Whatever you imagine a funnyman to look like, Steve Carell isn’t it. If you were asked to scour the room for today’s most successful comic actor in Hollywood, the guy in the corner, sipping mineral water and wearing a green tweed blazer and horn-rimmed glasses, is the last guy you would pick out.
Yet this is the man at the centre of some of the biggest American comedies of the last decade. On TV, he starred in the US version of The Office; at the cinema he’s appeared in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Anchorman and Little Miss Sunshine, and is the voice of Gru in Despicable Me. His fame rests on his gift for splitting an audience’s sides with only a passing remark. And yet, in person, you will wait in vain for a wisecrack.
“I’m shy in social situations,” he says. “I tend to be the person who listens to the joke, not the one telling it. I’m a bit…” he pauses a second in search of the right word, “…timid. But I don’t think I’m dull.”
He isn’t, though to anyone expecting zaniness, his wry intelligence might prove a disappointment. “I know it’s a strange thing to admit, based on what I do, but I don’t like to be the centre of attention.” His latest film won’t help him there. Dark and brilliantly queasy, Foxcatcher, based on a true story, has already got Carell award nominations. An Oscar feels entirely possible.
He plays troubled chemical heir John du Pont, a member of one of America’s richest families, who, in his 50s and with no experience of competitive sport, decided to fund and train the 1988 US Olympic wrestling squad.
First to arrive on du Pont’s vast estate was Mark Shultz, followed by his older brother Dave (the pair are played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). As the bizarre story unfolds, madness and violence loom – though the film is also ripe with absurdity.
“It is! There’s a ridiculousness that is almost funny, until suddenly it’s not funny. And then it’s not funny at all.”
You could say the same of Carell’s performance. With a shuffling gait and prosthetic nose, his du Pont is a sad but faintly monstrous figure. The transformation was intense, though talking about it leaves him wincing good-naturedly. “I’m so hesitant to discuss ‘the process’. It just always sounds so pretentious and actorly.”
He admits his very presence on set creeped out his colleagues. “People avoided me. The crew, the other actors. I didn’t deliberately unnerve them, it was just the costume, make-up, my whole… bearing. Interacting with me wasn’t something they found pleasurable.”
Tatum and Ruffalo became friends on set; Carell felt distant from both. Between the challenge of telling a tragic story and the unhappiness of his character, he was often keen to go back to his home in LA. “I just wanted to touch base with my wife, my kids – that life.”
“That life” – his wife, actress Nancy Walls (above), and school-age son and daughter – clearly means the world to him. Carell was born the youngest of four children to a Catholic family outside Boston. As a teenager, he enjoyed historical re-enactments; later there would be a stint as a postman before he became a performer. He knows that with Foxcatcher (in cinemas from Friday 9 January) people will see a comic making the time-honoured journey into “proper” drama. “But really I’ve only ever done comedies from being hired to do comedies. I’ve never been a comedian.”
The big break came in 2005, when work started on a US version of The Office. Carell secured an audition for the lead, an Americanised spin on David Brent named Michael Scott.
“There was a British version?” he deadpans. “I had no idea.” It’s true though that he’s never watched it. “No, before my audition I watched ten minutes of Ricky [Gervais], but I thought ‘OK, if I carry on, I’m just going to do that.’ So I stopped.”
The audition was a success, as was the show, which ran to nine seasons. He says he consciously made Michael Scott more palatable than David Brent to give the character a shot at longevity. “Gervais always gives me grief in public, but privately he’s incredibly kind.”
Carell was 42 when The US Office began; the same year, he won the lead in The 40 Year Old Virgin. “Everything happened at once, but it wasn’t overwhelming. It was…” Averagely whelming? “Yes. Exciting and fun, but also nothing really changed. The things that were important to me just continued as before.”
From there he acquired a reputation for his genius at improvised lunacy, able to steal scenes from the likes of Will Ferrell in the Anchorman movies. “You take your best guess at what’s funny, but the more you deconstruct it the less funny it is.”
During the making of Foxcatcher, director Bennett Miller asked Carell to write a secret on a piece of paper – “the worst thing about himself,” Miller specified. Then he had to keep it in his pocket while filming. Obviously, it would be pointless to ask what was on the piece of paper. But I do ask what he did with it.
“I don’t remember,” he says smiling. With something so intimate, I say, plenty of people would have burned it. “Hmm,” he replies, tickled at the thought. “Well, it’s strange – but I just don’t remember.”
The cynic in me can’t help but wonder if a Hollywood star could actually be this normal. The weirdest thing is that he does truly appear to be.
Foxcatcher is released in UK cinemas today (9th January)