Steve Carell’s reprise of Gru, the bald-headed villain in Despicable Me 2, could just be a warm-up for the baddies the actor is about to unleash.
Steve Carell has, on average, one despicable thought every six months. “Yes,” he says, nodding beatifically. “Yes. That’s how pure I am.” His most recent involved parking. “There’s always that time lag when somebody sits in their car and is like: ‘Oh, I know somebody’s waiting – I think I’ll do my makeup’. Or, I think: ‘I’m going to check my phone. Because I own this spot right now’.
“There’s a weird psychology to that. And then they pull out and somebody backs in from across the other way.” He clenches his fists, eyeballs bulging at the heavens, white teeth bared. Did he kill them? “I didn’t, no. No. I meekly drove away.”
Carell has a reputation – seeded by colleagues, confirmed by press – as the nicest, most normal man in Hollywood. A man of scruples (he balked at mocking the unwitting on news revue The Daily Show), but not of smugness. Immensely successful (he was paid US$15mil/RM45mil for Crazy, Stupid, Love) but not raveningly ambitious (he quit The Office when it was still a big fat cash cow).
This is not a reputation he seems eager – or able – to debunk today. You can try, of course. He looks as if he’s having an evil thought right now, I prod at one point. “No! No! Not at all!” His face pops and crumples. “It’s just jetlag. Why would I? What?” I feel as if I’ve slapped a puppy.
And yet Carell has also just begun a six-month run of promo duties for movies in which he is, variously, an evil maniac, an absolute tool and a real-life murderer. Sure, the maniac is in a cartoon sequel, but, still, he’s got to be channelling something as Gru, bald-headed baddie extraordinaire. He is, he is. “I can relate to the way in which Gru is willing to go to great lengths to make his children happy and loved and secure and content.”
Despicable Me 2, the follow-up to the 2010 smash animation, is a Silence Of The Lambs-style story of an arch criminal employed for his insights by a federal body. This is the Anti-Villain League, which coaxes Gru from his new life of jam-making and raising the three orphan girls he adopted in the original.
That first film, he thinks, spoke to the turmoil in any new parent’s life. The sequel pushes it further. “I responded to the character in part because he’s at a career impasse. He’s trying to do what’s right for his children, but at the same time he’s losing his own identity. Parents’ lives become about their children and they lose part of themselves in the process.”
Carell has two children – Annie, 12, and Johnny, nine – with his wife, Nancy, a former Saturday Night Live player he met while teaching improvisation in Chicago, Illinois. During our conversation, he brings them up every five minutes or so. “I think at the end of my life I’m not going to think: ‘Oh, I did that TV show or that movie.’ It will really have to do with how I raised my kids.”
Their births coincided with Carell’s career jumpstart. Off the back of landing that Daily Show job in 1998, he cameoed in Bruce Almighty (2003), shone as lamp-loving weatherman Brick in Anchorman (2004). That same year he was cast in the Ricky Gervais role in the US transfer of The Office. The first series didn’t take off, but the network renewed in the hope that Carell’s first film lead would fly. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which Carell co-wrote with Judd Apatow, changed the face of comedy and made Carell famous the world over.
He then displayed dramatic muscle as a gay suicidal academic in Little Miss Sunshine, and a widower who falls for his brother’s girlfriend in Dan In Real Life, before settling into the mainstream for Get Smart, Date Night, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and Hope Springs.
Despicable Me 2 is no anomaly; in fact, its love-interest subplot means Carell again plays a man belatedly groping his way round the dating scene, fluffing his lines when he finally gets the courage to call the girl. His back catalogue is full of women chucking him in cars, of childish pleasures offering refuge from the roughhouse of romance.
What can make this odd in live action is that Carell is actually catalogue handsome, almost Jon Hamm. The schlub you love is a neat paradox to peddle, yet Carell has made a habit of it. He’s the dreamboat dressed as Everyman: flinching at Mark Wahlberg’s omnipresent pecs in Date Night; getting tutored by alpha male Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Such broad-church appeal relies on an innate niceness, bordering on the blank. His backstory is PG-rated. The youngest of four brothers, Carell was raised as a Catholic, played hockey and woodwind at school, studied history at college, nearly became a lawyer but moved to acting after his father asked what he actually enjoyed. He and Nancy own a general store near their house in Massachusetts, purchased to preserve its function as a community hub.
On Twitter (two million followers, 71 tweets), Carell scrupulously sticks to the middle of the road; today, too, he’s allergic to controversy. “Oh my gosh,” he chuckles, good-natured always, when asked about the ethics of the Anti-Villain League’s surveillance programme. “I will make no political correlation between the movie and anything.” Likewise, the minions – those jabbering slaves who coo round Gru – remind him most of the Marx brothers. “They’re vaguely familial, violent, but also benign.”
However, scratch the surface and it seems filled with hidden Dantesque depths and fallen worlds. And so it is possible to see Gru as a warm-up for the baddies Carell is about to unleash. He’s pitch-perfect insufferable as Toni Collete’s new boyfriend in coming-of-age-tale The Way, Way Back. And this winter he’ll get an Oscar push for Foxcatcher, the new film from Bennett Miller, in which he plays John DuPont, the eccentric sports enthusiast and philanthropist who shot an Olympic gold-winning wrestler in 1996, before himself dying in prison in 2010. An early still shows him rake-thin, much aged, deeply creepy. Though he concedes both DuPont and Gru requested their houses be painted black, he’s resistant to any connection. “That’s a different press junket,” he laughs, ever professional.
A month ago, Carell went on Ellen DeGeneres’s chatshow dressed as Gru: hulking torso, smooth scalp, pelican schnoz. The plan had been for her to try to get him to break character. “But I thought it would be funnier if there wasn’t a self-awareness to it. I’m never winking at the audience.”
And it is this consistency that may be key to Carell’s genius. He never, ever cracks – indeed he has said he considers doing so to be impolite. He does not blunder nor break. At the Golden Globes in 2008, the whole room fell apart as host Gervais demanded back his Emmy; all except the man himself, who stayed totally poker. And, in the flesh, Carell turns out to be one of the most wholly controlled people you’ll meet: so zen and level it can make you feel jittery by comparison.
What’s especially curious about Foxcatcher is that its conclusion is pre-cooked. “You don’t know exactly what happened and you just sort of estimate what their reasonings were and what made them up psychologically. So you just do your best.” He smiles, warm and poised. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
He does know. Everybody knows. Carell is the nicest, most normal guy in Hollywood. His playing an actual killer will be absolutely terrifying. – Guardian News & Media