‘It went against every fibre of my being…’
From a drug addict’s father to Donald Rumsfeld – how Steve Carell swapped comedy for trauma and corruption
‘Ihope you weren’t expecting me to be funny,” says Steve Carell, with what sounds like genuine concern. “Because when people talk to me, they quickly realise
I’m not super-funny in person.”
This is not false modesty: the star of such thigh-slappers as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the American remake of The Office is not, in the flesh, the life of the party. In terms of unbridled showbusiness zing, he is more like the party’s left earlobe, or one of its smaller toes. Today, in a central London hotel suite, wearing an immaculately tailored jacket, dark jeans and navy cashmere pullover, he carries himself less like a comedy legend than the smartest dad at parents’ evening. Some actors are known for disappearing into their work. Carell disappears into himself.
Perhaps he feels a particular need to retreat at the moment: there’s so much Carell around. He is the star of Robert Zemeckis’s oddball fantasy Welcome to Marwen, about the amnesiac photographer Mark Hogancamp, which opened in cinemas earlier this week, while later this month he will be seen as the former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld in Adam McKay’s satirical Dick Cheney biopic Vice, and also the journalist David Sheff in Beautiful Boy, a true story of a father trying to shake loose his son from the coils of crystal meth.
All three films draw on his comic talents, even though their subjects – trauma, corruption and drug addiction – are hardly laughing matters. Yet it turns out this new phase of his career is positively light-hearted, compared with what could have been. When The Office was approaching the end of its nine-season run, Carell made a film called Foxcatcher, for which he earned a best actor Oscar nomination for playing the evil millionaire wrestling enthusiast John du Pont. It was a supremely chilling performance – and as soon as it screened, Carell says he was inundated with scripts for “psychological thrillers, always with me as the murderous villain”. He looks dubious. “So some doors certainly swung open. But they weren’t necessarily ones I wanted to go through.”
Nevertheless, ever since Foxcatcher pried Carell out of his groove, he’s been content to try anything directors will throw at him, even if it means leaving the comedy comfort zone he’d happily inhabited since his improv days in Chicago in the early Nineties. His role in Beautiful Boy, a clear-eyed exploration of both the collateral toll of addiction and the strength and limits of fatherly love, is some way out of it.
While preparing for the film, Carell spoke to Sheff about his eldest son Nic’s years-long struggle with crystal meth. He also read Sheff ’s 2008 book, with which the film shares a title. Nic’s own memoir, Tweak: Growing Up On Methamphetamines, provided a useful counterpoint, and was likewise pored over by Carell’s 23-year-old (and oh-so-hot-rightnow) co-star, Timothée Chalamet.
Carell finds this stuff a source of anxiety. Meeting David reminded him of his conversations with the rogue fund manager Steve
Eisman, a version of whom he played in McKay’s financial-crash satire The Big Short: “It’s always odd, because you don’t want them to feel as if they’re some sort of science experiment,” he says. “But at the same time, you don’t want to be cavalier.”
Especially thorny were the parts of Nic and David’s story in which David’s temper or judgment lapsed: “Because he makes bad decisions and acts selfishly, and behaves in ways that reflect badly on his ego more than anything else.” There is a desolating scene in which David tells Nic by phone he has reached the end of his rope, and is cutting him out of his life.
‘Do I ever find myself wishing I had some big source of damage? I’m not saying I don’t!’
NO JOKESteve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, standing left, as father and son in Beautiful Boy