The day after the premiere of their new comedy, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” – and an after-party that rolled on until 4 a.m. – Seth MacFarlane and Charlize Theron were each recovering in their own ways. He slept in and ate a grilled ham and cheese sandwich; she went to yoga and sipped green tea.
“I feel like such a loser,” Theron said, joining MacFarlane in the bar of a Beverly Hills hotel. “If I can go to yoga, I did not do it right.”
“No, you did it right,” MacFarlane said, clutching his head. Theron stared at her obviously suffering director and costar and laughed so loudly the sound reverberated through the bar and carried over a pianist playing “Tiny Dancer.”
MacFarlane and Theron have an easy rapport, which they deploy with gusto in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” In the raunchy Western comedy, their outsider characters discover a shared hatred of life on the frontier, with all of its violence and discomfort.
“At the core of this movie’s premise is that if you’re not an alpha male, what can you do out there?” said MacFarlane, who co-wrote the film with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. “You’ve just gotta keep your head down.”
Both are venturing into new territory with “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” along with Universal Pictures, releasing the film Friday. MacFarlane, 40, who directed the R-rated hit “Ted,” created the animated sitcom “Family Guy” and hosted the Oscars in 2013, delivers his first starring film role, as Albert, a sheep farmer ill-suited to life in 1882 Arizona.
Just a movie with the word “West” in the title is a gamble – recent Westerns including last year’s “Lone Ranger” update and 2011’s “Cowboys & Aliens” flopped at the box office. And a Western comedy starring an untested leading man is really an oddity. (The most successful in the niche genre, such as “Blazing Saddles” and “Three Amigos,” featured established stars.)
Theron, 38, an Oscar winner who built her career on the strength of dramatic performances in movies such as “Monster” and “North Country,” is taking her first dip into a straight-up comedy as Anna, the dissatisfied wife of a notorious outlaw (Liam Neeson) who blows into town just as Albert is smarting over a breakup. Anna teaches Albert to shoot and to stand up for himself, helping him recover after his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), leaves him for a smarmy groomer of mustaches (Neil Patrick Harris).
Both MacFarlane and Theron like Westerns for different reasons. For a guy who built his career on satire, MacFarlane has a surprising affection for sincere characters like Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke” and Will Kane of “High Noon.” He just bought the first two seasons of “Little House on the Prairie” on Blu-ray.
“These were just good guys, earnest good guys,” MacFarlane said. “I think that’s what’s missing from popular culture today. You can have edgy jokes, but it really becomes much more satisfying if you have a backbone of earnestness.”
Theron is partial to the landscapes and to the element of survival in darker Westerns like “Unforgiven.” Of the two, Theron, who grew up in South Africa, seemed better equipped for a dust-and-rain-whipped 70-day shoot in Utah and New Mexico than MacFarlane, who is from Kent, Conn. When she talked him into getting a vitamin B-12 shot from the set medic, he bruised and she didn’t.
“That’s probably just circumstantial,” she said. “Now I’m just like an old princess. I’m not 20 anymore.”
Their friendship began as so many in Hollywood do – they have the same agents. In life, as on screen, Theron is MacFarlane’s protective wing woman, rising to defend him against critics and calling him “up with the top 10 actors I’ve worked with.”
“Oh, go … yourself,” he said, looking moved.
MacFarlane doesn’t seem like a guy who needs defending. He earned the clout to make a risky $40 million movie when “Ted,” his 2012 film about a grown man’s relationship with his stuffed teddy bear, became a surprise hit, grossing $549 million worldwide and spawning a sequel, due next year. Under a rich deal with 20th Century Fox Television, he is a prolific TV producer, continuing to make “Family Guy,” which was just renewed for its 13th season, as well as the animated show “American Dad!” and science documentary series “Cosmos.”
But MacFarlane’s comedy, laced with racial, ethnic and sexual jokes, has a way of getting under people’s skin; groups as divergent as the conservative Parents Television Council and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation have objected to different episodes of “Family Guy.”
“A Million Ways to Die in the West” has its share of politically incorrect humor as well. Along with physical comedy and a liberal use of flatulence sound effects, there’s a slave-shooting game at the county fair as well as jokes about Jews, Arabs, American Indians and Chinese Americans.
The movie’s women – Theron’s sun-lit sidekick, Seyfried’s prissy ex-girlfriend, an industrious hooker played by Sarah Silverman – run the gamut. As with Mila Kunis’ character in “Ted,” Theron’s beauty and affection for the movie’s flawed leading man sometimes strains credulity but also helps his case. When she laughs at MacFarlane’s joke about her “cans,” she makes it OK for the audience to do so too. Or at least that’s the theory.
“It’s what Edith Bunker used to do for Archie,” MacFarlane said. “It makes it OK for you to like him.”
MacFarlane said he feels blowback not from audiences but from journalists.
“The press is very easily offended,” he said. “It’s the outrage industry. The rest of the country, they’re fine. They’ll laugh. They’re OK with it. I don’t operate in the way that I want to please the critics. That’s like putting a puppet show on for your parents.”
Nonetheless he does test screen his films and occasionally makes tweaks. Test audiences balked at a funeral scene in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” which MacFarlane cut but said he’ll put on the film’s DVD extras.
“If something is not working over and over, you can’t delude yourself that it’s funny,” he said.