Spirited begins with a (literal) cold open set in a wintry suburb, as Karen (Rose Byrne) faces off against her fearful neighbours. She’s built a reputation as a bit of a humbug, as if the name didn’t give it away, but things have changed this morning: she’s kinder and her heart has grown three sizes.
As if pulling the curtain back on The Wizard of Oz, we’re thrust into the magical inner workings of the bureaucratic spirits responsible for an annual Christmas haunting aimed at turning a Scrooge into a Bob Cratchit. Will Ferrell, playing the Ghost of Christmas Present, sums it up nicely: “We haunt someone, change them into a better person, then sing about it.”
For over a century, things have gone off without a hitch behind the scenes. But Ferrell has have never come up against such a cynical target: a high-powered PR flack, played by Ryan Reynolds, who is willing to do anything to win, even destroy a grade-school student’s reputation.
Matching the power of classic Hollywood miracle-making with the sarcastic, irony-poisoned tone of modern life, Spirited captures the reason for the season in a battle for one man’s seemingly irredeemable soul.
Via Zoom, Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds spoke about working together, tap dancing, and A Christmas Carol’s enduring appeal.
While you both have brief scenes in Dick, Spirited is your first time working together. What was that experience like?
Ryan Reynolds: It’s been a huge dream and certainly a privilege to work with Will. That’s the primary driving force behind my wanting to do Spirited. He’s somebody I’ve admired, and you’d struggle to find a person in the entertainment industry who has contributed as much to the modern comedic lexicon as Mr. Will Ferrell. It was a pretty awesome way to spend time. Sorry, Will, I know you were listening to that. He wrote that speech.
Will Ferrell: And you delivered it perfectly.
RR: Thank you very much.
WF: The same goes for me. I was attached to the film initially, and when Ryan’s name came up, we immediately thought, “Oh my gosh, he’d be the perfect person for the role.” He can sing: you’ve heard “Careless Whisper” at the end of Deadpool. I was so excited to work with Ryan and equally thrilled to find out up close just how talented he is and what a great guy he is.
RR: We were really thrown into the trenches together with all this new territory for both of us. It was great to have someone who shared the same work ethic, and the same despair and terror of going into a giant movie musical where we had to tap dance and sing every other second.
Speaking of tap dancing, Debbie Reynolds infamously tapped until her shoes filled with blood while rehearsing for Singin’ in the Rain. What are the physical trials of dancing so much for a film?
RR: I only coughed up blood. I don’t think there was ever any blood in my shoes, and I don’t think that should be a benchmark for anything, really. The singing and dancing are terrifying, but that’s part of the reason to do it. You’re working with some of the most talented, incredible teachers, who were trying to help us sing and dance. It’s also very intimidating because they make it feel and look so easy. Being patient with ourselves was the key. I loved having Will there, because we were in the same boat and I didn’t feel alone.
WF: I have this to say about the tap dancing. They gave Ryan a section and me a section. I think Ryan’s section stayed the same length the whole time, and they kept taking steps away from mine as I was not able to do certain moves. They were like, “That’s better…No, you know what? What if we just don’t do that step.” I’m like, “Great!” So my section to tap became kind of a fun little hole, whereas Ryan is actually doing the, you know, articulate part of it.
RR: And I’m still paying for it.
This is a very original retelling of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Do you guys have particular interpretations of Scrooge or of the story that you love?
RR: The Muppets for me. Michael Caine.
WF: There used to be a local theatre where I grew up. My mother was a docent at the theatre on weekends, and they would do this annual showing of A Christmas Carol starting around Thanksgiving. It became somewhat of a family tradition to go and see A Christmas Carol there every year. The lead actor who played Scrooge became one of the drama coaches. I always remarked that watching that play year after year in person, and despite the fact that you knew the story inside out, you still found yourself, even as a kid, shedding a tear at the end because he redeemed himself. I remember thinking, “Gosh, that’s so funny, I know what’s coming, yet the performances’ sincerity is so powerful that I get emotional every time.”
Why do you think A Christmas Carol has such an enduring appeal with audiences?
RR: Redemption is somewhat evergreen as a concept. I believe people should have second chances. I think it’s incredibly important if you’re able to fold in our mistakes and use them as avenues to learn and grow, and also help others learn and grow. Mistakes are kind of our North Star.
WF: I also think we’re endlessly fascinated with ghosts. The ghost visiting us and not only being scary but showing us the wrongs of how we’ve lived our lives — that’s something that speaks to people for some reason, but I don’t know why.
You both have very different onscreen personas. Ryan tends to play up an ironic and sardonic sense of humour, while Will often plays earnest, almost childlike characters. How did you two strike a balance with your different comedic approaches?
RR: I don’t know that I would profess to have a process. It’s kind of by appointment. I’ll say this, though: it was interesting working with Will, because I’d be hard-pressed to find a performer that has left more of an impression on me. I definitely found myself doing Will to Will, and I’d have to stop myself. I’d just get so enthusiastic and excited about the opportunity to work with him. That was really special for me.
I’ve been doing this for 32 years professionally, and I have nothing to complain about, but the “pinch me” moments are fewer and farther between. So to have one of those with Will was something very special to me, and something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. My wife, Blake, is the same. Every time we left Will or we’d be hanging out with Will, she’d always be as stumped for words as I was.
WF: It’s funny because I always felt, “Oh my God, Ryan is so quick,” and I’m just trying to keep up with him. He just has this ability to think of three things at one time. I think that’s why we work so well together — because we were trying to keep up with each other but listening to each other at the same time.
RR: I think, anecdotally, it’s great because I don’t know what to expect working with Will.
Will is also a very sincere person, and that is lovely, because I know he can just flip this switch and have everybody bent over at a perfect right angle, laughing their guts out. The fact that you can have these incredibly meaningful and thoughtful conversations with him, too, I think was ultimately the most special part.
Spirited is now streaming on Apple TV+.
All imagery courtesy of Apple TV+.