Steve Carell is big on the small screen and big on the big screen. But he’s not getting a big head about it all.
RUMOR SWIRLS AROUND STEVE CARELL. IT’S AN UNUSUAL RUMOR, EVEN FOR HOLLYWOOD — A RUMOR SO STRANGE THAT EVEN THE TABLOIDS WON’T TOUCH IT. AND YET, “IT’S TOTALLY TRUE,” CONFIRMS JOHN KRASINSKI, WHO COSTARS WITH CARELL ON NBC’S THE OFFICE. “IT’S SO TRUE.”
Is Carell cavorting with Paris? Lounging with Lindsay? Secretly married to Tori Spelling? No. From a publicity standpoint,it’s much worse than that. “Yeah,” Krasinski says, “Steve absolutely is the nicest guy in Hollywood. He’s just an incredible anomaly out here.”
That’s for sure. In scandal-soaked Hollywood, where everybody has a negative story about everybody else, Carell’s name draws nothing but praise from his coworkers, his directors, and even my Saturday night dinner companions, one of whom once played hockey with the guy. And this is not the usual Hollywood posturing either, the kind in which the raves are simply calculated plaudits to help push a film project. No, the compliments you hear about Carell — the Emmy-nominated actor who won a 2006 Golden Globe for his portrayal of Michael Scott, TV’s most hapless dolt, and who scored a surprise box-office hit with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which he played an equally lame (but sweet) character — actually ring true. “Steve is a movie star who doesn’t realize it,” says Peter Hedges, the Academy Award–nominated director of Dan in Real Life, Carell’s latest big-screen project, which hits theaters next month. “He doesn’t take anything for granted. He’s an astonishing person whose approach makes him incapable of acting in a rude or self-centered way.”
“Incapable” might seem like a stretch. But although Carell has become an A-list movie star, you won’t hear stories of him pitching fits on the set of The Office for being given water that isn’t exactly 68.5 degrees, nor anything else of the sort. “Steve never pulls rank, ever,” says Greg Daniels, who developed the American version of The Office. “He also has a great history with improv, which is all about supporting each other and being a team. When we get together as a group to discuss something, everyone will wait to hear his opinion on something, and they’ll all recognize that whatever he says will be so well thought out and wise. He just comports himself in a very classy way.”
Or, as Hedges puts it, Carell is a comedian who’s without angst; he didn’t have a screwed-up childhood and doesn’t have a bitter, fragile ego or something to prove. That might partially explain his surprising career track. Raised in Acton, Massachusetts, Carell, the youngest of four boys, first gained broad notice on The Daily Show and then furthered that with film success — most notably as the narcissistic coanchor Evan Baxter in Bruce Almighty and as the dumb-as-rocks weatherman Brick Tamland in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. But it wasn’t until he slid into the role of Andy Stitzer, the kind-hearted man-boy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, that his stardom skyrocketed. Add to those achievements his more complex role in the Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine, a starring role in the megabudgeted Evan Almighty, and now a role playing a widowed father of three who pens a local parenting column in Dan in Real Life, and suddenly, you have people like Hedges saying that Carell “could be the next Tom Hanks.”
That’s the kind of praise that could go to a guy’s head. But, as I found out when I chatted with Carell, he remains as nice and genuine as advertised.
First things first. Your character on The Office, Michael Scott, once said he had a subscription to American Way.
That’s right! Doris Roberts’s favorite city is Albuquerque! I was thinking that I should just make up a city that doesn’t exist for this interview. You know, send people to Perquimby’s Fried Dough in wherever. That would severely screw people up who read the magazine.
So I read that you once dressed up as an alien when your brother had a girlfriend over for dinner. Were there always signs that you were going to be an actor, or ...
Or was this just clinically bizarre behavior?
Yes. Were your parents thinking of institutionalizing you?
It really could have fallen on either side. I was actually sort of a reserved kid ... apart from dressing up like an alien. I think I liked to do things like that, things that were less to make people laugh and more to create an atmosphere in which people were going to react. For example, I love to see people at their lowest common denominator. I like to see people when everything has been equalized, when they’re frightened or sick or incapable of any layer of vanity. I used to sometimes hide in the closet when I was a kid when my dad was coming home from work. He had a routine when he came in: He put his keys down, turned on the hallway light, and opened the closet door. And I’d be standing there, behind a row of coats, and every time, it would just scare him beyond belief. And I thought it was incredibly funny — that natural, organic moment.
You actually intended to be a lawyer until your parents suggested pursuing acting. It’s not often that you hear of parents encouraging their kids to go into showbiz.
They just wanted me to be happy and choose something that would give me some sort of satisfaction. They also knew that if I didn’t give it a shot, I’d always wonder. And that taught me something about how I want to be with my kids, because it’s a very strong notion. They sat me down and said, “This is your life, and we want you to pursue whatever would make you happy.” But it wasn’t as much about becoming successful as it was about attempting to do it.
When you headed to Chicago, were you immediately met with success?
No. I waited tables for three years; I did whatever I could to earn a living. I moved there in ’85, and ’88 was when I started supporting myself as an actor. I did lots of little plays for no money. But Chicago at that time was really cheap, and there was no overhead. I had an old car that just ran and had no expenses, so there was great freedom in that.
Do you attribute the changing trajectory of your career to any specific role?
Each step has been helpful. The first TV show I ever did was The Dana Carvey Show, which, for me, was a huge break and my first experience on television. But then The Daily Show was also a huge break for me. I credit Stephen Colbert with getting me that job — he suggested me to the executive producer. That was a huge stepping-stone. The show was just gaining some notoriety, and while I was there, it grew — not because of me, but because viewers found it. But then, doing Bruce Almighty was also huge. I just had a bunch of small breaks that added up.
And then, of course, The Office. The British version is hugely popular, so was tackling such a beloved show daunting?
I think it would have been more daunting if I had been more familiar with it. The night before the audition, I watched just a couple of minutes of it to get a sense of the tone, and I had to turn it off because it was just too intimidating. I didn’t see how it could be improved, so I figured the less I watched of it, the better off I’d be.
The show has such an ardent fan base. Do you think that there’s something about it that resonates with people?
You know, what surprises me most is that it doesn’t just appeal to people who work in an office environment. I have 10- or 12-year-old kids who come up to me who just love the show, which is surprising because I’d think they’d have no frame of reference. I was talking to Greg Daniels about it, and his theory is that it’s not dissimilar to going to school and being cooped up and having a character like Michael Scott for a teacher and a goofy classmate who is like Dwight. So people can pick out these character types and apply them to their real lives.
Michael Scott could be a very repellent character if you didn’t play him correctly, if you didn’t humanize him.
Well, I’m repellent in real life, so I figure that I have to at least bring pathos to the characters I’m playing.
Do you ever say to the writers, “This is too much” or “The audience won’t buy this”?
I never have. I think within that guy, Michael Scott, there is a sense of humanity. He’s not a bad person. He says bad and inappropriate things, but much of it is misinterpreted. He’s a guy who has a huge emotional blind spot and who doesn’t understand how his words affect other people. That doesn’t make a person bad. At his core, Michael’s a decent person. A lot of people disguise who they are, and he’s just unable to disguise himself as well as others do.
He’s definitely someone you shouldn’t like, but you do.
When he has a victory, you’re happy. Granted, those victories are few and far between. And he lives for this documentary that they’re shooting. I imagine that at the beginning of each day, he thinks about what he’s going to say. He directs it in his own mind, though generally it doesn’t go the way he expects it to. You know, though, I think if he had too much self-realization, his head would explode. He sort of exists just below a cognitive level.
Dan in Real Life is very dramatic. Were you looking for something different?
I try not to look at it like I’m deviously plotting career choices. I just try to, at this point, go with what my gut is telling me. And frankly, to have that option right now is remarkable [and], you know, [it] might not last that long.
I read the script and met with Peter Hedges, and I just thought he was a sensitive, thoughtful person, and incredibly kind, and he seemed like someone I wanted to work with. And I thought that the script was simple and sweet and charming. But it wasn’t just that. Oh man, I hate to even sound, like, “actor-y,” but there were a lot of layers there. There was more going on than just a cute romantic comedy. And then, certainly, when Juliette Binoche signed on to play ...
Yes, she was great.
Two years ago, if you’d told me that I’d be starring in a movie with Juliette Binoche? Are you kidding
Dan is a fairly tragic figure in that he’s paralyzed in his life, what it’s turned out to be. Despite your success, are there elements in him that you relate to?
Sure. Everyone goes through periods in which they feel incredibly alone and solitary, and I think that’s where Dan lives when this movie starts. He’s not full of self-pity — it’s more a sense of loss and heartache, and after a few years, it’s just become a sense of resolve, and I think everyone can identify with those feelings.
So, you know, everyone says that you’re just the nicest person out there.
I’ve fooled them all.
But seriously, you pick up Us Weekly and you see people in Hollywood who are spiraling into disaster, whereas you aren’t.
The fact that people get beat up in the media makes me sad, frankly. I can’t understand why you would take a shot at someone who is having trouble. Frankly, a lot of these people have no choice. Like, they were brought up as child actors and have had no structure in their lives, and now they’re mocked in their behavior — it just doesn’t make sense to me. But this whole aspect of me being recognized as nice, as if it’s so abnormal or an anomaly to what people should be — well, I just don’t think that you should be given credit for being a decent person.
To be fair, though, there have been more than a few horror stories about celebrities in your industry. You could certainly get away with a lot more than you do.
Well, you know what? I also realize that it could go away as quickly as it arrived. It could also have been a completely different story if any of this had happened when I was younger. At this point, I’ve witnessed enough to know that it could be very fleeting and that I should just appreciate it and not take any of it too seriously.