As the voice of the cantankerous Lord Mcintosh in BRAVE, Craig Ferguson gets to unleash his inner crank to a delightful degree. Macintosh is all excessive pride and blue body paint (basically, a more spindly Mel Gibson from BRAVEHEART), and he believes his son, Young Macintosh, is prime marrying material for Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the fiercely independent daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly). If Macintosh mostly comes off as a Scottish caricature, Ferguson is fine with this because, as he says in the below interview, these caricatures aren't all that far from the truth.
It's a fun change of pace for Ferguson to step into a recording studio and giving his brogue an energetic workout - and, due to the stay-at-home demands of THE LATE LATE SHOW, which he's hosted on CBS since 2005, it's pretty much the only kind of dramatic work he can do nowadays. He's fine with this, too. Ferguson's got a dream gig, one he does nightly for a major network with virtually no interference, and a family that he'd rather not uproot so he can go off and shoot a film for two months. He couldn't be happier, and it comes through on the show. There's no question that THE LATE LATE SHOW is the friendliest and most relaxed of all the late night talk shows, and that's all due to Ferguson's generous demeanor.
I lightly interrogated Ferguson for signs of restlessness, but the man is settled. He's going nowhere. We also talked a little about his stand-up act, and what it is that causes Scottish yarns to be so damn whimsical.
Mr. Beaks: Nice being interviewed instead of interviewing?
Craig Ferguson: I suppose so. I don't really think of myself as an interviewer. What you do is much more complex and difficult than what I do. I just talk to people. I don't really have an agenda to extract information as such. It's more just keep talking until the commercial break.
Beaks: You've done quite a bit of voice acting over the years. Is this because it's what works best with your schedule?
Ferguson: Absolutely so. I can't do anything else. It's not possible for me to go and shoot out of town or even in town. I can't physically be there for more than maybe a couple of hours at a time. So it's easy for me to do an animated movie. Everything is done within five miles of everything else. It's L.A. It's something I can do.
Beaks: Is it creatively fulfilling?
Ferguson: Absolutely! In a funny way, for an actor, I think it expands your universe rather than contracts it. What I mean by that is if I'm an actor in a role, I'm confined to this body. This is all I can be. I can be a variation of this. Whereas in animation, you can be anything: you can be a fish or a duck or a cat. That allows more possibilities in a way. That's the way I look at it. It allows your imagination to fly a little bit.
Beaks: Do you ever the spontaneity of playing off of another actor?
Ferguson: No, because I get it every day. I do it all the time on the show. It's funny... you talked about interviewing. I think a lot of what I do on the show is actually an improvisational game. You come out and you start talking, then I start talking, and we make this work. When my show works best, it's not an interview at all; it's an improvisational game with someone who understands what we're doing. Occasionally that doesn't make sense. If you're interviewing Desmond Tutu, it doesn't make sense to do an improvisational game. You want to talk to Desmond Tutu about Desmond Tutu, and his life and his work. But the actors who work best on my show, that's how they approach it.
Beaks: You always seem to have a lot of fun with Samuel L. Jackson.
Ferguson: Yeah! Sam gets it. That's a very good example of someone who completely understands how the show works.
Beaks: So do you think about getting back to film work?
Ferguson: Nah, I don't think so. I kind of like the way it is. If I think of my life in terms of work, and my life tends to be in terms of what's right for the family. I think about my family more than I think about what I do for a living. What I do for a living is how I feed my family, how I take care of them, and my family comes first. I tend to make decisions based on what's right for that. And if a piece of work takes me out of town for two months, that's no good for the family, and I'm not going to do it. In the beginning of doing THE LATE LATE SHOW, that was a big part of it for me. And no one was offering me the gig; I had to win it. But if could get the gig, I would be in town and wouldn't be away from my family. That was important.
Beaks: As a comic, do you ever sneak out and try out new material at the clubs in town?
Ferguson: All the time. I've done two stand-up specials in the past two or three years, and I'm doing another one this year. I play all over the country all the time. I'm always doing a stand-up act.
Beaks: Who are the stand-up touchstones for you?
Ferguson: Billy Connolly, Robin Williams, Eddie Izzard, Louis CK... the greats, I guess.
Beaks: But do you remember as a kid seeing someone who just blew you away to the point where you were like, "I have to do this!"?
Billy. For a young Scotsman, Billy for sure. Billy is everything.
Beaks: BRAVE was fun, but I'd like to see you guys mix it up on screen in a live-action movie.
Ferguson: Well, he's been on the show many times, and he'll be on it again. That's how we do it. And that way it's not a story, it's improvisation. And if you get a chance to improvise with Billy Connolly, you take it.
Beaks: How did you feel about the portrayal of Scotland in the film? Did it have the proper verisimilitude?
Ferguson: "Verisimilitude" is a big word. You don't often hear it outside the works of James Ellroy, so good for you. I think it's very truthful. It nails it in the sense of the character of the Scottish people and also the beauty of the landscape. What it gets that you don't often see in movies about Scotland is the sense of humor of the Scots - which is absurd and whimsical. That I think they got a lot more than the scenes in the castle with all the clans and the nonsense going on there. The three wee boys with the magic cookie and all of that... they get it. It's an absurd whimsical sense to it, which I like. That, to me, feels like Scotland.
Beaks: Kind of like Bill Forsyth.
Ferguson: Mm-hm. I always thought the movie which best captured the Scottish sense of humor was LOCAL HERO. This movie has that. It's not LOCAL HERO, but it's informed by that sense of humor. That gentle fun is in there, and I like that.
Beaks: Where does that whimsy come from?
Ferguson: The Celts. It comes from the Celts. It comes from the oral storytelling tradition. If you're telling a story in the oral tradition, you better make it entertaining. And the only way to make it entertaining is to make it a little bit funny in places. You want it to be scary, you want it to be riveting, and you want it to be engaging, and the way that you do that is you use all of the tools at your disposal. And one of them is humor.
Beaks: And yet we're so used to the caricature of the Scottish people. It seems like a thin line between authentic and caricature.
Ferguson: Well, the caricature has merit. Nobody pulled it out of their ass. It exists! There are the noble warriors, there are the belligerent drunks. There's all of that, but there's more to it than that, too.
Beaks: It's spirited living.
Ferguson: It's certainly that.
Beaks: But I hear the accent, and it's hard not to think of Mike Myers's Scottish father sometimes.
Ferguson: I think Mike Myers does a great job. He understands the Scottish pretty well. I know that people in his family are Scottish. I remember saying to him years ago that he has a better Scottish accent than me. He understands it. He gets it. In SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER, when he says, "You! Heed! Down!" That's very Scottish. (Laughs)
Beaks: So how long do you see yourself doing the show, and are there other projects you'd like to get to maybe once that's done?
Ferguson: I always said that I would do the show as long as I enjoyed doing it - and I do enjoy doing it for now. But I'm so vain to think that I'm immortal. Time is limited. And there may be other things to do at certain points, and we'll get to that. But right now it suits me, and I'm happy to do it. If that's the same in five years, great. If it's not, okay.
Beaks: It seems like your show is the friendliest and most relaxed of all the late night shows.
Ferguson: It's because I don't give a rat's ass. I'm not pretending to not give a rat's ass. It's not an affectation. I genuinely don't care. What I care about is having a good time, enjoying it, and making it as funny as I can make it. But I'm certainly not interested in tailoring my life to a demographic or a number or the wishes of an overzealous executive - which I don't have. What I do have - and this is one of the reasons I continue to do it - is an amazing confluence of events. CBS is happy to let me do what I want to do. That's really fucking rare. I've never had it in my life before, so I think I'll do it for as long as it exists. If I say, "I want to take the show to Scotland," they go, "Okay." "I want a dancing horse." "Fine." "I want a gay robot skeleton sidekick." "Do it!" "I want to interview Stephen Fry with no audience. Just me and Stephen." "Fine." "I want to have Bishop Desmond Tutu come on, and we're going to do a whole show about South Africa." "Great!" So as long as they keep saying "Yes", I'll keep doing it.
BRAVE opens theatrically Friday, June 22nd. THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG FERGUSON airs Monday through Friday at 12:35 AM/11:35 PM Central on CBS.