STEVE CARELL IS A Drama Queen
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.
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.”
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