Saturday Night Live alum, wildly hilarious impressionist and father of three boys, Will Ferrell, never fails to entertain to the extreme, whether he’s playing a displaced elf, anchorman underdog or the most brilliant (and unsuccessful) super villain the world has ever known.
In DreamWorks’ Megamind, every attempt the like-named title character (voiced by Ferrell) makes to conquer Metro City fails resoundingly, thanks to the handsome caped super hero known as Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt). That is, until he kills him with one of his botched evil plans. Suddenly, Megamind has no purpose. He’s a super villain without a super hero, and slowly comes to realize that achieving his life’s ambition is the worst thing that ever happened to him.
The surprisingly soft-spoken Ferrell chatted me with at length about his latest voiceover role, super powers he wouldn’t mind having, and what makes him laugh most.
Super villain vs. super hero: Have a preference?
It’s always fun to play the villain, especially in a comedy. But one of the things that was so appealing to me about this movie and about this role is that you know through the course of this journey that Megamind gets to do both.
He starts out as this bad guy and in the absence of his nemesis, he realizes that he misses him so much and actually starts to turn good. He doesn’t really know how to function in normal society, so I just thought it would be funny that he would just randomly mispronounce basic words. So that’s one of the trademarks of Megamind, this guy who on the outside seems so confident in his abilities, and yet he really is insecure. And he really doesn’t know how to function or speak properly at times.
It’s been nice to kind of get to do both with this.
What do you like most about Megamind?
There’s a great relationship he has with his sidekick Minion, which is voiced by David Cross and they, we kind of have this great back and forth with one another where he’s always messing up and I am always blaming him and that dynamic is really funny. I also really like Megamind’s waistline because he wears very tight leather pants. I wish I had his waistline.
I think you know ultimately these films are all trying to achieve the same thing and that there’s enough sophistication in the humor that adults will be entertained and at the same time it still remains family, and this truly does that, because it’s a pretty unique story. And then the animation and the fact that it’s 3D is something that kids are going to flip out for.
Can you relate to Megamind?
You know, he’s definitely someone who’s ultimately seeking approval. I think we all have a little part of that inside of us, and some to lesser degrees than others. But I know there is still a part of me that’s driven slightly by, ‘Oh I hope people still like me.’ And I think Megamind has a ton of that in him.
Did you have any favorite super heroes as a kid?
I loved, oddly enough, Aqua Man as a kid because he wasn’t one of the favorite Superman/Batman type… you know one of the big ones, and the fact that he could speak to fish underwater. I thought that was pretty cool.
Are Magnus, Mattias and Axel into super heroes?
They are fully into super heroes. Even though my six-year old is just starting to read a little bit, but even with not being able to read, they pretty much look at comic books every day. I tried to explain to them that I’m the voice of this movie and I think they’re going to freak out in a good way.
I saw a rough cut of the movie and that was one of the things that I came away with, wow, my six-year-old and my three-year-old are going to love this movie. They’re not going to believe I did the voice of this character.
If you could be a super hero, who would you be, and what would your power be?
Let’s see… probably vegetable man, because a lot of people don’t like vegetables.
I would triumph over the ostracizing and hatred of vegetables to show how good they are for you, and I’d be able to puree any sort of vegetable just by looking at it.
Does your family influence any of the roles you take?
No, they don’t. Probably not the answer you’re looking for. I mean if I’m honestly speaking, I’ve always just made choices creatively of what I think is funny or provocative and that sort of thing.
I don’t know if that will change. If my kids – they’re still trying to figure out exactly what I do – ever care one day and start to make comments, then that probably could have an influence.
But I really have always just done what I find is funny. And knowing that it’s not real life, that your creative choices aren’t representative of you as a person or how you are as a parent and or anything like that helps.
It’s very separate and they know what I do is make believe. So I don’t think there’s any blurring there. But it is neat to really have something that might grab their attention.
Whether you’re playing a man with a monkey or Frank the Tank, you manage to keep your audiences in stitches. What makes you laugh?
Boy, my kids make me laugh probably every single day, just with the way they at the world. Whether its driving in the car and listening to them sing the songs… I can’t laugh at them or watch them in any way because they get mad at me.
But they also just a unique outlook about the world like all kids do, and the stuff they come up with every day just makes me laugh.
You and several of your cast mates have a common Saturday Night Live background. Did you bring anything from your skit-based comedy days on deck?
Working on a show like Saturday Night Live for seven years provided a great background for almost anything I’ve done since then. It really was comedy and performance boot camp because every week you had a different host and the material was always new.
You were always having to think on your feet and be ready to adapt to any sort of change. So that really built up this muscle where you know you’re really flexible and change didn’t affect you.
That’s probably the biggest thing that helps with something like this, because when DreamWorks does a movie, they’re constantly trying to perfect what’s on the screen. So you’ll come back and change different lines and they’ll think of new jokes and you’ll think of new jokes as you’re recording the voice. Saturday Night Live helped to reinforce all that.
You’re such a physical comedian. Does voice work cramp your personal style?
Oh, it does. It’s kind of hard. It takes getting used to in a way. They film every recording session and sometimes they’ll incorporate your facial expressions or any sort of physical movement you do into the animation. I’ve found it challenging when you have to convey a certain degree of emotion or subtle changes and just do it with your voice.
I’ve found that really difficult because I’m a bad actor. No, no, but it is. I really have a lot of admiration for people who do a ton of voice work because it really is a whole skill.
What’s the downside, if any, to working in animated film?
You get the perception that everyone’s all in the same room at the same time doing these voices, and you end up having to record stuff separately from each other.
Tina Fey and I got to do a couple sessions together which was great, because you have eye contact with the person and play off each other and you really develop into a rhythm that way.
You’re a comedic powerhouse in Hollywood, but as a kid, did anything stand out?
I learned as a kid to pretend to walk into walls and doors. You know, where you walk in to it and then kick the door with your foot and then snap your head back as if you bumped your head. I had that skill down pretty good.
Anything you wish you could do?
Unfortunately, I still don’t really know how to whistle. So, that’s something I wish I could do. It’s actually a very useful skill, whistling.
What did you like best about doing voice work?
I’ve really liked working with such a creative team at DreamWorks, and watching all the elements come together with the animation and the voice. I’ve enjoyed the creative freedom you get with animation. Any idea that comes to your mind you can explore and they’re willing to give it a shot and see if it works. So there is a ton you can improvise. You can make what you see on the page even better with your own ideas, and in that there is a lot of freedom there.
If you could play any evil genius in a movie, who would you choose?
Well, I do love Gene Wilder’s version of Dr. Frankstein in Young Frankstein, and he’s kind of an evil genius. I would definitely choose him.