Straight white men in their forties are rarely as funny as Steve Carell. A veteran of Chicago’s famed improv comedy troupe Second City, Carell starred in a number of short-lived sitcoms before audiences at bus stops everywhere beheld the remarkable over-sized grin that promoted The 40 Year-Old Virgin . Carell isn’t always as innocent in his films – he has played egotistic boss Michael Scott in The Office, suicidal Proust scholar Uncle Frank in Little Miss Sunshine , and most recently a Virginia congressman divinely commanded to build an ark in Evan Almighty. Still, it is that movie poster smile, almost cruelly wholesome, that will be forever etched into our minds – perhaps because it is genuine. Carell’s characters don’t just exist to amuse the audience, but themselves. Were he a hammier actor, his self-absorbed characters might prove too annoying to watch, but as Carell has put it, “I think a character in a comedy should not know they’re in a comedy.”
In person, thankfully, Carell doesn’t seem to realize how big a star he has become. While promoting Evan Almighty , Carell spoke about being a father to his two children, Elisabeth Anne (six) and John (three), and how animals are sometimes easier to herd than children. – Justin Clark
Your character doesn’t have an easy time raising his kids. What about you in real life?
My kids are angels, and never do anything wrong, and are never aggravating and are perfect in every way. Except . . . [smiles] I have a three- and a six-year-old, so I think everyone goes through problems and difficulty and brattiness and asks where to draw the line.
[Co-star Lauren Graham and I] bonded with the kids who played our kids in the movie, because we spent a lot of time driving them around in that Hummer. They were in the backseat and there were times when they would not stop. They were telling dirty jokes to each other and laughing and were all over the place when we were trying to do a take. So Lauren and I became the parental figures – we were like, “Okay, guys!” Like good cop and bad cop. I was generally the bad cop. But we got on really well with them. The kids were almost as good as the animals.
You play a parenting advice columnist in your upcoming film Dan In Real Life. What is your character like, and how did you draw on your own experience as a father for the role?
The movie itself involves a guy who was fairly recently widowed three or four years before, and he’s been raising three daughters on his own, and they’re reaching a point in their young adult lives that he doesn’t know what to do with. One of themes of the movie is he doesn’t take his own advice, and he lets things get away from him in terms of his kids.
So did I take my own personal experience into the character? I don’t know if I even have a take or a mental manual of how I’m raising my kids. It’s about living day to day and trying to deal with these situations as they come. And I think that’s essentially what that character does, too.
You’re expanding your range these days, from playing the widower character you mentioned to your spy character in Get Smart. Do you have a particular career direction mapped out?
[Goes serious.] I am willing to take any job offered me. [Laughs] I don’t really have a path set where I need to do this kind of movie, then that kind. I thought the script of Dan In Real Life was great. Peter Hedges is a very thoughtful filmmaker. His Pieces of April was fantastic. Also, he wrote About A Boy and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? As for Get Smart, it was something I loved growing up as a kid. The baboons were horrifying.
Still, you’re getting to be quite a movie star.
[Laughs] I’m internationally famous.
How much more time will you give yourself to do The Office?
I’ll give them twenty minutes every day for five days straight and that will be it for the season. So, whatever they can get, that’ll be it. No, I love it. In terms of writing and value, nothing beats the show. It’s such a smart group of people, and people are really devoted. The actors, I think, are fantastic – that group of people doesn’t come together very often. It’s sort of a braintrust in my opinion, especially the writing team.
On that same note, how do you think Michael Scott would handle the same task that God gives your character in Evan Almighty ?
I have no idea! He’d probably get Creed to come in and build the arc. He wouldn’t want to do it himself. And Jan would convince him not to do it because she sort of rides roughshod over him anyway. He probably wouldn’t end up doing it, because in his mind, Jan might be more powerful than God.
What was the most difficult scene you had to do in Evan Almighty?
It was early on. I think it might have been the birds. They were on my shoulders for a few days straight and that was real – it wasn’t a computer generated flock of birds. They would literally not get off me – I don’t know how they trained them. And frankly, they were very well-fed before shooting. So that posed its own set of difficulties.
What were the most lovable animals, and the least?
Loveable? Giraffes and elephants. Very soulful faces, kind, sweet gentle. Reprehensible? The baboons were horrifying. There’s one scene where the baboons bring me lemonade, and on one take the baboon spilled the lemonade. So I went off book and started improvising and said, “Hey man, what are you doing?” I raised my voice a tiny degree, and the baboon thought I was getting aggressive with it. It bared its teeth and it took a very aggressive stance with me and scared the hell out of me. After the take the trainer came and said, “Really, don’t do that. Don’t talk to the baboon. As a matter of fact, don’t even look the baboon in the eye.” I was like, “What? Why didn’t you tell me before we started shooting not to look the baboon in the eye?”
So yes, they were a little ornery. Then there was the camel’s breath. In an enclosed space, a camel’s breath can change the atmosphere of the room – not only just the smell, but literally they seem to change the atmospheric pressure. It’s so disgusting, it’s like they have eight stomachs, each more rancid than the next.