That's what he said
Steve Carell on acting, family and the pursuit of happiness
By Carl Kozlowski 07/02/2013
It’s hard to think about Steve Carell without cracking a smile. After all, he has spent most of the past decade smiling at us and making the world laugh with his depictions of sweet yet often foolish men who are universally relatable, raising the art of playing the Everyman to a level shared by few actors.
Whether portraying the clueless yet kindhearted boss Michael Scott on the recently ended hit sitcom “The Office,” playing goofy characters in “Anchorman” and “Dinner with Schmucks,” or reaching for greater emotional depth in films like “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Dan in Real Life,” Carell radiates likability and decency in a rare way that only greats like Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks can match.
But after nearly a decade of playing nice guys, Carell is feeling the urge to stretch a bit. This fall he’ll play a paranoid schizophrenic who kills a man in the true-life tale “Foxcatcher,” while he just spent the summer onscreen as an emotionally distant jerk who clashes with a vulnerable teenage boy in “The Way, Way Back.”
But hold on a minute. Before anyone worries that Carell is abandoning the lovability that has made him so popular, the actor wants to make it clear that he’s not done yet with his quest to make movies that are both smart and kind. In fact, he feels that these kinds of roles are helping further his positive worldview by showing that there’s a sweet side in even the seemingly sourest people.
“I tend to gravitate toward things that lack cynicism. I feel there is so much cynicism on a daily basis and I get tired of it,” Carell tells the Pasadena Weekly. “I like things that are even vaguely hopeful.”
“The Way, Way Back” is in the classic tradition of teenage coming-of-age films, following the story of 14-year-old Duncan, whose parents recently divorced as he undergoes a series of humorous and sad life lessons over the course of a summer. He’s quietly stewing over the fact that his mom has jumped into a new relationship with a guy named Trent (Carell), who tries to put on a nice face but is carelessly cruel to Duncan and possibly carrying on another affair with a neighbor’s wife.
“I don’t think he’s a bad person,” says Carell, referring to Trent. “I think he thinks in that way he is providing a service to this 14-year-old kid, but when you examine it, he’s doing great damage to this kid’s psyche. I don’t think he has a bad heart or that he is a bad person. That’s always intriguing to play, to approach it not as a villain but as someone who has troubles and probably didn’t have the best upbringing himself.”
With surprising humility, Carell seems like he knows that he’s someone who caught a lucky break that millions of others only dream about. That sense of appreciation and honest work ethic were rooted in him while growing up as one of four brothers in a Catholic family in Acton, Mass., a town that he still spends summers near with his own family.
It was at the legendary Second City theater — the same Chicago comedy institution that launched the careers of such industry icons as Bill Murray and Tina Fey — that Carell first drew notice before landing on “The Daily Show” in 1999.
In 2005, which proved to be the most momentous year of Carell’s career, he left “The Daily Show” to play the lead role of Michael Scott, the clueless yet caring boss of a paper company office in the American remake of the acclaimed British sitcom “The Office” on NBC. He also scored big at the box office with the success of his first leading movie role in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which he co-wrote with its director, Judd Apatow.
While “The Office” clicked due to its universally recognizable portrayal of the American workplace and its office drones, “Virgin” proved to be an even more intriguing choice. It appeared to be just a raunchy sex comedy on the surface but actually harbored many morally conservative themes about the oversexed society we live in.
“I don’t think we were trying to make any huge statement about society, but I think things were implied about things being sexualized,” says Carell, who is currently writing his first script since then. “To me, that movie is about love. Even after all that, he still doesn’t have sex ‘til after he’s married. As dirty as that film is, as raunchy as it gets, I think it has a very innocent quality and is as innocent as that character. That movie was way beyond its title.”
Of course, “The Office” also proved to be far more memorable than its generic title. As Michael Scott, Carell managed to simultaneously pay tribute to and satirize the average American boss by vividly depicting a man for whom his colleagues were also his de facto family.
When he departed the series in 2011 after seven seasons, in the show heading off to pursue marriage and family life with his dream woman Holly Flax in Colorado, most fans thought he was gone for good, explaining why his surprise appearance in the finale created such a buzz.
“We knew all along that we wanted some sort of revisitation, but the question was to what extent. I wanted it to be subtle and slight, and be more of a tip of the hat to the show and the cast and to thank them and the people who watched,” says Carell. “I didn’t want to take away from them. This is their summation, their characters and their finale and I didn’t want to take away from that, so for me the trick and the key were to come in and achieve both of those things.”
In the end, despite all the hit movies, an iconic TV series and many more successes no doubt headed his way, it isn’t Hollywood that gives Carell’s life purpose.
“The most important things to me are my wife and children, truly,” says Carell. “At the end of my life, when all is said and done, that’s what I’m going to reflect on when I look back on my life. Not what roles I did, what movies or TV shows, so that’s it for me. I love this job, but no matter where I am I can’t wait to get back home.”