Should you approach Will Ferrell in public, if he's out to dinner with his dad or walking through a downtown hotel, don't expect to parry with the blowhard newscaster from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, or the ludicrously driven speed demon from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, or perhaps most notably, his version of drawling, bumbling George W. Bush.
"I know I am continually letting people down when they come up to me," says Ferrell, 45. "They approach me with the sense of, 'He's going to do something funny.' I don't feel any pressure to have to do it. Sometimes you're in a mood to be playful. Other times you have to be somewhere or you have your family. I have no problem with going, in a polite way, 'I have to go.' When someone yells out a line from a movie I've done, a lot of times I can't remember what the line is."
Adds fellow comedian Zach Galifianakis, 42, a man instantly recognizable by the facial hair he sported as socially awkward weirdo Alan in both Hangover films: "It's an asymmetrical relationship. I am not the guy from TheHangover, and people expect that. They think of you as a cartoon character.
"And they're disappointed when you want to go about your business and urinate."
Comedians are onlookers who cull their material from the mundane yet often absurd stuff they see happening around them. And for Ferrell — who, mostly because of his height, can't hide in plain sight — and Galifianakis, fame is a strange beast. It's the currency that lets them make films they want while inhibiting the very skills that made them funny in the first place.
"Attention is not what we're used to," Galifianakis says. "I want to observe. I had a really bad attitude about it a couple of years ago. I used to watch people. My guard was up. Now I don't care as much. And I can shave and it's no problem."
Marty Huggins, the turtleneck-loving, morally upright and unyieldingly friendly oddball he plays in Friday's The Campaign, would welcome any advances, no matter how bizarre. In the comedy, an irreverent, bawdy and oddly prescient riff on the no-holds-barred brutality of our political system, Ferrell's coiffed, sex-crazed congressman, Cam Brady, finds himself running against Huggins, a newcomer with ideals that quickly get twisted. Ferrell's Brady has more than a passing resemblance to a certain North Carolina presidential hopeful who became embroiled in a campaign finance scandal, coupled with a very public extramarital affair.
"I'd been saying it's a lot of different politicians, but the guy I studied the most was that guy," Ferrell says. "I loved his delivery and his whole folksy thing. I read two books on him. I read the Andrew Young book about the whole scandal, and I read the book John Edwards wrote. It was such a setup for his run."
A 'borrowed' character
Galifianakis, meanwhile, based his political upstart on his own comic creation Seth, a mustachioed misfit he passes off as his own (fictional) twin brother. "Marty was a character I'd been doing since high school. I called him 'the effeminate racist,' and that turned into Seth. Seth was borrowed to do Marty."
The two actors first connected during the 2008 Funny or Die comedy tour. Later on, Ferrell appeared on Galifianakis' Funny or Die series Between Two Ferns, which featured the two men intimately sharing a mouthful of berries. Their laugh affair continued while shooting The Campaign in New Orleans.
"It's as simple as finishing a day's work and then Zach and I and (script co-writer) Chris Henchy, at least three to four nights a week, going to dinner. We all really enjoyed hanging out. It becomes more difficult if you don't have that shared sensibility in what you think is funny," Ferrell says. "I think so much of making these movies is about the bits happening in between takes. The screwing around that happens outside of what's actually put on film. We both share this thing of not being threatened by someone else being funny and not being competitive. As much as we like to get laughs, it's just so funny to see someone else execute a joke properly. End of quote."
For director Jay Roach, working with Ferrell and Galifianakis again, after their collaborations on 1999's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and 2010's Dinner for Schmucks, respectively, was "a dream. Will is a great character designer. Even when he's doing George Bush, he'll find levels of nuance. In this case, he and Zach came to me and thought it would be fun to go against each other. Zach has so much range and is a fine actor who sneaks up on you. The more you watch, the more you can't take your eyes off him and his layers of heart and sweetness come out."
In real life, Roach says, they're both what you imagine. "Will is super-smart and funny but very sensitive and empathetic. He reads situations very well. And Zach is always finding the weird way of seeing things. When they're sitting around casually, they sit around and pick on each other in the funniest ways."
So now that Ferrell and Galifianakis experienced both, what's more cutthroat, government or Hollywood?
"I gotta think politics," Ferrell says. "It's the most brutal thing ever. And yet, someone I was talking to went to the White House Correspondents Dinner. I asked what the vibe was like. I have to think that behind closed doors, they're all like, 'Let's have a drink.' It's theater at its greatest. And yet, obviously something is going on because the partisanship has never been stronger and no one is trying to work things out."
Work vs. celebrity
Interjects Galifianakis: "The thing about politics is that it's hard because cameras are there all the time. Ten years ago, it was just a news crew. It's really hard not to have a misstep. That's why the scrutiny is so high. As a politician, you have to be public all the time. It maybe keeps the good people from running."
Both are politically informed. "We're engaged and interested," Ferrell says. "And yet, not so much out campaigning for anyone. I remember as a kid following — the first race I remember being conscious of was Jimmy Carter beating Gerald Ford."
Galifianakis recalls a story he just read about 1972 presidential nominee George McGovern, who had to dump his first running mate, Thomas Eagleton, after it was revealed that he had been treated with electroshock therapy. "Since I was a kid, I always followed politics. Greeks, all they do is sit around and talk about politics. There's only 27 of us," says Galifianakis, who splits his time between his home base of North Carolina and film sets.
One topic Galifianakis doesn't delve into is his engagement to longtime girlfriend Mary Quinn Lundberg. "Having people outside your hotel room is weird. The celebrity culture is bizarre to me. It's also perpetrated by our press junket. Actors used to just go act. We're not complaining. It's just curious."
Ferrell, too, is protective of his family, which includes Swedish actress Viveca Paulin and their kids, Magnus, 8, Mattias, 5, and Axel, 2. If he's feeling it, he'll pose for photos with fans, but never with his kids around: "I never want them to feel like they're on show or that I ignore them." But he has discovered a way to stifle persistent photograph and autograph hounds.
"I love when you get mis-recognized. I love when it's totally the wrong movie," Ferrell says with a laugh. "Or when you're asked to give the résumé. 'Where do I know you from?' I go, 'I used to be on St. Elsewhere. How can I help you?' "