Man-children are something of a speciality for both Will Ferrell and John C Reilly, who have perfected the art of playing oafish yet lovable duos in films like ‘Step Brothers’ and ‘Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.’ They return to type again, but with a wrinkle: This time, these idiots happen to be geniuses.
In ‘Holmes & Watson,’ Ferrell and Reilly bring their manic, absurdist spin to the frequently revisited roles of Sherlock Holmes and his partner, Dr Watson, as they bumble their way through a case that requires them to defend the queen from the dastardly Moriarty.
“We sat down and said, ‘What are the most neglected characters in literature?’” Reilly said with a laugh in a joint phone interview with Ferrell in October. “‘What hasn’t been done?’ The world needed this.”
They also spoke about their love for the famous sleuths and reminisced about their friendship of more than a decade, riffing off each other effortlessly. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: I know you two met through the former ‘SNL’ cast member Molly Shannon. What do you remember about that?
JOHN C REILLY: I remember standing on the West Side Highway and looking into Will’s eyes and thinking: ‘I feel related to this person somehow! I feel like I understand the way his brain works!’
WILL FERRELL: We all went to brunch. We took this long walk and spent the rest of the day laughing and doing bits. I tried not to ask John too many questions.
Q: Are you Sherlock fans? Did you read the Arthur Conan Doyle books?
REILLY: I was kind of a Sherlock Holmes superfan before this came up. I could tell you a lot of the different stories already off the top of my head. The basis of our relationship in the movie is the funny relationship things that go on in the original stories.
FERRELL: We were laughing at the fact that Sherlock is somewhat dismissive of Watson in many of the stories, not in a hateful way, but in an analytical way.
REILLY: There’s something funny about someone saying: ‘Look I’m smarter than you, that’s the way it is. Just accept it.’
FERRELL: ‘It doesn’t mean I like you any less.’
Q: Considering this dynamic, how did you choose who would play Holmes and who would play Watson?
FERRELL: Rock, paper, scissors. It was a thousand rounds of rock, paper, scissors. It was gruelling.
REILLY: I think it was pretty obvious from the get-go. I think I got Watson in my DNA. I’m your go-to sideman.
FERRELL: Well, no one looks better in tweed than John C Reilly. I will challenge anyone on that point.
Q: Talk to me about your British accents. Did you rigorously prepare for this, especially knowing the Dick Van Dyke trap of Americans’ doing terrible British accents?
REILLY: The old Dick Van Dyke trap. I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about that Dick Van Dyke trap.
FERRELL: We both worked pretty hard. I kind of stole a page from the [British television] version with the actor Jeremy Brett, who would all of a sudden just start yelling for no reason: “Now, the reason why the safe is unlocked IS BECAUSE NO ONE HAS THE COMBINATION!” He just had these random accelerations in the way he spoke.
REILLY: The heart of comedy is figuring out what’s ridiculous about a person or place and exploiting it. I have to say, the English are so fun to make fun of. The formality and the properness of the English was like a field day for me and Will. That fastidiousness and the idea of maintaining a stiff upper lip and a formality with every situation, even when things get really crazy and difficult to control.
I don’t think Will and I are going to win Accent of the Year at the Dialect Awards. But that’s part of the joke. We’re these two Americans playing two of the most famous characters of English literature. We’re trying to be even more English accent-y than Englishmen.
FERRELL: We won’t get a Van Dyke.
Q: The maturity level of your previous duos — Dale and Brennan in ‘Step Brothers’ or Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr in ‘Talladega Nights’ — is not high. How do Holmes and Watson compare?
REILLY: They’re both very mature in a way and completely immature. They’re Victorian gentlemen, but they have some work to do in the relationship department.
FERRELL: They can figure out the most intricate scenario in terms of a crime, but in the basic ins and outs of dating and how to talk to a woman, they’re on a third-grade level.
REILLY: The movie is pretty timely, too, in terms of dealing with the messed up ways that men have thought of women’s roles in the past. And the women in the movie, with Rebecca Hall and Lauren Lapkus, were amazing. Trying to be funny in a corset is a real challenge.
Q: Sherlock Holmes and Watson have been played by many illustrious actors in this decade alone, from Ian McKellen to Lucy Liu. Did you get advice from any of them?
REILLY: I got a very threatening voicemail from Benedict Cumberbatch: ‘Who do you think you are? How dare you?’ He doesn’t have an English accent, actually, when he’s angry. No — I feel like we did this before any of those people even realised we were doing it.
FERRELL: John and I went to a Chelsea soccer match and ran into Mark Strong [who played a villain in the 2009 film ‘Sherlock Holmes’]. He’s like, ‘What are you working on in town?’ I’m like, ‘I’m here with John C Reilly, and we’re doing Sherlock Holmes and Watson.’ The look on his face was like a mixture of ‘Oh my God, that’s going to be amazing,’ and ‘How dare you.’ He was so perplexed. I saw eight different thoughts go through his head.
Q: ‘Step Brothers’ has a cult following, and in a recent interview with Variety, the film’s writer and director, Adam McKay, toyed with ideas for a possible sequel: ‘You’d have Dale and Brennan as big Trump supporters and go hard-core right wing.’ Would you do that?
FERRELL: That’s news to me.
REILLY: That sounds really funny, but I don’t know, man. I’ve been doing all this press for other movies, and people cannot wait to talk about ‘Step Brothers.’ To even say one little thing, then people jump on it, like: ‘Sequel? Sequel? Sequel?’ Which is great. But I haven’t talked to Adam about that.
Q: Are there other famous duos you’d like to play?
REILLY: Tango and Cash? Has that been done?
FERRELL: Either Tango and Cash or Turner and Hooch.
REILLY: You’re going to think it’s a joke, but at some point, I was pitching Will on the Wright brothers. I think it could be a great story.
REILLY: People want to know what Orville and Wilbur were like. They owned a bike store, did you know that?
FERRELL: But they were first in Ohio? And then went to North Carolina. Because there’s a better bike market in North Carolina.
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Holmes & Watson is out in the UAE on January 10.