Spirited’s Will Ferrell and Octavia Spencer on returning to Christmas movies, singing nerves, and haunting Dolly Parton

Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds in Spirited
(Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

Finding a new way to tackle A Christmas Carol is no mean feat. With literally hundreds of Scrooges, Tiny Tims, and "bah humbugs" out there, there’s not a great deal more ground to tread with the Charles Dickens classic. But the all-singing, all-dancing musical Spirited takes a different tact, flipping the conventional narrative on its head to tell the story from the perspective of the ghosts. 

Will Ferrell plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, tasked with helping pick a new soul to be redeemed each Christmas Eve. However, he soon finds more than he bargained for when he meets Ryan Reynolds’ Clint Briggs, a brutal media consultant who may be his first "irredeemable" soul. There are laughs aplenty, as you might imagine given the talent on screen and the fact it’s helmed by Daddy’s Home director and co-writer duo Sean Anders and John Morris. And while comedy is second nature for the cast, when Total Film meets Ferrell and his Oscar-winning co-star Octavia Spencer – who plays Briggs’ long-suffering assistant – they reveal the movie had one surprising new challenge for them: singing. 

"There’s a real difference between this kind of silly comedy thing, which is all I've ever done to what is true musical theatre," Ferrell says looking particularly festive in front of a Christmas tree over Zoom. "Each lyric and each line has meaning behind it, and you're trying to not only carry the tune, but you know, impart either emotion or feeling through the text. And that was, yeah, that was difficult."

Spencer echoes him, calling the process "extremely difficult". She adds: "The wonderful thing is we had a great music supervisor Ian Eisendrath who taught me not only how to get away from the nerves of singing but use it in the language that I was accustomed to, which is monologues. And then we had a wonderful vocal coach that warmed us up. So it was daunting but it was also quite rewarding and satisfying in the end."

Octavia Spencer in Spirited

(Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

Neither Ferrell nor Spencer are strangers to a Christmas movie. It’s been almost 20 years since Buddy the Elf bounced onto our screens in Jon Favreau’s 2003 classic, while Spencer previously starred in the decidedly less family-friendly Bad Santa. Asked about why it was the right time to return to the genre, Ferrell’s philosophical about the impact of films like this on the world right now.

"Well, it's funny. I mean, this took four years between when it was initially pitched to us and then COVID hit, all before actually getting it made and released," he says. "So you're not really in control of the timing of when something's released. That having been said, I think people are gonna just love this movie because it's just a chance to reaffirm that humans can really be good to each other and to kind of rekindle that spirit because I think with everything going on in the world, we need this message."

Spirited recognizes its place in the festive genre, with plenty of meta references to other Christmas films – don’t miss the Elf gag – and pop culture nods. Among the Easter eggs is the cheeky inclusion of country music legend Dolly Parton in the Hall of the Redeemed, a place where people who’ve been successfully rehabilitated by the Christmas Carol ghosts end up.

How did Parton, perhaps America’s most-beloved living icon, end up on the haunting list? Spencer stays diplomatically silent, but Ferrell’s not so coy. "I think she probably had to be haunted because she was mean to her hair stylist," he laughs. Well, you heard it here first.

Spirited is on Apple TV Plus from November 18. If you’re in the festive mood, you can also check out our guide to the best Christmas movies of all time too.

Fay Watson
Deputy Entertainment Editor

I’m the Deputy Entertainment Editor here at GamesRadar+, covering TV and film for the Total Film and SFX sections online. I previously worked as a Senior Showbiz Reporter and SEO TV reporter at Express Online for three years. I've also written for The Resident magazines and Amateur Photographer, before specializing in entertainment.