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From 'The Office' to the ark

After more than 20 years of slugging it out in comedy troupes and bit parts, Steve Carell is the man of the moment. Stone Phillips talked to the actor about comedy, kids, and the baffling impact of newfound stardom.
Film Title: Evan Almighty
Evan Baxter, played by actor Steve Carell, attempts to explain his animal magnetism to fellow congressmen in a new comedy.Photo Credit: Rhythm Hues

Steve Carell is fast becoming one of the busiest actors in Hollywood. After more than 20 years of slugging it out in comedy troupes and bit parts, Carell is the man of the moment, taking hilarious turns as a middle-aged virgin, a boss suffering from foot-in-mouth disease on NBC's "The Office"  and now as a guy with a big boat and a direct line to God in the Universal release: "Evan Almighty."

For all his soaring success, Carell keeps a low profile.       

But on Dateline, he talked to Stone Phillips about comedy, kids, and the baffling impact of newfound stardom.

For Steve Carell, the Universal Lot in Hollywood is a house of mirrors. Everywhere he looks, there he is. 

Stone Phillips, Dateline correspondent (pointing to a poster): “The Office!”Steve Carrel: Ohhhhhhh!!! I own this studio!! Hahahaha!!

With “Evan Almighty,” his stock could go even higher.

It’s both fun and a little freaky for Carell.  At 43, he’s a  rising star with a decidedly un-celebrity like way of not letting it go to his head. He is, in the words of one Hollywood director, “clandestinely hysterical”... thanks to another unlikely combination.

Phillips: You have these straight-laced looks—Carell: Uh-huh (affirms).Phillips: --and this twisted sense of humor.  You’re sort of like Rock Hudson and Peter Sellers all rolled into one.Carell: Rock Sellers is pretty much how you would describe me.  Rock Hudson and Peter Sellers.Phillips: Yeah.Carell: Gimme a break. That’s like such a stretch. (laughs)

Maybe so. But when you meet Steve Carell, he does remind you of...  well... somebody.

Phillips: You look like a lawyer.Carell: Uh-huh. I almost became a lawyer.Phillips: Well, you would’ve looked the part.  You look like a politician. You look like an accountant.Carell: Uh-huh (affirms).Phillips: You look like an anchorman.  I mean, when you look in the mirror what do you see?Carell: Oh, mostly lawyer, accountant, anchorman, politician.  I mean, those are the four top ones for me.  Sometimes I see podiatrist.

What this Massachusetts native never saw, even in college as a pre-law student who found a creative outlet in sketch comedy, was an actor.

Carell: I never thought this would be a career. It was a hobby at best.  And just something I enjoyed doing. And I was actually filling out my law school applications And I got to the essay question, which was, “Why do you want to be an attorney?”  And I couldn’t answer it.  I really didn’t know.  And I went in and talked to my parents and they asked me, like, “What do you enjoy doing?  What have you always liked to do?”And I said, “Well, I’ve always liked to act.  I mean, it’s always been fun.”  And they’re the ones who said, “Well, then do it.

Success did not come overnight, but as a cast  member of Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe starting in 1991, Carell honed his acting skills. And as a performer and teacher there for nearly a decade, he found more than his calling.

Phillips: You met your wife, Nancy, there.Carell: I did.  I was her teacher at Second City.Phillips: First date?Carell: We went to a jazz club called the Green Mill in Chicago.  And we sat in the booth that was apparently Al Capone’s booth.Phillips: That’s romantic Steve.Carell: It-- (laughs) it—well, it was kind of the prime booth.  Phillips: Did you pick up the tab?Carell: No, I made—no, actually, I think we just bailed. We ran out.  Didn’t pay.  (laughs) It’s just something we do. “Chew and screw,” I think they call it. 

At Second City, he also met another actor named Steve, in whose footsteps he would soon follow. Steve Colbert  had moved on to Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” and was instrumental in bringing his old friend from Second City there, as well. From 1999 to 2004, Carell’s dead pan delivery fit perfectly into the show’s fake news format.

Carrel on "The Daily Show" (to Sen. McCain): Sentor, how do you reconcile the fact that you are one of the most vocal critics of pork barrell politics and yet while you were chairman of the commerce committee that committee set a record for unauthorized appropriations? McCain: (Pauses) Carrel (to McCain): I’m just kidding, I don’t even know what that means!

“The Daily Show” became a launching pad, catapulting Carell into a big screen career with roles drawing on his pseudo-news credentials.      

Phillips: Of your performance as the pompous TV news anchor, Evan Baxter, in Bruce Almighty—Carell: Modeled after hmmm? Phillips: Was I in some small way an inspiration?Carell: Actually, no, it was sort of a conglomeration of many different people that I’ve met. Phillips: But there’s a little me in there.Carell: Yeah.  If you have the ego to say that, sure.  Yeah.  There’s a lot of you.  It’s all you, Stone.  It’s modeled after you. Phillips: Of your performance as this TV news anchor,  USA Today said that you “had unwittingly broken one of Hollywood’s Ten Commandments…”Carell: Which is—Phillips: “Thou shalt not steal scenes from the star.”Carell: Oh, I would never say that I stole a scene from Jim Carrey. Just the fact that I was in a movie with him was huge.

Even bigger, Carell says, was his surprise at seeing himself on screen at the film’s 2003 premiere.

Carell: It’s pretty much the first movie I was in. So to watch yourself on screen and kind of as a complete surprise that you’re even there—it’s a surreal experience.  And it changes you. And I became such a huge jerk that night.  (laughs) Because I thought, “Wow.  Look…  I’m in a movie.  And now, I’m better than other people.”Phillips: You took a deep breath—Carell: Uh-huh (affirms).Phillips: --and took yourself in.Carell: I did. I celebrated myself that evening.  And I feel deeply in love with my artistic capability.  Is that wrong?  I just think people need to be more self-actualized. And I’ve reached that pinnacle of actualization.  (laughs)

Actually, he was just getting started. In 2005 Carell took the lead role in a TV sitcom that would turn into a surprise hit, NBC’s “The Office.”

His performance would later earn him a Golden Globe. And that same year Carell co-wrote and starred in the 40-year-old virgin.

Phillips: That [chest-waxing] scene, not special effects.Carell: No, that was real.Phillips: You wanted to do it that way.Carell: That was my idea.Phillips: What were you thinking?Carell: I thought the chest-waxing scene would be funny only because of the guys in the scene watching me do it.  Because I figured, “If I was really having it done, they’re gonna laugh.” It’ll be horrible.  It’ll be horrifying to watch. I didn’t think the actual ripping or me screaming was the funniest part.  To me, the funniest part is watching them squirm because they know it’s real.Phillips: You played a middle-aged man who had never had sex—Carell:  Right.Phillips: --incredibly convincingly.  I mean—Carell: Oh, what are you gonna do with this?Phillips: I’m not sure what I’m gonna do with this.Carell: Yeah.Phillips: I’m not sure what to make of it.Carell: Are you ask me—Phillips: But—Carell: --when I lost my virginity?  (laughs)Phillips: I wasn’t actually gonna go there.Carell: Okay.Phillips: I wasn’t actually gonna go there. I mean, he’s a sweet guy—You really believed that he hadn’t had sex.Carell: This is a guy who’s not a loser.  He’s not—he’s not an idiot.Phillips: He’s inhibited.Carell: Yeah.  He’s missed out on some opportunities in his life.  And they sort of built up and then became this block in his brain. Phillips: Could you identify with his inhibition? Carell: Oh, yeah sure.  I mean, I think everyone has inhibitions.  Phillips: Where are your inhibitions?Carell: Honestly, talking about myself, because—I think down deep or not so deep, I don’t think I’m a very interesting person.  I don’t think this will be—Phillips: Are you being serious now?Carell: Totally serious.  That is probably whatever, a self-esteem issue, but in my mind it’s like, “Who in their right mind would watch this interview, really?”

But who wouldn’t love to hear Steve Carell tell a childhood story that just might explain why the 40-year old virgin is a character so close to his heart?

Carell: I was sort of traumatized by girls in the third grade.  Because there was a girl in my third grade class I had a crush on.   I bought her a box of Valentine’s Day chocolate. And I put it in her cubby with a note that said something like, “I am deeply in love with you, Your Secret Admirer.”  And I didn’t sign my name.

But two other girls from the class had seen me put it in there.  So everybody knew I did it.  She opened it.  All the girls teased her.  And all the boys teased me.  And everybody teased me.  And so I, at that point, got really, really nervous around girls. 

Phillips: And how long did it take to get over that?Carell: You’re implying that—I am over it.  It’s-- (laughs) it’s been a long road to recovery.

Stone Phillips: In your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine that when your ship came in it would be the ark and you’d be playing Noah?Steve Carell: Yes.  (laughs) It’s something I’ve—I’ve dreamt of since I was a little kid. No, in my wildest dreams, never.Never thought anything like this.  I frankly never thought I’d be successful let alone being in a movie of this scope.  Carell: It is the best motion picture in the history of the world.  And I don’t think I’m overstating that.

Carell plays a former TV anchorman-turned-politician whose first assignment as a freshman in Congress, comes not from the House Speaker but a higher authority, Morgan Freeman as God.

Carell: I believe, and I’m committed to this belief, that this movie may make $1 million.  (laughs) And that’s a lot of money.Phillips: Well, I hate to break the news to you.  You know, “Bruce Almighty” with Jim Carrey pulled in $240 million—Carell: Uh-huh (affirms).Phillips: —in this country at the box office.Carell: Really?

Which got Carell thinking... what he could say about his movie that would rope in an audience.

Carell: It is the first triple X family friendly movie.  And we walk that line.  We walk that line between full-frontal nudity and family-friendly.  The kids are gonna love it.Phillips: You got some quality time with animals making this movie.Carell: Yes, I did. Phillips: Personal favorite?Carell: I loved them all.  And they all smelled wonderful.Carell (referring to camel on set): Really bad breath.Carell: If you can imagine what a bird armpit smells like.  And I had birds all over me for three days.  And you sort of get used to it.  And then, you start having that kind of earthy bird smell.Phillips: You know, I read that before you became an actor you were a mailman.Carell: I was.Phillips: Now, if any job could prep you to play Noah, it’s gotta be delivering the mail.  I mean, what mailman has not had to deal with some ornery animal?Carell: Stone, I would say that’s a stretch.  I would really say that’s a stretch, connecting the whole mailman thins with Noah.  I don’t know—what are you reading—Phillips: Well, I was thinkin’—I was looking through your bio—Carell: Noah and the mailman?  Come on.  Okay.  All right.  All right.  I’ll go with you.  Yeah.  Being a mailman was so much like being Noah because I had to deal with-- (chuckles) I had to deal with lots of animals.  Yeah.Phillips: Now, you’re getting the hang of this.Carell: And I remember one time I was delivering the mail and it rained for 40 days.  And my mail truck floated away.  But luckily, all the dogs in the neighborhood had climbed onboard.  And I saved them.  So there really is a direct correlation.

Carell has proven that fans will follow him no matter what role he takes on or how much hair he grows or has removed.

Phillips: So now, you’ve played a 40-year-old virgin and a 600-year-old lover of apes and alpacas. How are you doing with your real life role?  43-year-old husband, father.  How do you keep things real when you’re experiencing this kind of success?Carell: When you wake up in the morning and your son walks in the room and he just smells like poop, that’s about as real—I mean, that's it.  It’s like, “Well, time to change him.”  You just have to make a commitment to what is important and, you know, your kids--               Phillips: How old are you kids now?Carell: Now they’re three and six.Phillips: Do they think you’re funny?Carell: Not really.  No.  I think they think I’m weird. Phillips: Who at home makes you laugh?Carell: My kids definitely.  I’ve taught my 3-year-old son to burp.  So now, he talks and burp at the same time.  Which, I’m very proud.  I’m very proud of that.Following in his father’s footsteps. He’s a genius. 

Maybe it’s the kid in Carell that’s at the core of his appeal—the childlike enthusiasm that drives his humor and the characters he invents. Like the “German who says Nice Things,” one of our favorite Carell creations.

Phillips: I just wanna know before we leave, what would “The German Who Says Nice Things” say about the time we have spent together, this interview?Carell: He would say--  “This was the best interview I have had all day.” Your sound guy, his ears are bleeding right now.  Phillips: My ears are bleeding.  Thanks. Carell: Thanks.