Steve Carell has emerged as one of Hollywood's most sought-after comic actors. He first gained recognition for Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and has won huge acclaim for his Golden Globe Award-winning performance as Michael Scott in the US version of hit British comedy The Office. Carell saw his first feature film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he co-wrote, open at number one at the US box office, taking over $175 million worldwide, and he earned huge praise for his role in the acclaimed Academy Award-nominated comedy Little Miss Sunshine. He will next be seen in Evan Almighty, the follow-up to the Jim Carrey smash Bruce Almighty. Carell returns as his character from the first film, Evan Baxter, but this time he is the lead, called upon by God to build him an ark, much as Noah before in Biblical times.
Q. Does it feel good to follow in the footsteps of Jim Carrey?
SC: Yeah. He gets all the power of God. I get pooped on by birds. He gets to blow women's skirts up in the air, and I get to hang out in a sweaty robe for three months.
Q. There are a lot of animals in this film. There must have been some mad moments?
SC: There was a scene where these two baboons had to hand me lemonade when I was building the ark, and one of them spilt the lemonade, so I improvised and said something like, 'Hey, man, what are you doing?' The baboon went crazy. He thought I was being aggressive and he got mad, and bared his teeth. I continued with the scene and later the animal trainer came up to me and said, 'Look, don't do that - don't improvise with the baboons and don't look them in the eye!' And I thought well maybe he should have told me that before I started the take! That was pretty funny. I'm not sure if that's in the final cut of the movie, but when you talk about real, organic moments, that was very real.
Q. What was the most difficult animal to work with?
SC: The birds. I spent three days covered in birds for one scene, and what people often don't realize is that birds smell. They have a really distinct odor to them, kind of like a bird body odor, and when you have them up and down your arms and legs and across your shoulders, you become quite familiar with their eccentricities.
Q. What animal did you like best?
SC: I enjoyed the elephants and giraffes. They were incredibly sweet. A giraffe up close, they have very soulful eyes and their faces are kind, and elephants are the same. They seem to have a real soul and they're very smart. They knew what they were doing, and you got a sense that they knew what they were a part of.
Q. It’s your biggest budget film to date. Do you feel an added pressure?
SC: I am aware that this was an expensive movie to make, and I hope that people like it. I think it has the potential to be something sweet and kind and something that the entire family could truly enjoy. It’s not just a movie that only the kids will like - it's something that will cross generations.
Q. What makes Evan himself funny?
SC: He starts off as kind of a blowhard. He has a ripe ego and thinks very highly of himself. As a congressman, his campaign slogan is 'change the world.' But to him that's just a slogan. And yet he gets to learn what that statement really means, and that's where the interplay with God comes in. He doesn't truly understand his motives until the end. It's more of a situational comedy, rather than laughing at how goofy he is or whether he says something wacky. It's more that he's struggling to understand what is happening. There is a huge shift in his life; he's gone to Washington to become a congressman, but finds himself hanging off the side of an ark with thousands of animals aboard. He's trying to keep his job as a congressman, and he's going crazy.
Q. The film's message is global, rather than centred on America?
SC: There's a lot at stake in the movie in terms of the world. It does have a world view, rather than an American politics view. There's some of that, in terms of how America is using its natural resources, but it's a very broad idea, about what we are all doing. How we are protecting the world and each other... So that's the real focus thematically of the movie.
Q. Evan becomes Noah in this movie, are you at all religious?
SC: I'm Catholic, born and bred. It's interesting because that really didn't come into play when doing the movie. I didn't decide to do it because I’m Catholic, I just thought it had a nice message. And I don't see it as a religious movie, it a film about kindness and being aware of the earth and the environment. It's also about one man's self-discovery and his journey to learn what's important to him and how he can do his own small thing.
Q. Evan starts out as a congressman. Do politics appeal to you?
SC: I have never aspired to a political life. I think that is a difficult and often unrewarding way of life, because I think there's so much red tape and manoeuvring in political circles to get things done and I just don't possess that kind of attitude. I think you need a very strong ego, be very self-possessed, and you need a great deal of confidence, but you also have to appeal to a wide spectrum of individuals. It seems a commitment that I would never have. Plus, there's the standard issue mockery that goes with being in politics. For Gerald Ford it was that he was always falling over; with Jimmy Carter I think he said he lusted after women in his heart, and comics got a lot of mileage out of that. A friend of mine from the Daily Show spoke at the White House press dinner and really dragged George Bush over the coals, so there's certainly a lot to go after.
Q. Your humour has never been about jokes or ridiculing people...
SC: My comedy is more about the every day man. Someone asked me to make a glib comment about Britney Spears and the fact that she shaved her head. I thought, why? She's a young kid struggling to figure out what's right in her life. To me, what's funny is a situation. A real person in a real situation, and how they get out of that situation, or how they struggle through that situation.
Q. Do you believe the best comedy comes from when the performer doesn't appear to know that they're in a comedy?
SC: Yes, I'm a firm believer in that. As soon as you see an actor, I refer to it as 'winking at the camera,' letting the audience know that he knows what he’s doing, you lose something there.
Q. You prefer comic actors like Peter Sellers, then?
SC: Yes, Peter Sellers was master. His Clouseau character was incredibly broad and silly, but you never got the impression that Peter Sellers or the character thought it was funny. He was in these situations that were incredibly absurd and of a heightened reality, but they somehow rang true because he was completely committed to it. And you never sensed his awareness.
Q. What do people most want to talk to you about, the chest-waxing scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin?
SC: Yes, all the time. People can't believe I did that. I remember one guy saying that he'd told his son that it wasn't real and it was all specials effects. But it was real - it was one take and it was a bloody mess, literally a bloody mess. In this movie there's a whole scene where I'm trying to get rid of this beard on my face and it keeps growing back. I really can will a beard to grow in a matter of hours.
Q. You're a modest guy. Does all this attention seem weird to you?
SC: It's so strange, and I sometimes wonder how I got invited to this party. The past two years have been crazy and irrational and something that I would never have anticipated. I went to the All Star basketball game in Las Vegas and was sitting there with Cameron Diaz, Beyonce and Dave Chappelle, and all these famous people. I looked at the ticket price, it was $5000, and sometimes I can't wrap my head around that.
Q. What would God say to Steve Carell?
SC: I never think in those terms. I hope that God gives me guidance and that he directs me to make good choices, and that he helps me with my family. But that is such a personal thing and I think everyone has a different idea of what God is and what he represents. I know what Morgan Freeman would say, and I have to say that in my mind, I can't imagine anyone else playing God. He has such a specific demeanour and presence that when he walks on set you feel that if it isn’t God, he is at least a higher power of some sort!
Q. You're now working on Get Smart, a big screen remake of the US TV show…
SC: Yes. It's set in modern day. I play Max. It's an updated version of the original, and while there will be elements of the original, I'm not doing a Don Adams' impression. It'll be a similar character but not the same sort of breed.
Q: How exhausting was Evan Almighty to make?
A: I’m so wary of complaining about how difficult it was to get through this movie for which I was paid this exorbitant amount of money. I’m not driving a truck, I’m not shingling a roof in 100 degree weather. I’m sitting there and some people are gluing hair on my face and I’m standing in front of animals and I’m running across a field and it’s not that hard. The hardest part was being away from my family. I was gone for probably 3 months altogether and my son was only 2 and that was very difficult for me. I'd never been away for that length of time and that was the most trying aspect of it. I couldn’t take them because we weren’t there for a long enough time to enroll them in school. They came for a couple of weeks and it wasn’t viable for them to be there for the whole shoot and that was the most trying aspect to it.
Q: But the actual physical commitment to it?
A: Boy I just don’t want to hear myself complain and not to put anybody down but I always hear actors complaining about ‘oh the make up was torturous and I was in the chair for x hours a day and I went crazy..’ well, shut up, don’t do it then. You’re getting paid extremely well, it’s what you do and it’s really not that bad. As jobs go there are about 80 million people who envy what you do so just take a moment and sort of look at your life and that’s what I tried to do. But certainly there were times when I was very tired and it was grueling at times. And trying to perform with animals is always a feat.
Q: They do say you should never work with children and animals…
A: Yeah, they do but I don’t know if that’s actually true. For me it was kind of exciting because the animals certainly made you improvise because there was no way that any two takes could be the same and you had to be aware of what they were doing and take advantage. If they moved a certain way, if they acted a certain way, you had to roll with it. Which for me was very exciting.
Q: Did you feel that the environmental message in the film was timely?
A: Oh definitely, yeah. I mean, as we were making it, we knew it was then and it is even more, so now and it will continue to be even more so in years to come. And the fact that this is a family friendly film – and I hate to say ‘family friendly’ because that has connotations for me, because that smells like ‘oh that won’t be fun for anybody else but a child’ which I don’t think this movie is, but I do think it’s very accessible. And I do think that to have a movie about the environment, a movie about love essentially, commitment and leaps of faith, then if kids can glean anything from that then it’s very powerful. But again, I was so wary of the movie being preachy and I would never want it to be. I was hoping and I think it came to pass, that the movie would have a very light touch and be very gently be part of who these characters are and not this over bearing message.
Q: Evan is a man who is slowly stripped away of all pretense which must be interesting to play…
A: Yes, and it’s funny to watch someone be reduced to the essence of who they are and then build their way back and fight. And it is a struggle. The whole movie follows this guy’s struggle to convince others as to what he is up against and he is very much alone for a good portion of the movie and that’s sad, because he’s lonely, but that’s also funny as well.
Q: The film could be classed in several different genres. How did you see it?
A: It is like a hybrid of many different things because it involves slapstick, it involves a sense of faith, it involves these environmental overtones and then there is the story of the ark and the references to the Old Testament. And it’s huge.
Q: What was the set like?
A: Incredible. I would drive to base camp every day and it was a small city – you know, there was catering for 300 extras and tents and trailers and workshops. Just a massive endeavour and one of the things that I think Tom (Shadyac) was so great about was that he practised what he preached in the movie and that he made a clear effort to make this the first green movie and not leave a carbon footprint and to plant trees and to correct any damage that the movie would have left. It wasn’t just lip service and it wasn’t just a marketing strategy, it’s what he did from the very beginning. He would arrive at the set on his bicycle and sometimes the set was 30 miles away and sometimes he would get there on his bike.
Q: I presume you weren’t riding a bike to and from set?
A: (laughs) In my burlap with the beard! No, I cannot claim that sense of responsibility. But Tom really set that tone and he bought bikes for the whole cast and crew, and I think the fact that he was so committed on that level and it wasn’t a ploy, it wasn’t a way to gain attention it was just how he felt. People realized that working on the movie was more than just making a movie, it was important to people and that was nice, it was nice to feel like you were part of something.
Q: How long did it take to get you looking the way you do at the end of the film with long flowing white hair and beard?
A: About four hours in the morning, depending on the beard, there were some beards that were quicker than others, but they were all hand laid, individual strands of hair laid on top of one another. My day would start at four in the morning and that was something I hadn’t really thought about but again they were such artists that out of respect and deference to them, they did amazing work all the way through and so consistent. All day checking to make sure it was perfect and nothing was showing and it was seamless, they were great.
Q: After deciding you were going to try acting, you moved to Chicago to try and find work. Was that a scary time, living on your wits?
A: No, it was one of my happiest times. It was absolute freedom because there were no expectations, it’s not like I had any sort of responsibility and I didn’t have a family to take care of at that time. And my bills, for me and two buddies sharing an apartment on the north side of Chicago, was incredibly cheap, I had a 15 year old car that I just put gas in. There was absolutely no responsibility and I didn’t need to make money, only enough to survive on and the rest of it could be devoted to acting, to get a sense of it. Some people ask why I didn’t move to New York or Los Angeles and I felt that Chicago was the most viable alternative because I wasn’t looking to be discovered, I just wanted to work and I figured that was the place to do it because there are a lot of theatre companies and a very, very healthy theatre community. I just wanted to get the experience of doing it and I wasn’t looking to showcase myself, or be discovered or get hired on a TV show, I didn’t think I was ready necessarily, I just wanted to learn.
Q: How did you end up doing comedy?
A: Second City was just another venue to try as an actor and I thought it would be good for me as an actor too, to learn improvisation and to be about to utilize that in other forms. Second City is specifically known for comedy and it involves a lot of satire that is not necessarily funny. So we would attempt to do scenes that were politically and socially relevant while at the same time be funny. It was essentially a comedy club but at the same time we wanted the audience to glean something, to make them think without being too precious about it.
Q: How long were you with Second City?
A: All told I was there from ‘88 to ‘94. They were vivid years for me. I started with the touring company that is on a low--ish rung and then you graduate to one of the resident companies and that’s where you really get the experience. Working on the main stage at Second City, it’s constant, you work six nights a week and you do two shows on Fridays and Saturdays and you improvise at every show. It was pure fun, every night was different and it was packed crowds every single night because it’s such a draw in the Chicago area. From when I first arrived in Chicago and I realized what Second City was, that was my goal. I figured if I could just make it to Second City that would make me completely happy and fulfilled as an actor. But once I’d achieved that I started looking around for the next goal.
Q: And you are happy to keep on doing The Office?
A: Absolutely. They have signed us up for 30 more episodes next season. NBC is very much behind it.
Q: When it first came to you, did you go and seek out the British version?
A: I did exactly the opposite. Before the audition I watched just a portion and Ricky Gervais was so fantastic it was overwhelming to me and I thought ‘if I have any chance at all this, I can’t watch him anymore because otherwise I’ll want to do an impression of him…’ Because he is so good and so definitive in that role that I don’t think it would be as interesting for someone to knock off his facial ticks and his physical manifestations of the character and his vocal patterns and I thought that the more I listened to him the more inclined I was to do that. And I thought ‘ I don’t want to do him and I don’t want to do that character. I’ll do a variation on the same sort of guy who has this huge emotional blind spot but I’ll play him differently.’