leads a very
routinized life. One morning he wakes up and hears a voice in his head,
narrating his every movement and thought. Eventually, he figures out that the
voice he's hearing is the famous novelist, Karen Eiffel, reading from her work
in progress, and he is a character in her novel. Disturbed that this writer
is controlling his destiny, he tries to track her down. In this scene, he
visits the office of her publisher and tries to get some information from the
receptionist in the lobby.

(Soundbite from "Stranger Than Fiction")

Mr. WILL FERRELL: (As Harold Crick) I need to speak to Karen Eiffel.

Unidentified Actress #1: (As receptionist) I'm sorry?

Mr. FERRELL: (As Harold Crick) Karen Eiffel. She's one of your authors. I
need to talk to her. It's urgent.

Actress #1: (As receptionist) Well, she's not here.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Harold Crick) No, no, I know. I need to find her. I need
to know where she is.

Actress #1: (As receptionist) We're just the publishers.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Harold Crick) Right. Of course, but there must be a way
that I can contact her.

Actress #1: (As receptionist) We have the address where her fan mail is sent.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Harold Crick) No, I can't send mail. It's urgent.

Actress #1: (As receptionist) How do you know her?

Mr. FERRELL: (as Harold Crick) I'm her brother.

Actress #1: (As receptionist) Her brother?

Mr. FERRELL: (As Harold Crick) Her brother-in-law.

Actress #1: (As receptionist) She has a sister?

Mr. FERRELL: (As Harold Crick) No, I'm married to her brother. Not in this
state. The one over...

Actress #1: (As receptionist) Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Harold Crick) No, OK, listen. I'm one of her characters.
I'm new. I'm in her new book, and she's going to kill me. Not actually, but
in the book. But I think it will actually kill me so I just--I need to talk
to her and ask her to stop.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Welcome to FRESH AIR. How do you get into a character to play a
character who has come to learn that he's actually a character in a novel and
he hears the writer narrating his...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ..story as he lives his life in his head. I mean, there's nobody in
real life who you could study who would give you a sense of what it's like to
have a writer's voice in your head who's writing this story.

Mr. FERRELL: No. Yeah. Obviously, there's no way to emulate that so I just
approached it, you know, I just--I wanted to kind of figure out how this guy
lived his life, you know, to begin with, which he's kind of a very quiet, you
know, mundane existence working at the IRS and literally planning things to
the second the way this guy kind of exists, and then we were--Mark actually
came up with a really ingenuous idea where I would actually have--we used a
little earpiece where I had Emma Thompson's narration prerecorded so I could
literally listen to this voice in my head and no one else could hear it, you
know, in the scenes where I worked with other actors. So that's kind of how
we were able to--you know, I was actually able to live that in a way.

GROSS: Usually, you know, you play somebody--well, often you play somebody
who's very kind of uninhibited and kind of extreme and extroverted...

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: ...in a lot of ways...

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: ...and in this, you're somebody who lives a very regimented kind of
life. You count your toothbrush strokes.

Mr. FERRELL: Yes.

GROSS: You count your steps to the bus and you arrive at the bus at the exact
time every day. Could you relate to that kind of character at all? It's so
different from what you usually do.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, it was--well, that was kind of what appealed to me to
begin with was I'm usually playing characters that are so over the top so kind
of, you know, I guess, fantastical in a way, and this--I loved the thought of
playing someone just really real and kind of muted and yet it's still a
comedic role so, you know, I still kind of have to be funny, but, you know, at
the same time, I enjoyed it too because I kind of identified with the way this
guy lived his life because I've often had conversations with my wife about the
fact if I wasn't doing what I was doing as an actor or comedian, that I do
have some aspects of my personality where I could kind of live somewhat a
solitary existence. I don't know what that says about me but I--you know, I
don't need a lot of things. You know, if I just had some books to read and,
you know, a source of income and could go to the movies every once in a while,
like that would be OK too. So I kind of tapped into that, and also, you know,
I had a period of time, kind of post-college, when I moved back home for three
years, a long three years, and I worked as a bank teller.

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah. And I was kind of Harold Crick in that way. I kind of
just--you know, I was just starting to explore, you know, taking theater
classes and standup and those sorts of things, but for the most part I was
kind of back at home, driving from point A to point B and counting money, and
I didn't have much of a social life because a lot of my friends had gone on to
real jobs and things like that. So I was able to kind of draw on that period
of time as well.

GROSS: Did you do shtick when you were a bank teller? Did you like
impersonate your version of what a bank teller would be?

Mr. FERRELL: No, in fact, I was so--I found the job so nervewracking that I
got so quiet because I had to focus with every aspect I would make one
transaction and then shut my window down for 15 minutes to make sure
everything was still there. And one day it slipped out that I did standup
comedy, and one of the managers came up to me and just stared at me. It was
like, `You're funny? I don't believe it.' And I said, `Well, yeah, I can be.'
But I go, `You'll have to come see a show.' And so it was kind of my alter ego
that outside of work I had this place to kind of, you know, go crazy up on
stage.

GROSS: Now, in "Stranger Than Fiction," your character's dream is to play
guitar and as the movie goes on, he becomes a little more uninhibited. He
gets a guitar, and there's a scene where he--where you sing and accompany
yourself on guitar, and it's really--it's kind of nice. Usually, you sing in
your movies. There's usually a point where you sing.

Mr. FERRELL: Right. You're right.

GROSS: You did a lot of that on "Saturday Night Live," and it's almost always
a parody of some sort.

Mr. FERRELL: Right. Right.

GROSS: But in this, you're kind of singing for real...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...as a very inhibited person who's opening up for the first time...

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: ...and is very tentative about singing. Do you love to sing?

Mr. FERRELL: You know, I--yeah, I do. I mean, I come from kind of a musical
family. My father is a musician so we--my brothers and I--kind of grew up
around music a lot. I mean, I don't love to sing in the sense of `I'm such a
good singer, listen to me sing,' or you know, I'm not--I don't brag about it
but, yeah, there's something--you know, it's nice, I sing, you know--we have a
two-and-a-half-year-old son now, and we're playing music with him all the
time, and--in fact, he tells me a lot of times in his two-and-a-half-year-old
way to stop singing, so he doesn't like it so much. But I love--yeah, I think
music is such an important part of kind of family life.

GROSS: Do you think having a father who was a performer made you any more or
less inhibited or uninhibited?

Mr. FERRELL: I would say definitely more uninhibited, only because he--you
know, when I kind of decided--when I was taking classes at the Groundlings
Theater in Los Angeles, which is an improv and sketch comedy group, and I kind
of sat down with him and said, `Hey, Dad, I think I want to give this a shot,
you know, and try to make a living at this. Do you have any words of advice?'
And he said, `You know, if it was based on talent, I wouldn't worry about you,
and you have a lot of talent, but there's a lot of luck involved and just know
that.'

Now that may come off as kind of weird advice, but for some reason, I found it
really comforting that it was such a crapshoot that I might as well go for it,
you know. I might as well be completely uninhibited and have a great time
because it's a little bit like playing the lottery and you don't know. So for
some reason, those were words of great comfort that I wasn't totally in
control in a way, and so that allowed me to just have a great time with it,
and he always said, `You know, if it gets too hard at a certain point, you
know, don't be afraid to change and do something different.'

GROSS: Well, you said, you know, for you to be completely uninhibited, and
you really seem to be completely uninhibited as an actor and even just like
the thing that most people are inhibited about their body.

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: You've done such funny things, you know, like streaking nude in "Old
School," and back on "Saturday Night Live," there were a couple of shows, a
few shows, you know, where you'd be like naked except for like a--sometimes
like a patriotic...

Mr. FERRELL: Jockstrap.

GROSS: ...American flag jockstrap.

Mr. FERRELL: Yes, exactly, right.

GROSS: And...

Mr. FERRELL: One of my finer moments.

GROSS: ...and this was all about inviting the audience to laugh at how you
looked. It was not about...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...showing off your body. It's about...

Mr. FERRELL: No.

GROSS: ...being laughed at.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, it was--I mean, it's also too about just, you know, if
you're going to do comedy, especially on a show like "Saturday Night Live,"
why not commit to being as extreme as possible when it's appropriate, when it
calls for it. You know, I've now kind of worked myself into a cor--well, not
a corner, but I now get the question, `Oh, well, you know, is it a
prerequisite for you to strip down to your underwear in a movie?' or this and
that, and it really isn't. I'm not such an exhibitionist that I'm working on
something and I'm like, `Guys, page 32, I haven't gotten in my underwear yet.'

GROSS: You act without vanity. You're willing to do anything to commit to
the part and get a laugh, but you often play people who are very vain.

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: And that was certainly the case, like in "Anchorman," where you
play...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ... a local anchor who really thinks he's, you know, Edward R.
Murrow or something.

Mr. FERRELL: Yes. Exactly.

GROSS: He's usually covering, you know, the zoo story or the latest
development at the zoo.

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: And there's a great scene where the new female anchor, you have a
crush on her. She's played by Christina Applegate.

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: And you invite her to your office and what you really want to do is
like show off, like your great body, so you've taken off your shirt and you're
sitting on a stool...

Mr. FERRELL: Mm-hmm. And I...

GROSS: ...with handweights.

Mr. FERRELL: Lifting weights.

GROSS: And you're lifting weights...

Mr. FERRELL: Yes.

GROSS: ...to show off, like your great, like chest and arm muscles...

Mr. FERRELL: Show off the guns. Yeah.

GROSS: You show off the guns, exactly.

Mr. FERRELL: Yes.

GROSS: And she comes in thinking she's going to have a meeting with you. Let
me play that scene.

(Soundbite from "Anchorman")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) One thousand one, one thousand two, ahhhhh!

Ms. CHRISTINA APPLEGATE: (As Veronica Corningstone) Mr. Burgundy...

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) One thousand three...

Ms. APPLEGATE: (As Veronica Corningstone) Helen said that you needed to see
me.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Ahhhh! Oh, Ms. Corningstone. I wasn't
expecting company. Ahhhh! Ohhh! Mmmm. Just doing my workout. Tuesday's
arms and back.

Ms. APPLEGATE: (As Veronica Corningstone) Well, you asked me to come by,
sir.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Oh, did I? Ohhh!

Ms. APPLEGATE: (As Veronica Corningstone) Yeah.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Ohhhhh! Ohhhh! It's a deep burn. Ohhh! So
deep. Ah! Oh, I can barely lift my right arm because I did so many. I don't
know if you heard me counting. I did over a thousand.

Ms. APPLEGATE: (As Veronica Corningstone) Ohh.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) You have your uvulus muscle connects to the
upper dorsimus. It's boring, but it's part of my life. I'm just going to
grab this shirt if you don't mind. Just watch out for the guns. They'll get
you.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's really funny. You know, it's--and, of course, you don't have
like those rippling muscles in the movie.

Mr. FERRELL: No, not quite. Yeah.

GROSS: But the funny thing is, you know, like you were an athlete when you
were in college. You were...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...a varsity football...

Mr. FERRELL: High school, yeah.

GROSS: OK, yeah. Football player. But a lot of actors who probably never
were athletes like work out to have those like rippling abs, and you know...

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: ...like big muscles. They look great but--so I'm just kind of
interested in how, you know, as somebody who was an athlete when you were
younger...

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: ...how you dealt with the whole like working-out-muscle thing.

Mr. FERRELL: Well, you know what's funny is I'm still fairly athletic. I
mean, I kind of have to work out just to look fat.

GROSS: Would you stick out your stomach so that, like in certain scenes,
you'll look out of shape, just a little bit?

Mr. FERRELL: No, that just kind of happens that way. Yeah, I mean, I still
am a pretty adamant, you know, runner and...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FERRELL: ...you know, I still--I love kind of exercising and this and
that, but there is--yeah, there's something about my physique that no matter
how much in shape I'm in, it doesn't quite photograph that way but, yeah, you
know, it is, it's funny. I don't know, it's kind of my protest to this whole,
you know, kind of cultural thing now where we have to work out, we have to
stay--you know, it's all about body image and this and that, especially in Los
Angeles, and you know, I don't know, it's kind of, I guess, for me, my kind of
celebration of the average guy and that that can be...

GROSS: Oh, yeah, right.

Mr. FERRELL: ...you know, funny, and that sort of thing. But you know, it's
also funny from a character standpoint that a guy like Ron Burgundy can be so
vain and he still looks like that, you know, with his shirt off, so...

GROSS: Is that how you see a lot of what you do, as a celebration of the
average guy?

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, that and, you know, we love--you know, my writing
partner, Adam McKay, we wrote--he wrote and directed "Anchorman," and we did
"Talladega Nights" together. We're endlessly fascinating with kind of the
average guy but also kind of this character we like to call this man, someone
with unearned confidence.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. FERRELL: Which, you know, I always feel like you run into these people
who are--want to have conversations about what they do and who they are, and
you start listening and you realize, you know, you're not really helping the
world in any way. You're not helping figure out world peace or a cure for
cancer. It's really kind of lame stuff you're doing but you think it's the
best stuff in the world. So we kind of love those characters.

GROSS: My guest is Will Ferrell. He's starting in the new film "Stranger
Than Fiction."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Will Ferrell, and he's starring
in the new movie, "Stranger Than Fiction."

So, when you went to like, audition for "Saturday Night Live," the story goes
that you took a trunk, like a suitcase, of Monopoly money with you, so that
you could do what?

Mr. FERRELL: Well, I had read somewhere that Adam Sandler had gone and had a
meeting with Loren Michaels and had gone into this meeting kind of sight
unseen and had done this really funny bit where he, I don't know, mimicked
having sex with a chair or something and was hired on the spot. And I
thought, well, I'm going to follow that, like be funny in the room, and kind
of take advantage, you know, of the moment, kind of seize the day type of
attitude. So I thought what would be really funny is that I walk in with a
briefcase full of toy money and just start piling it on his desk and say,
`Loren, look, we can talk, you know, until the cows come home but we really
know what talks, and that's money, and I'm going to walk out of this room, and
you can either take this money or leave it on your desk, I'll never know the
difference,' and then hopefully he'd think it was funny that I stacked all
this fake counterfeit money, but when I got in the atmosphere was so intense
that I never got to my big joke, and I just sat there with my briefcase in my
lap, which when I left, it felt insane because I was thinking, `Well, he must
be thinking, "What comedian walks in with a briefcase and just sits there,
nervously,"' and so I never--and then we had another meeting where I tried to
do it again, and the assistant said, `Oh, leave your briefcase, you don't need
that,' and then, lo and behold, that was the meeting where he told me I had
the job, and then as I left, I gave a handful of the fake money to the
assistant. It was like, `Can you please give this to him? It's kind of
symbolic and I tried to do this twice but I could never do it, so can you give
him this fake money?' And in hindsight, he thought it was really funny that
I'd tried twice to do this gag, and it never, never kind of came to fruition.

GROSS: So what did you do during the audition?

Mr. FERRELL: When I was out, they were really kind of looking for eight or
nine brand-new members of the cast, so the first round was five to eight
minutes--you had to do a character of your choice, a political impersonation
if you had one, and a celebrity impersonation. So I did Harry Caray as my
celebrity and I did Ted Kennedy doing standup as my political impersonation,
which was terrible and...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FERRELL: ...then I just did this character that--it ended up actually
being on my first episode, which was this--it ended up being called the `get
off the shed' guy, who was this kind of dad, you know, having a barbecue in
his backyard who was yelling at his children to get off this shed, which it's
hard to explain, but Loren says it got me the job, so it was good that I did
it.

GROSS: So, in your early days of "Saturday Night Live," did you have to be
very assertive to get material on the show?

Mr. FERRELL: Well, you know, once again, I was fortunate in that it was a
brand-new group of people, who all came in at once so, you know, the pie
really hadn't been divvied up at that point. So everyone was really kind of
freely writing for each other, even though you really do kind of have to be a
self-starter there. You have to be able to write for yourself because a lot
of the writers won't--they don't really give you any of the character pieces.
Those are usually generated by the cast themselves, and a lot of the more
conceptual pieces are created by the writers, so, yeah, I kind of--like I
said, the Groundlings was great. I knew kind of how to write for myself, and
then as I kind of got momentum on the show, then the writers kind of--the next
thing you know, the writers are coming to you as they view you as someone who
can kind of deliver the material. So it just kind of starts snowballing in
that way. So at a certain point I was, you know, I was fortunate in that I
was always cast, you know, a fair amount of times, you know, from the writers.
But there's really no structure. That's why you can--you watch the show and
you'll see someone--an actor had a really big show one week and then the next
show, they're maybe in one thing because it just ebbs and flows that way.

GROSS: Will Ferrell will be back in the second half of the show. He's
starring in the new film, "Stranger Than Fiction." Here he is in "Anchorman,"
sitting in with the band in a bar playing flute to impress his ladyfriend.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite from "Anchorman")

(Soundbite of applause and cheers)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) This is a surprise, I'll tell you. Guys,
"East Harlem Shakedown," E flat. Keep it simple splashy, and, Jerry, let's
take the baseline for a walk.

(Soundbite of wind instrument)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) I'm not hearing it right.

(Soundbite of flute)

(Soundbite of bass guitar)

Mr. FERRELL: (as Ron Burgundy) We got it now. It's all right.

Unidentified Actress #2: Fire it up, Ronnie.

(Soundbite of flute)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) A little ham and eggs coming at you. Hold
on, people. Hope you got your griddles.

(Soundbite of flute)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Uhh.

(Soundbite of flute)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Uhh.

(Soundbite of flute)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) That's babymaking music, that's what that is.
Unhh.

(Soundbite of flute)

(End of soundbite)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross, back with Will Ferrell. He's starring in the new film,
"Stranger Than Fiction," and his film "Talladega Nights" comes out on DVD next
month. Ferrell was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" for seven seasons,
from 1995 to 2002.

One of the things you became famous for on "Saturday Night Live" was your
impersonation of George W. Bush, and, of course, in 2000 the debates that you
did...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that you did with Darrell Hammond as ...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Al Gore, I mean, became, like, really quite famous.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you think that they influenced how people who watched the show
actually thought of the candidates?

Mr. FERRELL: I've been told as much, that we actually--I mean, well, it
was--you know, we had found out later that the Gore people showed the sketch,
the first one we did, to the candidate and to the vice president to say,
`Look, this is how you're perceived.' And so I guess, in that regard, you
know, Darrell kind of influenced their--and someone--a few people have said to
me that you made the then governor at that time come off as very likable, even
though, you know, we were kind of playing up, you know, all the things he was
known for kind of sticking his, you know, foot in his mouth for. So I--yeah,
I guess we did. It was kind of a crazy time to have all eyes on us, you know,
in that moment.

GROSS: Let's hear a short clip of you doing George W. Bush, and this is from
"Saturday Night Live." My guest is Will Ferrell.

(Soundbite from "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Actor: The following is an address from the president of the
United States.

Mr. FERRELL: (As President George W. Bush) Good evening, America. I'm very
happy to be back in this country after my very successful trip in the Pacific
Rim. I'm heartened to hear that, for the most part, the people of this
country show strong support for my agenda. However, lately, there's some who
are beginning to criticize this administration. Maybe these people don't
understand. America is presently at war, not just the war on terrorism, but
we are engaged in a deadly standoff with an axis of evil. You know who I'm
talking about. Iran, Iraq and one of the Koreas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (As President George W. Bush): But my axis of evil doesn't
seem to interest some people out there. Some people just want to talk about
the economy and budgets and Enron. I'll bet most of you out there don't even
understand Enron. I sure as heck don't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (As President George W. Bush) It hurts my head to think about
it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (As President George W. Bush) So from now on, Enron will be
part of my axis of evil.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Will Ferrell as George W. Bush.

Did you ever get any feedback from President Bush about his thoughts on your
impression of him?

Mr. FERRELL: No, I never got any direct feedback as far as I--as far as I
knew. I'm trying, I think he--you know, I--we might have talked about this
before but I did--I met him once when he came to the show and he didn't
realize that I was the guy who played him, even though it was put to me that
he was a huge fan, and so it was this very awkward situation where--and this
was during the campaign of 2000, and so it was this whole thing of `Hurry,
rush down to the studio, the governor really wants to meet you.' And I'm like,
`OK, OK,' and then they forced me into this--you know, all these
photographers--and they're like `Go, go, go. Say hi.' And I could tell he had
no idea that I was the guy. And so we just kind of stood there, and you know,
had this awkward like--he's like, `Pleased to meet you' and just kind of look
at me. And then it kind of dawned on him that `Oh, I think--oh, I know who
you are,' and then I had to go somewhere or something. So it was kind of
apropos, I think, in a way.

GROSS: In one of the impressions that you did on "Saturday Night Live," one
of the characters you did was James Lipton from the "Actors Studio" broadcast.

Mr. FERRELL: Yes.

GROSS: That as always so much fun. What made you decide to do him?

Mr. FERRELL: Well, you know, it was funny. I'd actually been a huge fan of
the show and had always--you know, kind of had been watching it, and then one
day I was running around at the show, and there was a message at the page
desk, and one of the pages grabbed me and said, `Bill Murray called for you.'
And I said, `Really?' And so I thought, `Oh, if Bill Murray calls you, you
should probably return the call right away.' And we'd met briefly. I think
he'd hosted the show the week before. So I called him, and he said, `Hey, you
know who would be good for you to do? I've been watching this James Lipton
guy.' And I'm like, `That's so funny you brought that up. I was kind of
pondering that myself.' So I thought, boy, I'd better--because a lot of times
you have ideas where you don't--you get lazy and you don't act on it, and so
it was really a phone call from Bill Murray kind of forced me to kind of act
on that, and then, you know, it was kind of amazing how much James Lipton
loved the impression so much so that he had me come on his 100th episode as
him, and we did an interview back and forth where he asked me questions, which
was very surreal as he stood over my shoulder watching me get into makeup,
saying, `Yes! The transformation has begun. I'm watching you becoming me.'
And very--it was very--and he watched the whole 30 minutes it takes me to get
into that makeup, and I was like, `It's--you can go get a sandwich if you want
at some point, you know.' And he's like, `No, this is fascinating.' But one of
the many interesting things that has happened to me thus far.

GROSS: Did you notice things sitting across the table from him that you
hadn't noticed watching on TV?

Mr. FERRELL: Not really. I don't know. I think if anything I noticed was I
felt like, `God, I feel like I slightly underplay him. I could go even
bigger.'

GROSS: Let's hear you actually doing James Lipton on "Saturday Night Live."
So this is Will Ferrell.

(Soundbite from "Saturday Night Live")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (As James Lipton) On the 13th of January 1931, right here in
New York City, magic happened. An artist was born that would rival Leonardo
da Vinci or Michelangelo. But his tools would not be pen nor brush nor chisel
nor palette. His tools would be his comically oversized glasses and his soul.
So, please, welcome the greatest performer ever to have graced this earth,
Charles Nelson Riley.

(Soundbite of applause)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Will Ferrell doing James Lipton. And later in the sketch,
Charles Nelson Riley is played by Alec Baldwin.

So how do you study somebody like Lipton when you're doing an impersonation of
him. Like, what is your process of watching somebody, whether it's Lipton or
President Bush?

Mr. FERRELL: I usually have to just pick one key thing and then emphasize
that again and again and again and then hope that the rest kind of fills in,
but with, you know, with Bush, as I tried to work on him vocally, I really
just worked on it more from the way he kind of scrunched up his face and kind
of squinted his eyes and almost started from that approach, and with Lipton, I
just tried to overenunciate and so I usually try to key in on one thing where,
you know, when you speak to someone like Darrell Hammond, who's still on
"Saturday Night Live," he is such a kind of a scientist about it. He can tell
you that a person has had, you know, dental work because of the way they pop
their T's and this and that. He can listen to every single thing, and I'm not
able to do that, so I would just kind of find one key thing to hone in on.

GROSS: My guest is Will Ferrell. He's starring in the new film "Stranger
Than Fiction."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Will Ferrell. He's starring in the new film "Stranger
Than Fiction." His film "Talladega Nights" about NASCAR drivers comes out on
DVD next month. Here's a scene from "Talladega Nights" in which he's saying
grace at the dinner table with his family and best friend.

(Soundbite from "Talladega Nights")

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ricky Bobby) Dear Lord baby Jesus, we thank you so much for
this bountiful harvest of Dominoes, KFC and the always delicious Taco Bell. I
just want to take time to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful,
beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger or TR, as we call
him, and, of course, my red-hot-smoking wife, Carley, who's a stone-cold fox.
Mmmmm! Dear tiny infant Jesus...

Unidentified Actress #3: Hey, uh, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You
don't always have to call him baby. It's a bit odd and off-putting to pray to
a baby.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ricky Bobby) Well, look, I like the Christmas Jesus best
and I'm saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grown-up Jesus or
teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: I'm wondering if some screenplays are given to you by people who
think, `Well, this needs work but he's so funny, and he's such a great
improvisor, he'll fix it.'

Mr. FERRELL: Right. Exactly. Yeah. You do get a--you do get a list of
things where it's--you can totally rewrite it, which usually means it's
probably not that good. And, yeah, there is--and sometimes you can on the day
come up with a lot of stuff, but you usually have to have, you know, much more
of a backbone, much more of a game plan going in. So even though I love
improvising during a movie, I still try to have as decent a script as you can
going in. I think people think it's a magic spell, like, `Go ahead, you know,
it's OK if it's not on the page. You'll fix it on the day...'

GROSS: Work your magic.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, yeah, and, you know, that's hard sometime.

GROSS: Well, take a movie like your recent film "Talladega Nights," which you
co-wrote and starred in. You wrote it with yourself in mind...

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: ...but, at the same time, did you leave things open for improvisation
within that?

Mr. FERRELL: You know we--no, we had a pretty--it was a fully realized
script, but just in the way we work, we know that we're going to at least take
a pass at the scene where we pretty much throw the dialogue out. You know, we
kind of just have a motto that funny is funny and the best idea wins
regardless of who it came from, and we just try to kind of foster an
atmosphere where everyone feels safe enough to fail and to try something as
crazy as they want to and--'cause we always say, `You know, we don't have to
use it if it doesn't work.' So we completely write the script but a lot of
times we'll tape our rehearsal periods and kind of jot down some of the better
ad-libs and recycle those when we start filming again.

GROSS: You know on the--let's see, it's at the end of "Anchorman" over the
close credits, there's a lot of outtakes...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and in some of those outtakes, you or another actor is doing the
scene like seven different ways...

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...or doing like seven different versions of the punchline.

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

GROSS: Is that the way it typically works with you, that you'll test out a
lot of things and use one?

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, well--I mean, you know, especially in the couple of
movies that I've made with Adam McKay, there's so many times where we've just
run out of film. We never even yell `Cut' because we just keep it rolling,
and you know, `Let's take it back and start again' or `Let me just do,' you
know, if it's one certain line, `Let me just do 10 in a row and try to think
of one,' or he'll--Adam will yell out suggestions, and you know, we--with
"Talladega Nights," it was so fun because we'd wanted to work with John C.
Riley for such a long time, and John got so kind of fired up by the way we
worked that the next thing you know, John was hanging out on the set with
ideas for not even his character, for other characters, and so it kind feeds
itself in a way that, you know, the next thing you know you've got 20 extra
jokes that were never there on the script and which is such a luxury to get to
choose from.

GROSS: You made "Talladega Nights" and "Anchorman" with the writer and
director Adam McKay. How did you first start working together?

Mr. FERRELL: We were hired at the same time at "Saturday Night Live" and
Adam was--I think he became--he was like head writer by his second season and
was definitely one of the stars of the writing staff and someone who wrote
just great, interesting sketches, was kind of adept at political writing as
well, and we just kind of hit it off and we enjoyed working together because,
obviously, we shared the same sense of humor, but we worked really fast. We
would--there's a tendency at the show to kind of write something and go over
it again and again and again, and we just have this thing of it should never
take longer than an hour to write a sketch and just kind of spit it out and
have fun with it and maybe look back at it, you know, later, you know, at the
end of the night type of thing but--and we found out that we kind of had just
as high a success ratio doing that than people who went over and over and over
stuff so--and then we just kind of transitioned to writing features that way,
and he's become--we've now started a production company, and he's one of the
guys I really admire artistically. I think he might be arguably the funniest
person that I know, performer or otherwise, and he's one of my best friends on
top of it. So I feel pretty lucky that I got to meet Adam McKay.

GROSS: Do you ever have anxiety dreams about your work?

Mr. FERRELL: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm always, you know--I think anyone who
has--you know, is in any sort of artistic pursuit kind of goes up and down
with the way they feel about their work, and I for the most part am a pretty
happy person but, yeah, I go through definite periods of time where I'm not
funny, I'm not good, I don't feel original, and so that--I'm always joking
with my wife that, you know, when I get kicked out of show business, I'm
always trying to think of alternate careers, and so far I've come up with...

GROSS: Bank teller.

Mr. FERRELL: ...cab driver. I can go back to bank teller. Maybe UPS, too.
UPS is high on the list. But, yeah, I definitely have anxiety, and yet I...

GROSS: So can you share an anxiety dream, like a--the kind of dream that you
have about comedy and something going terribly wrong.

Mr. FERRELL: I'm trying--yeah, if I have a specific example. Well, I'll
still have like "Saturday Night Live" stress dreams where the show has started
and I'm making a quick change backstage, and no one--the microphone in my
dressing room wasn't on, so I didn't hear that the show started, or the
speaker, I mean, and I have to run out in the middle of a sketch and figure
out where I am and things like that. I guess that's more of a different type
of stress dream. But, yeah, I don't know if I have a specific example but,
yeah, you know, I go through it.

GROSS: What's the worst thing that actually did happen to you live on the air
on "Saturday Night Live"?

Mr. FERRELL: The worst thing? I--you know what? I was doing an update
feature where on "Weekend Update" on the fake news section, you know,
characters will sometimes come out, and I was--I started--my glasses started
fogging up to where I couldn't read the cue cards, and then I started
laughing, and it was this kind of this wonderful kind of crazy situation of I
was having this laughing attack, and I can't see anything, and I literally
kind of had to stop and wipe off my glasses and then get back to reading the
cue cards. So it was actually kind of really fun. Free fall of like, `Oh,
well, there's no way to rescue this,' but the audience kind of loves it in a
way when they're watching that happen.

GROSS: So, did you stay in character while you were wiping off your glasses?

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, I did. It was--I was--I did this character who suffered
from voice immodulation, which was someone who--I only could speak like this.
I had no control of the volume of my voice, so whether I was speaking
intimately or shouting, it was the same voice level so I would have asides to
myself, like `Boy, I don't think'--you know, `she doesn't smell very good,'
you know. So I could never have a private moment in that I was afflicted with
this disease, and people didn't think it was a real disease, and I was the
champion of this thing. It was very--it's bizarre.

GROSS: Well, Will Ferrell, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you
so much.

Mr. FERRELL: You, too, Terry. Thanks. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Will Ferrell is starring in the new movie, "Stranger Than Fiction."

Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews the final episodes of the series
"Prime Suspect."

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: TV critic David Bianculli reviews "Prime Suspect: The
Final Act"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Helen Mirren introduced the character of British police inspector Jane
Tennison in the first "Prime Suspect" miniseries imported by PBS 14 years ago.
Since then, Mirren has reprised the character in five other "Prime Suspect"
dramas, most recently two years ago. This weekend and next, the PBS anthology
series "Masterpiece Theater" presents the last entry in the series. It's
called "Prime Suspect: The Final Act," and TV critic David Bianculli has a
review.

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: The last place I expected to encounter a sly little
in-joke was buried deep within a "Prime Suspect" miniseries, with all its
serious examinations of human nature and inhuman violence. Yet, there it is.
At one point in "Prime Suspect: The Final Act," someone deferentially refers
to Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison as `Mum.' `Don't call me Mum,' she shoots
back. `I'm not the queen, you know.' The joke, of course, is that Dame Helen
Mirren has played two queens this year, both of them earning great reviews.
She won an Emmy for her terrific portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in the HBO
miniseries called "Elizabeth," and she may soon be nominated for an Oscar for
her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the new movie, "The Queen" about the
royal reaction to the death of Princess Diana.

No one even passably familiar with Mirren's work and talent should be
surprised by that royal double play. She's been fearless in "The Cook, the
Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," sexy in "Caligola," sinister in "Excalibur," and
prim and proper in "Gosford Park." Onscreen, she first bowled me over more
than 30 years ago playing opposite Malcolm McDowell in the 1973 cult film, "O
Lucky Man!" But nothing she's done over her long and impressive career has
outshone her amazingly subtle and stirring work as Jane Tennison in "Prime
Suspect." When that series began, Jane was a woman trying to make it in an
almost exclusively male environment. When she got promoted to run the
detective unit at New Scotland Yard, Jane had to crack not only her cases, but
many levels of resentment and distrust among her coworkers. Some thought she
got the job by sleeping around, and at times she did sleep around, sometimes
self-destructively, but that wasn't why she got the job.

Jane Tennison was an early prototype of a now very familiar TV character, the
best one in the squad at getting into the head of a suspect and extracting a
confession. "Cracker," "Homicide: Life on the Street," "Law & Order:
Criminal Intent," "The Closer," "Criminal Minds"--they all have protagonists
with similar traits. But "Prime Suspect" came before them all, and both the
scripts and Mirren's acting skills made sure to show us Jane's weaknesses as
well as her strengths.

In "Prime Suspect: The Final Act," Jane has risen all the way to detective
superintendent, but that's as far as she's going to go. She's almost 60, and
retirement is imminent. But instead of going willingly and with grace, she's
fighting the prospect. She's drinking so much, she has blackouts, and her
father, played by Frank Findlay, is dying, which is just one more reason to
drink. What she wants, what she needs, is one more case to wrap her head
around before turning in her badge. And she gets it when a 14-year-old girl
named Sally goes missing and is found dead. She's not wrapped in plastic, but
otherwise, it's very much like Laura Palmer in "Twin Peaks." The victim comes
alive to us in home movies shot before her death, and we learn, quite quickly,
that her seemingly perfect life as a suburban teenager had a very dark side.
Initially, Jane suspects Sally's father, played by Gary Lewis. While Jane's
colleagues watch from behind one-way glass in the interrogation room, she asks
the father about his alibi and about the whereabouts of Sally's missing
backpack, what the British call a kitbag. But this time her questioning
techniques aren't all that sharp, and there's a reason.

(Soundbite from "Prime Suspect: The Final Act")

Ms. HELEN MIRREN: (As Jane Tennison) OK. So you're sitting in your car with
Sally, drinking.

Mr. GARY LEWIS: (As Sally's father) Wait a minute. I was sitting alone. I
told you. I was--what, what is this? I was alone in the car with one can of
beer. Just me.

Ms. MIRREN: (As Jane Tennison) But Mrs. Sturdy says that Sally left home
with her kitbag. Did she?

Mr. LEWIS: (As Sally's father) I don't know. Kitbag, I don't know.

Ms. MIRREN: (As Jane Tennison) So are you saying she didn't have a kitbag?

Mr. LEWIS: (As Sally's father) I'm telling you I wasn't there. I wasn't
there. How would I know if she had a kitbag with her? I, really, really--I
mean, for Christ's sake. I mean, that's the point. I'm telling you, I should
have been there, but I wasn't. I wasn't home. Christ. You never made a
mistake? You've never been ashamed?

Ms. MIRREN: (As Jane Tennison) What were you ashamed of, Tony, hmm? Because
you like a drink? Is that what is it? You had more than one beer in that
car, didn't you? I mean, I can tell that you like a drink because you smell
of alcohol right now.

Mr. LEWIS: (As Sally's father) That's not me. That's you.

(Soundbite of music)

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: Jane's coworkers see all this and don't know how to react.
Through her years on the force, and in all these other "Prime Suspect" movies,
she's earned the respect she once so desperately sought. She even gets a
chance at closure with an old squadroom adversary, Bill Otley, once again
played by Tom Bell, from the first and third "Prime Suspect" dramas. But
whenever she takes a step forward, she seems to slip back. Fighting
alcoholism is bad enough, watching her dad die is worse. And as she pursues
this latest murder case, she gets blindsided from yet another direction. The
victim's best friend, a vulnerable girl played by Laura Greenwood from "V for
Vendetta," awakens Jane's maternal instincts. Greenwood is magnificent here.
She seems to take Mirren's lead and acts with a naturalness and a
vulnerability that makes you feel more like a voyeur than a viewer.

Writer Frank Deasy and director Philip Martin have given Helen Mirren, in Jane
Tennison, a fabulously appropriate send-off. Down to the very last frame,
this "Prime Suspect" isn't just the final act. It's a class act, too, fit for
a queen or in this case, a dame.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

07:43

< A Disgraced Interrogator Gambles On Redemption In 'The Card Counter'

Movie critic Justin Chang reviews The new independent drama "The Card Counter", starring Oscar Isaac as a professional poker player and former military man who was convicted of war crimes at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue