De­spi­ca­ble? Moi?

Steve Carell has hit ev­ery rung on the pro­fes­sional lad­der, from comedic foil to block­buster star and Os­car-nom­i­nated dra­matic ac­tor. Yet drive past hishouse and he might stand there wav­ing at you. “Idon’t think I’m that highly recog­nis­able,” one of the n

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Eight years ago, the ac­tor Steve Carell went into a record­ing booth to adopt a cod eastern Euro­pean ac­cent for the first time. The role was Gru, the hero of De­spi­ca­ble Me, a vil­lain who warms to the three or­phan girls he adopts, ini­tially as part of a ne­far­i­ous scheme. The 2010 an­i­ma­tion went on to make more than $540 mil­lion from a com­par­a­tively small $69 mil­lion bud­get. That was more than enough to green­light De­spi­ca­ble Me 2, a film that scared up al­most $1 bil­lion at the box of­fice, two Academy Award nom­i­na­tions and a monster 13.9 mil­lion-unit-shift­ing hit in Phar­rell Wil­liams’s Happy.

Since then, the De­spi­ca­ble Me se­quence has over­taken the boy rac­ers of Fast & Fu­ri­ous to be­come Uni­ver­sal’s most prof­itable fran­chise, a sand­box re­plete with branded ba­nanas, back­packs, Monopoly­boards and an es­ti­mated $70 mil­lion a year in plush toys and apparel.

In 2012 Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Florida opened the De­spi­ca­ble Me Min­ion May­hem theme-park at­trac­tion, fea­tur­ing Gru’s loyal, bab­bling side­kicks. The ride has since been repli­cated in Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Hol­ly­wood in 2014 and Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Ja­pan ear­lier this year. It’s a prop­erly yel­low fever.

The Min­ions 2015 spin-off movie cruised past the $1.1 bil­lion mark in global ticket sales. The gang get their own se­quel in 2020 and en­joy a big­ger en­sem­ble role in this sum­mer’s De­spi­ca­ble Me 3.

Steve Carell shakes his head in dis­be­lief. “Not in a mil­lion years,” says the ac­tor. “I don’t even think the cre­ators had any sort of no­tion this would hap­pen, that it would be any­where near as suc­cess­ful, with all th­ese prod­ucts. It’s stun­ning that it turned into what it did.”

He partly attributes the suc­cess to the up­stag­ing an­tics of the min­ions (“Long may they con­tinue to up­stage me”), but there’s more to it, he sus­pects.

“I re­mem­ber see­ing the first one at a test screen­ing with kids,” he re­calls. “It was in­com­plete at that point. But I liked it. And I sensed that it was some­thing sort of unique. It had a dif­fer­ent feel to it. The an­i­ma­tion was dif­fer­ent. The tone was dif­fer­ent. It didn’t con­de­scend to chil­dren. It as­sumed they were more so­phis­ti­cated than some fam­ily films do. When they first de­scribed the

char­ac­ter of Gru to me, I thought it was a bold move that the vil­lain was the star of the film. But there’s a kind­ness to him too. He is naughty. But he’s a good per­son. So the trick was to not make him truly evil. And I think they achieved that.”

Carell is cau­tious about do­ing the voice in pub­lic, although he did ap­pear in char­ac­ter on the El

len DeGeneres Show in 2013. “Some­times it’s too off-putting if peo­ple hear that voice com­ing from me,” says the ac­tor. “Be­cause it’s like hear­ing the voice from the wrong body. I have to be care­ful when to use it. Be­cause I don’t want to ruin it for any­one.”

Back in 2013, Carell’s Gru er­ro­neously in­formed Ellen that he was from Al­bu­querque, New Mex­ico. But now the truth be­hind Gru’s ori­gins is fi­nally re­vealed. De­spi­ca­ble Me 3 sees Carell as­sume dual re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as Gru, now an agent for the Anti-Vil­lain League, and as Dru, Gru’s long-lost twin and a pig-farm­ing mogul from Free­do­nia. Might this be the same Free­do­nia that was presided over by Grou­cho Marx in Duck Soup (1933)?

“I think there’s a nod to that,” says Carell. “In a lot of ways, the min­ions are the Marx broth­ers. They’re the comedic de­scen­dants.”

The jour­ney to star­dom

Carell was pleas­antly sur­prised when De­spi­ca­ble Me took off, but has been pos­i­tively flab­ber­gasted by his own ca­reer. Hav­ing spent a decade with var­i­ous the­atre and im­prov com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing the Chicago troupe The Sec­ond City, the ac­tor landed a job with The

Daily Show in 1998. Since then, the hits have just kept on com­ing. In 2004 he was cast in the Ricky Gervais role in the US trans­fer of The Of­fice and de­buted the beloved, bone­headed Brick in An­chor­man: The Leg­end of Ron Bur­gundy. In 2005 he scored a $177.4 mil­lion hit as the star and cowriter of The

40-Year-Old Vir­gin. He has sub­se­quently amassed more than five mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twit­ter and an es­ti­mated $50 mil­lion for­tune through a string of main­stream hits, in­clud­ing Get Smart, Date Night, Crazy, Stupid, Love and Hor­ton Hears a Who. Not bad for some­one who was never in­ter­ested in fame, and who looks pos­i­tively mor­ti­fied when I men­tion that var­i­ous me­dia out­lets have lately been reap­prais­ing him as a “sil­ver fox”.

“My goal was to make a liv­ing,” says Carell. “That, to me de­fined suc­cess as an ac­tor. That was really all I was ever aim­ing for. That was why I moved to Chicago be­fore Los An­ge­les or New York. I just fig­ured I could work in Chicago. I could get ex­pe­ri­ence and try to get bet­ter.”

Carell was raised in an or­di­nary mid­dle-class sort of home. His dad was an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer. His mom was a psy­chi­atric nurse. A brief bi­o­graph­i­cal scan sug­gests that he was – noth­ing about the grown Carell sug­gests oth­er­wise – the most as­sid­u­ous and re­spon­si­ble of young men. He played the fife. He en­joyed lacrosse. He was even in­volved in mil­i­tary re-en­act­ment – “They have a geeky rap, but they loved shar­ing knowl­edge,” he re­calls – be­fore tak­ing a his­tory de­gree at Deni­son Univer­sity.

That sober work ethic held him in good stead.

“I can look back now on cer­tain au­di­tions and cer­tain breaks that I had – like the first TV show I got was The Dana Car­vey Show – and I re­alise how for­tu­nate I was to be hired. They were all rungs of the lad­der. Some peo­ple sprint to the top. For me it hap­pened over years. I didn’t no­tice. I just wanted to keep work­ing.”

In a Hol­ly­wood where nice guys such as Dwayne John­son, Chris Pratt and Hugh Jack­man no longer fin­ish last, Carell is a Catholic fam­ily man de­scribed by his pal and for­mer Daily Show costar Jon Ste­wart as “kind­ness at the heart of dark­ness”. Al­most pre­dictably, when he and his wife, the SNL alum­nus Nancy Carell, cre­ated the po­lice pro­ce­dural spoof Angie Tribeca, it was as a ve­hi­cle for some­body else (the cou­ple’s for­mer Of­fice co-star Rashida Jones).

“I know some cou­ples work­ing to­gether can be trou­ble,” he says. “Some re­la­tion­ships can’t bear that kind of weight. But for us it didn’t feel like weight at all. It just felt like an ex­ten­sion of what we do any­way: have fun to­gether and make each other laugh.”

Carell’s nice­ness and comedic skills have in­formed some in­ter­est­ing counter cast­ing. In 2014 he was nom­i­nated for an Academy award for his thor­oughly creepy turn as the wrestling coach and con­victed mur­derer John du Pont in Fox­catcher. Last year he ap­peared in The Big Short as an ec­cen­tric fic­tion­alised ver­sion of Steve Eis­man, the in­vestor who shorted sub­prime home mort­gages.

Af­ter De­spi­ca­ble Me 3, he’ll ap­pear in Bat­tle of the Sexes as Bobby Riggs, the ten­nis player who goaded Bil­lie Jean King into a win­ner-takes-all match in 1973. The project, sched­uled for an au­tumn re­lease, re­unites Carell with Lit

tle Miss Sun­shine di­rec­tors Jonathan Dayton and Va­lerie Faris.

“I was very sur­prised to be cast in some­thing like Fox­catcher be­cause I don’t think any­one – in­clud­ing me – had imag­ined me in that sort of role be­fore,” he says. “Same thing with The Big Short. A Wall Street wizard who has an abun­dance of over­con­fi­dence? Me?”

They are all rather abra­sive peo­ple.

“It’s just hap­pened that way. Although I think John du Pont is not nec­es­sar­ily abra­sive. He’s a really dam­aged guy. Bobby Riggs is in­ter­est­ing. Be­cause he’s very abra­sive on the sur­face, but that’s an act. He’s a show­man.”

On his most re­cent ap­pear­ance on the Gra­ham Nor­ton

Show, Carell told a story about wav­ing, at his wife’s be­hest, at a celebrity-spot­ting-tour­bus in Hol­ly­wood. No­body recog­nised him. His comic skills, too, are dead­pan. ( Re­mem­ber that poker-faced push against Ricky Gervais when the lat­ter in­tro­duced him as “un­grate­ful” at the 2011 Golden Globes cer­e­mony?)

“I don’t think I’m that highly recog­nis­able,” he says. “Some­times some­one knows me from

The Of­fice. Or The 40-Year-Old Vir­gin. But it’s all pretty low-key when I’m walk­ing around.”

Shouldn’t he in­vestin an en­tourage and body­guards to drum up some in­ter­est?

“Oh, I only in­sist on those 60 per cent of the time.”

I was very sur­prised to be cast in some­thing like ‘Fox­catcher’ be­cause I don’t think any­one – in­clud­ing me – had imag­ined me in that sort of role be­fore

Steve Carell “In a lot of ways, the min­ions are the Marx broth­ers.” Far right, Carell in his break­through hit The 40-year-old Vir­gin

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