If it is truly better to look good than to feel good, as Billy Crystal once suggested on Saturday Night Live, then Steve Carell is, bar none, The Man: perfectly coiffed, unobtrusively handsome, and dressed, always, to the nines. Yet in his exceptional body of work, Carell is rarely – well, probably never – “the man.” In his earliest film and television performances (a five-year run on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bruce Almighty, Anchorman, NBC’s The Office, and the breakout one-two punch of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine), Carell masterfully portrays American men who excel at the rare and perilous art of self-immolation, portraits of contemporary masculinity that are tragic and hilarious in perfect measure. Michael Scott, Brick Tamland, Frank Ginsberg, and dear, dorky, unblemished Andy, they are man-children, lost boys each and every one of them, their antic, ego-driven chicanery hollowing them out like overripe melons over and over again, their all-or-nothing yearning for something – anything, really – good undermined incessantly by tantrum, foible, and self-sabotage. The brass ring, it remained largely untouched by Steve Carell’s characters.
Now 53-years-old, Carell still favors hangdog underachievers, impossible dreamers, the exaggerated features of his visage (like Steve Martin’s) detonating with unthinkable hubris, perforated with unimaginable sorrow and fantastic longing. His recent forays into big-screen drama – his Oscar-nominated performance in 2014’s Foxcatcher, along with last year’s Freeheld and The Big Short (just out on DVD) – have confirmed Carell as a singular purveyor of comedy that is never pretty, but always rib-tickling and drama that is never bombastic, but always teeming with quiet desperation. In conversation, thankfully, Carell both looks good and feels good, full of high hopes for a full slate of 2016 projects, including Woody Allen’s Café Society and Battle of the Sexes (directed by Sunshine’s Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris) on the silver screen and producing a second season of TBS’ Rashida Jones-fronted comedy, Angie Tribeca.
The narrative of the “overnight success” in Hollywood is compelling, cliché, and an almost total misnomer, yet it's irresistible at the same time. For example, 15 years ago, you seemed to appear out of nowhere to become a consistent show-stealer on The Daily Show. But it’s doubtful that big break was a lightning strike or a sudden jackpot. What were you really doing in the three decades before audiences got to know you?
Just before The Daily Show, I was unemployed. It was great. (Laughs) The employed part? I was on a failed TV series called Over the Top, in which I played an outrageous Greek chef in a hotel. One of the reviewers actually referred to me as “Heinrich Himmler of comedy.” They said that every Hitler needs his henchman, and they called the show’s lead, Tim Curry, Hitler. And me? They call me the henchman, Himmler. (Laughs) You know who pointed out this review to me? Stephen Colbert. It was years later when we were working on Daily Show, and he said, “Did you ever see this?” And he pulled it up online. Good friend! (Laughs) It was the funniest review. The reviewer went on to say, “I have experienced pain and suffering in my life. I have witnessed the agony of childbirth.” The reviewer went on and on about the horrors she had endured, and then said my TV show was more horrible than all of it combined. So, uh, that’s what I was doing before The Daily Show.
Devoting yourself to resurrecting the Third Reich through unexpected means.
Uh, yeah. (Laughs) Uh, no! That was never my goal or intention. Its what one critic said I was doing. In truth, I was doing that other clichéd – but absolutely true and necessary thing – paying my dues. I was learning. I was trying to become better at what I loved. I was doing (Chicago’s legendary improvisational comedy troupe) Second City, and I carry that with me always. The best thing for me about studying and performing with Second City was having the freedom to fail night after night, to try things, experiment, and attempt the insane without ever being too precious about it. If it didn’t work, you could always try something different the next night. That’s very freeing.
Alan Arkin, with whom you’ve worked several times, is another Second City vet – and a very funny man. How did you keep a straight face working with him on films like Little Miss Sunshine and Get Smart?
Editing. It takes editing to cut out all the times I’m laughing hysterically on set at Alan Arkin. That’s the long and short of it. More importantly, I try specifically not to laugh when someone else is doing his thing. If you laugh and ruin someone else’s take – and they’re doing something inspired or incredibly funny – you’re a jerk. You can’t take their magical moment away from them by laughing and ruining it. That’s a cardinal sin in my mind. But there are times when you can’t help yourself. There’s a scene in Get Smart when Alan’s trying to pronounce a very complicated character name inside the “Cone of Silence”, and it probably took five times longer to shoot than it should have because I couldn’t – I just couldn’t – stop laughing. I couldn’t control myself. I took that gift from Alan Arkin. I’m sorry, Alan.
In some unusual, meta-way, the Second City ethos created a template for so many of the characters you’ve played: swing big, strike out, give it another whirl tomorrow. And, usually, they fail again.
Yeah, unfortunately for them, most of the guys I’ve played haven’t been as lucky as I’ve been!
That nicely describes Mark Baum, the character you played in last year’s The Big Short. Baum would be the villain in an awful lot of films. He’s not particularly magnetic or charismatic or even likeable, and his methods are not always above board. In The Big Short, though, he’s kind of the hero. Tell me about the challenges and appeals of playing a character like that.
He is sort of a hero. An unlikely hero, which maybe is closer to the realities of life. Mark Baum is a guy who has a very strong moral compass and at the same time he is immersed in this world – big banking and finance and all that – that isn't necessarily run or ruled by moral compasses. I think he's a tortured man in that way. He wants to do the right thing. He wants to, but he also understands the ironies and contradictions in being who he is in the place he’s in. He’s very conflicted, and that’s always a challenge to play – and, to me, a lot of fun.
In your hands, Mark Baum is a very quixotic character.
Thank you. I think that’s what I was aiming for. He is sort of a knight in armor, but that armor isn’t exactly shining. Still, he’s got his crusade, his impossible mission – he’s railing against these dragons in the world, the behemoth banks, the financial institutions that are, we’ve been told, “too big to fail.” In that world, I think Mark Baum feels very small and very alone, but he’s still completely driven to try to take down those banks, to do something that’s virtually insurmountable.
The Big Short teamed you again with Adam McKay, with whom you’ve worked many times. The film was a huge departure for McKay, best known for his Will Ferrell comedies. What do you take from working repeatedly with Adam?
Adam is so smart and so passionate, and maybe that’s come out in all of his movies, but it is definitely impossible to miss when you get to know him. He is someone whose intelligence and kindness and humor really light up a very murky world, and that’s a gift. What Adam did with The Big Short is the kind of thing he’s done for the people in his daily life all the time – he takes tricky, challenging, difficult to understand ideas and situations and he somehow just breaks them down into little pieces of information that are not only really easy to understand, but are actually really alive and entertaining too. He does that for his friends all the time, and I think that’s what he did in The Big Short, which is a film about a topic he’s been very passionate about for a long time. Obviously, Adam is known for his work in comedies. I’m so happy that we’ve been able to work together a lot, and I’m so happy for him that he made The Big Short and that it was received so warmly, and that at our ages, he was able to really surprise people with a completely different kind of movie than they’d ever expect from him.
Why was it meaningful for you to be a part of The Big Short? Are economics and the Wall Street scandals of recent years so fascinating to you, or are there other reasons?
Well, I read the book (written by renowned journalist Michael Lewis), and within five or ten minutes, I felt like I had to go back to the beginning and start reading it again. There’s just so much information in that book, so much to digest and comprehend. Some of the stories recounted in that book, they are absolutely unbelievable. They read like fiction. And then I heard from Adam that he was going to make it into a movie, and I thought to myself, “Adam McKay is incredibly talented, but is there anybody on earth that could turn that book into a movie anybody in their right mind would watch?” It’s a huge story, so many elements, tricky subject matter. It’s hard to get your head around it even if you go back and read the book three times. And then I read Adam’s script and it was, like, “Oh… Now I get it!” I would’ve done it just to work with Adam, but the topics this film approaches, they feel like such a huge and important part of modern history that was never really explored the way it should have been when it was happening and is now kind of drifting out of public consciousness, as we’ve become distracted by other, bigger, noisier things. We forget too quickly these days, the things we’ve barely survived, which is the absolute truth for a lot of people impacted by these banking scandals. These are the types of projects I want to do. They’re not just jobs. They’re not just stories. I’d like to do projects with value.
We spoke many years ago and you shared with me the most humiliating moment in your career. I wonder if it remains the same.
Probably, yes. Anne Hathaway in six-inch stilettos being able to run faster than me during the action scenes in Get Smart. Yes. I’ll never, ever live that down. (Laughs) My friends won’t let me.
You’re neck-deep in several film projects, producing film and television, busier today than you’ve ever been. How do you keep that all together, while being a good family man?
Oh, that’s simple. I can definitely give that kind of advice. “Highly-caffeinated sports energy drinks” is the answer. 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 – or the things that have been happening for 15 years – for granted. I know there is only a small window of time when people will say “yes” to the things I want to do, and I kind of can’t believe that window hasn’t slammed shut on my hands yet. At the same time, there is a line for me. I won’t ever let the professional stuff bleed over too much into my family life. I have to keep those things in balance. One without the other is meaningless to me. So that’s the line I’m always walking.