Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler Lit a Man on Fire, But It Wasn’t Like They Thought It’d Be

There is something delightfully insane about The House, the new Andrew Jay Cohen comedy that stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as a couple who, finding themselves a few hundred thousand dollars short of their daughter’s college tuition, decide to start an illegal casino. Ferrell, Poehler, and about a dozen other very funny people — including Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Allison Tolman, and one surprising cameo — attack the premise with unbridled zeal. The result is a comedic Casino set in the suburbs. Ferrell and Poehler seem to have a ball playing off each other, especially as the film keeps raising the stakes higher and higher. Vulture caught up with the pair to talk about Ferrell’s hair, watching people get lit on fire, and how the big studio comedy has changed over time.

I heard I’m following children who just interviewed you.
Amy Poehler: We’re hoping you’re just as cute, because they were really cute.

Will Ferrell: They had some hard-hitting questions.

As someone with curly hair, one of the things I was most fascinated by in this movie was how Will got his hair to look like that.
WF: It was a long process.

AP: Congratulations to both of you for having thick salads. Will has a great head of hair.

WF: Now let me ask you this question. Have you always accepted that that’s the way your hair was? Did you hate it as a little kid? Did you not care?

When I was a little kid, I would buzz it, and then when I was in high school I just started letting it grow.
WF: I had hair as a little, little kid very much like Amy’s — kind of towhead blonde, straight.

AP: Like your sons.

WF: Yes, and it just got curlier and curlier. And I would literally part it at night and try to sleep on it and say, “Please straighten out, please straighten out.” And then it go so kinky that finally, the first day of seventh grade, brand-new school, I let it ’fro out, and I thought it looked so different. I thought people would be like, “Whisper whisper,” and I felt so self-conscious. No one cared. I hated my hair, and now I’ve grown to like it.

AP: For those reading, both of you have luscious locks.

WF: The funniest part about that look in the movie was how Amy responded to it.

AP: I loved that look. When Will was in that black shirt and black tie and the hair slicked back, looking, for lack of a better term, like a Tony Soprano–esque pit boss, I felt like it was a Sliding Doors version of him. Because he’s a formidable physical opponent, right? A lot of actors, we can wear the same size jean jacket. There is a gravitas, and also because Will is such a wonderful, warm person, there was a real danger involved.

WF: Amy kept going, “I like this look. I’m not doing a bit. I like this look.”

AP: And also just the bodyguard feel — and what was so funny was, Will put on these women’s sunglasses and smoked this Virginia Slim …

WF: … the complete package …

AP: … and there was just a hint of femininity. It wasn’t toxic masculinity: There was a person who was comfortable enough to wear women’s sunglasses.

I liked how your characters’ marriage never does that movie thing where it’s like, “Oh, no, we’ve gone too far, can we possibly stay together now?” It’s always a partnership. You don’t see that too often.
AP: Yeah, I can’t speak for Will, but a lot of my friends have those kinds of partnerships, where the men and women are equally in it together, and they rise and fall together, and they make dumb, uninformed decisions together with gusto, and it was fun to not have to track that story of a marriage in trouble, or one of the partners, male or female, having to be the one that stops the fun. It was also just fun to play people our age who are starting this new chapter of their lives because their kids are going to college.

WF: Not only have you not seen that before, but I think it’s critical to maintaining the suspension of disbelief. The fact that they’re both into it, as the audience, you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to go with them on this thing.” Because if you really analyze the movie — why didn’t I just take out a loan? I mean, they pushed the panic button hard. But I never heard anyone in the test screening go, “Come on.” It was like, “I love this couple, I love their spirit together.” They’re both just like, “Fuck it, this is what we’ve got to do.”

AP: And their dumb friend Frank is the one that they can blame everything on, which is good for every relationship. Every couple should have one dumb friend that they blame everything on.

The way you guys went about building out these characters is really interesting. Will, you have the sunglasses and the hair, and then Amy, you have that crazy torch.
WF: The thing where we walk away from Nick [Kroll] and Rob Huebel on the street and Amy just uses it like a fire-dick was totally improvised.

AP: It was pretty fun to wield that. I understand the desire, that very primal male — and female — desire to have a weapon you can wield. I do hope this will lead into some kind of Bourne franchise for me where I just get to walk from train to train in a leather jacket.

There is a scene that I won’t spoil where a certain famous actor shows up and the torch’s involvement is very rewarding.
AP: Speaking of that scene you’re talking about, which involves a guy on fire: When we shot it, of course we saved that part until the end of the day — you want to light a man on fire at the end of the day, post-lunch. And they shot us reacting, and we were all just going, “Oh, no, can’t believe he’s on fire!” And then when they actually did it, and they rolled, we were all just staring quietly, watching it in total shock.

WF: Our real reaction was just, “… how are they doing this. Oh my god, he’s really on fire.” Slack-jawed.

AP: It was kind of like an Actors Studio lesson in, when stuff’s going down, you actually have the tendency to get really quiet and stare at it like you can’t believe it. You can’t know how you’ll feel when a man is on fire until you see it.

Watching this movie, I was grateful, because it made me think that there aren’t a lot of comedies like this being made at the studio level anymore. Do you feel like that’s true? Can you still make the things that you want to make?
WF: I would say the economics of things have definitely changed. You can get things made, but now it’s like, depending on the cast, here’s the price. Depending on where you’re going to shoot, here’s what you can do. We’ll do it for X amount, whereas 10, 15 years ago, we would do it for double and not even think twice because we had the cushion of the DVD market.

AP: And Will and I will only shoot during magic hour.

WF: That’s right.

AP: So we’re very expensive. We do Malick-style beautiful sunsets, from just 6 to 6:45, and then we have a gorgeous Parisian dinner.

WF: I’m interested in your original question, though. Are you just saying that it’s nice because with this movie, there’s no question that it’s just a big funny movie going after a premise that everyone can jump into, relate to, the part about how we all have this mystique about Vegas because at any time you could change your life, quote, unquote?

Right. It feels like a pure comedy.
WF: I feel like that’s all we’ve ever tried to do, in a way.

AP: Will and I both subscribe to this very simple thing, which is, you should put funny people in comedies. I think that Will and Adam [McKay] and the work that they’ve done over the years is a total example of that. Like, cast the funniest people and put them in comedies. It seems like an obvious thing, but it isn’t always the case. So you’re in good shape if that’s where you’re starting from, I think.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler Lit a Man on Fire