FHM travels to California - and back to 1980 - for an exclusive tour around the the home of the greatest newscaster the world has ever seen...
I don't know how to put this but I'm kind of a big deal. Being here, that is. Within the hallowed walls of Ron Burgundy's 1980 San Diego (San Diegan?) bachelor pad.
Outside, Baxter tucks into a wheel of cheese by the pool, as Hall & Oates blasts from the record player. Inside the house, shelves are lined with important leather-bound books. Bottles of expensive scotch glisten in the morning California sun. Nostrils are stung with the smell of rich mahogany.
We might be here to see Ron’s pad, but it’s his creator we’ve travelled more than 5,000 miles to meet: the man behind the moustache, Will Ferrell. He is, of course, the 46-year-old who gave the world Old School’s Frank, Zoolander’s Mugatu and, in 2004, Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy – a character who, despite the film not initially setting the box office alight, went on to become one of the most iconic figures in film. When it comes to movie-poster-on-your-wall, know-the-lines-off-by-heart characters, Ron is up there with the likes of Pacino’s Tony Montana and De Niro’s Travis Bickle in cinema’s pantheon of legends.
You can probably recite one line from Scarface and Taxi Driver (“Say hello to my lee’l friend”, “You talkin’ to me?”). But if you’re male and aged between 16 and 60, the chances are you know a handful of Anchorman-isms – some you’re probably not even aware are from the movie. Ever said, “That’s how I roll”, or that you “immediately regret this decision”? How about inviting someone to Pleasure Town? Loving lamps, staying classy, glass cages of emotion, loud noises: none of these existed before Anchorman.
Quoteability isn’t the only metric of the film’s pop-cultural reach. Soldiers stationed in Iraq have had Ron Burgundy’s face stencilled on helicopters, beside the words “Stay classy, Baghdad”. A member of the FHM team in London has a tattoo of an old, old wooden ship called “Diversity” on her arm. From Anchorman-branded T-shirts sold in Urban Outfitters stores around the world to a new Anchorman-themed Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream flavour named “Scotchy Scotch Scotch”, Ron Burgundy is everywhere.
Right now though, he’s here. Well, almost. We’re interviewing Will Ferrell as he undergoes what may well be one of his final metamorphoses into Ron – a gruelling, 90-minute process involving moustache gluing, trimming and waxing, hairnets, make-up application and several fiddly wig adjustments.
Although the physical transformation from Will to Ron may be painstaking, the mental leap is effortless for the man who co-created the character a decade ago, and reprises it in the long overdue second instalment, out this month. “It’s very easy for me to switch on Ron,” Ferrell says, as a make-up artist wipes down his upper lip and applies some moustache glue (yep, that’s a thing). “I’ve been doing him on and off for years, so I can get into Ron mode at any time. I just do his voice, put on the moustache, and I’m good to go.”
Such is the connection between Will the actor and Ron the character that it can be hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. Sure, there have been plenty of other roles that have landed Ferrell critical accolades and lucrative pay cheques (Elf, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, to name a few), but it’s still the San Diego newscaster he’s most closely associated with.
It is, without question, the role of a lifetime – his lifetime – the one that defines him now and probably will for the rest of his career. Just as Marlon Brando will always be Don Corleone, Will Ferrell will always be Ron Burgundy, no matter how many other great films he stars in. “It’s been nine years since the first movie, so I can keep Ron kind of separate at times,” Ferrell says. “But there’s no doubt that it’s the character I feel most connected to. And depending on how the second movie does, I may become even more synonymous with this one movie and this one character.”
Given the feverish fan anticipation and unprecedented pressure to live up to expectations, how does he think a sequel – which are all too often the source of over-hyped, underperforming disappointment – will fare?
“You know, I think we put pressure on ourselves to just try to make it as good as we can in a general sense, but I don’t think Adam [McKay, co-writer and director of both Anchorman films] and I have ever had a conversation like, “We better not blow it.” You don’t think in those terms. The first one was such a crap-shoot in a way, and so is this one really. We’ll see what happens. It’s either going to be a horrible mistake, or maybe what we’ve done – which is hard to do – is pull off a sequel as satisfying as the first movie.”
The odd thing about the first Anchorman film is that it shouldn’t have been a success. “From the start, we had every indication that it wouldn’t work,” Ferrell admits. “Studios didn’t get it. Nobody wanted to make it. And when we made the film, it didn’t test well with audiences at all, and nobody knew how to market it.” In the cinema, it performed ordinarily, but by no means exceptionally. It received a spattering of lukewarm reviews. And for all concerned parties it looked like just another comedy to be consigned to the annals of Hollywood mediocrity.
Then something strange happened. Once it was released on DVD and shown on TV, Anchorman slowly started to build a loyal fanbase – initially as a cult, word-of-mouth recommendation, before it permeated the mainstream and garnered “classic” status by the end of last decade. “I think when it started showing on TV and people became a little bit more familiar with it, it started to catch on,” says Paul Rudd, who plays Brian Fantana in the film, as an explanation for the slow-burn success story.
“It was pretty bold. There wasn’t anything quite like that when it came out. And sometimes I think with very specific kinds of comedies it takes maybe more than one viewing or so for people to take it on board. I know all of us heard from many people, ‘I hated it when I saw it in the cinema’ or ‘I didn’t like it’ and then ‘But the second and third time I started watching it on TV I just started to love it.’ So that was not an unfamiliar thing we’d hear.”
Few films have the power to become more enjoyable with each viewing, but it’s testament to the hidden depth of Anchorman that it offers something new every time. “A lot of people want to believe it is a big, broad, dumb comedy,” says David Koechner, who plays loveable alcoholic bigot Champ Kind. “But it’s really quite a sharp satire.” And Ferrell agrees. “I think that it’s kind of jam-packed with little tiny references,” he adds. “When you watch it the first time you’re going to miss a lot of things, but you watch it a second and third time and you’re picking up stuff that you didn’t even notice, which is what we kind of set out to do.”
Given the public appetite for more, it seems odd that we’ve had to wait a decade for Anchorman 2. No one can really explain why it has taken so long, but at one point the prospect of a sequel looked so unlikely (bizarrely due mostly to studio concerns about profitability) that the franchise almost went in a musical direction instead. “It was around 2010, and it just wasn’t happening, so we decided – and this is not a joke – that we were going to do a Broadway musical version of the first Anchorman,” says Koechner. Thankfully, the film did come together.
And so we find ourselves here, in Casa De Ron, chatting to Will as he mutates into the misguided, politically incorrect, straight-up offensive character we can’t help but love.
Despite his flaws (of which there are many), Ron is and always will be a character audiences sympathise with, often in spite of themselves. “I think it’s because despite his pomposity, he’s still got a heart,” says Ferrell. “Even when he’s at his most chauvinistic, there’s still a likeability to him.” As with his creation, Ferrell emits an aura of likeability. But unlike Ron, he carries no ego whatsoever. He is, in a town full of narcissists, the anti-narcissist. A more down-to-earth man you would not meet if you spent a night in The Dog and Duck. Whereas the majority of Hollywood A-list actors are content to spend entire interviews talking about themselves in a faux self-effacing manner, Ferrell is genuinely uncomfortable blowing his own trumpet. And it’s a personality trait that has made him one of the most respected – and liked – men in the industry.
“He’s truly an incredible guy, he really is,” says Koechner, without a trace of sarcasm. “I mean he’s as good a person as anyone else I know, in show business or not. He’s consistently kind and charming and caring. He’s the kind of guy who looks you in the eye while talking to you. And that’s it. He might be in a room full of people who are super-important, but if you’re in front of him he looks right at you. He gives you all his attention.” Adam McKay paints a similar picture: “He really is not in any way, shape or form full of himself, and it’s amazing. However big he gets, he makes fun of it. He doesn’t take anything too seriously.”
Perhaps it has something to do with Will coming to fame, fortune and success relatively late in life (at least in Hollywood years). After starting out on Saturday Night Live, he was in his thirties before he truly announced himself in cinema, stealing the scene as hapless assassin Mustafa in the first Austin Powers movie. From there, the rest is history: the roles got bigger and bigger, his bankability just for being associated with a project more and more certain. Even before Anchorman 2, his films have grossed an astonishing $3 billion. That’s $3,000,000,000.
But despite being the biggest comedy actor on the planet, he remains a reluctant celebrity. He doesn’t go to the glitzy parties or awards ceremonies, he doesn’t read his own press, he doesn’t even tweet. “I think I tweeted for four days and then I just got off it. It would just feel like another thing that you have to deal with. Also, it feels like an invasion of privacy. Even though nobody is seeing you do it, it’s just another thing.” Instead, Will’s at his most comfortable away from the limelight. “I’m happiest when I’m taking my kids to school, or to soccer practice. Or cleaning up dog poop in the back yard. That’s my speciality.”
In another life, one in which he was blessed with greater athletic prowess, the Will Ferrell story could have turned out very differently. “When I was younger, I always wanted to be a professional sportsman. I loved soccer. I wrote an essay in the fourth grade about how I was going to be a professional soccer player and a comedian in the off-season. So I got one out of two.”
The Premier League’s loss is cinema’s gain. Without Will, not only would there have been no Anchorman, the entire shape of comedy would be very different. Thanks to Ferrell and his so-called Hollywood “frat pack” (Rudd, Carell, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson), predictable, gross-out comedies have been replaced by smart, sharp, dialogue-driven movies. If there had been no Ferrell there’d be no Judd Apatow – it was only after producing Anchorman that Judd went on to write and direct The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. For that, and for bringing Ron Burgundy into our lives, we salute you, Will Ferrell. You stay classy. We know you will.
_ This interview originally appeared in FHM's January 2014 issue. Photography by Emily Shur _