By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"It's funny that you mention Big, because in talking with Favreau about the movie, that's kind of what we were shooting for," Ferrell says. "I'm not saying that it's as good a movie as Big, but that's what we were shooting for, that kind of tone. That movie is artfully done in the way that it is comedic and dramatic all at the same time. I was always worried that the bathroom scene with Zooey would come off as creepy guy in an elf suit going into the women's bathroom. But I've got to hand it to Favreau, because he was like, 'No, no, it works, because you just see that he just innocently heard this voice and doesn't really even realize where he is.' It's a good motto for life. Remember, creep factor can end up being sweet and innocent."
When Ferrell left Saturday Night Liveat the end of SNL's 27th season, he received a hero's send-off--an unprecedented adiosfor a show that has watched some of its most beloved alumni leave without so much as a handshake or a "Screw you." Usually, a cast member just vanishes into a series of bad movies, or an entire ensemble is executed en masse; one minute he's Chevy Chase and you're not, and the next even he's no longer Chevy Chase. Over the years, producer Lorne Michaels has become particularly adept at firing even the most favorite of sons, among them Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, who were let go at the insistence of NBC higher-ups.
But Ferrell had become so beloved that his departure on May 18, 2002, became a giddy send-off. Alex Trebek appeared during Ferrell's last stint hosting Celebrity Jeopardy, and Neil Diamond joined him at the end of Weekend Update, where they performed a terribly uncomfortable duet--absurd parody and actual performer, side by side à la John Belushi and Joe Cocker 25 years earlier. This, despite the fact Ferrell had, four years earlier, appeared in a VH1 Storytellerssketch in which his Neil Diamond introduced the song "America" by explaining that "my love of this great and beautiful nation and my hatred of all people with dark skin led me to write this."
In Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's Live From New York, an oral history of SNL, Ferrell says when you leave the show, you're not allowed to say you graduated; Michaels, he explains, hates the word. That's reasonable enough: To say you've graduated means you've moved on to something bigger and better after years of training for it; it diminishes SNL, making it sound like Michael's Learning Annex course in comedy. Besides, it is often a springboard for mediocrity: The show has turned out many millionaires, but few of substance--hell, maybe just one. Only Bill Murray has managed to fashion an admirable filmography that only gets more venerable over time; his haunted, touching performance in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translationis among the year's best.
Ferrell, who has the range of a sniper's rifle, has it in him to follow in Murray's footsteps without stumbling. If nothing else, that is his plan.
"I was just talking about that!" he says, using his big voice. "I was just saying how that's, like, the guy. I love the way he's gotten to kind of bounce back and forth and do all these things. The same with Luke and Owen Wilson. I don't think it's conceited, but I think that's the only way that I've approached comedy, more as an actor than as a comedian in a way, even when I was doing the silliest sketch at the Groundlings or on SNL. Molly Shannon and I used to talk about this all the time when we were at SNL. The only way we knew how to play it was real and straight and as if it was really happening. In Elf, it's not as hard when you have an elf suit. I would always say, 'Whew, thank God I've got this costume on. It's half the battle.' But I've got to kind of play against that, against the fact that I was completely unaware that what I was wearing was not normal."
The next two years may well prove whether Ferrell will be Murray's heir apparent, or just the next Kevin Nealon. There are nearly a dozen projects before him--some forthcoming (Anchorman, an ensemble comedy about newsmen in the '70s, which he co-wrote), some just finished (films directed by Woody Allen and Luke and Andrew Wilson), some announced but not quite definite (Curious George and a big-screen Bewitched). Most are comedies, but there is the one "heavy drama," as Ferrell describes it: Winter Passing with Deschanel and Ed Harris, in which he offers moments of comic relief in a story about a woman who moves back in with her estranged father.
"I always hoped, in that Bill Murray way, to get to kind of be in a film like Winter Passing," Ferrell says. "So it's going to be fun to see if the audience continues to come with me, or if they just say, 'OK, enough of that. Go back to the other thing.' The Old School thing just triggered a new line of thinking about me, and I am lucky that I kind of work with some people who have some decent foresight and want me to do different things. Every project can't be perfect, and there's kind of a mix between the things. At the very least, there's something distinct about every choice I try to make, and that's kind of all you can hope to do with it."