Not since Charlton Heston played a Latino drug officer in Touch of Evil has a giant of American cinema so, ahem, convincingly inhabited a Mexican on screen like Will Ferrell in this week’s Casa de mi Padre. Making his Spanish-language debut, Ferrell plays slow-witted black-sheep-of-the-clan Armando Alvarez, whose swarthy brother Raul (Diego Luna) is taking the family into the drug trade against the nefarious La Onza (Gael García Bernal). Meanwhile, Raul’s fiance, the beautiful and tragic Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), has fallen for Armando, a wedding turns into a hyperreal bloodbath, and a mystical white panther stalks the patently fake jungle sets dispensing oracle wisdom. The movie is an affectionate satire of the unintentionally comic Mexican telenovelas, with a heavy dose of bad Spaghetti Westerns, overly sincere performances, and even a touch of Jodorowsky strangeness. We sat down with the star recently for a chat about the film…
This movie has everything: action, romance, surrealism, panthers…
Will Ferrell: [Laughs] Yeah.
As I understand, you’d always wanted to do a Spanish-language movie. At what point did it become this one?
You know, I had the general idea and then it really was Andrew Steele, the writer, who just kind of created the whole story, the whole setting. When we talked about it I was kind of like, “Andrew, I don’t know what exactly but I’m sure it’s gotta be some epic story, probably with a love element and some sort of melodramatic tale.” But yeah, he kind of turned it into this story and added the narco traficante element to it. Then when we added Matt Piedmont, the director, to it, he kind of added the surrealism element with the way he shot things and finding and using old lenses at Panavision to shoot on, shooting it anamorphic and not processing the film and stuff like that. It just kind of kept getting… the simple structure was built and then more and more layers of schlack were added.
That being the technical term.
Were you, like Matt, a fan of the telenovelas?
I had seen telenovelas just, you know, cruising around the TV and had always thought to myself, “God, these things are kind of fascinating.” They were so over the top and had this weird style to them; they were very bizarre. So that was where the initial concept came from, but then Andrew, those guys, they know their cinema really well and they were kind of connoisseurs of bad Mexican cinema from 1969 through the middle ’70s — you know, a lot of these Spaghetti Westerns with the jump cuts and the continuity issues and things like that.
So we’re not talking about Sergio Leone-level stuff here.
More like the kind of movies you’d accidentally see on late night TV…
Late at night on TV, poorly dubbed in English. [Laughs] So they started talking about what if we added those elements, and I thought — that’s amazing. But I can’t say that I knew that world so well. Between Matt and Andrew, they really gave it the style that it has.
When you committed to do this, had you made the decision to speak fluently in Spanish?
Genesis Rodriguez was very full of praise for your… cadence.
[Laughs] That’s very nice.
She’s the expert, having been in telenovelas.
She would know. She’s a pro. And Diego [Luna], too, actually did telenovelas ’til he was 19, I guess, which I didn’t know. We didn’t realize that he saw it as an opportunity to make fun of what he had done as an actor.
He didn’t think you were serious about the movie, right? Like it was some kind of practical joke?
Yeah. He even sat down with us — we all had drinks in Venice and he was like, “Are you really gonna learn Spanish?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” Then he said, “Alright, well… I guess I’m in.” [Laughs] But when I had the initial idea I always thought, “If I’m gonna do this, the joke won’t be that I speak Spanish poorly.” The joke has to be that you’re sitting in the theater, watching it, and I come up on screen speaking Spanish and a couple of things go through your head, like: “How long is this gonna last? Is it gonna last the whole movie? There’s no way… oh my god, I think it is.” And the third point being, “And he sounds pretty good, I think.” [Laughs]
‘Cause that gag would’ve gotten old in about two minutes.
Exactly. That’s a sketch. So I knew that if I was gonna do this I had to at least sound as authentic as I could. That’s why he hedged our bet a little bit with the family, with the father and Diego commenting at times, “You speak so weird” and “You’re not the smart one.”, Also, we knew that for native speakers I would sound decent, but a little off. So I tirelessly worked with a translator for about six weeks out from shooting, and then every day, on the set, we’d drive together and go over the lines, and then drive home together and go over the next day’s lines.
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Does Matt speak Spanish?
No. Matt doesn’t speak Spanish, Andrew doesn’t speak Spanish, so… [Laughs]
That must have been an interesting set. Genesis was saying that Gael and Diego would sometimes ad-lib and you’d be left with a kind of blank stare…
How did that work? I mean, you obviously have your particular comedic style, so how did that mesh when you’re speaking Spanish? Did that mean you had to find a different style of comedy when you were doing it?
You know it was almost, in a weird way, like being a silent film actor — [laughs] — or what I imagine that would have been like, in the sense that I knew that it would be all I could do just to memorize what my lines were and get them down with authenticity and emphasis in the right places, so it sounded like I was speaking the right way. That would be hard enough. I just knew that it was not like I was gonna get all that down and then start fluently improvising. So I just kind of found moments: in reactions, non-verbal, physical things — like the moment where I help Genesis up on the horse, and the moment before that where I’m talking with Efren [Ramirez] and Adrian [Martinez] and I’m rolling the cigarette and we’re laughing. I couldn’t get the cigarette to work at all, everything was just spilling out and I just went with it.
Which became a running gag.
Yep. We just kept running with it, and finding these through lines; they were the things that were more improvised, as opposed to actual dialogue.
Will we ever see that missing reel of you wrestling with the white panther?
[Laughs] No. I don’t think there’ll be any wrestling. We always had that — the lost footage. The other character, the other kind of personality in the movie, is that it’s just bad. It’s a bad movie, so we wanted… we just knew we didn’t have the time or resources to choreograph a scene with a puppet panther.
Where did you find these puppets? There’s one taxidermy that looks like he was found on the side of a road.
The one that moves actually came from Henson.
The animatronic one?
Yeah. Those people were nice enough to want to be involved for very little money. [Laughs] And then Piedmont, he loves his set design and production design and finding strange taxidermy and things like that. Kevin Kavanaugh, the production designer, who’s actually an old friend from growing up in Orange County, he was so scrappy and innovative and he came up with a lot of that stuff. That set that Kevin built, of the lake, that’s one of the funniest moments to me — where Genesis is like, “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen” and it just looks terrible.
It’s like a sound stage version of a sound stage set.
[Laughs] Right, right. That’s what I like about this movie.
But I like that it’s mixed with some quite impressive cinematography elsewhere.
Yes. And at times, the movie looks big and expensive, it’s crazy.
Since they’ve done several films together, did Gael and Diego come as some kind of package deal?
[Laughs] Yeah. I mean they’re good friends. I think they just talked to each other and were like, “Hey, we have such a history together on screen — let’s do this together and kind of make fun of that.” I think there were so many meta opportunities for them they were just, “Let’s do this.” [Laughs]
I get the impression that those guys are amusing, but I was surprised at how funny they really are in this.
You know, it’s funny: they’re pretty impressive guys, because they’re really funny in English — they’re sarcastic, you know; just when we talk in English they have a great sense of humor. It doesn’t surprise me, though, that they were funny, because they’re so committed. I always found that to be the case when I was on Saturday Night Live — the best hosts, a lot of the time, were the straight dramatic actors, ’cause they would just commit to scenes wholeheartedly without saying “Give me a funny line here.” They knew that if they just trusted the context it would play funny, and sure enough those were some of the funnier shows. These guys, they instinctively knew that as well.
Genesis plays it very straight, too — which makes her funny.
Yeah, I think so too. That scene on the horseback where she talks about her upbringing and living on the streets and everything like that, it’s just delivered so dramatically that it makes me laugh.
I read some talk that you and Adam [McKay] are working on a sequel to Step Brothers. Will that be your next project together, with him directing?
Yeah, I think so. In fact, I’m calling him right now, after this interview, to let him know that you’re the third or fourth journalist who’s said “Step Brothers 2 — come on.”
John C. Reilly will be back, I’m assuming.
Oh, absolutely. We already have a story beated out — it’s just a question of whether we can write it in time and get it ready for a certain slot in the fall, and that sort of thing.
I think seeing you in two together in the Tim and Eric movie whet the appetite again.
I know! John’s the best and I love working with him. We’re dying to do something again together.
Casa de mi Padre is in theaters this week.