In the same year Peter Farrelly created his first television series, Audience Network’s Loudermilk, the director is presenting his first dramatic feature with Universal Pictures’ Green Book. Based on a true story, the film examines a burgeoning friendship between Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black classical pianist, and Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), the working-class Italian-American bouncer tasked with escorting him through the 1960s American South.

Coming to Farrelly via actor friend Brian Currie and co-writer Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony Lip, Green Book was an intentional departure for the director—known for such comedy classics as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary—though he was surprised at the degree to which comedy ended up seeping into the film. “I’d been telling people for about a year, ‘Yeah, I’m doing my first drama,’ and I didn’t realize how funny it was until seeing the three of you acting it out,” the director said, sitting down Monday with stars Ali, Mortensen and Linda Cardellini. “On paper, that was not that funny; I don’t think anybody would read that script and say, ‘Boy, that’s a lot of laughs.’ But there’s a lot of laughs in this movie.”

For Cardellini, the fact that laughs do crop up in this film—even with its serious examination of racism—is suggestive of the nature of life itself. “In life, everyday you have a lot of laughs. I feel like it gives it a much more human quality and it doesn’t feel so heavy and dark,” she explained. “In everyday life, even when you’re dealing with heavy or dark things, people have a sense of humor. In fact, people who are dealing with the majority of that tend to have better sense of humors because you have to get through it.”

Reading the script for Green Book, where the laughs weren’t so evident, Ali found a story that just wouldn’t leave him. “It just would keep popping up and it just felt right,” he said. “And in part it felt right because the story was so terrific, their dynamic was so clear on the page, and I love that character [of Don]. I’ve never seen him before, I hadn’t seen him on the page, and it was something that made me nervous, from the standpoint of, did I feel like I could pull it off.”

Going off only a trailer at this point (watch it below), reporters and fans are noting the transformative roles that will be on display in the drama—with Ali in elegant garb and having been put through training on the piano, and Mortensen’s thick New York accent. Seemingly, Farrelly left the set of Green Book a bit in awe of the performances that emerged. “Usually you make a movie and there’s pretty much somebody in there that’s that guy, and this wasn’t [that situation],” the director shared. “Most actors, you can see a big piece of them in the role. Not in this one.”

For more from our conversation, take a look above.

Deadline Studio at TIFF 2018 presented by eOne. Special thanks to sponsor Watford Group, and partners Calii LoveLove Child Social, and Barocco Coffee.