Chattanooga Times Free Press - Parade - - Eats - by AMY SPENCER cover and open­ing pho­tog­ra­phy by ROBERT ASCROFT

How the fun­ny­man broke into se­ri­ous roles—and de­cided to do good in the world. (Oh, and he still wants to make you laugh!)

It was Christ­mas in the ’70s and young Steve Carell was at the mall in his home­town of Ac­ton, Mass. “I re­mem­ber walk­ing around look­ing for a present, and I no­ticed that ev­ery­one had a very tense, pained, har­ried ex­pres­sion on their face,” he says. Sur­prised that peo­ple weren’t more joy­ful dur­ing the hol­i­days, “I de­cided I was go­ing to smile at ev­ery­body, just so I wouldn’t be an­other face re­flect­ing back all the angst,” says Carell, 56. And so he did. “Peo­ple prob­a­bly thought I was just this weird kid.” He laughs, shak­ing his head. “But I re­mem­bered think­ing, Well, it might not help, but maybe some­body will get a smile out of it.”

Decades later, the Hol­ly­wood pro with nearly 75 act­ing cred­its, in­clud­ing his star­ring role in The Of­fice, is still get­ting laughs. And his most re­cent films—from Beau­ti­ful Boy to Vice and Wel­come to Mar­wen—re­flect his con­tin­u­ing de­sire to do work that mat­ters. To­day, perched on the edge of a couch in Hol­ly­wood, he’s in a full beard and sharply dressed in black pants, a shirt and tie un­der a sweater and a dark blazer. He looks like he could eas­ily be a tweedy New Eng­land col­lege pro­fes­sor. And based on the sto­ries he tells about his love of his­tory and his de­sire for old-fash­ioned con­nec­tions, it’s al­most a sur­prise he didn’t end up do­ing just that.

His­tory Buff

Carell is the youngest of four broth­ers born to mom Har­riet, a psy­chi­atric nurse (she passed away in 2016), and fa­ther Ed­win, now 93, who de­signed heat ex­chang­ers and was a mem­ber of the 100th In­fantry dur­ing World War II. “We were not a wealthy fam­ily, and both my par­ents worked; my mom worked nights” to help sup­port the boys and their ed­u­ca­tion, he says. “It was all about us, and that res­onated with me.”

Carell loved learn­ing about his­tory in school, and he and one brother joined the fife and drum corps of the Ac­ton Min­ute­man Group, which dressed up in colo­nial re­galia and marched in lo­cal pa­rades, re-cre­at­ing part of New Eng­land’s rich colo­nial legacy. (He can still play a tune on the fife to­day.) Those early years, he also picked up his older broth­ers’ in­ter­ests in com­edy of the ’70s, soak­ing up the hu­mor of acts like the Fire­sign The­atre (a ra­dio com­edy group), Ge­orge Car­lin and Steve Martin. “That, I think, in­formed a lot of what I started to like,” says Carell, who says his par­ents sup­ported all of his in­ter­ests. “They were more than open-minded about what path I was gonna choose.”

His cho­sen path took him to Deni­son Uni­ver­sity in Granville, Ohio, where he ma­jored in his­tory and the­ater. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1984, he moved to Chicago to pur­sue act­ing pro­fes­sion­ally, and joined the Sec­ond City com­edy troupe. “Com­edy wasn’t even a part of the mas­ter plan,” Carell says of the move. And nei­ther were more “se­ri­ous” roles, specif­i­cally. “I just wanted to work. And it just so hap­pened that most of the work that I got was comedic.”

Af­ter early TV stints on

The Dana Car­vey Show and The Daily Show, he found his way onto the big screen in come­dies in­clud­ing Bruce Almighty and An­chor­man be­fore hit­ting his break­out year of 2005—when he both co-wrote and starred in the com­edy The

40-Year-Old Vir­gin, and the year he de­buted as lov­ably be­lea­guered small-busi­ness man­ager Michael Scott in The

Of­fice, star­ring in seven of the show’s nine sea­sons, win­ning a Golden Globe and six Emmy nom­i­na­tions for the role.

His hit film ré­sumé grew for years as he starred in fam­ily films and come­dies in­clud­ing De­spi­ca­ble Me, Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine, Crazy Stupid Love and The Way Way Back. Then, “when I got the op­por­tu­nity to do some more dra­matic stuff,” he says, “I took it.” He earned an Acad­emy Award nom­i­na­tion for his role in sports true-crime drama Fox­catcher, played a key part in the Os­car­win­ning The Big Short and co-starred in Last Flag Fly­ing (2017) and Beau­ti­ful Boy, in which he played a fa­ther des­per­ately try­ing to help his meth-ad­dicted son (Ti­mothée Cha­la­met). This month, he plays two more dra­matic roles, each of them res­onat­ing with his re­spect for his­tory, retelling two dif­fer­ent true sto­ries.

Real Meets Reel

For the more fa­mous of his two real-life char­ac­ters in his lat­est films, he stars in Vice as Don­ald Rums­feld (Dec. 25), who served as sec­re­tary of de­fense un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush (Sam Rock­well) and Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney (Chris­tian Bale).

“It’s tricky to ap­proach a real-life char­ac­ter,” he ad­mits, es­pe­cially in these po­lit­i­cally edgy times.“It’s your best es­ti­ma­tion as to who some­one might be—what his flaws might be, what his strengths might be. You have to find some el­e­ment of that per­son that you em­pathize with or find in­trin­si­cally hu­man.”

In Wel­come to Mar­wen (Dec. 21), Carell plays Mark Ho­gan­camp, a U.S. Navy vet­eran and il­lus­tra­tor who was at­tacked out­side a bar in up­state New York in 2000, caus­ing a ma­jor brain in­jury that erased his mem­ory. As a form of ther­apy, he built an amaz­ing scale-model fan­ta­sy­world replica of a World War II Bel­gian town in his back­yard, pop­u­lated it with dolls and pho­tographed tableaus of scenes.

It was “a way to cope with the trauma that he had suf­fered,” says Carell, “be­cause he can put him­self into this town through an al­ter ego”—an Amer­i­can fighter pilot fac­ing the Nazis. As Ho­gan­camp ex­plained in the 2010 doc­u­men­tary that in­spired the new film, “Ev­ery­body wishes they could have a dou­ble that could do the things they could never do.”

Af­ter con­sult­ing with Ho­gan­camp, who lives in Kingston, N.Y., for the role, Carell now con­sid­ers him a friend. “He’s such a warm guy,” says Carell. “There’s no cyn­i­cism, which in to­day’s world is rare.”

In­side Jokes

Carell lives in Los An­ge­les with his wife of 23 years, Nancy, 52, and their two kids, Elis­a­beth, 17, and John, 14. The cou­ple met when she was bar­tend­ing across the street from Sec­ond City’s the­ater in Chicago and then joined the com­pany, and they hit it off im­me­di­ately.

“We make each other laugh; we al­ways have,” he says. “Whereas with my broth­ers and my par­ents, our senses of hu­mor were all very dif­fer­ent. But Nancy and I share a sense of hu­mor. We must have a thou­sand in­side jokes, be­tween the two of us, and it never gets old.” Also an ac­tress (she spent a year as a cast mem­ber on Satur­day Night Live), writer and pro­ducer, Nancy ap­peared with Carell in sev­eral episodes of The Of­fice, and she and Steve are co-cre­ators of the TV­cop com­edy-spoof se­ries Angie Tribeca, star­ring Rashida Jones.

He says his fa­vorite thing to do now is hang out at home with his fam­ily to talk, watch a movie or play board games. “From the out­side, it would sound like [we’re] the most bor­ing four peo­ple ever,” he says, laugh­ing, “light­ing a fire and just the four of us play­ing Mo­nop­oly un­til two in the morn­ing. It sounds so sim­ple—and kinda hokey—but boy, I love stuff like that.”

The Carells also go back to the East Coast of­ten to visit fam­ily— and to pop by the gen­eral store they bought in 2009 in Marsh­field, Mass., thanks, once again, to his love of his­tory. “I knew it would never be a big mon­ey­mak­ing en­ter­prise,” he says of the Marsh­field Hills Gen­eral Store. In­stead, he bought it to pre­serve the build­ing it­self, which is nearly 170 years old. “They used to sew Union army uni­forms in the at­tic,” he says. He also wanted to make it a place where neigh­bors can gather and, “you know, get an ice cream and sit out on the front porch.”

It re­minded him so much of a gen­eral store he vis­ited grow­ing up, he felt an in­stant pull to the place. “I re­mem­ber how mag­i­cal it was as a lit­tle kid, hav­ing a place to go and buy some penny candy, hang out with your friends, ride your bike over. And that place doesn’t ex­ist any­more—kids don’t have those places to go,” he says.

Giv­ing to­day’s kids the op­por­tu­nity for whole­some in­ter­ac­tions like that has be­come im­por­tant to him, as he tries to raise his own teenagers to be kind and gen­er­ous hu­man be­ings. “I think that’s what I try to im­press upon them,” says Carell, “to be de­cent and add some­thing of value to the world.”

Be­yond that, he’s hes­i­tant to pin down ex­actly what else he wants to bring. “I’m just an ac­tor, you know?” he says, throw­ing his hands up and laugh­ing. “I’m not sav­ing the world.” But then he cites his re­cent roles in

Beau­ti­ful Boy, Mar­wen and Vice. “There are mes­sages in all of those about hope and re­demp­tion and kind­ness, and those are things that are im­por­tant to me.”

It wasn’t all that long ago, af­ter all, when he was a lad in a mall in Mas­sachusetts, smil­ing so other peo­ple would, maybe, smile too.

Fam­ily time: Carell and wife Nancy with son John and daugh­ter Elis­a­beth

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