America’s funniest actor is an avid runner and three-time marathon finisher.
Funny man Will Ferrell has starred in some of the most successful comedies of our time, including “Old School,” “Blades of Glory,” “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers,” “Elf” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” Just before “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” hit theaters last December, Competitor’s founding editor, Bob Babbitt, caught up with the 46-year-old movie star about his career, his running—yep, he runs 4 to 6 miles every other day and has completed three marathons and a few half marathons—and some of the hilarious videos on his comedy website, “Funny or Die.”
Will, you’ve run three marathons. Your first was in 2001 in New York City, where you ran 5:01. Then you ran the Stockholm Marathon in 4:28 in 2002 and a year later you ran your 3:56 PR at the 2003 Boston Marathon. If you kept that progression going, taking 30 minutes off every time out, four marathons from now, you’d be the world record-holder.
(Laughing.) I think I’ve slowed down a bit since my last marathon in Boston in 2003. Last October, it took me more than 2 hours to run the Rock ’n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon. That was a fun day though. We had 40 runners from “Funny or Die” run in that race.
Do people run up to you in a race and figure you’re going to be funny?
People are terribly underwhelmed when they recognize me in a race. There’s nothing funny going on. It’s just a lot of silence and pain.
At the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in Los Angeles, you were also a tad incognito with your hat, glasses and mustache—was that a real mustache or glue-on?
Real. I grew it for the filming of “Anchorman 2.” It’s funny … this is one of the first films in history to actually have a release day set before we had shot one frame of film!
I love Ron Burgundy. In your films you have played Frank the Tank, Chaz Michael Michaels, Buddy the Elf, Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy. Do you have a favorite?
I get kind of flabbergasted when people go through the list. To think that I’d even get to be on “Saturday Night Live” to begin with is unreal. A lot of people think that being on SNL is the golden ticket into movies. It has been for some people, but it’s kind of a crap shoot because sometimes it’s hard to make that transition. The fact that I’ve had some success and people watch our movies over and over again is pretty great. But if I had to pick one character, it would be Ron Burgundy. He became a legend in San Diego, which, of course, was discovered by the Germans in 1904.
And to think, if you hadn’t failed as a valet and as a bank teller, you might have had a real job by this point. As a bank teller weren’t you short $300 on day one and $200 on day two?
Which is why it became very apparent to me early on that I wasn’t suited for many lines of work. If I hadn’t made it in comedy, I don’t know what I would have done.
When we talked back in 2003, you had just played Mustafa in the Austin Powers films and co-starred in “Night at the Roxbury.” But your film career hadn’t really taken off yet. You told us about a movie you were working on at the time called “Old School.” You were excited about it, but you weren’t sure if and when it was coming out.
(Laughing.) That’s right. I was still at “Saturday Night Live,” and I hadn’t fully committed to movies. The studio had decided to delay the release of “Old School” from November to February, which is never a good thing. At that point, “Old School” was in the can and I really didn’t have any scripts lining up. Adam McKay [his longtime friend and writing partner] and I had pitched “Anchorman” to a bunch of studios, but they didn’t get it. There I was leaving Saturday Night Live and the only script that had come my way was about a guy who was a human but had been raised by elves and lived at the North Pole. As we’re shooting “Elf,” “Old School” came out and was a bit of a hit. So my first three films out of the gate were “Old School,” “Elf” and “Anchorman.” That was pretty great.
And, for the first time in “Old School,” you showed the world your love of running when you streaked the quad and through town naked. Then you ran the track in your underwear in “Talladega Nights.” You have played basketball, driven a race car and ice skated in your films. What was the toughest to train for?
The skating was the hardest. When you watch the Olympics on TV, it looks easy. I found it hard enough to skate in a circle. Sadly, I took my kids to the rink last year and I had lost all of my ability to skate.
No more triple toe loop?
No more. I just don’t have the lift. I don’t know what happened. It’s a sad story.
With a film like “Elf,” how did you end up with legends like James Caan and Bob Newhart coming onboard?
We started with a wish list—for my elf father we wanted someone like Bob Newhart for that role and for my human father we wanted someone like Jimmy Caan. We didn’t really think we’d get them, but they were dumb enough to say yes. As silly as the premise of the film was, we wanted to have some legendary actors in there to give the film some heft. That’s the charm of the film. It played so real that it was easy for the audience to jump in with both feet.
Do you know if a film is going to be good?
I know in the first hour of the first day of shooting. (Laughing.) No, I never know and I don’t believe any actor who says they do. I’ve seen it go both ways. You’re filming and laughing everyday on the set. You’re thinking, “this is great.” Then you start to put the film together and realize that the parts you thought were so funny don’t work at all. We often screen a film five or six times before we release it. After each screening we’ll go back and re-edit and sometimes reshoot parts.
With “Talladega Nights,” how open was NASCAR to working with you?
They were great. They basically told us we could make the comedy as crazy as we want, but that the driving needed to look real, which was what we wanted as well.
How fast did you end up going?
I went 135 miles per hour. Britney Spears had gone 125 [while training for a movie that was never released] and I needed to go faster than her. I needed to beat Britney. At first it feels crazy to be driving that fast, but then after a while it doesn’t.
Until you’re driving the kids home from school at 110.
In my Prius!
What led to “Funny or Die?”
We were pitched the idea of creating a YouTube comedy channel about six years ago. Adam and I were ambivalent, but we decided to move forward. It was something like, “Let’s say yes for fear of saying no.” We needed some content to launch it. Adam’s daughter, Pearl, was about 2 years old at the time and really verbal. Adam came up with the idea of her being my nasty landlord. I was like, “Great, let’s do that.” We shot it in about an hour and when we posted it online the traffic was so huge the site crashed. Now we have a staff of 100 and offices in Northern and Southern California. The nice thing is that we are able to give young up-and-coming comedians a place to showcase their talent.
When did you get into running?
When I started with “Saturday Night Live,” my life was not very fitness-focused, unless you consider hailing a cab to get to the next bar a fitness activity.
My wife, Viveca, and I started running, and we really liked it. We ran the 2001 New York City Marathon together. Working out reignited what I loved about high school sports. Whenever I’d run, I’d get these great ideas. I learned from working out with Gary Kobat [a Los Angeles–based trainer] to run without headphones and music so I could focus and get into my thoughts. I love what running does for your mind and the great release you get from it. To this day, I never run outdoors with music. I try to run 4 to 6 miles every other day.
Maybe your next movie could have something to do with running or endurance sports.
I like that. Something where I’m in a Speedo caked in grease!
Have you ever been asked to do a dramatic role in a movie?
I don’t get offered many to be honest. I’m still hoping that one day that Oscars will be awarded to comedies.
As well they should.
That just happened! (Laughing.) That would be my acceptance speech when I win: That just happened!
This interview first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.
About The Author:
Bob Babbitt is the founder of Competitor, the co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation and a co-host of The Competitors radio show with Paul Huddle. To listen to interviews with the biggest names in running, triathlon, cycling, endurance sports and sometimes comedy, check out competitorradio.com.