March 2, 2013
Is this really one of the kings of movie comedy sitting opposite me? Steve Carell is one of the linchpins of Hollywood’s so-called “fratpack”, alongside Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell. He is the star of America’s massively successful version of The Office — he played their “David Brent” — and of the films The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Anchorman and Crazy, Stupid, Love. In 2010 he earned an estimated $17.5million.
But in his hotel room in Los Angeles, Carell, with his navy suit, hands clasped and modest demeanour, seems more like a bank manager than a major Hollywood player. “I don’t like the spotlight on me,” he says. “I don’t like being the centre of atten- tion, which is ironic given what I chose to do.” Off stage he is a “reserved” husband and father. “I just enjoy acting, doing characters,” he says. “At a party I’m not the one holding court, I’m the one laughing at all the jokes. That’s how I feel more comfortable.”
In public, he assumes “a more gregarious persona, because no one wants to see a super-shy person. You’ve got to get out of your shell so you can communicate with people. I guess I try to present a more inter- esting version of myself than actually exists. Not that I’m boring, or uninterest- ing, but I’m not ‘on’ at home. I don’t run around with my kids doing funny faces and character voices.”
There is a stark contrast between the unassuming actor and his hapless on-screen characters. He shares a comic affinity with Rowan Atkinson: a face that can elasticise on demand into a hundred bizarre expressions.
When I speak to him, Carell, 50, is seated beside a huge poster for his new film featuring the actor in diamante-encrusted trouser suit and blond wig. In The Incredible Burt Wonderstone he plays a Las Vegas magician (the old-school, coins materialising from behind the ear kind), engaged in heated rivalry with Jim Carrey’s “extreme” magician Steve Gray, who prefers drilling nails into his temple. “Fun, not earthshattering,” Carell calls it.
Wonderstone is a showbiz diva, a permatanned monster made heroic when humbled. The costume “felt fantastic, the real me,” he laughs. “Playing a big, strutting peacock egomaniac is fun. You have the licence to be a terrible, self-aggrandising person; all the things I am not, I hope.”
While Carell now couldn’t do any magic “to astound anyone”, growing up in Massachusetts he used to do “little magic shows for the neighbourhood”. His favourite trick involved a levitating wand. Carell’s children Annie, 11, and Johnny, 8, had a “fleeting interest” too. “That fascination never goes.”
As a child, Carell, the youngest of four boys, was “pretty shy. I enjoyed the class clown but I wasn’t him.” He performed in plays. His parents Edwin, an electrical engineer, and his mother Harriet, a psychi- atric nurse, were much more “regimented” with his oldest brother, nine years his senior. With Carell, born five years after his nearest sibling, they “weren’t as cautious, probably out of fatigue than anything else”, he smiles. “With my children it’s been the same . . . As you have more children you become more at ease with being a parent.”
Carell never considered performing “a potential profession”, applying to law school “out of respect to my parents who had worked so hard. I felt I owed them a job title.” But they let him “off the hook”, advising him to do what made him, not them, happy. He made a list of things he enjoyed: ice hockey, student government, debating, history, “but the common thread was acting and doing plays.”
In Chicago, he studied and later taught at the Second City theatre company. He “struggled, waited tables” but never consid- ered giving up. “My hope was to make a living. All this [fame, success] was not even in the realm of possibility. It was complete- ly unexpected. Fame wasn’t something I aspired to; it remains a shock. My wife and I are constantly counting our blessings.”
Carell met his wife, Nancy, at the Second City, then both worked at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart where Carell was a correspondent. His subsequent roles “are all extensions” of himself. His first major film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, enshrined his friendship and professional association with the director Judd Apatow.
Playing The Office’s Michael Scott, their David Brent, made him a celebrity. “Ricky [Gervais] was so great in that role [as David Brent], that I couldn’t watch him too much,” Carell says. “He was too good. I wanted to portray another character, who had some of the same underpinnings — insecurity, the need to perform — but was unique.”
Carell was earning so much, Scott was so well-loved, why did he leave the show in 2011? “It felt like the right time. You don’t want to stay at a party too long.” Carell will not appear in The Office’s finale on May 16. “I don’t want to sound pretentious but I think Michael as a character has evolved beyond being seen. Whatever they’d expect, the audience would be disappointed. It’s best left alone.”
Colleagues have said he could be a leading man — though one with a satirical edge. He doesn’t agree and notes he plays “a paranoid, schizophrenic, drug-using murderer” in Bennett Miller’s forthcoming drama Foxcatcher, the true story of the multimillionaire John du Pont who killed the Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996. “He saw something in me that he thought made me capable of portraying du Pont . . . I don’t think too much about how other people view me. I think people assume I’m like Michael Scott, that he is my default real personality.” And they are wrong? “Yeah, I don’t think that’s who I am at all.”
The ageing process “has been really good” to Carell. He became successful after he turned 40 “when I was already middle-aged”. His hair is salt and pepper now, though it’s usually jet-black on screen. “Yeah, I’m letting it go. On The Office I was colouring it.” He will again when he reprises his role as the weather-man Brick Tamland in Anchorman: The Legend Continues, out this December.
His production company is also making an “FBI wedding comedy” and he is about to shoot Mail Order Groom with Tina Fey.
Despite his wealth, Carell lives modestly. He laughs that as a parent “you become your own parents”: driving in the car, his children misbehaving, he finds himself threatening to “turn this car round and drive home”. Children make you less self-centred, he says. They “reprioritise your life”. When Annie was born, he felt less “desperate” at auditions. Now, as a producer, he gravitates to the less desperate: “You’re more into the person who’s not so into you.”
Carell’s father once said that his son liked being the goalie in ice hockey because he liked the attention. “I told my dad he was wrong — that was not why I wanted to be goalie. Anyway, the goalie doesn’t get any attention.” On film sets now he occupies the same world. “I try not to take up more space than I am entitled to,” he says, hands clasped, navy suit unrumpled and, just like a solicitous bank manager, bids farewell with a friendly, firm handshake.