Last December, Steve Carell paid tribute to one of his comedy idols, Steve Martin, at the Kennedy Center Honors. “His act was that of an idiot savant,” he joked about Martin’s on-screen personas. “Minus the savant.” Not surprisingly, the same could be said for many of Carell’s comedic alter-egos.
Take Michael Scott, the clueless regional manager for a fictitious paper company on NBC’s long-running sitcom The Office (the series returns for a fifth season this Fall). Michael may not be nearly as likeable or funny as he wants to believe, but that’s part of his charm. His lack of any discernable talent, combined with his genuinely sweet demeanor, makes him the sort of comic character that audiences hate to watch fail. And yet it always happens, usually because Michael says or does something grossly inappropriate.
And this summer, Carell gives us another reason to celebrate incompetence with the spy comedy Get Smart. Carell’s version of secret agent Maxwell Smart is a big change from Don Adams, the original star of the mid-60s sitcom. Carell’s Maxwell is more aware of his limitations, and less confident that he’ll vanquish his foes. And as with most of Carell’s characters, he’s an idiot with a heart of gold, a moron with such good intentions that it’s impossible to truly despise him.
Of course, Carell’s repertoire of characters includes more than just lovable buffoons. Over the past decade, he’s played a gay Proust scholar (Little Miss Sunshine), an arrogant newsman (Bruce Almighty), and a widowed advice columnist in love with his brother’s fiancée (Dan In Real Life).
No one is more surprised by his success than Carell himself. The Massachusetts native, the youngest of four brothers, was convinced at a young age that he’d end up in a 9-to-5 job. Even while a student at Ohio’s Denison University, he envisioned a future as a lawyer, and it took his parents to insist that he follow his dreams rather than the most practical career path.
He moved to Chicago after graduation and began performing at the legendary Second City improv-comedy theater. After a failed bid to become a cast member on Saturday Night Live (he likes to joke that he lost the job to Will Ferrell), he still managed to appear on the show, providing voice-overs for the animated short The Ambiguously Gay Duo.
The late 90s were not kind to Carell. He appeared in a string of failed sitcoms, from an easily-incensed Greek chef in Over the Top to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s obnoxious ex-husband in Watching Ellie. His first break came in 1999, when he was hired (thanks to a recommendation from friend and Second City castmate Stephen Colbert) as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s as-yet-unproven news satire The Daily Show. From there, he landed small supporting roles opposite Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty) and Will Ferrell (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgendy).
But it wasn’t until 2005 that he made the leap from dependable comedy sidekick to unconventional leading man. The 40 Year Old Virgin, which Carell starred in and co-wrote with director Judd Apatow, raked in over $177 million at the box office, becoming one of the biggest surprise hits in recent movie history. Andy Sitzer, the titular middle-aged virgin, could’ve easily been the punch line of a crass sexual farce. But in Carell’s hands, he was painfully innocent and somebody that audiences wanted to root for. Unintentional abstinence has never been so funny.
Since then, the 45 year-old Carell can apparently do no wrong. He’s appeared in Sundance critical darlings like Little Miss Sunshine and box office hits like Evan Almighty. And through it all, the actor-comedian has enjoyed a seemingly healthy family life, marrying fellow comic Nancy Walls – whom he met as a student at The Second City and has been his occasional acting partner in everything from The Daily Show to The Office – and raised two children, Elizabeth and John.
We sent writer Eric Spitznagel to speak with Carell. He reports: “I met Steve at Jerry’s Deli in Studio City, and we spent most of the afternoon drinking diet colas and trying to keep out of the sun in the diner’s sidewalk patio.
“I expected Carell to put on his usual self-effacing routine. He likes to evade questions that get too personal with a barrage of gags and tongue-in-cheek modesty. But after wading through the humor, it became apparent that his humility isn’t a facade. When you cut down to the bone, he really is just a nice guy who stumbled onto comedy stardom.
“When he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2005, Carell joked during his monologue that ‘Money falls out of my ass.’ The more you talk to Steve Carell, the more you realize that he really does believe his success is just that random and inexplicable.”
PLAYBOY: In Get Smart you play a bumbling idiot, and –
CARELL: No, I do not.
PLAYBOY: Really? We’re talking about the same movie, right?
CARELL: I never saw Maxwell Smart as bumbling. He’s not a Jacques Clouseau kind of character. He’s very good at his job. And if you watch the TV show, Don Adams played Maxwell as somebody who was quirky but always knew he was going to succeed in whatever he attempted. He had a lot of self-confidence.
PLAYBOY: But wasn’t his confidence misguided?
CARELL: Well, sure. But when he got into a fight, he could take care of himself. He knew how handle a firearm. I think part of what made the character so funny, at least to me, is that he lacked any self-awareness and might have taken himself too seriously. But he was still a good spy. He got the job done.
PLAYBOY: Don Adams served in the marines during World War II and was comfortable shooting a machine gun. What’s your military training?
CARELL: You mean aside from being a Navy Seal? As a Special-Ops alumni, I’m not really supposed to talk about my training too much. As you’ll see in the movie, I’m extremely proficient with the ways of killing people. No, this was my first experience using a gun. I did some firearm training, mostly safety based. There’s a lot of gunplay in the movie, and we had live rounds in our weapons.
PLAYBOY: Live rounds? They gave you actual bullet?
CARELL: Well, no, they weren’t live live, they were blanks. You see, in the magical world of filmmaking, it’s always to the producer’s advantage to keep the cast and crew unharmed for the duration of the shooting schedule. Blank rounds are especially helpful if the director wants to do more than one take with living actors.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of realism, there’s an old urban legend that the CIA would call the producers of Get Smart and ask, “Where did you hear about the shoe phone? That’s top secret!” Has anything similar happened to you?
CARELL: Oh, yeah, they were all over us. The CIA, the FBI, the NSA, Tobacco and Firearms, NASA, Department of Agriculture, the US Mint, PBS. They were all closely monitoring our set. Y’know, that sounds like a good story, but I highly doubt that the CIA called the producers of Get Smart and said, “Where on earth did you get the idea for the Cone of Silence? We have one of those!” That sounds a little far-fetched. If the CIA is using shoe phones, we’re all in dire and grave danger in this country.
PLAYBOY: The original TV show was a spoof on James Bond-type spies and the Cold War era. Does that kind of satire translate to 2008?
CARELL: Given our present day international tensions, absolutely. The situation in North Korea, the constant threat of terrorism, worsening relations with Russia. The political landscape isn’t as far from the 60’s as one might think. Also, I’ve never thought of Get Smart as a spy spoof. I think of it as a spy comedy.
PLAYBOY: What’s the difference?
CARELL: A spy spoof parodies the genre of spy movies, whereas we tried to make Get Smart funny without being self-referential. When Warner Brothers first offered me the role, they asked what I thought the movie could or should look like. I wanted it to be like a comedic version of the Bourne spy series, where the villains were actually scary and substantial and posed a threat, and the action did not seem contrived or cartoonish, and characters were in situations that were realistic enough to create a sense of plausible jeopardy. And within that, the comedy would resonate all the more, because there’s a reality to anchor it.
PLAYBOY: As with The Office, Get Smart is another remake of classic comedy. Do you ever get tired of saying, “We can never be as good as the original?” Don’t you want to come out and say, “They’re gonna eat our dust?”
CARELL: Never. I’ve never felt that way. I feel very much the same about the original Get Smart as I did about the original Office. It’s not about trying to be better than the original. We’re just taking the premise and the basic tenets of these characters and reapplying it to a movie genre.
PLAYBOY: But why bother? If the original was so good, why do a remake at all?
CARELL: I’ll admit, I’ve struggled with that question. You want to make something that isn’t just an impersonation or a copy, because if that’s the point, why even do it? The original stands alone. The challenge is to take elements of that original and re-explore it in a new context. The most difficult part, for me, was incorporating some of those famous Maxwell Smart sayings. “Would you believe” and “Missed it by that much” and “Sorry about that, chief.” All of those lines are so ingrained, and there’s a delivery behind them that we’re all very familiar with. So I wanted to pay homage to them without necessarily changing it just for the sake of changing it. It’s a bit daunting.
PLAYBOY: Some fans of the original show are already crying foul, just like they did with The Office. At this point in your career, do you worry about the expectations of others?
CARELL: Just before The Office came out, most critics were dubious about our chances of succeeding. There was almost an animosity for the show because the BBC version was so beloved and Ricky Gervais was so brilliant. So in our minds, we realized that there was no way to win that battle. There was nothing we could do as a cast or as writers or producers to dispel people’s preconceived notions. We just had to put it out of our minds and do the best job we could.
PLAYBOY: Is there a freedom in knowing that everybody expects you to fail?
CARELL: There’s a huge freedom. We knew that if our version just didn’t suck, people would be amazed.
PLAYBOY: After four seasons, do you feel like you’ve finally gotten out from under the shadow of the original?
CARELL: I never thought about it like that. There was never a point where I thought, “Finally! Now we’re doing our own thing and nobody will ever compare us to the BBC Office ever again.” It’s just not something that was in my head. I don’t think you can go into a project thinking that you’re going to create a masterpiece or a classic that will live on forever. You just do your best and hope that somebody else will find it funny or entertaining. You can’t have thoughts like, “What if we don’t become part of the comedy canon? What if the entire world doesn’t love and respect me?” Because you can’t control that.
PLAYBOY: Your dad has said that it’s too difficult for him to watch The Office because Michael does such embarrassing things. Does he still feel that way?
CARELL: Not anymore. At first it was probably a little difficult for him to watch his son make such a complete ass out of himself week in and week out. But now, he has come to accept the fact that I am, if fact, an ass. He has come to terms with that, and now he fully accepts me and my assiness.
PLAYBOY: Joking aside, sometimes the show can be difficult to watch. Michael does things that are just cringe-worthy.
CARELL: Yes, Michael is a man without an ounce of self-perception. He doesn’t understand how others view him. He has an enormous emotional blind spot. I’ve heard that the rule of thumb is this: If you don’t know a Michael Scott, then you are Michael Scott.
PLAYBOY: Series creator Greg Daniels said that Michael behaves like he thinks Jennifer Aniston might be watching. Do you play Michael with that in mind? Are you envisioning Aniston?
CARELL: (Laughs.) Really? I’ve never heard that. Yeah, that sounds about right. I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael is imagining Jennifer Aniston. As for me personally, I usually think about Morley Safer. And no, I don’t want to talk about it.
PLAYBOY: What’s at the core of why Michael behaves the way he does? Does he crave the spotlight?
CARELL: Well sure. But everyone wants that moment to shine. That’s a very human quality. Even the most reserved and shy people love the spotlight every once in a while. You know what I liken it to? On the game show Deal or No Deal, when the contestants are given the choice of walking home with $300,000 or possibly getting $375,000, I believe part of the reason they stay is that they’re the star. They’re in the limelight. It’s not even about the money at that point. I was watching an episode a few weeks ago and one of the contestants said something I thought was very telling. She was offered a pretty good deal, and she said, “I don’t want to leave.” It wasn’t about the cash for her anymore. It was about having everyone in the audience cheering for her. She was the center of attention. That’s a very powerful thing. And it’s the same for Michael. He is the focus of this documentary. He has camera crews following him around all day. He is embracing it and trying to make the most of it and it gives him a sense of importance that he would not otherwise have. It’s kind of the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to him. Once it’s over, he’ll have a very tough time navigating through life.
PLAYBOY: Michael had made frequent references to (office secretary) Pam’s boobs, from reminding her about the dangers of breast cancer to encouraging her to show more cleavage. Does he have a secret crush on Pam?
CARELL: Are you just asking me about boobs because it’s Playboy?
PLAYBOY: Yes, we’re contractually obligated to bring up breasts at least once per interview.
CARELL: Let me think. (Long pause.) Wow, this is embarrassing. I can’t think of a single boob joke.
PB: You do realize that this interview might not make it into the magazine now.
CARELL: I know, I know, I feel terrible. I’m sure that Michael Scott knows a bunch of really luridly descriptive boob jokes, but they’re all very, very bad, and I wouldn’t want to repeat any of them here.
PLAYBOY: Is it cathartic to play Michael Scott? Is there anything of you in his personality?
CARELL: There’s a part of you in anything you play. What those things could be, I have no idea. He probably represents aspects of people I know, and maybe certain aspects of who I am, and – oh god, I have to stop myself. I sound so pretentious and dull. I hate it when actors talk about their process. I just can’t do it.
PLAYBOY: Because you think it’s boring, or you don’t want to give away too many secrets?
CARELL: Trust me, I don’t have any secrets. And even if I did, to dissect what went into making something, it sort of ruins it. I want to watch a movie or a TV show and just enjoy it for what it is. I don’t want to know what they were thinking when they made it. I don’t want to hear about their impetus for creating something.
PLAYBOY: Is it like hearing a musician explain what a song is really about?
CARELL: Yeah, that’s it exactly. It can alter your perception of what it meant to you. You might love a certain song because you have your own interpretation of what it means, but then you read an interview with the songwriter and he says, “Oh, I was drugged up when I wrote it and it was just a bunch of gibberish,” and that kind of ruins it. Or at least it does for me. I’m very protective in that way. I don’t want to know too much. If you’re an actor doing a play, you don’t walk out into the lobby before the show and talk with the audience, because that would break the illusion. And that’s really all we’re doing. We’re creating illusions. It’s just fantasy.
PLAYBOY: Growing up, were you the funny one in your family?
CARELL: Not really, no. We weren’t a jokey family. I mean, we could all be funny in our own ways, but we weren’t a laugh riot around the dinner table. My brothers and I had a daily ritual of watching the Three Stooges when we got home from school. It was one thing that bridged our ages and our different personalities. For some reason, we all thought that the Stooges were hysterical. Apparently we bonded over eye-pokes and smashed fingers.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever dream about becoming a big comedy star someday?
CARELL: Not at all. I never watched Saturday Night Live and said to myself, “That’s what I’m going to do.” Maybe in the back of my mind, I might’ve fantasized about it. But it’s like having dreams of going to the moon. You don’t wake up and think, “Yeah, that could totally happen.” I don’t know if I was lacking self-confidence or what it was, but I just never allowed myself to dream of something like that happening to me.
PLAYBOY: When did that change?
CARELL: I honestly don’t know. Even in college, performing was just an extracurricular activity. I had no intent on becoming a professional actor. I didn’t think of it as a viable career. To go to your parents and say, “I’m going to be an actor,” that just seemed so weird and nebulous. At least to me, it didn’t seem like a legitimate option. It’d be like saying you wanted to be an astronaut or a cowboy. Those are just fantasies. They don’t mean anything. There was a real disconnect between what I enjoyed and what I ultimately thought I would end up doing with my life.
PLAYBOY: Ironically, it was your parents who encouraged you to become an actor, isn’t that right?
CARELL: Yeah, that’s basically what happened. I was going to be a lawyer, which I thought was the right thing to do, or at least the right thing for my parents. It was the most responsible thing, the most practical thing.
PLAYBOY: You never thought about what might make you happy?
CARELL: That was never a part of the equation. I knew I could become an attorney and I might be good at it, but there was never a question in my mind about whether I would enjoy it. Of course I wouldn’t enjoy it. But enjoyment and a career, those two things seemed mutually exclusive. It was really a practicality issue. And becoming an actor didn’t feel practical or realistic. It took my parents to take me out of that pragmatic way of thinking. They absolutely gave me permission.
PLAYBOY: Do you remember your first paying job as an actor, the first time you realized you could do this and it might actually work?
CARELL: Those are not one and the same. It took a lot of time before I thought… actually, I can’t even say that I’m a hundred percent convinced now that it’s going to work. My first paying job was a play called “Charlie’s Aunt” in Chicago at Pegasus Players. It wasn’t enough to live on, by any stretch of the imagination. But it was a paycheck. It was the first paycheck I’d ever received. Before that, I’d done a little summer stock, but that was like going to summer camp. This was the first time I’d made a dime for performing, and it was exciting, but I didn’t for a second think, “I’m off and running now. My tough days are long behind me.”
PLAYBOY: Your first screen role was in the Jim Belushi comedy Curly Sue. Although you didn’t have any dialogue, did it feel at the time like it might be your big break?
CARELL: Absolutely. It’s kinda silly to look back on it now. I spent three days on the set, and all I did was give Jim Belushi an askance look. That was it. But it was a huge deal for me to get a walk-on part in a movie. When it opened, I took all my friends to the theater with me. My scene was in the first forty-five seconds, and after it was over my friends stood up and walked out. I’m sure the rest of Curly Sue is great, but they didn’t want to sit through an hour-and-a-half movie about an adorable moppet.
PLAYBOY: When Stephen Colbert recommended you for The Daily Show, did you have any ambitions towards becoming a fake news reporter?
CARELL: It was a complete surprise. I was called out of the blue by an executive producer. That was just Colbert being a friend. I owe him for that. I was out in Los Angeles, doing some commercial work, but nothing of great consequence. After they’d offered me a job as a Daily Show correspondent, my agent at the time was very much on the fence, because it required me to relocate to New York. At that time, The Daily Show wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It was a very low profile cable show.
PLAYBOY: Jon Stewart has joked that he didn’t trust your abilities in the beginning.
CARELL: I know. He’s a real bastard for saying that. And yet, I respect him for doing so.
PLAYBOY: How long did it take before you felt like you’d proved yourself?
CARELL: Oh, right away. My only real audition was my first field piece. As I recall, it was about a guy who ran a Venom Research Facility in the middle of Nebraska. That essentially meant that he lived in a double-wide trailer full of poisonous snakes. He was also an Elvis impersonator for no apparent reason. This poor man had been bitten by snakes so many times, the nearest hospital refused to send an ambulance all the way out to his home. Instead, they would just meet him at a half-way point. He was a sweet guy, and I hope he’s still with us.
PLAYBOY: As a correspondent, did you play a character or just a version of yourself?
CARELL: It was definitely a character. In the same way that Stephen plays an arch-conservative, all of the correspondents take on a slightly different persona.
PLAYBOY: So how would you describe the “Steve Carell” of The Daily Show?
CARELL: I always thought of him as someone who had been a network anchor but had since been demoted to working on a Comedy Central news show. He had a bad attitude about where he should be as opposed to where he was. It was an unspoken backstory, obviously.
PLAYBOY: How long did it take before you felt like you hit your stride on The Daily Show?
CARELL: There was never time to think about that sort of thing. Everything moved so quickly, and the pieces were so disposable. As soon as we finished one show, we had to start thinking about the next day. You couldn’t pause to pat yourself on the back if something worked or beat yourself up if something tanked. It just kept moving along. Which was part of the joy of doing that show. There was an enormous freedom to fail.
PLAYBOY: You did a lot of Daily Show segments dealing with weight loss, like “Slimming Down with Steve” and “Produce Pete.” Why the obsession with dropping the pounds?
CARELL: That was mostly a parody of all those celebrity weight-loss spectacles. Around the time I started doing “Slimming Down With Steve,” Starr Jones was involved in a very public diet, which I thought was just absurd. I think celebrities like to announce their intentions as a way to shame themselves into losing weight. It’s a motivational thing. If enough people are watching, then somehow they’ll actually be able to do it. It’s a very self-serving notion. So that’s what I tried to do. I was the guy who made his weight-loss everybody’s business, and of course I made all of the wrong choices. My idea of a diet couldn’t have been more ill-advised.
PLAYBOY: At least during your first few years as a correspondent, The Daily Show wasn’t yet the satiric juggernaut it is today.
CARELL: That’s true. The only people who recognized us were Starbucks baristas. For some reason, our fan base was people who brewed coffee professionally.
PLAYBOY: Was that frustrating, or did you prefer the relative obscurity?
CARELL: Oh, we never cared about being famous. It was great, because we could get away with anything. Just after I was hired, we covered a presidential debate in New Hampshire. No one knew who we were, what The Daily Show was, nothing. We were just thrown into the press corps, with actual press credentials, and we had no idea what we were doing. We decided that we would ask the candidates questions from a stack of Trivial Pursuit game cards that we’d brought with us. I remember Mo Rocca asked John McCain who was Icelands’ most famous female pop singer, and without missing a beat he replied, “Bjork”. God, we had fun.
PLAYBOY: You retired from The Daily Show just as it was gaining credibility. Do you have any regrets about leaving?
CARELL: Actually, The Daily Show gained credibility because I left. The only bright side of leaving was that I just hated everyone involved with the show. Stephen Colbert, in particular. He seems to be very intelligent on TV, but trust me, it’s all smoke and mirrors. Everything is written for him. The scripts need to be spelled out phonetically for him. He can hardly spell his own name. I just got tired of carrying him. He has no idea what he’s talking about. He can hardly spell his own name.
PLAYBOY: You’re kidding, of course.
CARELL: Maaaaaaybe. (Laughs.) Yes, Stephen and I are old friends. He is a lovely lovely human being. I also enjoy his ice cream flavor.
PLAYBOY: You worked with him long before The Daily Show, right? At The Second City Theater in Chicago?
CARELL: That’s right. We met at The Second City. He was my understudy for the mainstage show. There was a scene where I play the baritone horn, and he actually learned how to play it in just a week’s time. For somebody who had never played a brass instrument before, that’s pretty impressive.
PLAYBOY: You performed on the same stage with Colbert and Amy Sedaris. What’s your favorite memory from that time?
CARELL: Weirdly, I don’t remember much of what we did onstage. We had the most fun before the shows, back in the dressing rooms. When I worked there, they were renovating Piper’s Alley, the mall behind Second City, and all of those rats that had lived there for forty years were suddenly backstage and onstage. So most of our time backstage involved running away from the rats. I remember one night the backstage area smelled a bit more foul than usual. During the intermission, we figured out that the odor was emanating from behind the couch, so we moved it and discovered two rats that had been caught on a glue trap. Actually, it was more like one and a half rats. The bigger one had gotten hungry and had started to eat the other.
PLAYBOY: That’s your fondest memory? Cannibalistic rats?
CARELL: Well, maybe it wasn’t fond. But I learned a lot about how the entertainment industry works.
PLAYBOY: You played a wide range of characters at Second City, including a surprisingly kind-hearted serial killer. What inspired you to find the softer, gentler side of sociopaths?
CARELL: I don’t know. I wrote that scene with Amy Sedaris, and we thought it’d be fun to make audiences laugh and feel a little uncomfortable at the same time. She played a woman who runs into my character in the laundry room of our apartment complex, and when she finds out that I’m a serial killer, she teases me because I won’t tell her exactly how I murder people. She says… aw, I can’t remember the line.
PLAYBOY: “I’m not going to steal your idea.”
CARELL: (Laughs.) Yeah, that was it. It was funny and sweet, but it was also a little disturbing. It’s a scene with a lot of conflicting emotions. And I guess, in general, I’m just fascinated by that gray area. I like characters that can’t be easily defined. You don’t know whether you should like them or hate them. Because I think that’s true in life. People aren’t always exactly what they seem. They’re complicated. They’re a big mess of conflicting emotions and beliefs and perceptions. I don’t think people are fundamentally good or bad. There are so many different shades of gray.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you come up with the idea for The 40 Year Old Virgin at Second City?
CARELL: Not really. I mean, I did improvise something at Second City that was essentially the bare bones of what would become The 40 Year Old Virgin. We tried it a few times during an improv set, but it never made it into a show. We never figured out how to tell that story. It was basically just a bunch of guys sitting around, regaling each other with these tales of sexual conquest, and there’s one guy who clearly can’t keep up. It eventually becomes obvious that he’s never had any kind of serious encounter with a woman. He says something like, “You know how when you touch a woman’s breast, it feels like a big bag of sand?” The harder he tries to tell his own invented tale, the deeper he gets, and the more he indicts himself.
PLAYBOY: That’s what eventually became the poker scene in 40 Year Old Virgin, right?
CARELL: That’s right. When I ran into Judd on the Anchorman set, he asked if I had any ideas for a movie and I told him, well, basically what I told you just now. He really liked the “big bag of sand” line. He said, “I could walk into a studio right now and sell this based on that line alone.”
PLAYBOY: The 40 Year Old Virgin could’ve easily been another forgettable, raunchy sex comedy. When you and Judd were writing it, did you worry that it might be too lowbrow?
CARELL: We didn’t censor ourselves in any way. We weren’t making it for a demographic. We just wanted to make something that we thought was funny. We wanted to tell a very human story about a guy who just sort of slipped through the cracks.
PLAYBOY: Were there any battles with the studio for creative control?
CARELL: A little, but nothing major. We did some test screenings, and we didn’t always see eye to eye with the studio. There’s only so much you can test, so much you can gauge by formulas. I believe if you try to tailor a movie specifically to people’s wants or desires, then you’re just taking a survey.
PLAYBOY: Did you and Judd fight to save anything in the film?
CARELL: Well, there were some concerns about the chest-waxing scene.
PLAYBOY: The studio wanted to cut it?
CARELL: Not cut it but edit it down. They thought it dragged on for a little too long. But Judd and I figured that the audience would ultimately enjoy the prolonged, agonizing process.
PLAYBOY: Your agony during that chest-waxing has become part of comedy lore. Did you fake any of your reaction?
CARELL: Not at all. It was all real pain. A lot of people still don’t think it was real and assume it was just a special effect. People on the crew, especially women who’d had some waxing done, came over to me and asked, “Do you want to take some ibuprofen, or maybe trim down your hair a little so it doesn’t hurt as much?” I thought, no, no, it has to hurt. It has to be real. I did not heed their advice, and I was sorely mistaken.
PLAYBOY: Why is watching somebody in pain so inherently funny?
CARELL: In my opinion, what makes that scene funny has nothing to do with me. It’s the other three guys. Paul (Rudd), Seth (Rogen) and Romany (Malco) were so clearly uncomfortable with what they were seeing, and the comedy came out of their reactions. Romany got so disturbed that he actually had to leave the set. It was their sheer horror and disgust tempered with the glee of watching another man in non-life threatening pain. That’ll always be the perfect recipe for hilarity.
PLAYBOY: You may be the world’s first method comedy actor.
CARELL: I’ll take that as a compliment, but I don’t necessarily think it’s true. I can think of a bunch of comics who have endured various levels of discomfort. Look at somebody like Will Ferrell. He’ll do almost anything, sometimes at the expense of his physical well-being. And then there are guys like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, who wouldn’t think twice about putting their bodies in harm’s way for the sake of a gag. Harold Lloyd lost a couple of fingers in search of laughs. I didn’t even lose a nipple.
PLAYBOY: How did you survive your chest-waxing without losing a nipple?
CARELL: I was very lucky. At one point they were putting wax on my nipple without any oil, which is what you’re supposed to use to protect the nipple from actually being detached. My waxer wasn’t a professional. She was just an actress who said she had some experience with waxing, but obviously she didn’t. I came dangerously close to becoming… what would you call it? I’m sure this magazine has a word for it. What would you call somebody who just has one nipple?
PLAYBOY: A mono-nipple?
CARELL: Yeah, something like that. Mono-niplistic?
PLAYBOY: What’s your chest-hair situation these days? Are you keeping it cleanly shorn?
CARELL: Not a chance. I’ll never endure that again. And I don’t think Nancy (Walls, my wife) would like it much either. When I came home after the shoot and she saw my chest, she was horrified. She thought my chest was smiling at her. She does not care for the Man O’Latern.
PLAYBOY: Your wife Nancy is also a comedian, formerly of Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. What’s the secret to a successful marriage between two comics?
CARELL: My wife probably makes me laugh harder than anyone else. We share the same sense of humor. When we read or watch something funny, we’ll laugh at all the same parts. She’s pretty easy on the eyes as well. I married up, that’s for sure. We have a pretty normal life together. We have two kids, we eat Sloppy Joes once a week, and take trips to the mall and the zoo. It’s a happy house, but certainly not a zany, crazy, laugh-a-minute kind of existence. If anything, it’s a diaper-changing, kid-chasing madhouse. When I’m not working, I’m up to my elbows in baby poop.
PLAYBOY: In your Golden Globe acceptance speech in 2006, which you claimed was written by Nancy, you thanked her for putting her career on hold and enduring a painful labor. Was she really responsible for that speech?
CARELL: We came up with the idea together. Well, actually, I guess it was mostly her idea. I didn’t think I had any chance of winning, but on the off-chance that I did, I thought I should have something in my back pocket. I talked to Nancy about it and she said, “You should just thank me. Forget everybody else. Just thank your wife.” And then it sort of snowballed from there.
PLAYBOY: You haven’t won any acting awards since, but almost every movie you’ve appeared in over the last few years has been huge hit. Are you feeling your star power yet?
CARELL: I think that’s a dangerous way to think about yourself. If you start feeling your power, or even thinking that you have any power at all, you run the risk of turning into a huge dick.
PLAYBOY: But you do have power now. You are aware of that, aren’t you?
CARELL: (Scrunches up his face.) I really don’t think so.
PLAYBOY: You don’t like the ides of being a Hollywood celebrity with clout?
CARELL: In my mind, it intimates that you are somehow changing, that you’re not the same person you were before. I don’t feel any differently or assume anything now that I didn’t assume before. I don’t want to be some asshole who expects the world to bend to his will just because he’s sold a few tickets at the multiplex. That being said, however, I do love prostitutes.
PLAYBOY: You did flex some of that star power during the writers strike. You were one of the first marquee-name actors who refused to cross the picket line. Was that frightening?
CARELL: Why would it be frightening?
PLAYBOY: A lot of people, even actors, lost their jobs during the strike.
CARELL: Yeah, it was a little scary. But I just did what I thought was the right thing to do. It gave me a chance to grow a beard for a while, which is always fun.
PLAYBOY: According to some rumors, you called NBC and told them you couldn’t show up for work because you had a “case of gigantic balls.” Please tell us that really happened.
CARELL: That was attributed to me, but I never said it. I wish I had said it, but it’s far too clever for me to have come up with on my own.
PLAYBOY: The real question is, do you have gigantic balls?
CARELL: Not in terms of personal courage, but is sheer physical volume, yes.
PLAYBOY: What’s the worst idea for a movie that’s ever been pitched to you?
CARELL: The strangest idea was a movie about a two year-old boy living within the body of a middle-aged man. So the main character couldn’t really speak, other than some baby talk and one word here and there. He had lines like, “Poopie diaper.” That was the basis of his character.
PLAYBOY: You didn’t read the script and think, “This is comedy gold?”
CARELL: Not really, no. There’ve been a lot of body-switching movies that’ve been successful. Freaky Friday and Big and things like that. But I think the writer was pushing the concept a little too far. I don’t know how entertaining it would be to watch a 40 year-old man saying “goo goo ga ga” for an hour and a half. It just sounds hellish. It would’ve been a tough sell.
PLAYBOY: You think so? It’s not such a stretch from your functionally retarded weatherman, Brick Tamland, in Anchorman.
CARELL: (Laughs.) That’s true. Brick did have the mind of a child.
PLAYBOY: You’re seriously telling us that a baby-talking Steve Carell movie wouldn’t be a blockbuster?
CARELL: You may be right. “Steve Carell in GOO GOO GA GA” could’ve been an instant classic.
PLAYBOY: A few years ago, you said that your goal was to “become completely overexposed in the next nine months, and then sort of disappear in a fiery wreck of a career.” That didn’t so much work out for you, did it?
CARELL: Maybe I undershot it by saying nine months. But I’m still holding out for my eventual career demise. Obviously I was saying that in jest, but there’s an element of it that’s kind of based in truth. I want to enjoy every second of my success and have fun with it and never take it for granted. But at the same time, I don’t want to worry too much about it ending or not working out.
PLAYBOY: But why jokingly predict the fiery wreck of your career? Is it a defense mechanism?
CARELL: It’s absolutely a defense mechanism. I know that’s what it is, because I’m naturally a glass-half-empty kinda person. Which is sorta sad in a way, too. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it protects me from disappointment. The irony is, there’s no way to truly protect yourself from being disappointed. No matter what you do, you’re going to be disappointed.
PLAYBOY: That’s a pretty grim personal philosophy. Does that come from years of struggling as an actor?
CARELL: It does. I knew when I got into acting that I was going to be disappointed most of the time. I would be rejected more than accepted, and I think that’s generally the case. That’s how the percentages go. So early on, I decided that I’ll be happy with whatever success I could get but I’d take nothing for granted. I just had to acknowledge going in that there would probably be more failure than success. Even now, with whatever success I’ve apparently had, I don’t buy into it. I’m happy about it, but I don’t believe in it.
PLAYBOY: Why don’t you believe it?
CARELL: It just seems so transient. It’s something that just passes through you, but you can’t hold on to it. I don’t for a second think that my success will continue. If it does, fantastic. But if it doesn’t, I want to be totally prepared and not let it shock me. I still have a contingency plan. If this acting thing doesn’t pan out, I know what I’ll do.
PLAYBOY: And what’s that?
CARELL: I’d teach history at a prep school. And maybe coach a sport. That’s always been my backup plan.
PLAYBOY: You wouldn’t miss all the attention?
CARELL: I worry more about my family than my acting career. I’d be more concerned about providing some kind of security for them than whether my face is up on some billboard or my TV show has the biggest ratings. If I didn’t have a career anymore, that’d just mean I’d get to spend more time with them. If it all ends tomorrow, I have the best possible life in the world.
PLAYBOY: Is there any comic’s career that you envy or would like to emulate?
CARELL: I certainly admire a lot of people’s careers. I love guys like Steve Martin and Alan Arkin, but I’d never compare my career with theirs. I can’t even talk about myself and Alan Arkin in the same sentence without feeling kinda foolish. I won’t do that. I can’t. I just hold Alan and Steve in such high regard. I love their movies and I’m constantly blown away by what they’ve accomplished. But in terms of wanting to use their career as a template for my own, that seems pointless to me. I can’t orchestrate my career like that. I’m just not that smart. I’m still surprised that any of this happened to me.
PLAYBOY: Well, what did you expect?
CARELL: I didn’t expect anything. I just hoped that I would be able to make a living, and support my family and afford college for my kids and a decent place to live. But aside from that, I didn’t have any sort of preconceived notion about any of this.
PLAYBOY: The way you talk about it, you sound like a working class actor. You just go to your job in the morning and put in your hours.
CARELL: Because that’s what it is. It’s just a job. That’s part of the reason why I moved to Chicago when I was starting my career. I just wanted to work. New York was way too competitive and too big a pond, as was Los Angeles. I figured that in Chicago, I might not make any money, but at least I’d be get some experience and learn something. It wasn’t about being discovered or showcasing myself or trying to get somebody to notice me. I just wanted to learn how to do it, and maybe improve. I don’t know if that’s a work ethic necessarily. I was just trying to be a realist about it.
PLAYBOY: Even with everything that’s happened to you, you’re still convinced that the odds are against you?
CARELL: That’s because they are. It’s a one in a million shot that anybody has even a little success. It’s so much based on luck and timing. I know a lot of incredibly talented people who aren’t working right now. There’s no barometer for how something will turn out. You just sort of have to leave it up to fate. You can’t fight it, because if you do, you’ll end up being frustrated and angry and bitter.
PLAYBOY: When you’re out in public, do people expect you to be funny or “on” all the time?
CARELL: No. And I hope you haven’t expected that, because I clearly have not made this a very amusing interview. I can only imagine what people are gonna think when they read this. “Woooow, that guy is dull. He must’ve been a gem to hang out with.” As you can probably tell, I’m not someone who tends to be “on.” I don’t perform. Well frankly, I’m just not that funny. (Laughs.) I don’t have much to say, and what I do say is ineloquent.
PLAYBOY: Your humbleness does seem sincere.
CARELL: Ah, then you have fallen into my web of deceit and manipulation.
PLAYBOY: Marlon Brando didn’t wear pants while shooting his last film. Are you at a point in your career where you could get away with something like that?
CARELL: I see what you’re doing here, and it’s not going to work. As this interview is clearly lacking in any sort of levity, you’re trying to get me to say something even slightly humorous so your readers aren’t disappointed. Let me help you out. Readers, please stop reading this interview immediately. There’s nothing to see here. Please move along, thanks for your time, off you go. “Wow, could Steve go into a little more depth about Get Smart? I really want to hear about all of his character development to play Maxwell Smart.”
PLAYBOY: Are you declining to answer the question?
CARELL: What was it again? Do I put oatmeal in my underwear while shooting a movie? You know, one of my acting teachers in college told me about this trick. He said you should put things like oatmeal in your underwear before a performance, because it will… wow, you know, I don’t really remember what the hell his reasoning was anymore. I think it was something about taking yourself out of your comfort zone and giving your mind something to occupy itself so you wouldn’t overthink a character.
PLAYBOY: That sounds like good advice. Have you ever tried it?
CARELL: No, I have never put oatmeal in my underwear.
PLAYBOY: That would be a great anecdote, though.
CARELL: If you’d like to claim that I do that, by all means, go ahead. You certainly have my permission to write that I haven’t done a single episode of The Office without at least a few cups of fresh, warm oatmeal in my underwear. I’m sure the tabloids will pick up that story and run with it.
PLAYBOY: You have a reputation for being a sweet and respectful guy. We’re going to give you a chance to say something mean-spirited.
CARELL: About who?
PLAYBOY: About anybody you want. Surprise us and say something horrible and callous and unreasonably cruel.
CARELL: Hmmm. Let’s see. One horribly negative awful thing? (Long pause.) I’m trying to come up with something. It’s tough. (Another long pause.) Does it have to be a person, or can it be an animal or object?
PLAYBOY: Whatever you want. Why in the world is this so difficult for you?
CARELL: I don’t know. I’m thinking, I’m thinking. (Another long pause.) Okay, I’ll go so far as to say this. Sometimes, in the summer, mosquitoes can get sort of annoying.
PLAYBOY: Wow. That’s who you’re gunning for? Mosquitoes?
CARELL: I hope I don’t offend anyone in the mosquito lobby, or mosquito tolerance groups, but it needs to be said. I want to put a message out there that mosquitoes can be annoying. I don’t like them. I’ll even push this a little further and say I do not like mosquitoes.
PLAYBOY: We can’t help but notice a slight hesitation in your voice.
CARELL: Well, my hesitation is that I know mosquitoes are just doing what they do naturally, and it’s no fault of their own. I know my blood is like nectar to them. I can’t fault the mosquito, but at the same time, I can’t help but dislike them. Screw it, I’m just going to come out and say it: mosquitoes are assholes.
PLAYBOY: We’re proud of you, Steve. We didn’t know you had it in you.
CARELL: (Laughs.) I already feel kinda guilty. Is it too late to take it back?
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June 2008 issue of Playboy magazine.)