Steve Carell
Photo by Christopher Beyer

Steve Carell: “It’s different every time”

 Listen to Audio Excerpt Listen to Audio Excerpt
Short Profile

Name: Steven John Carell
DOB: 16 August 1962
Place of birth: Concord, Massachusetts, United States
Occupation: Actor, comedian

Mr. Carell, did you ever worry that being a comedian would restrict you as an actor?

I don’t want to change someone’s opinion of what I do or what I’m capable of doing. I think that sort of clouds what you’re doing or the choices you make, you know? If you are making choices to prove something to someone I don’t feel like that benefits anyone. So if people think of me as a comedic actor or as a dramatic actor or whatever… That’s fine! I just feel fortunate to be getting jobs and working, so people can think what they want.

You don’t feel like you have anything to prove?

It’s more that I don’t care about how people perceive me. I think to choose parts based on how it’s going to be perceived and how people will interpret me as an actor… That doesn’t help me and it’s not something that I concentrate on.

Does a comedic acting history influence how you interpret more dramatic roles?

I think it’s reminiscent of the angle that Jon Stewart would take on The Daily Show, you know, he would take on these targets with a very absurdist sense of humor yet at the same time with a very tangible angle. You could feel the sense of outrage — there was a lot of that on The Daily Show. But for me personally, I think I look at projects with what strikes me as human.

“You try to make it as truthful as you can in your performance.”

In terms of the characters?

Right, so all of the more serious stories I’ve done depicted characters who were flawed. I wouldn’t necessarily connect those back to The Daily Show or with a sense of outrage… I just thought that they would be interesting scripts, interesting people to portray. There is something accessible about portraying a real life person and a historical event. And there is a responsibility built into that as well, which I like.

How do you balance the responsibility to the truth of a story with the responsibility of good storytelling?

Any films that are based on a true story are at best still an interpretation of somebody’s life and so at best, they’re a reflection, an estimation. You try to make it as truthful as you can in your performance. You still have a free reign to interpret but the groundwork is already laid. The reality… You don’t have to build much in terms of your own reality because it already exists.

How does that impact your preparation for a role? Is it easier in that case?

I always try to prepare as best I can before I get to set, you know, when it comes to portraying a real person, I’ll meet with the real guy if I can; I’ll listen to tapes of him to find out how he spoke. I read up on the world of whatever film I’m in or certainly I’ll read the book if there is one. Basically, I try to get at least an understanding of my characters. All of that I bring with me to the set.

How does it work with a series like The Office, where you were interpreting a role that Ricky Gervais had already established in the show’s original version?

You know, before I auditioned for The Office, I watched about five minutes of the British version just to get a sense of tone but when I saw what Ricky was doing and how specific and great his character was… People love him, people think he’s hilarious! I knew that if I watched any more I would just be prone to doing an impersonation, I would just try to steal more and I thought that wouldn’t serve me in an audition. I figured they wanted a new version, an American version; they didn’t want a carbon copy of the original. But I love exploring. I love working with directors to develop a character. It’s interesting — did you see The Truman Show?

Yes, of course.

So, the scene where he’s in the boat and he bumps up against what is essentially the edge of the set and he realizes that there is no more there? It’s interesting to think of that in terms of your brain, and when you find yourself bumping up against the limits of what you perceive as your frame of reference or your ability or the things that are established to you. A good director gives you license to go to other places that you haven’t established for yourself and kind of break down some of those things that might impede you. I think with the right director that can expand out.

“A good director gives you license to go to other places that you haven’t established for yourself.”

Which directors do you mean specifically?

It’s different every time. Adam McKay, who directed both Anchorman and The Big Short, really created a space where people feel completely free to try things like that and experiment. The way improv worked on The Big Short, for example, was different to how it worked on Anchorman because on Anchorman you are looking for funny things to do, funny things to say, non-sequiturs… But with The Big Short, when you improvised it had to be in character, on point, part of the story but at the same time, it wasn’t predicated on being funny necessarily.

The two films don’t have much in common — one is an outlandish comedy, the other is about the 2008 financial crisis. Was Adam McKay a different director the second time around?

No, Adam was very much the same. It’s okay to fail, it’s okay to make mistakes — there really are no mistakes with him. He just believes that people do their best work when they are not hindered by convention, and he supports that. He creates a very safe environment. I also worked with Woody Allen recently… That is a director who expects an actor to come in and prepare and do their job as an actor. It was fun. I enjoyed it!

You kind of sound surprised.

(Laughs) I don’t know what I was expecting… He was very nice, he was very smart but he was also quiet. He is not an overly gregarious person, but he is methodical and he really respects actors, he’s the type of director you just don’t question. At the same time, he’s very hands-off — he allowed us all to do what we were doing. But it’s fascinating; it’s kind of a bucket list thing to get to work with somebody like that.