NEW YORK — Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis shuffled in to a recent news conference for “The Campaign” like a pair of road-weary pols on the last leg of a grueling whistle-stop tour.
Looking slightly dazed and more than a little haggard, the two stars took their places on the dais at Soho's Crosby Street Hotel, flanked by actor Dylan McDermott and director Jay Roach, and faced a room full of reporters with the weary resignation of seasoned campaigners. The somewhat subdued tone of the press event hosted by Warner Bros. might have been due to the hectic, 11-city cross-country promotional tour the co-stars have endured over the two weeks leading up to election day (i.e. the film's Friday release).
A barnstorming campaign to tout “The Campaign,” if you will, the whistle-stop tour kicked off in Los Angeles and featured appearances in Dallas/Fort Worth (where they engaged in a fierce tug-of-war match at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base), Chicago (where they threw out the first pitch at a Cubs/Marlins game), Seattle (where they played coffeehouse baristas for a day), Philadelphia (where they etched their names on a facsimile of the U.S. Constitution) and Washington (where they posed for pictures in front of the White House).
In “The Campaign,” Ferrell plays glib, long-term North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady, a political hack of the first order, who draws an unexpected opponent in the latest election in the person of Galifianakis' naive Marty Huggins, an idealistic newcomer and tour guide recruited to run by big-money power brokers. McDermott plays the Machiavellian consultant brought in to polish up Marty's aw-shucks image.
The resulting campaign quickly escalates into a mudslinging brawl of outrageous dirty tricks.
Straight away, reporters probed the two candidates on their past political experience.
“In high school I was president of the Ross Perot Fan Club,” Ferrell claimed. “It was just a fan club. It wasn't really helping him run for office. So, yes, I have been active in politics.”
Galifianakis' credentials are more substantial: “I was a volunteer for the Michael Dukakis campaign with my brother,” he said. “We cold-called people in North Carolina. I would say, ‘My name is Zach Galifianakis, and I'm calling about Michael Dukakis.' That sounds like a sentence about two dinosaurs.”
Each of the actors brings baggage to his role from characters he's played in the past — Ferrell from his George W. Bush impressions on “Saturday Night Live,” Galifianakis from his comedy routine featuring a fey, fictional twin brother named Seth, and McDermott from two very odd influences.
“I really didn't want this to have anything to do with George W. Bush,” Ferrell said. “I think Cam Brady is really more of a polished politician in the sense that he knows how to give a great stump speech. I really kind of stole from politicians like John Edwards. That having been said, yeah, Cam's a character who doesn't think he's ever wrong, so I guess you could draw that parallel (with Bush).”
“I have been doing this Seth character since high school,” Galifianakis said. “But in high school he was called the Effeminate Racist. So it was a character I'd perform for my dad through the years and did in comedy clubs here and there. And it got to be in a movie with Will Ferrell, so that's pretty exciting.”
“I pretty much channeled Dermot Mulroney for most of my performance,” McDermott said with deadpan earnestness. “Well, I also played a Secret Service agent in ‘In the Line of Fire,' so I guess that counts for something.”
Behind-the-scenes political antics
Director Jay Roach (who earned his comedy credentials with three “Austin Powers” movies and “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers”) is no stranger to the backroom finagling of big-time politics. His recent credits include two critically acclaimed TV movies on hefty political topics — “Recount,” about contested Florida ballots in the 2000 presidential election, and “Game Change,” about Sarah Palin's controversial selection as John McCain's presidential running mate.
So, Roach said, he knows that politics is an R-rated game and the hard rating was proper for “The Campaign.”
“I don't know that R-rated comedies are always funnier,” Roach said. “But it was the right tone for this movie because the behind-the-scenes of politics, as far as I've experienced in my short exposure to it, is pretty far out there. And as we've learned from various tweets of body parts that have gone around in politics, or the kind of sexual activities that politicians seem to be engaged in, it just seemed funnier for us not to whitewash that. To just let that be.
“And we all thought that Will and Zach going up against each other in the most intense and funny way possible would require it to be no-holds-barred,” he said. “It can't be a polite fight. It should be as impolite as it possibly can be. So it seemed that the R-rated language would actually help it be funnier.”
Roach said his favorite political comedies — “Primary Colors” and “Wag the Dog” — are both hard-edge and brutally honest.
“I think what those films did is kind of confirm your worst suspicions of how things went on behind the scenes,” the director said. “I've always been interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff and the spin doctors who take someone and try to make the most of their positive attributes and keep their skeletons in the closet.
“And the other great thing spin doctors do is taking a bad thing and turning it into a good thing,” Roach said. “Like, ‘well, my candidate got Cs in college so he's therefore more like you,' or ‘my candidate cheated on his wife so he's a virile American male.' That's the sort of stuff we went after.”
Ferrell and Galifianakis said they hope the outrageous antics of “The Campaign” point out some of the more serious issues facing American politics.
“One of the things we're trying to point out is that the system is getting so insane, you have to ask, is it attracting the best people to run for office?” said Ferrell. “Candidates have to jump through so many hoops and their lives have to be exposed on such a level and they have to participate in such dirty tactics that you have to ask: Is it attractive for people who could actually help us govern? I think a lot of talented people would look at it and say, ‘That's not for me.'”
“Yeah,” Galifianakis agreed, “it seems there are a lot of sociopaths that are in public office.”