Fully Farrell

In the comedy Semi-Pro, opening nationwide this Friday, Irish American funnyman Will Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, the one-hit wonder singer who's also owner and coach of the fictional Flint, Michigan basketball team The Tropics. Faced with the disbandment of his squad he must take drastic - and hilarious - action. CAHIR O'DOHERTY talks to Ferrell, and co-stars Woody Harrelson and Andre (3000) Benjamin.

FROM the moment he joined NBC's Saturday Night Live back in 1995, Irish American funnyman John William "Will" Ferrell, 41, has been a star. Famed for his dead-on impersonations of Jeopardy! host Alex Trebeck, Attorney General Janet Reno and President George W. Bush, in recent years Ferrell's added a host of brilliant film roles to his rapidly filling roster in movies like Wedding Crashers, Starsky and Hutch, Blades of Glory and Zoolander.

Raised in Irvine, California in what he calls a typical Irish American family, after graduation from USC Ferrell worked for a short time as a sportscaster on a weekly cable channel show. But comedy and acting were in his blood, and as soon as he could he enrolled in a stand-up comedy workshop at a nearby community college - where he was eventually discovered for Saturday Night Live.

Nowadays he's one of the most famous actors in the world, but not many people know that he's from an Irish American family, or that he recently visited Ireland with his father to trace his family roots.

Just last month in Dublin Ferrell accepted the prestigious James Joyce Award, presented by University College Dublin, whose previous recipients have included political activist Noam Chomsky and UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.

Speaking to the Irish Voice on Tuesday about the unexpected Irish award Ferrell joked, "I've already lost it. No, I haven't. I've just misplaced it.

"Actually I was over in Ireland with my dad and my brother - the three of us had taken a trip in 2007 - and that time we explored parts of the country that we hadn't seen before. We always love going back to kick around. The James Joyce award happened when the kids at UCD took a wild stab and invited me, and since it turned out we were going to be there anyway we thought why not?"

Asked if he was an admirer of James Joyce's work Ferrell deadpanned, "I have always been a fan of his films like Titanic and Terminator. But I think they're always too long."

Seriously, Ferrell admits he was flattered to be asked by UCD to accept the honor, regardless of the fact that there was - he says - no reason to have selected him. On the trip he made an extended visit to Dublin, Connemara and Donegal and was so taken with it that he vows to return again later this year.

At the UCD ceremony, to which he wore a full Irish rugby kit, Ferrell delighted the audience by telling them, "In my library at home, when I peruse my leather bound volumes of Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a lot of feelings ran across my mind. Like, 'Damn, I should have read these books,'" he joked.

At the Ritz Carlton on Central Park West this week for interviews to promote Semi-Pro, a wall of paparazzi stood waiting to catch a glimpse of Ferrell's arrival with his co-stars Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin.

Camped out on the red carpet, the photographers shivered in the frigid February air as they waited for the stars to arrive. Inside the legendary hotel a crew of handlers stage-managed the event seamlessly.

Semi-Pro, the hilarious and surprisingly sweet natured new comedy, is set in the early 1970's, when there were two basketball leagues in America. The NBA ruled the professional sport, and the ABA defined its outlaw flair and sensational showmanship.

In the new comedy Ferrell plays the one hit wonder Jackie Moon, the singing sensation behind "Love Me Sexy," the hilariously pornographic track that Barry White never recorded.

As well as being a sultry singer, Jackie also relishes his role as owner and coach of the fictional Flint, Michigan team called the Tropics. Calling any Michigan team tropical, considering it's geographical position and its frozen winters, is a gag in itself.

When the NBA announces a plan to merge with the ABA, the complication is that they will only take the four teams with the best records, disbanding the rest of the ABA squads forever. Jackie is devastated, but nevertheless he decides to rally his team for an unlikely 11th-hour pursuit of glory.

Actor Woody Harrelson is a close friend of Ferrell's, and their mischief onscreen is nothing compared to the mayhem they can get up to when they're off. They have an ease and complicity between them that can turn the poshest New York hotel into a personal playground.

"I'm carrying on the long standing and important tradition of the straight man," Harrelson tells me, his voice full of sarcasm. In the film Harrelson plays Monix, a former benchwarmer for the Boston Celtics who is acquired by the Flint Tropics in a trade for a washing machine.

Says Harrelson, "I have a championship ring from my days on the Celtics, but I've been dropped down to the ABA and playing for the Kentucky Colonels," says Harrelson. "I get the golden opportunity to come to Flint, Michigan and play for The Tropics. That's my character's trajectory."

I turn to Ferrell and ask which was the harder to master, his singing for the disco tracks or his basketball moves?

"I'm just finishing my caricature drawing of Woody," replies Ferrell. "I'm sorry, I totally forget your question."

I ask again. "Well it definitely wasn't basketball, I'm a pretty gifted athlete. I always wanted to do a basketball movie so this was a dream come true. But I've never been a '70s pop singer before, so that was new.

"For that I went to a funk camp, directed by Isaac Hayes, which is located up in Vermont. You just sing and he watches you from the other room. It's a very creepy camp actually. Nothing bad happened!"

Andre Benjamin, the musician and actor who is one half of the acclaimed music duo Outkast plays Clarence Withers, the flamboyant superstar of the Tropics.

"I guess he's the most athletic of them all," says Benjamin. "He has this natural ability from the neighborhood or from the playground style of playing. He likes to go for all the shots and doesn't like to pass the ball. He doesn't even run down the court to play defense."

Ferrell was impressed by Benjamin's contributions to the film. "For Andre to be thrust into a comedy like this and have to be the best player on the court, he's been amazing. He brings his whole charisma to the film. And he may be the most stylish person I will ever meet in my life."

The only question that remains, in the light of all their antics, is did they have as much fun filming Semi-Pro as they do discussing it?

"Did you ever hear the expression 'by the numbers?'" Harrelson deadpans.

"Showing up on that set every day and watching them go it was hilarious," says Benjamin. "You learn a whole new level of respect for comic talent. They're really professional. They know how to turn it on."

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