Steve Carell on 'Schmucks,' His Post-'Office' Plans, and His Potential Return to R-rated Comedy
When I met with Steve Carell earlier this month, much of the entertainment world was still reeling from the actor's recent announcement that he would be leaving TV's The Office after the show’s seventh season. As debate raged among fans of the award-winning series (and among NBC execs, no doubt) over how — and even if — their beloved sitcom would go on after the departure of its star, Carell himself appeared remarkably placid about the whole ordeal, showing no obvious signs of lingering regret over his decision, nor of any sleepless nights spent agonizing over it.
Perhaps that’s because his second career, that of a major movie star, is going so swimmingly. Arguably the most bankable comic actor in Hollywood today, Carell has steadily racked up $100+ million blockbusters since he first broke out in 2003, as a supporting player in Bruce Almighty. Poised to join his list of successes is Dinner for Schmucks, a loose remake of the 1998 French farce Le Diner de Cons, in which Carell stars opposite sardonic mensch Paul Rudd as Barry Speck, the accident-prone alpha schmuck of the film’s oddball ensemble.
Earnest, thoughtful, and unfailingly professional, Carell discussed his latest project, his post-Office plans, and his potential return to R-rated comedy.
Your character in this film walks a fine line between charming dimwit and pathetic weirdo, which I imagine is key to maintaining the right level of comedic tension. In a comedy that requires a significant amount of improv, how do you avoid going too far in either direction?
There’s a lot of balancing going on in the movie. I look at Paul Rudd’s character, who does the balance between being somebody accessible, that the audience can relate to, and somebody who’s at a moral crossroads, who’s potentially going to do a terrible thing to another human being. It’s a high-wire act. It’s a balance too between how broad you’re going with something, how farcical it is, and how realistically you want to play it — keep it grounded — and thus make it more accessible to an audience. I never thought of Barry as creepy. I don’t think he thinks of himself as creepy. He just struck me as a character, as a guy who has been hurt emotionally, in a deep way, and has all sorts of default settings that keep him going, that keep him plugging away. He’s ultimately a very positive person, with a very bright outlook on life. The way I pitched it to Jay [Roach, the film’s director] was that he’s a character that always has to keep moving, because if he’s sedentary too long, he starts to think about how sad he is.
Watching this film, I couldn’t help but think of The Cable Guy, a similar movie that failed in part because audiences were unnerved by Jim Carrey’s character, who crosses that line that separates lighthearted movie dysfunction from the more serious clinical variety, which people are less inclined to laugh at.
I like Cable Guy, personally, just for that reason. There was this gray area of “How am I supposed to feel about this part?” because it’s funny but it’s also ... there’s something sort of disturbing about it. But I like movies that make you think or feel more than one thing at a time.
Jay Roach seems like such an unlikely candidate to direct these big, broad comedies. He’s so cerebral and soft-spoken. How does that lend itself to effective comedy?
He’s like a comedy whisperer. He’s so smart, and he is very subtle and incredibly low-key. He’s not very demonstrative. He’s just very gentle. He wouldn’t seem like the type to direct a high-octane comedy, but somehow he does. I think he is deceptively, stealthily funny. And he has an incredibly good eye for story and character, because that’s really important to him. He wants comedic bits and set pieces and all of that, but he really cares about the characters and what they’re doing within the storylines, and I think that really helps.
You’ve now worked with most of the heavy-hitters of mainstream comedy, including Roach, Judd Apatow, Adam McKay, and Shawn Levy. What would you say is the one thing good comedy directors have in common?
I think developing a sense of trust. I trust all of those people. I trust their instinct. I think they’re smart, and I think they also give you the freedom to explore -- and to potentially fail. Because if a director or a writer or a producer get locked into one way of looking at a story or a scene or a character, it shuts down so many creative avenues that you can pursue that might make it better. They might not, but to at least have the opportunity to try different things and potentially improvise, but more than that to just look at a character or a scene from a different angle, and to have that freedom to try something that may or may not work.
I imagine there has to be a lot of letting go of ego on these sets, especially during the larger group scenes, for the give-and-take of the comedy ensemble to gel properly.
I never got a sense of ego at all on this. But I’ve been lucky, because on The Office there isn’t a sense of that. I think you’re right; all it takes is one person to disrupt what I think is a very nice relationship between actors and ensemble members. And that’s the way I looked at this movie, as a real ensemble. There are a lot of incredibly strong people who are very committed to their parts. I look at someone like Jemaine Clement, who I think developed a great character — and not an easy character, a character that could have simply been the cliched artist type, and he was so much more than that.
What I loved about Jemaine’s character in this is that, despite being this cartoonishly pretentious art snob, he ultimately comes off as likable.
Yeah, that’s the trick: He’s very endearing. Even though he’s extremely confident, he doesn’t apologize for it — it’s just who he is as a character. I loved his character. I thought Zach [Galifianakis] was fantastic in it as well. Really everybody — Jay just did a good job casting.
Zach is one of my favorite comic actors; he’s a consummate scene-stealer. What is it like to work opposite someone like him, whose style and approach seem so unlike that of any other actor on the set? Is it off-putting?
No, it’s great. Because I think his mind, he has a very specific sort of process, I think. And his brain just thinks differently, and it makes connections differently. It’s exciting to work with somebody like that, because he’s a really great improvise, but I also think he’s a really strong actor. The big scene at the dinner, when he makes his first entrance, as he entered the room he would look around and kind of get his bearings and size up what was going on. It was all very subtle and silent, but it was a really good, subtle acting move. He wasn’t just entering the scene and saying a line; he had a lot of other stuff going on.
Your movies over the last few years have all been either PG or PG-13. Do you ever see yourself returning to the kind of R-rated comedies you made earlier in your career, like Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin?
Sure, yeah. I don’t have anything in the hopper waiting to happen, but I’d definitely do that, yeah.
So you haven’t made a conscious move to more family-friendly material?
No. I’ve just based it on the scripts that I thought were the strongest and would be potentially fun to do.
There’s been talk about a possible sequel to Get Smart. Now that you have a little more time on your hands, is Get Smart 2 more of a possibility?
That’s maybe somewhere down the line as well. That’s sort of on the back-burner. I took a pass at the script for it. We’ll see. That was fun to do. But I think to make another one, it would have to be really good. I wouldn’t want to do one for the sake of doing one. I’d want to try to make it pretty special.
You’ve mentioned before that you’ve purposely avoiding seeing any episodes of the British version of The Office. Now that you’ve announced that you’re leaving the show, do you think you’ll finally sit down and watch it?
I’d love to. I’m planning on it.
You’ll finally have a little context for all the ribbing Ricky Gervais has given you.
He actually sent me a really great email when the news broke that I was going to be leaving, and he was extremely supportive. He’s a very gracious guy. Publicly he takes the piss out of me at all these awards shows, but privately he’s been very supportive of the show and of me, and just a good guy.
Who do you think should replace Michael Scott as the boss at Dunder Mifflin?
I have no idea. I don’t know whether they plan to just shuffle from within, internally. I think all of these stories are starting to be broken now, in the first half of the season, so we’ll see.
Dinner for Schmucks opens everywhere this Friday, July 30, 2010.