Man-children are something of a specialty 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 this Christmas, 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.
I know you two met through the former “S.N.L.” 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.
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.
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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.”
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 grueling.
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.
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.
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.
You’re both known for your extreme commitment to bits. Were there any instances of that on set?
REILLY There were all kinds of different moments where we had to commit to some pretty 𝕚𝕟𝕥𝕖𝕟𝕤𝕖 things. Gobbling down a whole raw onion or charging through a crowd throwing people left and right.
FERRELL I’m covered in coal smut from head to toe, trying to figure out a clue. There was one point, John, when you were hosed down by a high-powered water cannon.
REILLY Like an animal in a cage. When you sign up for a comedy, you never think, “I’ll be stripped down bare and hit with a fire hose.”
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 voice mail 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 realized 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.
“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.
What was the best day that you ever spent together?
FERRELL One of the best days was when we were shooting “Talladega Nights,” and both of us had a rare day off. John, I believed you researched this: We decided to do a float down the Little Cahaba River, which is just outside of Birmingham, Ala. We got these inner tubes and we floated down this river.
REILLY We’ve had some great days on water. Another was a windless day we tried to sail in Sydney Harbor. We’re slowly puttering along for about three hours with the sail silently flapping.
FERRELL Our field trip on this movie was a trip to Stonehenge. I mean, I was excited to see Stonehenge, but it’s what, about an hour, tops? You can’t get too close and you read some plaques and it’s freezing out there. And you’re like, “Should we go get hot chocolate?” “Yeah, let’s go.”
REILLY “Are you guys feeling connected to a mystical, Druid-like energy?” “Well, maybe.”
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.