Steve Carell is best known for playing lovably funny characters, such as Andy Stitzer in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and Brick Tamland in "Anchorman." However, in the upcoming film "Hope Springs," about an older couple's attempt to rebuild their marriage, Carell gets a bit more serious.
Here, he plays Dr. Bernie Feld, a renowned marriage counselor and author who's been tasked with putting the Soames's (played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) life back together. Dr. Feld's approach is straightforward -- he's not there to provide comic relief, only to help these two re-discover the satisfaction and enjoyment their relationship once had. As Steve said to us, on screen he "wanted to be as legitimate a therapist as [he] could be."
But don't worry, Carell isn't done being funny. After all, he's set to appear in the upcoming comedy, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," and reprise his role as Brick in next year's "Anchorman" sequel.
Moviefone recently spoke with Carell about taking on a more serious role, what he's looking forward to in "Anchorman 2" and how those interviews work on "The Daily Show," where he was a correspondent for five years.
This film is very sweet.
Well, thank you.
For this movie, was there any nervousness on your part to deliver next to Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones?
There was when I [first] read the script, but not actually in the execution. It was really just fun and exciting to be there with them. A lot of these scenes were sort of lengthy -- they could be 8-10 minutes long -- and [the director] David Frankel shot them uncut, so we went and would do the scene in its entirety. So that, to me, was fun and exciting, as well, to be able to do a little one-act play with these two. I guess I try not to be nervous, because I didn’t want that to be reflected in what I was doing at all, because the character I was playing had to be very much in control and poised and confident and calm. So that’s sort of where I tried to get my head.
Coming from a comedic background, any time you read a script, are you automatically playing around with ideas on how to expand and improv with your character?
Not with this one. I understood the approach I wanted to take, which was very simple and earnest and unironic. I wanted to be as legitimate a therapist as I could be, and just create that environment.
Was that earnest approach tough at all? I mean, Tommy Lee Jones seems very intimidating in person.
He can be, but he’s got a very big heart. He’s somebody who’s done this and done it well for an awfully long time, so I think that he’s someone who doesn’t suffer any fools. But at the same time, he is very respectful and very generous. There would be long takes with the camera just on me, and Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones were off camera, right next to it, not dialing down any of their performance -- they were giving me everything they [could] and keeping the performance consistent.
Well what about roles that are just straight comedy? How do you stay consistent and prevent yourself from laughing during a scene?
Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes you can’t help it. The main thing that I keep in mind is that if I laugh, especially if it’s someone else’s scene or joke, it’s going to ruin it for them, and I am going to spoil a potentially great moment for that other actor. So that will generally keep me from laughing, because it’s out of respect for someone else doing good work.
Have you ever spoiled a moment before?
I don’t know. I try not to. Sometimes it’s just fun to laugh. You have to have fun and there has to be a joy to it. Why do it unless you’re enjoying it? You can’t be all stiff and business-like.
I wanted to ask you about the popular approach for today's comedies, particularly Judd Apatow’s, which is this think-tank method where fellow comedians pop up in each other’s movies and help each other with scripts and characters. Do you find any downsides to that at all?
It certainly seems to work for Judd. I don’t think there has been a downside to him. There are lots and lots of different approaches. [However], once you start deconstructing comedy, it’s no longer funny. Once you talk about how it works or why it works -- if you try and come up with some formula for it -- then I think you’re done. Because you never know when something is going to happen or someone’s going to come up with a great idea that you just try. Or something that’s been scripted for months suddenly works, something that you never thought might work. So there’s really no rhyme or reason to it.
So you find the comedy genre more free-flowing?
You know, I can’t even define it as that. It’s very very subjective. What makes one person laugh won’t make another person laugh, what works for one actor won’t work for another. I think there are lots of valid approaches to it, but it’s hard for me to talk about. One, it just sounds pretentious to talk about what makes something funny or what works -- you’re always throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks, and that to me seems more often than not the nature of it. You give yourself the freedom to fail and you try something and see if it clicks in any way.
Do you find that it’s harder to live up to a reputation as a comedian when you have credits that include these very quotable, beloved comedy movies like “Anchorman” and “40-Year-Old Virgin”?
It’s nice to have been a part of movies like that. But I don’t think it makes it harder. I thought you were going to ask if it makes it harder to be in a movie like [“Hope Springs”], where it’s not comedic at all. And I feel very lucky to have been asked to be in this, too. But no, it’s all been good in terms of my experience and learning curve and what might work and what doesn’t.
Well for “Hope Springs” I assume it’s more about expanding your horizon as an actor.
It’s fun. It’s fun to try and do different things. But there’s no sort of master plan. I would never do a role because I want people to perceive me a certain way. Frankly, who would turn down a part in a Meryl Streep-Tommy Lee Jones movie? It didn’t matter what part I was asked to play. If you’re offered something like that, I think you just take it. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It’s fun when it’s something that not only lives up to, but exceeds your expectations.
With this movie and your “50 Shades of Yams” bit on “The Daily Show” last month, you may have broken the record for most fake books with your face on it.
[Laughs] yes, I should start a little library.
When you started out on "The Daily Show" back in 1999, it was still a little-known cable program, but now it's become a legitimate starting point for moving on to movies and TV.
It’s become a real feeder. You look at Ed Helms and Rob Corddry -- it’s definitely become a springboard for people.
How do the segments work on “The Daily Show?” I always read that they’re not staged, but sometimes when you’re watching it you’re like, “I can’t believe this person agreed to come on the show. I can't believe this interview is happening right now.”
I don’t know what it’s like now. I haven’t been on the show in [eight] years, so it’s been awhile, and I don’t know if they do them differently now. I am sure they’ve evolved and changed since I used to do them. It even grew more difficult when I was there, because when I first started, people were aware of the show, or what the show represented; people were familiar with the tone, so we could get away with a lot under the radar, especially when we did all that campaign coverage in 2000. We could just show up at a debate and ask questions of the candidates and be respected, theoretically, as legitimate correspondents. I think nowadays it’s a little tougher for them to do that -- they see “The Daily Show” coming a mile away, so they’re guarded, or they’re trying to play along and be funny, which I think can defeat the purpose as well.
I imagine it’s a bit crazy to see how big the show has gotten in the last several years.
Well, Jon [Stewart] and Stephen [Colbert] are really special comedically but also intellectually. They’re two of the smartest people that I know. I think what they do is very important, frankly, and I am in sort of awe of what they do. And I’ve known Stephen for a long time. We’ve been friends since Second City, so we’ve worked together on and off since the mid-to-late ‘80s. He astounds me. Because he’s not only incredibly smart but he’s very talented as an actor and I think he could do anything. And the fact that he can go toe-to-toe with international leaders, and do it in a comedic way...but it’s beyond that.
I know you don’t start shooting “Anchorman 2” until next year, but I assume there’s some excitement for getting to hang out with those characters and be Brick Tamland again.
It will be fun. We all signed on to do it without any knowledge of the script or any part of it. We just want to do another one. We want to be together. That was probably the most fun I ever had, professionally. Talk about laughing during takes, that was almost impossible to get through that movie, because everybody was funny all the time. And the stuff that they didn’t use, that was hilarious. Talk about a safe environment, everyone was just willing to have fun and fool around and be silly and not take it or themselves too seriously. We’re all completely on board to do that again.
Phil Foster in 'Date Night' (2010)
In "Dinner for Schmucks," Carell worked for the IRS. In "40-Year-Old Virgin," he worked in an electronics store. Here, he plays Phil Foster, a tax lawyer in an unfulfilling marriage. Yes, Steve's characters may hold dull jobs, but they're always given a chance to grasp a better, more interesting life. Phil in "Date Night" is no different, as he goes on an unexpected adventure with his wife, Claire.
Cal Weaver in 'Crazy, Stupid, Love' (2011)
Carell plays Cal Weaver, whose wife cheats on him and asks for a divorce. However, their failing marriage isn't victimless: Emily (Julianne Moore) may have been unfaithful, but Cal had grown complacent with their relationship; they're not equal sins, but it's a slippery slope. We laugh when Emily asks for a divorce for dessert, but we empathize as Cal internalizes his own faults.
Brick Tamland in 'Anchorman' (2004)
As the weatherman for Ron Burgundy's legendary San DIego news team, Brick Tamland is earnest, oblivious, idiotic and unable to pull off sexual innuendo (see: <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFSWsKiWNBc" target="_hplink">pants party invitations</a>). There isn't much arc for Carell to work with here, but he owns the few lines he has, which are some of the best non-Burgundian quotes from the film.
Andy in 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' (2005)
Carell's break-out role remains his simplest and sweetest. While conceit drew us in, it's Steve as the awkward, nebbish Andy, with curious hobbies and an embarrassing sexual situation, that won us over. What separates this film from similarly themed teen comedies is a fundamental lack of desperation and no ticking clock of prom night; Andy is just a man fully aware that he may have missed his window. We cheer him on because he sticks to being sincere (which, in the end, helps him lose his virginity).
Dan in 'Dan in Real Life' (2007)
It's not fun to imagine the sweet, charming girl you've fallen in love with to be in a relationship with Dane Cook. Nevertheless, Carell's Dan handles it admirably.
Evan in 'Evan Almighty' (2007)
Lost amidst the news of this being the most expensive comedy ever is Carell's stoic performance as Evan. After following God's (Morgan Freeman's) commands, Evan must deal with the doubts of his wife (Lauren Graham) and family over an impending flood. It would be easy to lose sight of the personal story amidst this biblical comedy (and that manly beard), but Carell manages to lend heart to an otherwise uneven flick.
Barry in 'Dinner for Schmucks' (2010)
Even in Barry, one of Carell's more eccentric roles (a mousey man whose hobby is making mice dioramas, or "mousterpieces"), there is a grounded humanity. Despite Barry's comedic moments, which are full of destructive clumsiness, there is a method to his madness, one made painfully clear when we see the mice diorama that depicts his mouse-wife in bed with another man, and mouse-Barry eating alone. Though Barry's been cheated on, the character in Carell's hands is not a pathetic loser. Instead, he's one sweetly hoping for another chance.
Frank Ginsberg in 'Little Miss Sunshine' (2006)
In a role meant for Bill Murray</a>, Carell gets the ball rolling on one of the sweetest endings in recent movie history. Here, he plays Frank, a gay scholar of French author Marcel Proust, who has just attempted suicide. Eventually, Frank runs into his ex-boyfriend who left him for Frank's chief academic rival. Thankfully, consecutive slaps in the face don't keep him from giving an inspirational talk to the deeply depressed Dwayne (Paul Dano). <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/23/movies/MoviesFeatures/23sund.html?_r=3&" target="_hplink">