A cluster of media types is sprawled inside Michigan State University’s Breslin Center, sipping on sodas and waiting for an encounter with a king of comedy.
Things are running behind schedule, but the mood is amiable enough because the payoff is getting to meet Will Ferrell. What will he be like? Will he come barreling in with arrogant bravado, like Chazz Michael Michaels from “Blades of Glory,” or prance about with childish wonder, like Buddy from “Elf”?
The surprise is, in real life, he’s more like his reserved, wistful character from “Stranger Than Fiction,” a guy who approaches life’s tasks with a low-key politeness that’s as ordinary as it is endearing.
On this day, his job is talking up “Semi-Pro,” his new basketball comedy set in 1970s Flint, Mich. It’s a disco-funky underdog story that gives Ferrell an excuse to wear horrendous clothing, wrestle a bear and attempt a death-defying leap over a line of sexy cheerleaders.
Clad in a Michigan State sweatshirt, Ferrell settles into a chair for a one-on-one chat. In a few hours, he’ll be the star attraction at a comedy concert inside the same building. But for now, he’s the soul of modesty.
What does he think about the movie’s affectionate tone toward Flint? The credit for that, he replies, goes to the director, Kent Alterman, who used to work with Michael Moore, the man who chronicled Flint’s struggles in “Roger and Me.”
Did Ferrell sense the scrappiness of Flint that the movie so goofily captures? Again, he says, that idea came from Alterman, who worked with the cinematographer to give the comedy a gritty, retro feeling.
The conversation shifts to classic `70s comedies and then to Ferrell’s stomach as an acting tool.
He has no qualms about revealing his flesh, whether it’s for a naked run through the streets in “Old School” or, most recently, the “Semi-Pro” trailer where he’s stretched out like a Playgirl pinup, wearing only a discreetly placed basketball and a headband.
Does he have the only comedy abdomen in the business right now? In a flash, Ferrell slips into the mock-serious voice of the overly confident goofball he portrays so perfectly onscreen.
“I don’t have the only one. I have one of the best,” he deadpans. “It may not be the only one, but it’s in the top three, at least.”
It’s also safe to call Ferrell one of the funniest people in film these days. The “Saturday Night Live” alumnus has attempted more nuanced roles in movies like “Stranger Than Fiction” and Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda,” but he seems most at home in relaxed, lovably silly comedies.
And if a script has a sports theme, all the better. He’s done the NASCAR thing in “Talladega Nights,” coached a kids soccer team in “Kicking and Screaming” and pioneered all-male pairs figure skating in “Blades of Glory.”
Now, with “Semi-Pro,” he tackles the story of a fictional American Basketball Association team called the Flint Tropics.
Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, the one-hit-wonder singer of “Love Me Sexy” who owns and coaches the Tropics, and also serves on court as an eccentric power forward. His financially shaky team (whose very un-Rust-Belt-like slogan is “Let’s get tropical”) draws only a few die-hard fans to its games, which explains why Jackie can never deliver on the cash or food prizes he offers as audience promotions.
When the NBA hatches a plan to merge with the four best teams in the ABA, the Tropics go on a do-or-die mission to grab the fourth slot, with Jackie leading the charge, helped by a former NBA player named Monix (Woody Harrelson).
Flint was a perfect setting for such a story for several reasons, says Alterman, a development executive who’s making his directing debut with “Semi-Pro.”
Having worked with Moore on his television show “TV Nation,” Alterman says he had “this sort of vicarious affection for Flint,” which, for him, represents a classic American underdog town. He liked the idea of Jackie Moon, the one-hit crooner, growing up in the shadow of Motown. And he credits Ferrell’s performance with giving the movie the same heart the real Flint has.
“The character he plays is a great character,” Alterman says. “He’s really funny, but he has real vulnerability.”
And though the Flint Tropics are fictitious, the city did have a team in the early `70s called the Flint Pros that played in the Continental Basketball Association Great Lakes region, says Dennis Truax of the CBA.
Ferrell, Harrelson, Andre Benjamin and other cast members traveled to Flint and Detroit last spring to shoot some scenes, including exterior shots at the Michigan State Fairgrounds (the outside of the State Fair Coliseum doubles as a Flint stadium in the movie) and in an alley next to Flint’s Capitol Theatre.
“That was fun,” Ferrell recalls of the alley scene in Flint, where his character lies despondently in a Dumpster. “It was so sweet. People were really nice to me and they were so appreciative that we were there.”
In keeping with the renegade spirit and showmanship of the ABA, “Semi-Pro” isn’t just set in the `70s. It captures the mood of a freewheeling comedy from that era, in part through using profanity and racy situations that aren’t as common in Ferrell’s PG-13 fare.
“We wanted this to have the feel of films like `Slap Shot,’ that were `70s comedies that had a little grit to them and were even shot darker, things like that,” says Ferrell. “I thought it was a great idea, a very appealing thing.”
But the movie has typical Ferrell touches that will please his loyal fans, like the fight that breaks out among Jackie Moon’s pals over use of the phrase “jive turkey,” and the sort of absurd lines that Ferrellites love to repeat (“I’m so happy I can’t even feel my arms!” Jackie shouts at one point).
There’s even a bit where Ferrell wrestles a bear, a stunt that Jackie attempts to boost attendance in his NBA quest.
It’s a scene that fills Ferrell with great mock pride.
“Well, I train bears myself,” he says. “I have about 10 of them at home. But that one, I wasn’t allowed near because of the union rules, but I am proficient in handling live bears, yes.”
At this point in his career, Ferrell faces the dilemma of the successful cinematic funny man. Does he keep doing the kind of pictures everybody loves? Or does he aim to stretch his acting muscles, Jim Carrey-style, and seek out edgier, more challenging parts?
So far, Ferrell seems willing to try both, but his heart belongs to laughter. Last year, he and his friend and collaborator, Adam McKay, made a splash on the Web with their FunnyorDie.com site, which struck gold with “The Landlord,” a vignette featuring Ferrell as a tenant arguing with an abusive landlord played by McKay’s 2 -year-old daughter (who repeated lines she was too young to understand).
One of his upcoming projects is starring in a film remake of “Land of the Lost,” the 1970s kids TV series by Sid and Marty Krofft. It’s a project that sounds as unusual as some of Ferrell’s characters. But it could be more promising than another Ferrell TV remake, the misguided version of “Bewitched” with Nicole Kidman.
In choosing which projects to do, Ferrell says he’s trusting his instincts and avoiding calculated career plans.
“I’m really just trying to be selective in things that are really going to make me laugh. If it’s a little more of a broader movie, if you will, it’s still got to have some teeth to it. Ultimately, I am focusing on doing what I really want to do without any thought of as to whether it will be commercially successful.”
He continues, without bashing any past choices by name. “You always hope that happens, but a couple times that I’ve gone down the road of, this is a commercial choice, I’ve had some pang of like, I don’t know if it’ll work. It’s backfired.”
No matter what “Semi-Pro” earns in its opening weekend, Ferrell can walk away having spent time with kindred comedy spirits such as costars Will Arnett, Andy Richter, David Koechner and Rob Corddry.
“I had a great time and I think it’s really funny,” he says of the experience.
With the interview almost over, he fields a question as daft as Jackie Moon. When he receives his Mark Twain Prize for American Humor or his Kennedy Center Honors one day, which clip from “Semi-Pro” would he like to include in the highlight reel?
“Uh, gosh,” he says, pausing. Maybe that scene “where I’m eating cold pancakes in a Dumpster.”
Then he laughs skeptically. “I look forward to my Mark Twain award,” he says, sounding as if he honestly doesn’t realize he’ll be in the running.