Arts

The Doctor Is in Too Deep: Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd on ‘The Shrink Next Door’

As viewers, we are preconditioned to expect a zany comedy when we see Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd paired up, thanks to past collaborations like the madcap 2004 hit “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and its equally classy 2013 sequel, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.”

But “The Shrink Next Door,” which re-teams them for the first time in eight years, is not such a project. This Apple TV+ limited series, which debuts Friday, is adapted from the Wondery and Bloomberg Media podcast that chronicled the true story of Dr. Isaac Herschkopf, a psychiatrist who insinuated himself into the life of his patient Marty Markowitz — at first to Markowitz’s benefit and delight, and then to increasingly manipulative ends.

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

The series is based on actual events involving Martin Markowitz (Ferrell) and his therapist, Dr. Isaac Herschkopf (Rudd).Credit…Beth Dubber/Apple TV+

Ferrell plays the warmhearted, downtrodden Marty, and Rudd plays the likable but insidious Dr. Ike, as the therapist is most commonly known in 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 for longer than they could in a typical film.

Seated alongside each other in the drawing room of a downtown Manhattan hotel in late October, Rudd and Ferrell riffed gamely at times, like they were once again playing their oblivious “Anchorman” characters. As they explained, they were eager to be in front of audiences again — even a crowd consisting of a lone reporter — and to share one of the first things they had made since the pandemic started.

But beyond that excitement, both actors admitted to a certain anxiety about the project. They said they were unsure whether viewers would embrace them without the outrageous gags and improvisational one-upmanship that defined their previous work together.

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

Ferrell added, “There’d be days where we’d start with something lighthearted and then the second half of the day was Paul and I really getting into an intense, emotional scene. To shift in those ways was really challenging.”

Ferrell and Rudd spoke further about the making of “The Shrink Next Door,” the questions that its story raises and what it portends for show business. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

“You can have humor and real drama, simultaneously,” Rudd said.Credit…Ryan Lowry for The New York Times

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

PAUL RUDD Neither one of us can recall. I certainly was a fan of Will’s and knew who he was before “Anchorman.”

WILL FERRELL And I’m all about “Clueless.”

RUDD As if.

FERRELL From the get-go, Paul came in and read for Brian Fantana and was amazing. But it was like, “By the way, Paul Rudd is calling every hour and will not 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 bit thirsty.

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

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

What interested you about the podcast?

FERRELL My initial reaction was, OK, I’ll listen to it but I would be impervious to being taken advantage of like that. And then you start to hear about how, piece by piece, it happens. And before he knew it, he was up to his neck. I also like that Marty goes full circle and comes out of it finally willing to stand up for himself. Dare I say, you go from feeling sorry for Marty to feeling sorry for Ike. Which is wild.

RUDD [with mock offense]It’s not so wild! What are you talking about? I really like the challenge of finding the human elements and the empathetic qualities in the guy — to play somebody who people might consider villainous but try to not make him that.

Do you think the morality of the story is more complicated than it might initially appear?

FERRELL While at first glance it would appear to have a bad guy and a good guy, Georgia [Pritchett, the series writer] wanted to show that it’s somewhat gray. They both, at various times, needed each other in this weird way.

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

FERRELL Even when we sat down with Marty, despite everything he went through, he would still talk about, “We built the tennis court here, and that was all Ike’s idea. I wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for Ike.” He’d still give him props in a weird, backward way.

Did you get the sense that Marty is still wounded by how Ike treated him?

FERRELL He can go to that place where the pain is still at the surface. We asked him, “Why are you willing to share this?” A lot of people would just feel shame 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 with him, the podcast had already been out, so it wasn’t as if he felt guarded. He was very forthcoming.

Did you also meet with the real-life Ike?

RUDD Never met him. Never talked to him. I talked to Joe Nocera [the writer and host of the original podcast]. I gathered that Ike’s take on this would clearly be very different. I’m sure if you asked him now, he’d say, “No, I helped him.” I imagine he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. I don’t know for sure. We’re all capable of being a decent person 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 of them — there’s even a plotline about Marty having a second bar mitzvah as an adult, to make up for the earlier one that scarred him a teenager. What was that like for each of you to play?

FERRELL I am not Jewish —

RUDD [He feigns shock, stands up from his seat and leans on a nearby fireplace mantel.] I’ve just got to walk this off.

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

RUDD OK. [He returns to his seat.]

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

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

The show’s central relationship is ultimately more complicated than it initially appears to be, Ferrell said. “They both, at various times, needed each other in this weird way.”Credit…Ryan Lowry for The New York Times

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

FERRELL I’m sensitive to that viewpoint. If that was ever a point of concern with our team, I would have happily said I won’t [do it]. But that was never a point of discussion.

Not to equate it exactly, but I’m six-foot-three. 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 things are now being analyzed for various reasons. I also stand confidently in the sense that this was handled in a faithful way that was accurate, and we’re not winking at any of it. I took it very seriously.

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

FERRELL Outside of our abject fear of whether we could? At least, I’ll speak for myself.

RUDD No, no, you can speak for me.

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

RUDD There was an awareness of, are people just going to hate this because it’s not what they want to see us doing?

FERRELL We’d talk almost every day. Either: “This is kind of fun to see this different course we’re on.” Or: “People are going to go, ‘Nope, that’s not what we want to see these two people do.’”

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

FERRELL You do speak in ways that you never would. There’s a Passover scene in the final episode where food’s starting to be brought out. As Marty, I was riffing about the types of meat I would grill. I would 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, “Cubed.” I would never, as Will Ferrell, talk about cubed lamb. But my brain was working as my character, Marty. When the director said cut, everyone was like, “Cubed lamb? What are you talking about?” I don’t know.

Is it getting harder to make big comedy movies in the “Anchorman” vein? Are single-season, long-form projects like this the way of the future?

RUDD We always want to tell interesting stories and that delineation matters less and less — everyone’s watching movies on TV now 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 There are a lot of movies that were made in the last 10, 15 years — there’s no way they’d get made now. They’re just not putting up the money for it. What is it going to be like in a year, with people going to movies during Covid? I certainly hope movies don’t go away, 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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