You could call 2010 Will Ferrell's "Year of Living Dangerously." Not that he sees it that way.
"I had a year when a couple of big studio pictures kind of fell apart," he says. "That gave me a window to do some smaller, different things."
Those "smaller, different things" included the critically-acclaimed Raymond Carver adaptation "Everything Must Go," which earned him some of the best reviews of his career, praise for taking risks. "A superstar like Ferrell could coast through disposable comedies," the St. Louis Dispatch noted. But at 44, the high priest of film's "frat pack" doesn't.
"Casa de Mi Padre," opening Friday, is the other film he shot back in 2010, a Spanish-language parody of telenovelas (Latin American soap operas) and Mexicanized spaghetti Westerns. Ferrell stars as the good-hearted slow-witted "other son" of a Mexican ranch owner, a man whose land is menaced by drug lords.
Ferrell would be surrounded with Spanish-speaking co-stars of great repute - Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Genesis Rodriguez. And he'd be speaking -and acting - in Spanish. Dangerous ground - risky, or as they say in Espanol - peligroso, arriesgado.
"Three years of Spanish in high school, and a semester in college," Ferrell says, laughing at his suitability for this project. What was he thinking?
"I sat down with him, the writer and the director and they pitched me the idea," remembers Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mama Tambien"). Luna was to play Ferrell's character's "bad seed" brother. "I said, 'This will be in Spanish? Really? How is your Spanish?' And Will said two words, and I thought 'No WAY this will work. It will be a disaster.' But a month later, he came back FLUENT. He just knew his lines in Spanish, but the accent, the inflection, VERY impressive."
"Casa de Mi Padre," with its mix of love, sex, betrayal and violence, "was an idea I'd had years ago," Ferrell says. "Never got around to it. Then I heard somebody else was writing a telenovela comedy and I thought, "You know what? If I don't execute this idea, I'm going to see somebody else's version of it in theaters.' And I would HATE to be sitting there watching that, knowing the opportunity I'd missed.
"I love how arch the acting is, the whole performance style, the hairdos, the this and that - ALL make them hilarious. And if I'm going to do a telenovela, I have GOT to speak Spanish. Just like everybody else. Put me, speaking Spanish, acting in that style, in the middle of that world. To me, it would be funnier if the joke wasn't that I spoke Spanish poorly, but that I was actually fairly fluent and that I was, in effect, right at home in an all-Latino ensemble."
So Ferrell worked on his lines, worked with a coach and learned how to roll his "R's." He brought that to the set - often cheap, painted backdrop sets with fake horses, mismatched backgrounds and ineptly placed props. Luna, 32, got his acting start in telenovelas in his native Mexico, and says that the film's affectionate mockery of the genre is what drew him in.
"The physicality of the characters is so exaggerated!" Luna says. "Everything they do is BIG. It's a fun thing to do, as an actor, that thing you have been trying so hard to stop yourself from doing your whole life!"
Ferrell, no stranger to political incorrectness, might have worried about crossing the line into ethnic mockery with "Casa de Mi Padre." But when Luna and Bernal and veteran Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz Jr. signed on, he knew he was in the clear.
"Getting people of that caliber to be in it told us we were onto something," Ferrell says. "I think even fans of telenovelas love them for how cheesy they are."
Luna figures Ferrell has a future in telenovelas if the Hollywood thing doesn't work out. "Look at him in this movie. Speaking Spanish, acting in that style, it changed him, man."
So while Ferrell has more big studio pictures in his future - his political comedy, "The Campaign," co-starring Zach Galifianakis, opens this summer - his year of movie making risks will leave its mark. "I'm getting offered a lot more indie films, edgy film, than I did before," he says. "And just speaking Spanish all the way through 'Casa de mi Padre' changed my acting. I started taking on that exaggerated telenovela style every time I rolled my R's. The more I committed to it, the better my Spanish got. And the better my Spanish, the funnier the performance was.
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