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The incredible Steve Carell

From 'Burt Wonderstone' to 'Anchorman,' Second City veteran will have a busy 2013

Mark Caro

5:30 PM EDT, March 11, 2013

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TOLUCA LAKE, Calif. — Looking trim in a black windbreaker over a gray crew neck sweatshirt, Steve Carell walked into the diner near the Warner Bros. lot just like a regular guy.

OK, most actors/celebrities walk into diners like regular folk; it’s not like they’re transported in on pillows. So with Carell, let’s emphasize the regularness.

There’s something extra unassuming about his appearance, the way he carried himself. When Samuel L. Jackson, in his trademark beret, took a seat at a booth kitty-corner from Carell minutes later, he captured attention, even if no one aside from the wait staff approached him -- but a father did ask Carell to pose for a photo with his daughter, which the 50-year-old actor did, graciously.

Carell, whose breakthrough movie, “The 40 Year Old Virgin” (2005), sprung from a sketch he developed while at The Second City, draws you in subtly, his hazel eyes projecting earnestness, his short-cropped pepper-with-salt hair augmenting the image of someone who would seem right at home in a bureaucratic office — a trick that, come to think of it, he has pulled off. He’s stealth-normal.

When you watch him on screen, you never know whether things will remain calm, as they do in his dramatic roles in “Hope Springs” (where he plays counselor to Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones’ passion-seeking married couple) and in “Little Miss Sunshine” (his suicidal, gay Proust expert anchoring some dysfunctional family comedy), or go kablooey, as they do when he’s a newscaster suddenly spouting gibberish (“Bruce Almighty,” from 2003) or an office manager who can’t help doing or saying the absolute wrong thing at the worst time (NBC’s “The Office,” which he left in 2011).

His new comedy, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” which opens Friday, finds Carell exercising his funny bones as an obnoxious star magician whose act has grown stale amid the shock antics of an up-and-coming rival played by Jim Carrey (his nemesis in “Bruce Almighty”).  But other sides of Carell will be on display soon given that he has five — count ’em, five — movies coming out in 2013.

“The Way, Way Back,” directed by “The Descendants” co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is a coming-of-age tale about a 14-year-old boy whose mom’s new jerky boyfriend is played by Carell. That’s scheduled to open in early July, as is  “Despicable Me 2,” the animated sequel in which Carell reprises his character of Gru, a not-so-evil villain who adopts three girls.

Late this year will come his heaviest role yet, — as a mentally ill multimillionaire, John du Pont, who kills an Olympic wrestler — in “Foxcatcher,” from “Moneyball” and ”Capote” director Bennett Miller. At the other end of the spectrum is Second City veteran and writer-director Adam McKay’s “Anchorman: The Legend Continues” (due out Dec. 20),Ö in which Carell returns as dunderheaded meteorologist Brick Tamland.

Even though he had just a supporting part in the original “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004), Carell said he gets asked more about that movie than any of his other roles. He discussed his eagerness to do the sequel, why he won’t be in “The Office” finale and much more in an hourlong chat last month.

On "Anchorman: The Legend Continues": "It's going to be so ridiculous. Just before I came over, I got a link for some music that we’re going to be prerecording down there. It’s already beyond absurd, what we’re doing. I’m excited. You know, the first one was so much fun to do. I think that’s why everyone’s doing this one. I don’t think anyone had any thoughts of making art. Just rampant silliness. We were just trying to make each other laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder in my life than when doing that."

On unlikely "Anchorman" fans: "When I did 'Hope Springs,' I was talking about (the upcoming 'Anchorman'), and Meryl Streep said, 'Oh, I’d love to be in that.' Meryl Streep throwing her hat in -- it’s hilarious."

On how he built up his "Anchorman" role: “First ‘Anchorman’ (movie) I don’t even know if I had any lines to begin with -- one or two in the whole script. I remember Adam would tell me to just say something, and it didn’t even matter: If you find a moment where no one else is saying anything, say something, so that was kind of part of how Brick was created. It was just saying random things that did not connect to anything else."

On how Second City training comes into play with McKay and him: “When he throws things out or when we try things, it’s understood that it’s just an attempt at something. There’s such a freewheeling nature to Second City, and the greatest thing about Second City was having a sophisticated audience night after night who appreciated what it was. They knew it wasn’t all going to be great when you improvised, so they were very forgiving that way."

On how attending Second City’s 50-year anniversary weekend in 2009 affected him: “It was unexpectedly emotional for me, that whole weekend. I thought it would be fun. We’d drop in. I hadn’t been to Chicago in a while. Nancy (Walls, his wife and fellow Second City alum) and I could go back to where we used to live and check out some of our old haunts and have some good meals. And it was so much more than that. It affected me on a personal level, to reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in years. And it is that common thread. There’s a bond there that I guess I didn’t anticipate feeling so strongly — and a bond to the place and what it represented to all of us. Really moving.”

On where he lived in Chicago: “I lived on Barry and Halsted. First I lived up on Winthrop, way up north, and then I lived on Barry, and I spent the last year in a place off of Montrose, maybe. I forget which street it was, up near Truman College."

On whether he’s more comfortable sticking with a script or improvising on set: “I don’t think it really matters. For something like ‘Hope Springs,’ there was no improvisation at all. I tried to make it letter perfect. It’s just whatever it calls for. That just did not call for improvisation. I wasn’t going to start riffing with Meryl and Tommy Lee (laughs)."

On whether he’s seeking a second screenwriting credit after "The 40 Year Old Virgin": “I’m writing something for Warners right now, and I hope I can finish it in these next few months, like while I’m doing all this other stuff. I wouldn’t want to get too far into it, but it’s something that I’m writing for Will Ferrell and I."

On whether he’d like to direct: “Eventually, I probably would, but whether it would be (the new script) or something else, I don’t know. It sounds like such a cliche to say, I’m very hesitant to say that I would ever want to direct, because that’s like saying I also am a songwriter and (laughs) I have a band. It seems like, I don’t know, I don’t want to be that guy."

On whether he writes songs too: (laughing) “No, no. No."

On whether he improvised on “Burt Wonderstone”: “Yeah, there was improvising on that. It’s such a big, silly premise that it’s not something that you necessarily have to stick to a very specific storyline or narrative. You can kind of find jokes and bits within it all. So, yeah, that’s what we tried to do, keep it sort of loose."

On why he wanted to play a long-haired, bare-chested magician: “It just seemed silly and ridiculous, and it’s a world that I’d never seen in a movie before. I thought it would be fun to split the difference between very broad comedy but positioned within an actual story. ... I just thought it was funny. I just thought the character was funny. He was (lowers voice to a whisper) kind of a (jerk), which I don’t generally get to play. I tend to get offered parts of more likable people."

On how Wonderstone is different from his Michael Scott character on “The Office”: “You know what? I never thought of Michael Scott as a jerk. He lacked a filter, but he had an enormous heart, I think. And he was intrinsically a very good person. And very sweet at his core. He just said and did incredibly offensive things in spite of himself. But somebody like Burt Wonderstone is just a jerk."

On Jim Carrey, his two-time on-screen antagonist: “He’s phenomenal to watch work. There were times when I would forget that I was doing a scene with him because I was just watching what he was doing. I’ve never seen anyone work harder to get it right, to get it perfect, to make it funny. Given his choices, he would shoot a scene all night long to get it perfect. He would do hundreds of takes if he could — because he’s always finding new things."

On feeling more comfortable with Carrey on “Wonderstone” than “Bruce Almighty”: “I was so intimidated during ‘Bruce Almighty,’ I just didn’t want to screw up. I just wanted to stay out of everybody’s way, including his, and just be there and try not to mess anything up. I was a big fan of his, and to actually be doing a scene with him was a little overwhelming."

On voicing his “Despicable Me” character: “(It’s) a couple years from beginning to end. You generally go through the whole script, and then they start animating, doing rough animation and seeing what works and what doesn’t, and then they’ll write more scenes, and then you add into those scenes. That is a process of refinement. Today I have (to record) one line — one line that just doesn’t kind of work with what’s happening in the movie, so I have to do a different read on it."

On playing a multimillionaire who kills a wrestler in “Foxcatcher”: “It was an interesting character to play. No one could truly determine why (he committed murder), what was going on with this guy. Bennett Miller approached me about three years ago and said that he wanted to do this and asked if I’d be interested. I felt if he had the confidence in me to do it, then that was good enough for me."

On whether he considered the role a stretch: “I wouldn’t say it was harder or more of a stretch. It was just a different thing, a different kind of character and different kind of story."

On whether it’s more difficult for dramatic actors to be funny than comedic actors to be serious: “I think it’s a matter of how you approach it. I think when someone who’s known for doing drama does a comedy but just tries to be funny, that’s a mistake. (‘Wonderstone’ co-star) Steve Buscemi is a great dramatic actor, but he totally gets comedy. I think James Gandolfini totally gets comedy. They assume a character and they play it, and that’s really it."

On the tight production schedule for the “Anchorman” sequel: “That amazes me. We already have a release date, and we haven’t even shot a frame (laughs). And I get more questions about ‘Anchorman’ than anything. Especially the international press — Australian and British press, they can’t wait. I don’t know how it translated there. For some reason it did."

On why he opted not to be part of the upcoming “The Office” series finale: “Here’s what I thought: Michael Scott would definitely go back and visit his friends, but he wouldn’t do it on camera. Because my feeling, and (executive producer) Greg Daniels agrees, Michael Scott had sort of grown beyond the idea of being on camera, the idea of being documented. And that had been his life for all of those years, and it’s the only thing that he really cared about. But our thinking was by the end he had evolved, and being on camera and being a star was not important to him anymore. So I think he’s a different guy at this point, and he’s enjoying a life, and he found what truly was going to make him happy."

On how the final episode will resonate with him: “I’ve just been in touch with John Krasinski, and I understand completely what they’re going through right now. It was an enormous part of my life, and all of those relationships and friendships that came out of it are very strong and important to me. I know what they’re going through with, I think, five episodes left to shoot. They’re saying goodbye to something that was very dear to them."

On which ’70s musical his own "Office" farewell felt like: “Through the week, I essentially had my goodbye scene with every cast member, and it felt like ‘Godspell’ (laughs). I felt like I was going off into the great beyond."

On whether he has any remaining goals: “No. I had like two goals in my career: One was to try to get into Second City. When I moved to Chicago, my goal was to try to work at Second City. And beyond that my goal was to make enough money as an actor to not do anything else but act, not have to go and wait tables again. So, no, I figure those were enough."

mcaro@tribune.com
Twitter @MarkCaro