Though he developed his chops on stage, Steve Carell rose to prominence as a correspondent on The Daily Show. A breakout star, he found himself playing support in films like Bruce Almighty and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. In short order, he headlined The 40 Year Old Virgin, becoming a bankable big-screen leading man. Carell joined the ensembles of Bewitched, Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda, and Oscar fave Little Miss Sunshine, and headlined Evan Almighty and Dan in Real Life. On television, Carell scored a hit in NBC's American remake of The Office. While he continues his work as The Office's Michael Scott, he inherits the role of Maxwell Smart in the big-screen remake of Get Smart. I spoke to Carell backstage at San Francisco's WonderCon 2008.
Steve Carell: [referring to Anne Hathaway] Did she say anything good?
G: Not about you...we didn't talk about you.
SC: Alright, well, I'll just talk about her.
G: One of the greatest things about comic actors is their unique physicality and their unique vocal patterns. You were talking a little about Don Adams earlier, and how he's inimitable, and I think you are as well. Could you just talk a little bit about what you think your mannerisms are as a comic actor—
SC: Wow! You know what? As soon as you start to talk about your own mannerisms, you are screwed. Because if you are aware of your own mannerisms, or beyond that even what makes any one thing funny to people, I really ascribe to that that if you start deconstructing it too much, it is immediately not funny. As far as overthinking it or trying to figure out some formula, now you're just—you know, it's math. It's not anything organic.
G: So that said, what did you want to absorb or hold at bay from Don Adams' work?
SC: Huh. That's an interesting way to put it. You know what? I wanted to, in terms of absorbing or trying to gain an essence of character, it's sort of what I tried to do with The Office. Because Ricky Gervais—his character was so well defined, and very specific. And I didn't want to tread his path at all. And Don—again, this really iconic character. You want to glean some sort of essence of that character without doing an impersonation.
SC: And you want to honor it; you want to respect it. But you just don't want to do a copy of it. Or really what's the point of doing it?
G: And you have an advantage in that this is Maxwell Smart's origin story, which we've never seen before, right?
G: Can you talk a little bit about how that plays out?
SC: He starts as an analyst. He's someone who aspires to be a spy, but who is now middle-aged and has not gotten to that point. And has not been promoted. And through a series of events that you see early in the movie, he is promoted to spy and at that point is able to incorporate all these things he's been working on, all along. And the one thing that I loved about the way Don Adams portrayed Maxwell is that he's not an idiot. He's not a bumbling fool; he's actually very proficient. In a fight, he can handle himself. He can shoot a gun. He's clever. He gets out of situations—sometimes counterintuitively, but he gets out of them. And I think if there is one aspect, specifically, that I wanted to take away from the original show, it's that. It's that he's not an idiot; he's not a fool. But he's quirky; he's very earnest...
G: One of the most distinct surprises in seeing the new footage, I think, is the scale of the movie, how it really is an action comedy.
G: And that's a new arena, for you, right?
SC: Oh, it'll be my only arena from here on out!
G: Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to make an action movie?
SC: It's hell—let me tell you. Honestly, it could not have been more fun. It's something you dream about as a kid. It's literally like playing in a sandbox for several weeks. And pretending. There are parts in the movie that Annie and I are hanging off the side of buildings and rappelling underneath a plane and having a fight on top of a moving SUV that is also on fire and about to smash into a train. All of these things are a far cry from anything I've ever done before. So, yeah, I mean, as you can imagine, it's just so much fun.
G: Where was the furthest you would go beyond the point at which a stuntperson would take over? What was the most risky or dynamic thing you had to do?
SC: Probably the riskiest thing I did was being pulled behind a moving SUV down train tracks. Um, that was a little scary.
G: And then you were thinking, "Buster Keaton did this; I know I can do this."
SC: Exactly. But you know, the stunt people are so good. And they really make sure that you're safe. I never felt that my life was in peril at any point. But I think it plays as an action movie as well as a comedy, which is so cool...
G: How is the 86-99 relationship characterized in the movie?
SC: It's hot. It's really hot...
G: You were one of the most visible faces of the Writer's Strike, in part because of the nature of The Office and the writer-actors, wanting to show your support.
G: What are your feelings about how the strike was resolved?
SC: I think, like everybody else, I'm just happy it's over. The troubling thing for me, and for most people involved, was how the strike was affecting all of the other—
SC: Yeah, all of the other people in the Los Angeles area. It obviously was affecting crews and casts and production companies, but beyond that catering and restaurants—people weren't going out to eat—you know, to the real-estate market to someone who cuts hair. You know, it was affecting adversely. And I think it's just good to be back on track. I mean, that was a tough time.
G: On a more frivolous note, are you going to the Oscars?
SC: I am. I'm going tomorrow night. I'm presenting with Anne Hathaway...
G: I start jury duty on Monday, so—
G: I have to ask you, to keep it with me through the week, what's funny about jury duty?
SC: Wow. Well, I am going to write an episode, concerning jury duty. What's funny? It's very interesting. The court system works much differently than you would ever imagine. It's not Boston Legal.
SC: It's not The Practice. It's a different—it's not Law & Order.
G: It's more like the DMV, right?
SC: (Laughs.) It's more—depending on who you have as litigants and defendants and the judge—we had a real cast of characters in our courtroom. And so ultimately it was very interesting. I'm glad I did it and did my civic duty.