Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd on ‘The Shrink Next Door’

As viewers, we’ve been conditioned to expect some wacky comedy when we see Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd teaming up, thanks to past collaborations like 2004’s frenzied hit “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and its equally stylish 2013 sequel.” Anchorman 2: The legend continues.”

But ‘The Shrink Next Door’, with which they re-team for the first time in eight years, isn’t much of a project. This limited Apple TV+ series, debuting Friday, is an adaptation of the Wondery and Bloomberg Media podcast that tells the true story of Dr. Isaac Herschkopf, a psychiatrist who insinuated himself into the life of his patient Marty Markowitz—at first for Markowitz’s benefit and pleasure, then to increasingly manipulative ends.

(The real Herschkopf was ordered in April to surrender his license to practice in New York after a commission convened by the Department of Health found him guilty of multiple professional violations. In a telephone interview, Herschkopf said he was appealing the pronounciation.)

Ferrell plays the warm-hearted, repressed Marty, and Rudd plays the sympathetic but insidious Dr. Ike, as the therapist is most famous on the show. Both actors see “The Shrink Next Door” as an opportunity to take on characters with more complexity than they often get to play, and inhabit them longer than they could in a typical movie.

In late October, Rudd and Ferrell sat side by side in the parlor of a downtown Manhattan hotel, playing at times playfully, as if they were replaying their unwitting “Anchorman” characters. As they explained, they were eager to get back in front of the public — even a mob made up of a lone reporter — and to share one of the first things they’d made since the start of the pandemic.

But beyond that excitement, both actors admitted that they had a certain amount of apprehension about the project. They said they weren’t sure if viewers would embrace them without the outrageous jokes and improvisational unity that characterized their earlier work together.

“It’s not a cartoon by any means,” Rudd said. “As dark as the story can get — and people were really hurt — there’s something so absurd that it’s funny. You can have humor and real drama at the same time.”

Ferrell added: “There were days when we started out with something lighthearted and then Paul and I got into a really intense, emotional scene in the second half of the day. To change that way was a real challenge.”

Ferrell and Rudd went on to talk about making “The Shrink Next Door,” the questions the story raises and what it portends for show business. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Did the two of you ever cross paths before working together on “Anchorman”?

PAUL RUDD None of us can remember. I was definitely a fan of Will’s and knew who he was before ‘Anchorman’.

WILL FERRELL And I’m all for ‘Clueless’.

RUDD As if.

FERRELL From the start Paul came in and read to Brian Fantana and was great. But it was like, “By the way, Paul Rudd is calling every hour and won’t let this go.”

RUDD I think I just wore them down. I didn’t play it cool.

FERRELL He was, in the modern vernacular, a little thirsty.

How did you both end up on “The Shrink Next Door”?

FERRELL Paul and me [Michael] Showalter [a director and executive producer of the series] did it on their own, and then I got a call from my agency, “Have you ever heard of this podcast? They’re thinking of making it.” And then we all started talking. Everyone asked Paul, would you do it with Will? I was asked, would you like to do it with Paul? kismet.

What interested you in the podcast?

FERRELL My first reaction was, OK, I’ll listen to it, but I’d be insensitive to being abused that way. And then you start to hear how it happens bit by bit. And before he knew it, he was up to his neck. I also like that Marty comes full circle and finally comes out, willing to stand up for herself. Dare I say, you go from feeling sorry for Marty to feeling sorry for Ike. What’s wild.

RUDD [with mock offense]It’s not that wild! What are you talking about? I really like the challenge of finding the human elements and the empathetic qualities in the man – to play someone that people might consider mean, but don’t try to make him do that.

Do you think the morality of the story is more complicated than it appears at first?

FERRELL While at first glance it looks like a bad guy and a good guy, Georgia [Pritchett, the series writer] wanted to show that it is a bit gray. They both needed each other in this weird way at different times.

RUDD You can’t just say that this is outright manipulation and that there are no emotions. I think they cared about each other.

FERRELL Even when we sat down with Marty, despite everything he’d been through, he’d still say, ‘We built the tennis court here and it was all Ike’s idea. I wouldn’t have done that if Ike hadn’t been there.” He would still give him props in some weird, retarded way.

Do you feel that Marty is still hurt by the way Ike treated him?

FERRELL He can go to that place where the pain is still on the surface. We asked him, “Why are you willing to share this?” Many people would just feel ashamed and never want to talk about this again. And that’s where it felt like he was at peace.

RUDD By the time we met him, the podcast was already out, so it wasn’t like he felt guarded. He was very affectionate.

Have you also met the real Ike?

RUDD Never met him. Never spoke to him. I spoke to Joe Nocera [the writer and host of the original podcast]. I realized that Ike’s view on this would obviously be very different. I’m sure if you asked him now, he’d say, “No, I helped him.” I imagine he thinks he didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not sure. We are all capable of being a decent human being and then taking advantage of people. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

[In the telephone interview, Herschkopf said he had no interactions with the actors or creators. “No one from the TV series ever contacted me, ever reached out to me in any form whatsoever,” he said. Herschkopf said he had seen only a preview of the show but compared it to “playing telephone” by perpetuating what he said were errors and fabrications in the podcast: “It’s a fiction of a fiction,” he said. “Each copy becomes further and further from the truth.” A press representative for Apple referred questions to MRC, a studio that produced “The Shrink Next Door.” MRC declined to comment.]

The Jewishness of the characters is fundamental to both – there’s even a storyline about Marty having a second bar mitzvah as an adult, to make up for the previous bar mitzvah that got him a teenager. What was it like for you to play?

FERRELL i’m not jewish –

RUDD [He feigns shock, stands up from his seat and leans on a nearby fireplace mantel.] I just need to finish this.

FERRELL I was going to tell you. My stepmother is.

RUDD OKAY. [He returns to his seat.]

FERRELL It is central to the story. It’s so much the fabric. What was important to me and to all of us was that it was all faithfully portrayed – that we were honest and true to the rituals and the culture.

RUDD There were things I’m familiar with because I’m Jewish. Ike’s Judaism influenced how he lived, who he was. It was important to him. They’re colors, and we’re playing a human first and not so much the religion they are.

Some viewers are bothered by it when Jewish characters are played by non-Jewish actors. Has that ever been a consideration here?

FERRELL I am sensitive to that point of view. If that was ever a concern with our team, I’d gladly say I wouldn’t [do it]. But that was never an issue.

Not to equate it exactly, but I’m six feet. The real Marty is five-eight. I don’t really look like him. I’m playing a fictionalization of him anyway. I understand the discussion and how these cases are now being analyzed for various reasons. I’m also confident in the sense that this was handled in a faithful manner that was accurate, and we’re not winking at it. I took it very seriously.

When you interacted with an “Anchorman” movie, it was always in a friendly, comedic way. Was it strange to find yourself in scenes now where you had to be emotional or even confrontational with each other?

FERRELL Beyond our abject fear of whether we could? At least I speak for myself.

RUDD No, no, you can speak for me.

FERRELL My white-hot, abject fear of whether I could even achieve it? That aside? It was exciting.

RUDD There was a sense of, are people just going to hate this because it’s not what they want us to do?

FERRELL We talked almost every day. In other words: “It’s nice to see that we are on a different course.” Or, “People go, ‘No, that’s not what we want to see these two people do.'”

Was it different to improvise on “The Shrink Next Door” than on “Anchorman”?

FERRELL You speak in ways you never would. There is a Passover scene in the last episode where the food is brought out. As Marty, I was gossiping about the types of meat I would grill. I’d ask the table, “Guess which one is the most popular? You’d be surprised — lamb.” And then they asked, “Well, how do you prepare that?” I said, “Dice. I would never, like Will Ferrell, talk about diced lamb. But my brain worked like my character, Marty. When the director ‘cut’, everyone thought, ‘Lamb diced? What are you talking about?’ I do not know.

Is it getting harder to make big “Anchorman” style comedy movies? Are long-season projects like this one the future?

RUDD We always want to tell interesting stories and that delineation matters less and less – everyone watches movies on TV anyway.

FERRELL This is a limited series – great, let’s try that. But it’s not so much a function of, I want to do this because I haven’t done it before. It was just a chance to play these characters and tell this story.

RUDD A lot of movies have been made in the last 10, 15 years – there’s no way they’re being made now. They just don’t give up the money for it. What will it look like a year from now, with people going to the cinema during Covid? I really hope movies don’t disappear, and I don’t think they will.

FERRELL I still listen to AM radio in my car.

RUDD You have a car?

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