By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Steve Carell fans must feel like pigs in mud. Not only did they get their wish and see him return as Michael Scott this past spring in the series finale of the “The Office,” they also saw him as a Siegfried-like Las Vegas magician in the big screen comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.” The versatile actor now reprises his indeterminate Eastern European accent for the voice of reformed supervillain Gru in the animated sequel “Despicable Me 2.” At the same time, moviegoers can see him as a pretty despicable father figure in the live-action dramedy “The Way, Way Back.”
“I am so sorry—too much of me?” he responds when confronted with his list of recent credits.
Not quite. There’s a reason for his popularity. It’s because he’s so darn funny, except when he’s not supposed to be, like in “The Way, Way Back.”
“I do nothing funny in this movie at all,” he says deadpan.
Made by the same filmmaking team that created the surprise hit “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Way, Way Back” is a coming-of-age story about a boy who goes on a beach vacation with his divorced mom, her new boyfriend (Carell) and his self-absorbed daughter. The film reunites the actor with his “Little Miss Sunshine” co-star Toni Collette, playing a milquetoast mom, who can’t—or won’t—acknowledge her boyfriend’s shortcomings as a human being to the detriment of her young son, who finds friendship with people working at a local water park.
A real-life father of two (with former “SNL” alum Nancy Walls), Carell says he was drawn to each of the characters that are struggling with the perils of fatherhood in their own way.
For those, who still haven’t had enough of Carell, the 50-year-old actor reprises his role as dimwitted meteorologist Brick Tamland in “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” later this year.
Q: In both films you play a dysfunctional parental figure. Which of these acting challenges is more fun to play and which character do you feel you can learn more from?
Carell: What lessons did I learn from them? I don’t know. They’re so different. Keep in mind, I show up, and I provide a voice (for Gru). So much of this character is the animation, really, most of it. They’re geniuses at it. You go see the final product, and you want to claim credit for all of it, but I only have to do a small percentage of what goes into the movie. It’s just fun. There are certain things that kind of struck me about the story. Gru is searching for what he’s going to do now that he’s not a supervillain. He’s trying to start a jam and jelly business, and that doesn’t seem to be working out. He can’t go back to being a villain, but ultimately he wants to find something that will fulfill him, which I think is a very relatable thing for parents. When you have kids, it becomes all about them. It’s very easy to lose your sense of self within that. You do kind of have to keep your career and that side of it intact because I think, ultimately, that makes you a better parent as well.
Q: What about Trent in “The Way, Way Back?” Did you see him as a bad guy?
Carell: Not necessarily a bad guy. Maybe he’s not somebody you would define as a nice warm-spirited person. I guess the best comparison I could make is when I was growing up I played a lot of sports and had a lot of coaches who were very tough on me. That’s sort of the way I see this guy. He thinks he’s doing what’s best for this kid with tough love, character-building and brutal honesty. That’s his method but I don’t think it’s a very effective method.
Q: Are there any similarities between yourself and the character?
Carell: That is such a loaded question. (He laughs.). Here’s the thing, I don’t think anyone is as mean or as nice as you think they are. Yeah, I think there are dark aspects to me I’m sure but not perhaps that dark.
Q: Were you surprised that Toni (Collette) was going to be in this with you again?
Carell: I was so excited. The experience was very similar to “Little Miss Sunshine” because we both read the script and had the same feeling about the script. We thought it was great as we did with “Little Miss Sunshine.” When we first saw it, we thought, “This turned out well. It’s a really sweet movie.” Then we went to Sundance and it had this overwhelming response, which was very similar to “Little Miss Sunshine.” So we felt like we had kind of captured lightning in a bottle twice.
Q: Growing up, did you have any summers like this?
Carell: Yes. We shot the movie where my wife and I live during the summertime (Marshfield, Mass.). Maybe five or six houses down (from the house in the movie) is our family beach house. It’s a very family-friendly beach. It’s not a fancy place, either. It’s a very sweet little community and they were so happy to have us there. They were really kind and generous to have us there.
Q: So did you become a tour guide for the entire cast and crew?
Carell: Yeah, I would tell people where to go to get the best lobster roll and stuff like that.
Q: You have a teenage daughter, right?
Carell: Not quite. She’s 12. Don’t rush it.
Q: So are you experiencing similar things that Gru is experiencing with his daughter, or did it make you get a little nervous?
Carell: We’re not quite there, and I hope I’m not the same sort of dad. I hope I don’t react the way (Gru does by shooting would-be suitors) with a freeze ray gun. It’s tricky because I don’t want to be that over-protective dad, but at the same time I do want to protect them. I understand what the character in the movie’s going through because you don’t want to see your kids get hurt. That’s the main thing. You know they’re going to have their hearts broken at some point, and you can’t ultimately protect them against them having that happen. But boy, I’m enjoying their childhood as long as I can. Let me put it that way because I know there’s another period of time that’s going to be a very, very different and a difficult growth period for everybody, my wife and I as well.
Q: How do you like returning to the role of Gru?
Carell: I love it, and I love the fact that this itself is an evolution. I think it’s a natural extension of the first movie, which I thought was smart. The characters changed and grew —no pun intended—but at the same time, the sense of the movie feels familiar. The tone of it is the same as the first one, but the family is different. That dynamic is different, and he’s no longer officially a villain.
Q: Are there lessons to be learned from “Despicable Me 2?”
Carell: I don’t know if they’re necessarily lessons to be learned within it, but I think there’s a sense of goodness to—I don’t want to overstate it either— but the movie’s just very kind. And that’s what I liked about both of these films. It’s very simple in a way and it has a very good heart. And it is so much fun to do a kind of villainous, but comedic character within that. In “The Way, Way Back,” the guy is a jerk. He’s somebody who, in my opinion, might have had a trying childhood. So I think both (characters) are identifiable, but for different reasons, and with different results.
Q: We discover Gru’s weak spot in this one: which is basically women and dating. How did you feel about the flashback, where a girl as a youngster rejects him?
Carell: I completely related I have to say.
Q: Do you think that sort of rejection has an effect on men later on in life?
Carell: Are you kidding me? Yeah, definitely. I honestly did relate to that, and I bet most people do. Even the most self-confident person, at one point in their life, felt like an outsider or felt like they weren’t being heard or seen or witnessed in some way so I think that’s a really relatable scene. It definitely informs a lot about who Gru is now. All you need is that one rejection or it could go the other way too. You have that one time where the girl says, “Hey, you’re all right.” That boosts your confidence, but that one time where you get shut down—I didn’t have exactly that scenario—it stays with you. Personally, I was shy for a long, long time with girls. I know. It’s amazing.
Q: If you had your own group of minions, what would you have them do for you?
Carell: Wash the car because I figure they’re porous, sort of, sponges. Just spin them around and they would wash, wax and polish your car. I can’t imagine anyone could do it better than the minions.
Q: Your appearance in the final episode of “The Office” was such a great surprise. How did you keep your return a secret? Did you have to do a lot of lying?
Carell: I lied for months to the press, to almost everyone, really. I felt terribly for the cast and for (TV writer) Greg Daniels because they all lied too. They all went on talk shows and everyone just lied, continually, because we just figured it would be a fun surprise if people weren’t expecting it. I didn’t want it to be a big thing. I did it out of respect for the show and for the actors. It was really based out of that.