Steve Carell 20 years ago he thought his stardom was a fluke – how wrong he was

June 2006 By Philip Berk

 Who would have guessed that a 42 year old unknown actor could become the success story of 2005, but that’s just what happened to Steve Carell.

At his press conference for Little Miss Sunshine, which was shot even before 40 Year Old Virgin became a surprise blockbuster, before TV’s The Office gave NBC its first hit in years, and long before he replaced Jim Carrey in Evan Almighty,  I asked him if, like all good things that happen in life, did it take him completely by surprise or did he always know  that some day his time would come?

    “You know what, I felt like my time had already come many many years ago. when I stopped waiting tables and went out on the road with Second City. Then again when I started working as a professional actor. That to me was the demarcation:  working to support myself as an actor. And then in 1998 when I started earning enough money to rent an apartment and pay my bills — that to me was success —  when I was able to make a living as an actor. I look back and see it as climbing a ladder, incrementally working my way to larger jobs and being able to support a wife and two kids and save money.  This last year of course has been absolutely surreal. I never expected it.  It’s nothing I ever anticipated. It was never the brass ring. ‘That’s what I’m hoping for eventually.’ The truth is, I never thought I’d be in a movie let alone be the lead in a movie. I never got auditions for movies. I thought at the very most I could be the whacky neighbor on a sitcom. That would be the end all. That this has actually transpired has  been exciting and bizarre and earth shattering, but I can’t say it’s made me happier. I am not less happy; it’s just different. Am I expecting it to continue? I am not buying into it quite yet. I am not filling myself with thoughts: ‘For the next twenty years this is who I’m going to be.’ If it ended tomorrow, I’ve had this much, and it’s been great. I have been sort of relishing it; it’s been fun.”

But he won’t add, “that would be cool also.” 

And why should he?

The character he plays In Little MIss Sunshine is the gay uncle who’s lost his boy friend and his tenured professorship at the prestigious university. After a failed suicide attempt, he embarks on a road trip with his sister (played by Toni Collette) her husband, their two children, and their grandfather.

How did he approach the role?

“The way I approach any role.  I just thought, what had transpired to bring this person to this point where he he had lost his love, lost his job — we all know how that feels, he jokes. “So there were elements of who he is that I could relate to. He’s sort of an onion, and you start peeling back the layers to get some sense of the light within him. He’s really turned inward, he’s ostracized himself from others because of his intelligence —  and his ignorance as well.”

So he wasn’t looking for laughs?

“I don’t think any of us thought of it as a comedy. We just played it like the script was written. The comedy comes out of the situations.”

And his running (featured on the ad.) Was that an affectation?

“You mean the awkward gait. I just figured this guy spends more time in libraries than on a sports field; he would have a very unathletic run. It’s not something he does very often. I thought of it as a muscle he hasn’t  used much.”

Working with two directors — Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — did they alternate jobs?

“It was great because they were able to multi task. They really were on the same page. They agreed with one another, and they were able to do so many things simultaneously. One would talk to the actors and give performance notes while the other one was setting up the camera shot, re-lighting the set. I think it helped. Not only are they effective and efficient  they’re wonderful people who brought a great spirit to the movie. “

Did the actors improvise much?

“Not at all. We first rehearsed it like a play for about two weeks. We did read-throughs. We filled out diaries based on our characters. We shared them with the other actors. We went on a field trip in a car. We went bowling; we played dodge ball. We did all those things  which might seem a little goofy, but they really helped because once we started shooting, it was all so effortless. We were able to do one or two takes and then we moved on. Everyone was very comfortable within their own character.”  

Even though he played a weatherman in Anchorman, he was best known to audiences as Jon Stewart’s sidekick on the irreverent Daily Show. 

Wasn’t he much heavier on that show?

“From fat to delightful,” he jokes “It was not really planned. Before we started shooting 40 Year Old Virgin, I had to audition with some of the actresses who were going to play the crazy but really sexy woman in the bookstore. I had tried to get in shape, but half heatedly. But then I saw a playback of the audition tape with me and these actresses, and I thought there is no way that this woman would ever be attracted to how I looked at that point; so I started running and eating less because I thought my character would be just a normal guy. I didn’t think he’d be buffed and muscly.  I had to at least look a little bit more attractive than I was at the time.”

Does he see much of Jon (Stewart) or Steven (Colbert?)

“I talk to them from time to time. They’re obviously real busy. Steven and I are voices on this cartoon on Saturday Night Live where we play the ambiguously gay duo.”     

Before he ventured into acting he was a prelaw student. What changed his mind?

“I was at my home filling out my law school application, and the essay question asked why I wanted to be an attorney. Other than that it sounded good and I thought it would make my parents proud, I had nothing else to hang it on. My parents were in the next room, and I went in and asked them about ii. And to their credit they said, ‘Well what do you want to do?  What have you always enjoyed?’ and I said, ‘Well I do like to do plays,’ which at that point was just a hobby. and they said ‘Well give it a shot, try acting.”

And the rest is history.