Steve Carell Interview by Tim Nasson
Steve Carell, one of American comedy’s most popular faces who edited a school newspaper as a child, is now celebrated as the funniest man on the cover of Life Magazine and on NBC’s SNL, where he hosted the 2005-2006 season premiere. He became an unusually versatile comic after more than two decades of improv skits and bit parts, and received the 2006 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in Television Comedy for the leading role of Michael Scott in his remake of Britain’s existential comedy “The Office” (2005).
He was born Steven John Carell on August 16, 1962, into an Italian-American family in Concord, Massachusetts. He was educated at The Fenn School, an all boys private school in Concord, Massachusetts, then at Middlesex School in Concord. He studied and graduated from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, then took acting at Chicago’s Second City troupe. Carell made his film debut in 1991, as Tesio in Curly Sue (1991), yes, John Hughes last film, a huge bomb. From 1990-1996 he taught improvisational comedy class and also performed with The Second City troupe in Chicago. During the 1990s he was writing for The Dana Carvey Show, then he had a stint as one of correspondents on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Carell shot to fame after his breakout performances on the big screen as Evan Baxter opposite Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty (2003) and opposite Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell in Bewitched (2005). He co-wrote the original screenplay for the summer box-office hit The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) which was chosen as one of the Top Ten movies of 2006 by the American Film Institute. Carell co-stars with Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), an independent dark comedy that gives an unusually sharp and sarcastic view on America. Carell is slated to reprise his role as Evan Baxer, filling Jim Carrey’s leading-man shoes as a politician asked by God to build a giant ark in Evan Almighty (2007), a second installment of the “Almighty” franchise, co-starring Lauren Graham and Morgan Freeman. Carell is also a producer of the film.
Steve Carell has been enjoying a happy family life with his wife, actress Nancy Walls, whom he met when she was a student in an improv class he was teaching at The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago. The couple have two children, daughter Elisabeth (born in May 2001), and son John (born in June 2004). Steve Carell is currently residing with his family in Los Angeles, California.
Steve Carell’s latest movie, Evan Almighty, is in theaters June 22, 2007. Wild About Movies sat in Los Angeles with Carell recently. As you will see, he spilled the beans!
Wild About Movies: Your character seems to have a difficult time with his kids. What about you in real life?
Steve Carell: My kids are angels and never do anything wrong and are never aggravating and are perfect in every way, except…no, I have a three and a six-year old, so, I think everybody goes through that. The kids in the movie are a little bit older than mine. But yeah, I mean everybody goes through problems and difficulties and brattiness and where to draw the line. And, it was interesting too because we sort of bonded with the kids who played our kids in the movie because we spent a lot of time driving around in that Hummer. They were just in the back seat and there were times when they would not stop. They were like doing…and they were getting dirty and they were telling dirty jokes to each other and they were laughing and we were trying to do a take and they’d be all over the place. So, Lauren and I sort of became the parental figures. It was like, ‘O.K. guys!’ It was like good cop/bad cop. And I was generally bad cop with the kids. We got along really well with them. There was no —the kids were almost as good as the animals.
Wild About Movies: You had faith in this from the get go? Why did you commit so quickly to it?
Steve Carell: Well mostly because of Tom Shadyac. The first movie I ever did was ‘Bruce Almighty’ and Tom took very good care of me. And it was funny, when I went to the premiere of that, I had no idea I’d even be in the final cut. And it was right here at the Universal Amphitheater and I remember going and sitting there and there my scene was intact. And I had so much fun doing it and it was sort of a dream. A couple of years before I got the part, I remember watching ‘Liar, Liar.’ And I was watching the outtakes and Jim Carrey just making everybody laugh and how much fun they looked to be having. And then two years later I was doing ‘Bruce Almighty’ and it was exactly that and then I was in the outtakes. And then the chance to work with Tom, again, sort of on a one-on-one basis, was like a dream come true. It was, how the last few years came about, was very surreal for me. He actually came and pitched it to me and I thought that he was going to pitch the idea of a sequel, starring Jim, and then maybe featuring me, as you know, another thorn in his side kind of character. But then when he said, ‘We’d like you to play the title role,’ I was like, ‘You had me at ‘Hello.” I was totally there.
Wild About Movies: You play a parenting advice columnist in ‘Dan in Real Life.’ I was wondering if you took your own philosophy for that role?
Steve Carell: Um, well it is interesting, it involves a guy who is who fairly recently widowed. Like three years, four years before. And he’s been raising these three daughters on his own. And they are reaching a point in their young adult lives, at least two of them, that he doesn’t know what to do with. And he still has one who is kind of a baby little girl that he can still manage. But, one of the themes of the movie is that he doesn’t take his own advice and he let’s things sort of get away from him in terms of his own kids. So, did I take my own personal philosophy? I don’t know. I don’t even know if I have kind of a personal, like a take or a mental manual of how I’m raising kids. It’s really – I think with everybody, it’s just day-to-day and you just try to deal with each situation as they come. And I think that’s essentially what that character does as well.
Wild About Movies: What is your philosophy on religion?
Steve Carell: See, I don’t see it that way. I don’t see it as a biblical comedy. I see it as a fable. I see it as a comedy that is based upon a story of the Old Testament, but you know, I don’t see it as a religious comedy in any way, shape or form. I think it’s a fable, it’s a tale about a guy who has to make a huge leap of faith. In terms of my own personal beliefs or convictions? That’s – honestly, I think that’s such a personal thing that I don’t want that to infuse my promotion of this movie, because I also think that that narrows it. Because I think the movie is really for everybody. It is for any faith or non-faith. I think the message behind it is if people could just be a little kinder and take care of each other and the world we live in. And I think that’s a universal theme as opposed to a religious ideology.
Wild About Movies: You don’t want to come out as an atheist then?
Steve Carell: No, whether I was an atheist or whatever, I’m Catholic, but I don’t really feel this is a platform to talk about my own personal beliefs.
Wild About Movies: In this movie you are very funny, are you trying to move into more romantic leading man roles?
Steve Carell: You know what? I’m frankly; I am willing to take almost any job offered me at this point. So, I’m pretty amenable. I don’t really have a path set. Like, ‘I need to do this kind of movie and then that. And then I need to switch it up and play a psychopathic killer and then I need to…’ I don’t look at it that way. I thought the script of ‘Dan in Real Life’ was great and Peter Hedges is a very, very thoughtful filmmaker. And his ‘Pieces of April’ I thought was fantastic. And he wrote ‘About a Boy’ and ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.’ So, he’s really an accomplished person, so I thought, ‘That’s somebody I’d love to work with. So, it wasn’t so much, ‘Oh, I want to do a romantic comedy with Juliette Binoche.’ It was more like, ‘Wow! I think that could be good and interesting and I think the script will be really good.’ In terms of working with Tom, that was, again, just a delight. ‘Get Smart’ – just something I loved growing up with as a kid and getting the chance to bring that to a movie screen. We are twelve weeks in, we are almost done shooting that and I think that is going to be fantastic. I’m very bullish about ‘Get Smart’ for next summer, too.
Wild About Movies: How much more time do you give yourself for doing ‘The Office’?
Steve Carell: I’ll give them 20 minutes every day for five days straight and that will be it for the season. So, whatever they can get, that’ll be it. No, I love it. I think just in terms of writing and I think value, nothing beats that. I think it is such a smart group of people and people are really devoted to the show and actors who I think are fantastic – everyone of them. We’re very lucky. That sort of group of people doesn’t come together very often on television or in movies. I just don’t think that – it’s sort of a brain trust in my opinion — especially the writing team. It’s really remarkable. So, I’m extremely happy and still very proud to be a part of it.
Wild About Movies: How do you think Michael Scott would handle the same task from god?
Steve Carell: How would Michael Scott, like, become a modern day Noah? Wow, that’s an interesting question. Well, Michael — I have no idea. He would probably, well he would probably get Creed to come in and build the ark. So, he wouldn’t want to do it himself. And Jan would end up; Jan would convince him not to do it because she rides roughshod over him anyway. So, he probably wouldn’t end up doing it, because in his mind, Jan might be more powerful than God himself.
Wild About Movies: Talk about the special Boston benefit for Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Steve Carell: I met this woman whose son has been suffering with brain cancer and it’s a very rare form of brain cancer. And as a Make-A-Wish, he had come to visit the set of ‘The Office.’ And I got to talking to her – she is from the Boston area – and she asked whether at some point I wouldn’t mind hosting some sort of benefit, because there is not a lot of funding for his specific type of cancer. So, we got to talking and we coordinated with my manager and with Universal and put together an advance sort of Boston premiere for ‘Evan’ to benefit Dana Farber and this specific brain cancer, pediatric brain cancer, so that’s how that came about. That’s on the 21st, I believe.
Wild About Movies: What was your most difficult scene to shoot? Was it with an animal or with the birds?
Steve Carell: I think it might have been, it was early on. It might have been those birds on me. They were on me for a few days straight. And they were real. That wasn’t a computer-generated flock of birds on me. So, I think the fact that they would literally not get off of me and I could move around and I don’t know how they trained them to do it, but they would go nowhere. And frankly, and to be blunt, they were all well fed before shooting began. So, that posed its own set of difficulties as well.
Wild About Movies: Were the snakes in the car scenes real?
Steve Carell: Well it was interesting, because the snake that you see was CGI’d. The snake’s positive that they used, they couldn’t use because they kept crawling down the back of my jacket. And these were like pythons. These were serious, big, nasty snakes. But they couldn’t use it, because you couldn’t see them. They were there, but they were just like in my clothes. (Laughs.) So, I had to suffer through that and then they generate a snake over me. But, I did suffer for the art. You have to know that.
Wild About Movies: Well, what were the most lovable animals and what were the ones you least-liked?
Steve Carell: Loveable? Giraffes and elephants – very soulful faces, kind, sweet, gentle. Reprehensible, the baboons were horrifying. There is one scene when the baboons bring me lemonade. And in one take, one of the baboons spilled the lemonade and I went off book and I improvised and said something like, ‘Hey man? What are you doing?” And I raised my voice maybe to that degree. And the baboon thought I was getting aggressive with it and it bared its teeth and took a very aggressive stance with me. And it scared the hell out of me. And after the take the trainer came and said, ‘You know what, don’t do that. Really don’t talk to the baboon.’ And then he paused and said, ‘You know what? As a matter of fact, don’t look the baboon in the eye.’ And I’m like, ‘What? Why didn’t you tell me before they were shooting not to look the baboon in the eye?’ So, they were a little ornery. Yeah, the camel’s breath. In an enclosed space, a camel’s breath can change the atmosphere of the room. Not only just the smell, they literally seem to change the atmospheric pressure. It’s so disgusting. It’s like they have eight stomachs each more rancid then the next and it just comes out of their mouth. So, those two would probably be the ones I wouldn’t take home as pets.
Wild About Movies: Did you have a favorite wig or get up at all?
Steve Carell: Oh they were all my favorites I guess. Just in terms of my intrinsic sexiness in them, I would say the mountain man look. That was like the third stage of growth, which to me looked like a ’70’s tennis pro. Kind of like a Bjorn Borg. A little mystery. Might have been a few days without a shower or bath. A little grubby, a little greasy. I think that is my personal favorite.
Wild About Movies: How tough was the daily regimen to put that on?
Steve Carell: It was fine. You know, the people who applied it were such artists. David Anderson who is I think one of the best special effects make-up artists in the business did all the design and crafting of those wigs and beards and it was about 3-4 hours to put it on in the morning and about an hour to take it off, but I really, I never want to hear myself complaining about it. Because you hear actors complaining about prosthetic makeup and, you know, it’s not fun, but let’s face it. I’m not on a roof in 100-degree weather putting tar down. I’m getting a beard stuck on my face. It’s really not that bad.
Wild About Movies: You said you see this as a sort of fable. Do you see this as a kid’s movie? What do you think the message of it is?
Steve Carell: I wouldn’t say it’s a kid’s movie, I think it is a movie, and you know; this is sort of a fine line to walk to. Whenever I hear someone describe something as a ‘kids movie’ or a ‘family movie,’ it immediately has a negative connotation in my mind because I think, ‘Well, as an adult, I wouldn’t go see it by myself, because it’s purely for children and it holds nothing for me and it’s simplistic and it’s kind of easy.’ I don’t see the movie as that. I see it as, I hope, as having a fairly broad appeal. Because I think it’s funny. I think it would be very funny for kids, but I think likewise for adults. I think message-wise? Another fine line. I was hoping that the movie had a strong message, but subtle message, about our environment, about taking care of it and taking care of each other and acts of kindness to one another. And sort of leaving people with a bit of a positive message and making people happy, but my goal beyond that was to make it funny without making it preachy or overly sentimental or overly precious. In no way — I don’t think this movie crams any message down anybody’s throat. I think it’s done with a fairly light touch. At least I hope so.
Wild About Movies : How do you keep a balance between your family and your career?
Steve Carell: I use sports energy drinks. Highly caffeinated sports energy drinks is the answer. You know, I’m sort of — I am the type of person who is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. So, I’m not taking any of what is happening now for granted and essentially I know that there’s a window of time when I’ll be able to do these things and I’m just trying to take advantage of that now, while at the same time, being very cautious to not let it interfere with my family life. That, to me, is the line. If it starts to bleed over into time away from my family, then it’s sort of not going to happen, but so far I’ve been able to balance those things.
Wild About Movies: Talk about working opposite Wanda Sykes and ad-libbing with her?
Steve Carell: I was so close to ruining so many of her takes, because she just makes me laugh. And there were times, she was doing one scene where she was on the phone, just calling in. And Tom had her just riffing doing different lines over and over and over. I was standing at the monitors and I literally had to leave the room, because I was going to ruin what she was doing because it was so funny. She’s really – she’s kind of beyond funny. She has a very sarcastic, biting sense of humor, she’s kind of made her mark that way, but in person, very warm, very sweet, kind. Kind of a gentle soul that you don’t necessarily see. And I hope I didn’t pull the curtain aside on who she really is, but she was great, really fun.
Wild About Movies: Do you like people comparing you to Jim Carrey at all?
Steve Carell: I love it. No, I take that as a huge compliment. To even be mentioned in the same sentence with him, yeah, that’s a huge compliment to me. I think he’s great. I’ve watched him and I’ve enjoyed all of his movies. And I was telling somebody when I was living in Chicago, I was there maybe a day after the original ‘Ace Ventura’ opened. And it was before it had really caught on and people started catching on to him as a movie star. I saw it like within a day and there might have been four people in the theater – a large theater. And from the opening credit sequence, we were howling and I remember the guy in front of me, turning around and looking at me and saying, ‘I know! I can’t believe it!’ Like we had found this thing and the four of us were in a little club together and like we were witnessing something. So yeah, to have been in ‘Bruce Almighty’ and to have been in scenes with him was a real thrill and honor for me. Even if I am unfavorably compared to Jim Carrey, I take that as a compliment.