Steve Carell gets serious with Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. Picture: PA

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. Picture: PA

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I DIDN’T see you.” That is what Steve Carell’s wife said after she’d watched his now Golden Globe-nominated performance in Foxcatcher. Frankly, she couldn’t have given him a bigger compliment.

Based on true events, Foxcatcher is the story of the deadly triangle between John du Pont, played by Carell, an odd and reclusive multi-millionaire who becomes fixated on the sport of American wrestling and in particular an Olympic champion, Mark Schulz (Channing Tatum), and his brother and coach, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). As du Pont insinuates himself into the Schulzes lives and the sport of wrestling, the story unfolds in a way which is by turns bizarre and tragic. Carell’s performance, delivered by way of a giant prosthetic nose, decidedly unappealing false teeth and a strange, halting speech pattern, is mesmeric. And more than a little bit creepy.

Steve Carell attends the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Festival Awards Gala. Picture: Getty

Steve Carell attends the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Festival Awards Gala. Picture: Getty

“My wife was the best person to have said what she did because she knows me better than anyone,” Carell says. “And I guess it’s a good thing too because that’s not who I want to be around the house. If she saw elements of that person sleeping in bed next to her, we might have a problem.”

Family life

Carell has been married to his wife, Nancy Walls, also an actor, for nearly 20 years. They have two children, Elizabeth, 13, and John, 10. The family live in Los Angeles and are, by all accounts, unusually for Hollywood, absolutely, resolutely, triumphantly ordinary. And that’s true for Carell too.

Carell isn’t difficult to interview. He’s friendly, polite, funny and smart. But he’s extremely modest and he’s not a fan of introspection – at least not while sitting with someone armed with a recording device. He doesn’t want to sound pretentious or self-important. “My biggest fear doing all this press...,” he says, then changes his mind. “It’s hard for me to talk about acting because as soon as I hear myself utter a word it sounds like I’m just so full of myself.” He looks a tiny bit apologetic. “That’s a worry.”

Foxcatcher

The director of Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller, has spoken of his sense that Carell holds something back, that there’s always a part of him that’s reserved, not quite available. Meryl Streep has said something similar. Carell looks embarrassed when I mention it. “You’re starting in a very lofty place,” he says, shifting in his seat. “It is dangerous.” Does that description ring true to him? “There’s not a conscious sense of reserve,” he says, then laughs. “I’m not consciously trying to be an enigma.”

Carell is best known for his comedic roles, starring as the eponymous 40-Year-Old Virgin (which he co-wrote), his five-year stint on The Daily Show and as the hapless Michael Scott, David Brent’s American counterpart in the US version of The Office.

What makes Carell different to not only Ricky Gervais, but plenty of others, is that he manages to be extremely funny without ever being cruel to the characters he plays or to anyone else. There is always a send up, but it’s not at anyone’s expense, so even when his characters are being outrageous, you still kind of like them. You like Carell. You like him when he is wearing a striped blazer and a straw boater and singing Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing as part of a barbershop quintet as he did on The Tonight Show a couple of weeks ago.

A very likeable man

Carell is simply a very likeable man. John du Pont was the opposite. Arrogant, odd, socially inept, both physically and psychologically, he was a man who repelled people and at his core he was dangerous. Such is the calibre of Carell’s performance much of the discussion about Foxcatcher has focused on his disappearing act and therefore his transition from comedic actor to serious dramatic actor.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that Brick Tamland, Carell’s weatherman creation in the Anchorman movies is in any way comparable to a murderous, egomaniacal millionaire, but I do wonder if I’ve been watching the same actor that is being discussed in such shocked tones.

Acting serious

Has Carell’s poignant performance as the suicidal gay Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine been forgotten? Or his turn as the therapist trying to put the spark back into the marriage of Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep in Hope Springs? Or even his portrayal of the lovelorn divorced dad in Crazy Stupid Love, sneaking back to the house he’s left to water the lawn in the middle of the night. Carell’s performance in Foxcatcher is impressive, but it’s no shock.

“I didn’t get into acting as a comedian,” he says with a tone that suggests a certain bemusement at the discussion which has been taking place since Foxcatcher premiered at Cannes. “I was never a comedian. I became more well known as a comedic actor by virtue of the parts I got, but I didn’t approach acting with that in mind.”

Carell is the youngest of four boys, born to Edwin, an engineer, and Harriet, a psychiatric nurse. He is the family’s only performer. His brothers have solidly middle class professions – an architect, an engineer and a landscape gardener. Carell was expected to become a lawyer until he hit a snag when filling in his application for law school. The question was: why do you want to be a lawyer? The answer was he had no clue. He asked his parents for help and they suggested that he list everything he liked doing and then they suggested that maybe he should give acting a go.

Early life

By the time he became a bona fide movie star, Carell was in his 40s and maybe that’s what’s been the making of him. He did all of his growing up away from Hollywood. He learned his craft at Second City in Chicago, which has produced Tina Fey and Alan Arkin, Dan Ackroyd and Mike Myers. He taught improvisation (that’s where he met his wife) and then he was in a lot of cancelled sitcoms before his friend Stephen Colbert gave him a break on The Daily Show. Some time after that came The Office and The 40-Year-Old… well, yes, we know the rest. But it’s worth bearing in mind that this career trajectory gave rise to his maxim: “I think the less you expect, the better off you’ll be.”

Carell is genuinely proud of the work he’s done in Foxcatcher and in a way that makes it easier to promote and also harder. His desire to talk about a movie that he obviously rates is real, but so is a certain pull to simply let the film speak for itself. Ask him about the Oscar buzz for his performance as du Pont, and he isn’t being coy when he says he’s not interested. “You can’t put any stock in it. It’s nice that people are talking about the film in that way but you can’t really give it too much credence.” He pauses. “I can’t.” What is certain, though, is that the experience of making Foxcatcher has had a huge impact on him. Carell says the experience of filming was, “immersive”.

“I felt like we all disappeared for a while”

“We went to Pittsburgh to film this and, without sounding too pretentious, I felt like we all disappeared for a while,” he says. “Then a few months later we all emerged from this experience together. I still talk to Channing about it, it’s very present within all of us, there was a great responsibility to all of the people involved and we all took that very seriously.”

Mark Schulz visited the set several times as did Dave Schulz’s widow, Nancy, with their children. In a way, that played a part in shaping how the atmosphere was during filming, but there was more to it, at least for Carell.

“Once all of that make-up was on, people responded and reacted differently to me on set. I didn’t think that would necessarily inform anything but it did because people wanted to be separate from me. I was off-putting.” He smiles, looking like the least off-putting person in the world. “Organically, I just stayed in character because I didn’t really have any choice because no one wanted to talk to me.”

Carell has the kind of delivery that makes you want to laugh, but he’s not joking. When he was wearing that fake nose and all that pasty make-up, the cast and crew genuinely didn’t want to be near him and although that obviously felt very odd, it was totally fitting in terms of the kind of man du Pont was.

“People didn’t gravitate to me”

“People didn’t gravitate to me,” he says. “Channing and Mark wrestled and trained together and became very close. It was unspoken, it was nothing that anyone had decided upon before we started shooting but it naturally happened on set that we went our separate ways. I’m so hesitant to talk about it because it sounds like such a pretentious, actory thing to do, but it didn’t feel that way. It wasn’t a construct, it was an off-shoot of what I looked like and where we all were. It just happened organically.”

Watching the film, which has very little dialogue for long stretches and was shot on location in snow-covered Pittsburgh and in a series of windowless training rooms, you cannot imagine it was the kind of project on which there was any kind of levity between takes.

“It was very, very sombre.”

I’d bet a fair whack that there is no blooper reel. Carell smiles. “Between takes was exactly as you’d imagine it to be,” he says. “It was very, very sombre. The real people were around and they were all so gracious to be there, to be supportive. It was generous of them and it added a weight and responsibility for us and we all just felt very committed to doing it as best as we could. And taking it seriously.”

The thread that runs through all of Carell’s performances – funny, dramatic, even when he’s waxing lyrical about his love of Taylor Swift as he did recently – is a hint of unpredictability. There is a sense that he might just kick off in some way or other at any second. In 40-Year-Old Virgin, it’s panic that lurks just beneath the surface, in Foxcatcher it’s threat. “I think from the beginning of the movie you sense a darkness,” Carell says, “and there’s something very poisonous about that world even although all these characters are trying to do the right thing. Bennett described it so well – he said he thought the story was funny until it’s not anymore and then it’s not funny at all.”

That Carell can carry this off is in no small part because it is so at odds with what we’ve seen from him before. Du Pont is a man who is morally rudderless – he can buy anything and anyone. He is at turns absurd and ruthless.

Villain

I imagine he was quite a challenge to portray sympathetically, but Carell insists he never thought of him as a villain. “You could look at him in a number of ways, I chose to look at him sympathetically. It’s always sad when someone wants something they’re just not capable of having.” Du Pont wants to be one of the guys, but he also wants to be in charge of everyone because that’s what he’s used to. He looks at Mark Schulz and imagines himself as some sort of father figure and he looks at Dave and is filled with envy. “I think it’s tragic,” Carell says. “I think it’s incredibly sad that the people who surround him are employees. It’s a scary place to be, it’s a dangerous place to be, dangerous because he needed help. He needed some sort of intervention. He needed friends who could see the signs and reach out but he didn’t have those people, he had employees who weren’t about to jeopardise their jobs. That’s so sad. I sympathise with a person like that.”

According to director Bennett Miller, Carell is “mesmerising” in the role of du Pont and the actor is similarly complimentary about Miller. “I think he’s special. Frankly, even if I hadn’t read the script I would’ve said yes because he chooses projects so wisely and is so measured and economical with his choices. I trusted Bennett. The fact that he believed that I could do this gave me confidence that I could do it. Or at least that I should try. I knew it would be challenging but when you’re with someone like that, he is someone I respect so much, that’s good enough.”

Carell’s performance is quite brilliant, but he’s helped along by others who are equal to him. Channing Tatum as the almost wordless Mark Schulz, a lump of taciturn muscle and burning need. Mark Ruffalo as his brother, Dave, decent and conflicted.

“I am amazed by the other performances,” he says, “every one of them including the woman who plays the housekeeper who answers the door. I wasn’t there that day and I didn’t know of her part until I watched the movie but it was such a specific thing, such detail.” He shakes his head.

Standing ovation

When the film premiered in Cannes it received a standing ovation. With Carell’s and Ruffalo’s Golden Globe nominations, the buzz around it grows ever louder. I wonder if it has an impact on what comes next? “What’s interesting is that even before the movie has come out I’m already being offered different types of roles. And that’s just based on talk and nothing tangible.” He laughs. “Within a month I was offered two roles that were serial killers.” I laugh. Congratulations, I say. “Thank you,” he shoots back, rolling his eyes. There was talk of a North Korea-set thriller with director Gore Verbinski, although it seems to have disappeared, having fallen victim to nervous Hollywood studio execs in the aftermath of the recent Sony hacking scandal. But there’s an eagerly awaited drama, Freeheld, alongside Julianne Moore and Ellen Page as well as his regular appearances as a funny guy on American TV. And other than that, life will go on as normal. Just as Steve Carell likes it.

• Foxcatcher (15) is in cinemas from 9 January

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