WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. >> By the time Will Ferrell was in the sixth grade, he was almost 6 feet tall and owning it.
“I never felt gawky or like it was a disadvantage. I was kind of proud of being tall,” said Ferrell, who grew up in Irvine, Calif., where he played baseball, basketball and soccer. “You’re more looked up to. Literally. You are literally looking down on people.”
Throughout his career, Ferrell has used his 6-foot-3-inch height and athleticism to his advantage, wringing laughs as Buddy, the oversize Santa’s helper, in “Elf”; the preening, looming broadcaster Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman”; and the goofy stepfather battling a buff Mark Wahlberg in “Daddy’s Home.”
In “The House,” which opens Friday, Ferrell’s Scott Johansen, an average suburban dad, learns to walk tall out of misguided necessity: When he and his wife, Kate (Amy Poehler), discover they can’t afford their only child’s college tuition, they raise money by opening a Las Vegas-style casino at a neighbor’s house and become menacing enforcers in the process.
“It’s against their better judgment but in a weird way one of the greatest things they’ll ever do,” Ferrell said. “And I get to wield an ax.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Question: What appealed to you about playing a nice guy who transforms into a thuggish casino boss?
Answer: One thing I thought was great was getting to play a couple who are both equally committed to the premise. Usually in a movie, one of them — the wife, the husband — is in on the plan and the other is, like, “What’s going on?” But here, for better or for worse, they’re both like, “OK, let’s just do it.” They get to be funny together. I liked that.
Q: You and Amy Poehler will both do whatever it takes for a laugh.
A: Shooting the scene where we’re walking home drunk and she urinates in the front yard? There was all this talk about “How do we shoot this?” and being very professional. And Amy goes, “I’ll just pull my pants down!” and I thought, “Oh, my god. This is great!”
Q: Was gambling a part of your parents’ lives?
A: My dad’s a musician. He had his own lounge acts, then played with the Righteous Brothers on and off for 20, 25 years. He played a lot in Vegas. I have a nostalgic view of Vegas because as kids we’d go stay with him for a week at the Riviera and see the Strip with all the lights. Then combined with that were the cautionary tales we’d hear of people losing all their money and thinking, “That’s not for me.”
Q: Hollywood makes few dramatic movies about middle-class worries now. So can comedies fill that gap?
A: I love comedies where we get to either make very direct satirical comments about what’s going on or indirect. I think it’s great when we can slide that stuff in. But is that the only way we’re going to get people to listen? It seems to be more and more that way. When you feel like you get more real news by watching “The Daily Show” or Samantha Bee, that’s saying something.
Q: The recent speech you gave at USC, your alma mater, has more than 2 million YouTube views. Did that surprise you?
A: I didn’t realize that it’d get that much reaction. I’m used to writing things that are sarcastic, not things that are supposed to be funny, but also insightful and earnest. So it was an interesting challenge to find that middle ground. But also my family was there, my parents were there, and I got to sing a Whitney Houston song.
Q: Did you ever get a reaction from our 43rd president to your eerily spot-on impression of him?
A: I happened to call Jimmy Kimmel on the day when (President George W. Bush) was going to be on promoting his book. And Jimmy said: “It’s so funny you’re calling. I’m having ‘W’ on, and I’m going to ask him about how he felt about your impersonation.”
Q: How did he respond?
A: He said: “I loved it. That’s part of the gig. You’re going to get made fun of. That’s freedom of speech.” And at that moment, he really looked like the adult in the room compared to the current guy. I get the narcissism because I feel like every president has an element of that, whether they hide it or not. But the thin skin part? That’s amazing. You’re kind of like, “Really? Can’t you just go with it?” When (President Donald Trump) wasn’t going to have any part of the correspondents’ dinner, you wanted to go: “Do you realize that at that dinner you get to make fun of people too? They’ll make fun of you, but you get to punch back.” I think it hurts so much so even the allure of getting to punch back isn’t enough.