WE ARE FAMILY
Though Ferrell and Reilly's characters were already in place, it was key that the filmmakers find believable parents for Dale and Brennan. After all, it is the parents who serve as the guides into Dale and Brennan's world.
Mary Steenburgen takes on the role of Nancy Huff. Ferrell was thrilled to be re-teaming with the Academy Award® winner after collaborating on the hit holiday comedy Elf. "I played his step-mom in Elf," Steenburgen says. "We're trying every variation of me being Will's mother. This time, I'm his birth mother. It was an amazing experience that was just so much fun. The hardest part of this job is to get through a take without the giggles."
Ferrell comments: "In Elf, my character was just visiting their world, so I didn't have a lot of one-on-one contact with Mary's character. It was fun to see her perform this type of comedy. She fits so well in terms of playing the right tone. It's a hard part: the character has to get tough while being an enabler the whole time."
"Mary is such a polite, graceful, lovely person. She has amazing manners. She has a grace about her, so to be rude to her is so funny," Reilly says. "We do and say all these awful things to her."
It seems that everyone is mesmerized by the sight of Steenburgen's genteel, almost angelic visage spouting obscenities. "For some reason, it cracks them up to have really filthy things coming out of my mouth," Steenburgen says.
"I would not have traded places with any actress in the world," Steenburgen says. "There's nowhere else I'd rather be. Every single day was a total adventure. I had no idea what was going to happen. Plus, I'm a laugh junkie and what better place to be? This is the center of the universe for a laugh junkie."
Having honed her improvisational skills during her stint on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Steenburgen was ready to hang with Ferrell, Reilly, and McKay. "They did say that they liked to be loose on the set," she says. "To me, that was great. We do that on Larry David's show, and I was with an improv group in my early years in New York."
Richard Jenkins, who portrayed the deceased patriarch in "Six Feet Under" and some memorably comedic roles in David O. Russell's I (heart) Huckabees and Flirting with Disaster, plays Robert Doback, Dale's father.
Jenkins was incredibly enthusiastic to work with Steenburgen. He had been a longtime fan of her work. "When I heard she was doing it, I thought 'Oh good, this is great,'" Jenkins says. "We had a lot of fun. She's there all the time for you in a scene. She's so beautiful and so funny and so sweet."
Jenkins notes the unique way in which the husband-wife team has made their children incapable of embracing responsibility. "He has been a distant parent. He knows there are problems, but he really hasn't dealt with them. Because of the new situation, he's forced to deal with it and he's just not capable. For these last 40 years, he's found a way to avoid paying attention to his son, and now that he's forced to, it ain't pretty."
"Richard Jenkins has always made us laugh and he's an actor we've always respected," says Apatow. "He's worked with the Coen brothers and Woody Allen. He was on 'Six Feet Under.' Casting him puts everyone on their game: 'I better do a good job today. Richard Jenkins is here.'"
Kathryn Hahn joins the cast as Alice, the frustrated wife of Nancy's other son, Derek. After years of putdowns, petty arguments, and standing in the shadows, she is ready to break free. And when Dale sucker-punches her husband, it sets free her primal urges and she reacts in unexpected ways.
"She's a shattered shell of a woman who is beaten down by her husband, Derek, and her kids. She takes harbor in the arms of Dale Doback," Hahn says. "They have a love affair for the ages."
Hahn worked with McKay and Ferrell briefly on Anchorman. "I had a very-small-yet-hilarious-to-me part. I played Helen, the assistant to Veronica Corningstone. I would have shown up just to be in the background. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
What she was seeing was a set where actors felt free to get the story across in the way they felt best fit the characters they were playing. "One of Adam's many talents is that he creates such an environment of safety that you feel like you could do anything. That feeling opens something in your mind; there's no line to cross and you can do whatever comes out in the moment."
"Kathryn is so fearless," Reilly says. "She is probably the most fearless actress I've ever worked with. She is very much like me and Will and Adam, where if something's funny, we'll chase it all the way down. We won't stop and say, 'All right, it's getting inappropriate now.' We'll just keep chasing it down and stay committed to the idea wherever it goes. It was great to have that with Kathryn."
Playing Hahn's husband and Ferrell's brother is Adam Scott, who currently stars in HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me." Scott was happy to work with the comedy team of Ferrell and McKay. "They're probably the funniest guys around. They're hilarious and they're also just the nicest guys around. It's been really great."