It would be hard to find two funnier actors to star in a movie than Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. But is Downhill, the Force Majeure-inspired film that played this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a comedy at all? Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell sat down with us to discuss that question, as well as some much more serious questions about life, death and relationships.
Paste Magazine: I’ve never interviewed either one of you before, but I’d like to go deep quick.
Will Ferrell: Okay.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I like it. Let’s do it. Let’s go.
Paste:This film is about a tragedy or near tragedy that forces two people to question everything. So I’m curious if each of you would be willing to share something in your life that happened that was hard for you as an adult, and how you got through it.
Louis-Dreyfus: Well, I can answer that honestly. I was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years ago, and that was a crisis of enormous proportions. And a long, long time ago—and this is separate from having breast cancer—my husband and I were somewhat newly married, and we went on this trip on a boat. We were swimming with dolphins and scientists who are recording these dolphins. It was really cool. I was in the water, and my husband was on the boat, and all of a sudden he comes to the stern of the boat and says, “Jules.” And his voice sounds different. “I need you to come back to the boat right now. There’s a shark in the water.” I heard that, and all I did was look at the ladder and I was so far away, and it was like a 10-foot bull shark. I saw that ladder and everything else fell away. I was just getting to the ladder, and that’s what—uh oh, I’m going to get choked up—that’s what going through [the breast cancer diagnosis and treatment] was like for me. We were in a bunker together. Me, my family and my friends just, eyes on the prize, eyes on the prize. That’s how it worked for me.
Will, what happened to you? You got a parking ticket once, right?
Will Ferrell: I forgot to file my taxes. No, I’ve been through some crazy stuff, like three major car accidents that easily could’ve killed me or maimed me permanently in some way. But gosh, obviously emerging from all of those episodes—feeling thankful and life can change on a dime and etc., etc.—but I was lucky enough to be able to recover in such a way that there wasn’t a lasting effect that was debilitating in any way, or something where I really had to seek outside counsel or help in some way.
Ferrell: As we’re just thinking out loud, being in New York during 9/11, in a weird way, being on Saturday Night Live. During the course of the next couple of weeks, it was living through that thing of like, is irony dead? Will we ever be able to be funny again? What was our role, not only in comedy at that time, but culturally? What were we supposed to do or not do? Do you shut the show down until you figure it out? Is it okay? I don’t know if it’s applicable to your initial question, but that pops in my head as a thing where we all really had to kind of cope with that. I remember going on a jog through Central Park that day, after that season had started that year, and a woman just grabbed me and was like, “Thanks for last night.” That was great.
Louis-Dreyfus: That’s very gratifying.
Ferrell: I don’t know if the show was even that good, but it just was familiar.
Paste: That’s beautiful. It’s really interesting that you both talked about things that were in some sense reminders of mortality. It reminds me of the end of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” when The Misfit says about the grandmother, “She might’ve been a good woman if she had had somebody about to kill her, her whole life.” That applies all of us—you would never wish to have a near death experience or a reminder of death, but there are riches to be gleaned from it.
Louis-Dreyfus: And empathy and sympathy, I think, fall into place.
Paste: Absolutely. It’s funny that you brought up comedy, too, because if I told somebody the storyline of this film and the premise of the film, they’d likely assume it’s a comedy of some of sorts.
Louis-Dreyfus: Maybe so, but honestly I think of it more as a drama with comedic relief within it. But I see the film as being tonally a little more skewed toward drama.
Ferrell: Or just a chapter in life. There are times when you’re laughing, and crying because you’re laughing. Other times it is deadly serious. Which is the excitement of this movie and especially for us to be in it. I speak for myself.
Louis-Dreyfus: No, you can speak for me. I’ve given you permission.
Ferrell: But just to get to do something this challenging and different—and different for the audience to see us play these types of roles.
Paste: Playing a couple, if you’re not a couple, is always difficult, right? But then playing a couple who are having problems is all the more difficult, because you have to have a history there to draw on. Did you know each other before the film?
Louis-Dreyfus: This is kind of stunning, but we had never met before this film.
Ferrell: Had never met, until we met about doing this movie.
Louis-Dreyfus: That’s right. Yeah. Isn’t that wild?
Paste: That’s insane.
Ferrell: Which is why it’s so fun to watch this couple on screen, because we just kinda hit the ground running. From the first moment.
Louis-Dreyfus: Totally. And I think we very much saw the film the same way when we were talking about it initially. We had a similar ear for the tone of the film that we were going for. Comedically and dramatically. We’ve both been in long-term relationships—we bring that to it. So there’s a lot to draw on. Fortunately we’re not in relationships that are so fraught as this one is, but all relationships go through ups and downs. It’s about how you navigate through the downs and the ups, frankly. But anyway it was a complete joy. And now I feel like we’re sort of joined at the hip forever, to a certain extent.
Ferrell: You meet. You talk. You go through a period of trying to get the movie together. Is it gonna happen? Is it not? Guess what—it is. So we’re going to do it in January. You’re coming off the crazy last season of Veep. And then there we are on the same plane flying—
Louis-Dreyfus: Not really knowing each other.
Ferrell: And not knowing we were going to be on the same flight. Then in a hotel in Austria, and then you just have to start rehearsing and then there’s a readthrough. And then due to weather issues, we have to do one of the harder scenes right out on day one. The scene in the hallway where Pete finally confesses to Billy. And I’m a terrible human being—in front of a crew—
Louis-Dreyfus: That we don’t know!
Ferrell: That we don’t know. But even as scary as that was, it was incredibly bonding to go through that.
Ferrell: And just finish that week like —
Louis-Dreyfus: We did it.
Ferrell: I think we’re going to be alright, this is going to be fun.
Louis-Dreyfus: Yeah, I think so too. We were thrown into the deep end.
Paste: Sidney Lumet said that one of his favorite tricks was on the first day of shooting to plan one of the hardest things and do one take and then say, “Okay, moving on.” Because then all the actors know that they have to bring it every single day.
Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus: Wow.
Ferrell: We were on a limited schedule. A lot of the movie’s shot outside, so we only had limited cover, so we all knew we had to be ready.
Louis-Dreyfus: There was no fuck around time.
Paste: Through being in these people’s skins for a little while and being in this relationship for a little while, even fictional, did you learn anything about yourself that you then took back to your own relationship?
Ferrell: I know for a fact, the fight we have in the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf moment in this movie, I’ve never had.
Louis-Dreyfus: Nor have I. To really live in that—and so thankful that it was a movie.
Ferrell: I was thankful to go through it with you.
Louis-Dreyfus: Right, exactly. And the same for me too.
Michael Dunaway is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, photographer, and general troublemaker. He is Paste’s Editor at Large and the host of the Paste podcast The Work. You can follow him on Patreon.