Steve Carell, seen here in 'Dinner For Schmucks,' has two movies in release this July and recently sat down with HItFix to discuss them.
When I posted the first of my two recent conversations with Steve Carell the other day, I mentioned that we actually had that conversation face-to-face at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. It's a beautiful hotel, commonly used by the studios for the various press days we participate in, and typically I would have just waited there so I could have the second conversation with Carell in person.
I had to run home, though, so when I did call in for the interview, he answered the phone already laughing.
Steve Carell: So... you couldn't take it anymore, could you?
SC: Pure torture, isn't it?
Drew: Oh, it was unbearable. I mean, how can you stand it? It’s luxurious and it's nice and there's room service. Oh, my God.
Drew: Yeah, I saw Craig Robinson downstairs as I was leaving.
SC: Oh, how is he doing?
Drew: He was out front, getting ready for the “Hot Tub Time Machine” Playboy Mansion party tonight, so...
SC: (laughs) Oh, my God! Oh, dear.
Drew: Yeah. It’s a hard life. It’s difficult.
SC: I hope I see him alive again.
Drew: (laughs) So when I was talking with ["Dinner For Schmucks" director] Jay [Roach] last night, and one of the things we were discussing was how your comic persona has gradually revealed itself over a period of films. It’s not something you can pin down until somebody’s got a body of work. But I think what you do so well, Steve, is you humanize the outrageous, and I think the characters you play... no matter how big or crazy the character is, you really make them identifiable and human and it gives them permission to be even crazier, it seems.
SC: Maybe I outrage the human.
Drew: (laughs) What is it that you’re drawn to about these characters?
SC: You know what? I take it as a huge compliment. That’s something that I always thought… it’s something that I always enjoyed watching in movies. I like things that seem to spring from reality or something that’s more grounded. And I feel there is a way of playing kind of broader characters but still have them grounded in some basic sense of reality. I’ve always enjoyed watching characters that aren’t aware that they’re doing anything funny. And I think that inherently makes them funnier.
Drew: One of the things… one of the comparisons I would draw to Barry in "Schmucks" is the Peter Sellers character from "The Party."
SC: Oh, wow.
Drew: And that sort of enthusiasm he has for whatever situation he’s in. It’s like, "Oh, what are we doing? We’re doing spankings now? Let’s go." And it’s… it’s charming, no matter how bizarre the circumstances.
Drew: The chemistry in that film is crazy because you’re playing off so many different styles of comedy. There’s Paul, obviously, and then there are the people at the dinner and there’s… how do you, when you’re playing off all these different energies… everybody’s so radically different, so how do you balance all of that?
SC: I guess I just think of it as a whole. I mean, I think of it... at least in terms of that character, that guy, I think you’re right. He just approaches everything with such a big open heart that no matter what situation he’s in, no matter what character he’s relating to, he’s nothing but earnest and positive in his choices. So I guess I just looked at it as a whole that way, that here’s a guy who, you know, may have some slight damage to him, you know, over the years but he is certainly is not going to wear it on his sleeve, and he’s not going to trouble anybody else with any of his troubles.
Drew: I love the fine line of the sweetness in “Despicable Me,” because it’s the kind of movie where you’re dealing with little orphan girls, and that easily could tip over into unbearably cute.
SC: Yeah, believe me. I mean, that is always a fear. It’s something I have a very strong radar for. Whenever I sense that something’s getting overly sentimental or kind of cloying, I’m the first to wave a red flag.
Drew: Yeah, I think you guys find exactly the line to walk because even Gru is very sympathetic. You do feel for him. I got to interview Miss Andrews this morning, which was exceptional. It was one of those oh my God moments, and her as the the most disapproving least nurturing person possible is great casting. You understand Gru. You completely get why he is who he is and why he’s so frantic to do what he does.
SC: Right. Yeah, and you don’t need too much of it either, you know? A couple of flashbacks and you’re there. It’s like you completely get it.
Drew: Right, and it doesn’t take the edge off him.
SC: Yeah, I like things like, um... oh, do you remember a cartoonist named Gahan Wilson?
Drew: Oh my God, he's so great.
SC: That sort of… I loved that sort of stuff growing up and it was, you know, something that you’d have to look at maybe twice to completely get, especially as a kid. But, yeah, I loved that that sort of subtle slightly dark, slightly, you know... and it’s funny, you talk about striking that balance in this movie because you certainly don’t want to sell a dark comedy to children. That’s certainly not going to be a big box office draw. You know, I don’t think parents want to bring their kids to "that dark animated comedy." But I do think one thing the movie does well is not condescend to children. And I think it treats them with respect and sort of respects their intelligence.
Drew: It’s great because now you’ve set up a real rivalry that’s just barely explored in the film between you and Jason's character.
Drew: And it seems like almost this great "Spy Vs. Spy" dynamic that you guys could do more with.
SC: It would be fun, yeah.
Drew: It is that rare film where at the end of it, it’s not that you set it up with a giant question mark for a sequel but it’s just a world that’s big enough that you guys have just barely explored it.
SC: It feels that way, yeah. I mean, it feels like you want to see more of these characters. People definitely want to see more of the Minions. I think people do kind of want to see what the next chapter of this world will be. And I thought Jason’s character was great because again, he’s a guy with a big bag of his own problems and an overbearing father, so we get to see a little bit from his perspective as well. I really enjoyed watching his character.
Drew: I don’t think you build a house with a shark swimming underneath your living room unless you have issues.
SC: That whole shark… that scene where I’m trying to first get into the fortress, when that shark first jumped up and attacks him, I was so surprised. That really made me laugh out loud.
Drew: The thing that I love about the design in it, and that’s a real thing for animated films with me, they can be funny but if the design isn’t also elegant, it kind of throws me. I can’t look at ugly animation. And I think really, they found this great sort of Euro-style and it feels sort of like... like when Brad Bird tapped the 60’s Ken Adam/James Bond vibe with "The Incredibles"? You guys do that to some extent and I think that world of super-villains lends itself to that.
SC: Yeah, there’s something kind of sleek about the style. When I saw the first renderings, I was amazed because it looked like art to me. It didn’t even look like an animated cell. It looked like… they showed me a picture or a rendering of Gru walking into the Bank of Evil and just the scale of it and sort of the art direction of that... I see it as a set and just so beautifully rendered and it looked very rich and realistic but yet from a parallel universe. It was… yeah, I was really drawn to it visually.
SC: Oh, he’s the best!
Drew: He really does strike me as a guy who, when he works with comic actors, he is the ideal collaborator in terms of building a world that stems from the characters.
SC: Yeah, and completely supportive, too. He is meticulous in the way he goes about directing and the way he goes about developing a script, because if there were any moments in the script, if there were sort of little bumps or things that didn’t make sense or any logic leaps, he would pinpoint them and try to solve them. And he never, never stopped. He was always trying to make it better and make it more cohesive and he’s a great actor's director too. He really takes his time with actors. It’s not about just setting up a shot, getting it on film, and then moving on. He really is interested in the performance and that’s where he likes to spend his time.
Drew: Well, it seems like with the "Austin Powers" movies, the worlds themselves evoke Austin. They seem like they are all… you’re almost running around inside Austin’s head, in that particular candy-colored world, and I think in "Dinner for Schmucks," it’s a totally different visual style, but again it feels like the way Barry sees the world. I think it helps that we start with that phenomenal montage of your "Sunday in the Park with George" mouse display.
SC: How about his choice of music in the opening?
Drew: "Fool on the Hill" works perfectly there.
SC: Perfectly. You know what? When I first saw the movie and that music came up, I couldn’t think of a better music pick because it’s sort of whimsical yet sort of melancholy at the same time. And I think it really evokes Barry’s life. It’s earnest and yet there’s something slightly sad about it. I loved the fact, frankly, I loved the fact that... I mean, that could not have been a cheap bit of music.
Drew: No, and I think it was a temp track originally, Jay was saying. Then once they’d seen it, they were like, "Oh, hell, we’re buying it, aren’t we?"
SC: Oh, man, I really respect him for going for it on that because I think it sets the tone for the whole movie.
Drew: One of the things I think that scene does is it gives you permission to laugh with Barry and not at him when you meet him.
SC: Yeah, I agree.
Drew: Because you already know how sweet he is and how genuine the heart is that goes into that art.
SC: Yeah, I think some people when they hear about the premise they think, "Oh, this’ll be very mean spirited and it’ll be unkind and we’re just going to be mocking people," and I see it really as a celebration of the difference and the people who are sort of live on the fringes just add the spice to life really and the color to life.
Drew: It’s one of those movies where, since I saw it, I’ve been thinking about it and I’ll remember a line and that’ll make me laugh… and then I remember another line and you realize that there’s so much in the first act that by the time you even get to that second act, you’ve already forgotten all the great stuff in the setup. Like I forgot you offering Paul the money after he hits you.
Drew: …after the accident which just….
SC: You know what? I think he’s great in it.
Drew: I do, too.
SC: I think that, to me, is the hardest part in the movie because to play a guy who’s potentially such a jerk, but still have the audience rooting for you to make the right moral decision... I think that was a really tricky part. I think he’s so good.
Drew: The whole cast is really strong. Jay has such an amazing eye right down to whether it’s the female lead who’s so adorable that she kind of gets Paul off the hook because of how potentially big a jerk he is...
Drew: ... or David Walliams, who’s just visually disturbing...
SC: (laughs) How about those contacts?
Drew: Oh my God. He and his wife both are so intense.
SC: The woman who played his wife and he both have these ultra light blue contacts in. They look like they’re from another planet.
Drew: And Jemaine, who I think is tremendous in it...
SC: Yeah, me too. I’m a huge fan. He is really fun to work with. There’s something really special about him.
Drew: I took my mother-in-law with me who is Argentinean and not the greatest English speaker. She’s okay with it, but it's not her first language and she's certainly not able to keep up with everything always. It worked so well for her.
SC: Oh great!
Drew: To me, that’s the sign of a great comedy when the character comes through so clearly and Jay is so good at staging things that she was on top of every single joke. My sister-in-law didn’t even translate for her. She just rolled.
SC: Oh, that’s great. Oh my gosh!
Drew: Yeah, so I think it really communicated. I really think it’s special.
SC: Boy, I hope you’re right. You know, you never know. You never know how people are going to respond to something, but I... you know, Jay and I talk from time to time and I’m just so proud of it. I can’t wait to work with him again, too. I was a real… the whole thing was such a joy.
Drew: It was an interesting one-two punch because I saw that and "Inception" back-to-back.
SC: Oh my God. Is that just insane?
Drew: They are both much sadder than you would expect.
Drew: And that’s the thing that for me makes “Dinner for Schmucks” count... that sadness. The really deep… I mean, God, his little diorama of what Zack did to him in finding his wife is both hilarious and the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.
SC: Oh. yeah. Yeah. I agree. I mean. I think that’s the thing that’s special about it is that you start to really care. You care about the characters. You care what happens. And you care about their relationship.
Drew: Yeah, and even about what happened. You really start to realize just how profound Barry’s hurt. You know, I’m really curious to see how it connects with people.
SC: Me, too. Because it’s not your… it’s a really hard thing to market because it’s not your conventional summer comedy. It’s not. I don’t think it’s what people are necessarily expecting it to be.
Drew: That’s the thing. I’ll give Paramount credit for this. I think they know that it’s a hard film to cut a trailer for and when they invited me, it was because they had faith that it’s a good movie and it’s a question of, "Now have we gotten the message out?"
Drew: So they certainly seem to understand what they have.
Drew: It’s just a matter of, in 30 seconds, how do you tell somebody what it is?
SC: Yeah. It’s sort of impossible. I mean to try and capture the tone of it because you saw little bites of it, little sounds, and the jokes sort of play out at a different pace that’s not really relevant in a trailer. But I don’t know. We’ll see.
Drew: Well sir, it’s very good to speak with you. I may be speaking with you again for "Dinner". I’m not sure, but if not, then best to you on it, and on "Despicable" as well. I really am pleased that both of these came together as well as they did.
SC: Oh, thanks.
Drew: I think for a first time animation studio to pull this off, they really should be very proud of themselves.
SC: Yeah, I think they’re pretty psyched. The feedback today seems to have been really good.
Drew: Great. Well, sir, take care, and it’s good to speak with you as always.
SC: Thanks. Likewise.
I've got a full-length Jay Roach interview coming next week for "Schmucks," and tomorrow, I'm driving into Beverly Hills to sit down with Paul Rudd, so you can definitely expect more coverage of the film between now and when it opens.
In the meantime, check out "Despicable Me," which opens this Friday in theaters everywhere.
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