Will Ferrell is trying very, very hard not to fall down. Maintaining balance requires more than the usual amount of concentration in situations like this -- when you're officiating a ''loser guy on hot babe'' wrestling match in an inflatable kiddie pool filled to the thighs with ''personal'' lubricant.
It is March 2002, and Ferrell is still the star attraction of ''Saturday Night Live'' -- still the show's squinty President Bush, still Craig of the perfect cheer, still just a part-time movie actor. The moonlighting gig that currently finds him sporting a zebra-striped ref's jersey is called ''Old School.'' Costarring Luke Wilson (''The Royal Tenenbaums'') and Vince Vaughn (''Swingers''), the DreamWorks comedy charts the misadventures of three men who flush their dignity down the toilet to start a fraternity for fellow arrested adolescents.
Today's scene is a rare instance in which Ferrell is not the butt of the R-rated movie's broad gags. All he has to do is play umpire in a frat party ''K-Y wrestling'' contest between Wilson and a coed. That, and not slip and go splat. And he doesn't. He remains focused. Even the career-altering decisions weighing on him are momentarily forgotten. Director Todd Phillips (''Road Trip'') calls, ''Action!'' Wilson gets kicked in his (heavily padded) crotch. He crumples. Ferrell's long face squishes into a that'sgottahurt pucker. ''Cut!''
''I'm really trying to decide the best thing to do,'' Ferrell says during the break, joy jelly dripping from his elbow like grease from a slice of pizza. He's talking about leaving ''SNL'' after seven years, about making the movies a full-time job. New Line Cinema is wooing him for ''Elf,'' a comedy about a normal-size human raised to become one of Santa's helpers. Then again, movies are risky, and the ones he's appeared in to date, most notably the ''SNL'' spin-off ''A Night at the Roxbury,'' have been laughable -- and not in a good way. Hence, he's torn. ''There's an argument that maintaining a presence on the show means you have a nice platform in front of the public,'' says Ferrell. ''At the same time, at some point you just have to take a flying leap. So...I don't know.''
He excuses himself for another take. ''Harder,'' Phillips instructs the actress. ''Really kick him in the nuts this time.'' She does. Ferrell winces sympathetically. He is trying very hard not to fall down.
Nearly a year later, Will Ferrell's spongy mass of Goldilocked hair -- a very elfin 'do -- says it all. He made his choice: Last spring he bid adieu to ''SNL.'' ''I wanted to leave while I still thought of it fondly, as opposed to leaving after a year that was miserable,'' the actor says over lunch during a quick L.A. weekend break from shooting ''Elf'' in Vancouver. ''I was just ready to challenge myself with the next thing.''
Good for him -- but will it be good for moviegoers? There's no denying the dude is funny. ''I can watch Will Ferrell eat lunch and laugh,'' says Phillips. ''He just looks like a funny guy.'' Ferrell has known as much about himself since second grade, when he made the girls giggle by punching himself in the head. ''I was like, Okay, there's something here,'' says the 35-year-old Southern California native, who still lives there with his wife of 1 1/2 years, Viveca.