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According to almost every single interview I've ever done about making an animated movie, the process of voice recording is incredibly boring. In fact, the only thing that's more boring is doing interviews about how boring the process of voice recording is. That's no reflection on the people doing the talking, mind you; it's just that there really is only so much actors can say about sitting in a booth for dozens of hours, by themselves, delivering lines with different inflections with the hopes that one of those interpretations will be the one that the filmmakers need.
All of which brings me to Despicable Me. In the new animated film, Steve Carell recorded the voice of the main character, a hardened supervillain named Gru who discovers he has a soft, gooey center after he adopts three orphans for ostensibly fiendish purposes. As much of a fan of his as I am, I was admittedly apprehensive about speaking to Carell about the movie, since I expected many of the same answers as in the past, no matter what was asked. But at the film's recent press day in Los Angeles, Carell nimbly evaded the trappings of the typical voice recording interview, instead offering a casual, insightful, and most of all, interesting portrait of both his work on the film and his career in general as he wraps up his television career and makes a full-time move to the silver screen.
Cinematical: Just to get started, I hope you take this as a compliment, but you don't seem very mean.
Steve Carell: (laughs) I thought you were going in a completely different direction. Because I generally get, "you don't seem that funny." I'm like, I'm totally with you.
Cinematical: No no no – I was going to ask how easily did the voice of Gru come to you in terms of finding the right balance between playing a guy who's supposed to be mean and scary but obviously not too much so.
Carell: You know what? Something we talked a lot about with the directors and producers was that's exactly it – you have to strike that balance. It's a family movie, so you can't take it too seriously and you can't go too deep with it or too edgy with it. And I think part of the accent was predicated on that – that it's got to be fun. I mean, there has to be an element of silliness to it, so we chose an accent that does not exist anywhere. I think also the image of the character, they softened his look to a point where he was a little creepy, but still accessible at the same time, and I just tried to match the voice to that.
Cinematical: Whether it's looking at a picture of Gru or maybe watching some of the preliminary animation, how much does the physicality of the character define what you do with your voice?
Carell: It's interesting, because I didn't see any of the physicality until I was probably a year or so into the process of doing the voice, because I had no idea how he would move. (laughs) One of the interviewers earlier referred to him as "hamstring challenged," just because of the way his legs moved, which is something you never could have noticed or determined until you actually saw some of the animation. But you're kind of flying blind; when you're doing the voice, you're just hoping that what you're doing is suitable to what they need, and I just tried to give them lots and lots of options and do a number of different takes and improvise a little bit, and tried to give them a bunch of stuff to edit from.
Cinematical: Having done this kind of work in the past, did that make this film easy to jump into? Or did you have a situation where you're far into the process and you see how it's coming together and you realize maybe you would have made his voice deeper or something?
Carell: I guess it's a matter of trust. I met with the directors and I'd worked with Chris before so I had a sense of what kind of movie they were going to make, so I just trusted that I was going to try anything and everything and they were going to choose what they needed from that. I didn't feel like it was [my place] to second-guess any sort of direction they were going to take the character, and the directors would lead me through as we were doing the voice. They would kind of talk us through scenes – this is what's going on, this is what this person might sound like to you. But we never got a chance to hear, and it's a little weird, a little disconcerting to not know really how the dynamic of a scene is going to be played out. But you try to guess as best you can.
Cinematical: How much can a theme or idea influence your decision to make a movie? For example, here the idea is creating an unconventional family, but even in Date Night, there's the idea of trying to preserve the passion in one's marriage. How much does that sort of stuff influence your decision-making?
Carell: Oh, hugely it's hugely important. That's really most of it for me, and who [is involved]. Being to work with someone like Tina Fey was a big part of it as well. But I think thematically I thought the movie was fun and interesting and had a lot of heart, but at the same time it was something that I identified with a lot as a parent – the fact that this character has his life set up the way he thinks he wants it to be, and then these kids enter it and everything changes. I identified with that, and it's funny – I saw it four months ago in New York, it wasn't complete, there was sort of rough animation, and I was getting all emotional at the end. It really snuck up on me! I didn't expect it to do that at all, and I think I was just identifying with it as a father. It's such a huge part of my life, and to watch, even in an animated movie like this, to watch a character find that and find the value of it in their life is really moving – which crept up on me. I didn't expect it, didn't anticipate it.
Cinematical: What was the thing in this that you were most intrigued to see how it came together? Or something you may have done the most takes trying to get right?
Carell: I think [Gru] reading the book to the kids was something that I tried to take some time with, because there are two scenes where the character reads to the children, and I thought they were important. They were a little more subdued and they said a lot about the dynamic between the kids and Gru. But again, it was interesting because I felt like I was just trying to serve the whole movie. It's different in the sense that it's not like I walked away from a take thinking, "oh, okay I got it on take number five. That was the one." I had no idea, and I would leave the sessions having no idea which they felt was the one, but my only hope was that they felt like one of them was the one, that the pieces of what I had done would work. Because they're the ones with all of this in their imagination; I really sort of respected their vision and was just hoping to serve that.
Cinematical: Being on a television show for multiple seasons seems like it would really give you the chance to know a character inside out. How does that creative process maybe make it easier to understand characters in subsequent films you're making, especially as you're making a pretty complete transition into exclusively film work?
Carell: Well, certainly for a movie you kind of have to walk in the door having it fleshed out and knowing the parameters of the character. On The Office, I think the challenge was, and continues to be, revealing the character incrementally, because even if you have ideas where the character might go or what the character might reveal about themselves, I try to keep in mind that the conceit is that of a documentary, and for the first season or two there should be an awareness and sort of a fear of revealing, and the sense that the character is really performing for the camera and kind of trying to get his own show out of it in a certain way. But then in subsequent seasons, it becomes more a part of the office and people are less aware and their behavior is less sort of influenced by the presence of the camera. Therefore, the characters tend to reveal more about themselves and let their guards down. But you don't know – you don't know how long the show is going to last, you don't know how much to reveal, you don't know how many sides or facets to the character that you want the audience to see at any given time. So it was hard in that sense to gauge how much to reveal along the way.
For a film, I felt like the key is just sort of tracking where the character is. Because they're generally shot out of sequence, so you've got to kind of keep an eye on where the character is at any given moment. But you have to have it more complete and sort of condensed.
Cinematical: In the last few years you've had a pretty amazing variety of roles. But I'm sure the inevitable question is posed to you, "do you want to do more serious stuff?" As if there's a secret, sad clown in you.
Carell: (laughs) You know what's so funny? It's odd to answer that question because you feel so pretentious if you say, "yes – yes I do want to stretch into more dramatic roles." And it also sounds like the impetus behind that is to do it in order to prove to people that you can do it, and I would never want to do more dramatic things in order to show that I'm capable of playing more dramatic roles. That just seems like bad advice to give myself. But all that being said, sure – again, it all comes down to what would potentially be a good part or a good story. Or being able to work with good people; I just finished a movie with Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore [called Crazy, Stupid, Love] and I can't think of two more accomplished actors, and it was fun and there were definitely dramatic overtones to the movie.
(At that moment, the sound of a flute wafts in through the window from a wedding party below.)
It's essentially a comedy – nice flute!
Cinematical: Some jazz flute.
Carell: A little jazz flute – a little Ron Burgundy party down there (laughs). But yeah – it's so weird to even think about like what I choose to do; I'm still amazed that I'm being offered stuff. It's still hard for me to get past that, that I'm working and that I'm actually doing movies with people like them. So to start getting kind of, I don't know what the word is...
Carell: I guess, or to be thinking about what I would choose to do. Would I choose to be in a dramatic role. I'm just astounded that I'm doing any of it, and really kind of fortunate to be doing any of it. But yeah – I'd like to do some more dramatic stuff. I think it would be fun, and I've enjoyed the stuff that I've done that has a little more of a dramatic nature to it.
Cinematical: You haven't seemed to be, as many successful performers have been, sort of a prisoner of your own success in the sense that you do something really well so people want to see you do only that over and over again. But can some part of your motivation to take on different sorts of roles, rather than as you said to prove it to other people, be to prove it to yourself?
Carell: Um, I suppose. I mean, I want to have fun more than anything else, because it's got to be fun – it has to be enjoyable. I like to do things that I identify with, like this - we talked about the whole idea of parenting and fatherhood, that really I responded to. The idea of Date Night – this couple sort of at an impasse with their relationship, and both Tina and I got it; we understood what can happen. And that's not to say it's happened with either of our marriages, but we've seen it happen around us, and how some marriages become more difficult just because of time and fatigue. So that attracted me to that. Little Miss Sunshine, it was a great script and I thought it was a really interesting character, so that attracted me to that. But all of them were really fun to do, and that's kind of the common thread for me; I really enjoyed them, I enjoyed the people I worked with, and they were joyful experiences. More than anything, that's what I'm looking for.
Cinematical: We were joking about Anchorman a minute ago, and that's a movie everyone was upset to hear wasn't getting a sequel.
Carell: Me too! I mean, I would love to do it.
Cinematical: Well, that project notwithstanding, are you at a place where you can sort of make projects happen? So many movies these days seem to require an amazing alchemy in order to happen. We hear about a potential project and two years later it hasn't started but five others are finished.
Carell: Can I wave my magic power wand over a project? I don't think so. I mean, I don't know. I certainly don't feel like I have that sort of power, but I feel I've been lucky. This thing I just finished, it all came together in like four months, and talk about alchemy! That was just the script came in and everybody loved it and Warner Brothers loved it and I was available and the people that we wanted to cast were available and it all sort of fell together. So sometimes I guess things seem to happen for a reason. Little Miss Sunshine was the same way. That came out of nowhere for me. So I don't know. But I don't think so – I don't think I have that kind of clout. But maybe someday (laughs).