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From ‘SNL’ alum to ‘Old School’ streaker

Special to The Times

A relaxed Will Ferrell was getting makeup at CBS Television City for an appearance on Craig Kilborn’s talk show to promote his new comedy, “Old School.” A subtle base application, it’s a far cry from what he calls the “spackle and trowel, then more troweling” he endured for seven years on “Saturday Night Live.”

The actor’s curls have sprouted outward of late, better to comically augment a pointy hat for his role as one of Santa’s helpers in the movie he’s currently shooting, “Elf.” If it’s possible to make Ferrell more cherubic-looking, the curls do. “This is what I looked like in seventh grade,” he says. “It was my first year of committing to the afro.”

If you didn’t know who Will Ferrell was, if his sweet-faced yet hilariously rage-filled repertoire of characters from “SNL” and movies somehow hadn’t seared themselves into your brain, you might look at the rest of him on this day -- white shirt, striped tie and corduroy pants -- and think he was a bank teller.

And at one point he was -- a USC grad in Orange County, living at home and wondering how to get into show business. Maybe wondering too much.

“I was $280 short on my first day of work, and $300 the next day,” Ferrell said later over dinner after the Kilborn taping. Sometimes, his response to befuddlement over the simplest of transactions was to close his teller window, which in turn would befuddle the customer standing there.

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But if deposit slips were a mystery to him, so to his colleagues were Ferrell’s comedic gifts. “Word got out that I was doing a stand-up comedy show, and this one manager is like, ‘You do stand-up comedy? You do?’ Sometimes it takes me a while to warm up.”

In person, the 35-year-old Ferrell isn’t always on, or even partly on, unless you consider “on” to mean “nice, pleasant, charitable.” Unlike laugh-getters whose desperation is thinly veiled, Ferrell says, “it’s almost like I have to have my back against the wall to let it loose.” He remembers the looks he’d get his first week at “SNL” because he wasn’t the ham doing shtick in the hallway. “I could tell people were like, ‘Nice guy, but why’d he get hired?’ ”

But from his memorable first appearance on the show -- playing a serenely barbecuing parent who builds to a crescendo of vituperative wrath, admonishing his kids to “get off the shed!” -- Ferrell had found his special niche: the wellspring of insanity that could creep up through a friendly facade. It’s there in his impersonations of secretly frisky Janet Reno and maniacally sycophantic Actors Studio icon James Lipton, in the earnest silliness of the cheerleader sketches with Cheri Oteri and in the subpar “Saturday Night Live” knockoff movies (“A Night at the Roxbury,” “Superstar,” “The Ladies Man”) that represent most of his film work so far. What registers, usually, is the craziness. Why it works has everything to do with Ferrell’s gifts at transformation.

It’s why he thinks “Old School” could open doors for him. As a newly married man who reverts to his raucous college persona, Frank the Tank, when he starts an off-campus fraternity with buddies Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson, Ferrell expertly mines the humor in a man slipping backward down the evolutionary scale.

“I think directors look at Will and believe he has one setting, which is 10,” says Todd Phillips, director and co-writer “Old School,” who sold Ferrell on the part by convincing him that Frank was more than one-note. “Will has done a lot of parts where he’s crazy in the beginning and crazy at the end, and I think he’s been used gingerly in movies because that’s tough to sustain. But this movie could be a half-hour longer with just Will’s stuff. It’s basically a document of [his] downward spiral.”

Positive chatter for the DreamWorks comedy has focused on a sequence in which a beer-soaked Frank runs naked through town, imagining he has a crowd of unclothed followers. Ferrell confides that he and Phillips have been building a legend around it: that the actor fought for its inclusion. “I was missing for a week during the shooting,” a deadpan Ferrell says. “I said, ‘You put a nude scene in or I’m not coming back.’ ”

Of course, the streaking was always in the script, but Phillips does his best to pump up the idea of a gonzo star: “The shooting was difficult for everybody except Will, who was uncomfortably comfortable. He refused to put the robe on between takes. Suddenly, he became a Method actor those nights.”

In reality, while Ferrell willingly signed a nudity waiver -- “I’m allowing you to do whatever you want” is his description of the document’s intent -- he had to make sure the bit was something Frank would do. “Even though I’ve done a lot of things on the show where I’ve just gone for it, they were justified in my mind because of the character,” says Ferrell, who ultimately concluded that the streaking was not gratuitous. “Even my mom, who went to a screening, said, ‘I get it. It makes sense.’ ”

Ferrell’s parents, Kay and Lee, who divorced when he was 8, have been backers of their son’s show-biz aspirations from the days when he was a self-described conscientious class clown at University High School in Irvine. Ferrell may have figured the only realistic entertainment career for him was in sportscasting, but making people laugh -- whether in skits or with daily public address system announcements -- was always a priority.

“I remember [being] not interested in homework, but I could take the whole night trying to craft this paragraph I was going to say in the morning,” he recalls. “Five hours would fly by and I thought, ‘I should make a mental note of this. This doesn’t feel like work. This feels just like fun.’ ”

With a sports information degree from USC, Ferrell worked briefly on the sports beat of an Orange County cable access program, but he couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to get a reel together for job hunting. He found the occasional acting class much more appealing. Eventually, Ferrell made his way into Los Angeles’ storied Groundlings troupe, and there he found his tribe, including frequent scene partners Chris Kattan and main company colleague Oteri.

“It was such a sense of community,” he says. “They teach a release of inhibitions. It was this thing to get you out of your head. They’d say, ‘I’m setting this watch for five minutes. Write a monologue on guacamole. Go!’ ”

Oteri loved collaborating with Ferrell because they both tried to maintain an innocence in their approach. “His sense of comedy was endearing,” she says. “I smiled even before I laughed. He was never above what he was doing, never jaded. He was always enthusiastic.”

Ferrell wonders whether competitiveness has dominated the company of late. “I hear about people refusing to go up onstage with someone else if they didn’t think they were funny. When I was there, it was, ‘I’m an actor and I want to get better at improv.’ Now, I hear it’s this blatant ‘I want to be on “Saturday Night Live” in two years.’ ”

That’s probably because it was the collective explosion of Groundlings talent on “SNL” in the mid-'90s -- Ferrell, Oteri, Kattan and Ana Gasteyer -- that helped cinch the theater’s reputation as a scout’s dream. But even though Ferrell left “Saturday Night Live” last summer at the height of his popularity -- thanks to his boyishly addled George W. Bush character -- he bristles at assumptions that the NBC institution was merely a launching pad.

“Everyone fails to accept that ‘SNL’ itself is a huge thing,” he says. It’s a perspective he learned from watching his musician father, who’s played keyboards for the Righteous Brothers for the last 30 years. “I had a real awareness of the instability” of entertainment, he says, “the ups and downs of it.”

Although “Old School” shows promise and “Elf” represents his first solo vehicle, Ferrell is reticent to discuss dream projects because they too often fade. One is “Ron Burgundy,” an Equal Rights Amendment-era sexism satire he co-wrote with “SNL” writer Andy McKay. It’s about a vacuous male-chauvinist TV newsman who flips out over the introduction of a smart, beautiful female co-anchor. Studios haven’t bitten yet, worrying in their typically market-conscious way that kids won’t find ‘70s newsmen funny. “We use the Austin Powers argument. Who’d have thought a ‘60s spy genre would be a thing with kids?”

Whether Ferrell goes the $20-million-a-film Mike Myers route or becomes a critics’ darling like Bill Murray, he’ll get plenty of support from his wife, Viveca, a tall, friendly, fresh-faced blond of Swedish descent. The two were friends for six years before their compatibility spurred them to date and, ultimately, marry three years ago.

But even with Ferrell at last a one-coast guy, the woman who would regularly corral dozens of friends to see her pal perform when he was with the Groundlings may well see her hubby shooting back-to-back-to-back movies. “We’re really lucky now,” says Ferrell. “Viveca couldn’t be more patient and accepting. And I’m willing to work that hard right now.”


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