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Fiction vs. fact 

In Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell finds that his boring life is not his fault---it’s being written for him. Tara Thorne tries to unblur the line.

The platoon of photographers is larger than usual. Dustin Hoffman interrupts the conversation with a question he already knows the answer to. “Has anybody with a camera seen the movie?” he asks as digital shutters fire endlessly at him, but mostly at his co-star Will Ferrell, sitting a few chairs down.

“Getting to do something like this,” says Ferrell, trying to bring things back on track, “which is obviously a little different from some of the stuff I’ve done in the sense that it’s more muted—even though it still is a comedy—I found it really freeing to play a character in this way.

Ferrell, seated amongst co-stars Hoffman and Emma Thompson, writer Zach Helm and director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) at the Toronto film festival, is discussing the decidedly un-Ferrell role he plays in the masterfully clever and heartfelt film Stranger Than Fiction. He stars as Harold Crick, a bland, practically invisible IRS agent who has nothing of interest going on, his whole existence a routine, each day timed out exactly as the one preceding it.

Until he starts to hear an Englishwoman narrating his life.

What’s actually happening is that Harold is a character in the latest novel by Karen “Kay” Eiffel (Thompson). A therapist sends him to literature professor Jules Hilbert (Hoffman) who sets about deciphering exactly who the author could be. Luckily for Harold, Hilbert is the world’s living expert on Eiffel, who’s become a suicidal recluse, paralyzed by writer’s block and unable to finish her eighth novel—good news, since she kills all of her protagonists.

The real problem for Harold comes when he tries to audit baker Ana Pascal (a fiery Maggie Gyllenhaal, sporting impressive, fake tattoos) and promptly falls in love. Now that he’s got something to live for, he’s going to die. So he has to blur the line between fiction and fact, to find Eiffel and ask her to spare him.

“The event of sitting there and waiting for someone you invented in your mind to walk into the door and in walks this very ordinary man and you react as if he’s got three kids, of course, it’s so unbelivable,” says Thompson of the onscreen moment. “It’s been referred to in literature a lot, and there’s something fulfillment-of-the-prophecy about it. When you’re telling stories, your destiny is always in the stories that you tell, and she’s coming towards her own destiny, which is to finally let go of this thing”—the book—“ having to be perfect and not being able to kill herself, finally. It was one of the most moving moments I’ve ever been given to play.”

“I tend to write exactly the crisis or exactly what it is I need to learn as I’m going through it,” says Helm, who will make his directing debut in 2007 with Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. “So I think that at the time I was thinking about the direction that even my career was heading and decisions I’ve made as an artist and re-examining them as well.”

Karen Eiffel is stuck hard in a circle of self-examination. She knows that when she figures out how to kill Harold Crick, how to end the novel, she will be freed. And she does, writing the whole thing out on a legal pad on a city bus. But, as she’s typing the pages up, he calls—time, space and reality aside—and she is suddenly, unfathomably faced with ending someone else’s life to finally live her own.

“One of the greatest things I’ve ever had to do as an actor is the moment where has to press down the period key and she can’t do it,” says Thompson. “And it’s not because she doesn’t want Harold to die, it’s that she knows if she doesn’t press it, he doesn’t die and then she has to live. And sometimes, that decision, having to live—really having to live—is one of the most difficult ones a human being will ever face.”

Stranger Than Fiction is in theatres now.

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