People In Film | Steve Carell

Steve Carell | A Comic Everyman

In Lorene Scafaria’s SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, two strangers ––Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) –– form an powerful bond as they set off on a road trip just days before the world is set to be destroyed by a colossal asteroid. For Carell, the intimacy of the piece drew him in. “It was funny, sweet, emotionally intense at times, and a story that I hadn’t seen,” explains Carell, adding that the comedy focuses on “how ordinary human beings respond, and the choices they make when they know that everything is going to be over in a matter of days.” For the producers, finding a lead who could convey that intimacy, as well as be funny and real, was a tall order. Joy Gorman Wettels notes that “Dodge has to be someone that you can see yourself in, or your dad, your brother, your husband. Steve Carell engenders so much goodwill and conveys such warmth; he is an Everyman. People relate to him; he was the only choice for Dodge.”

Steve Carell | A Comic in Training

Carell as part of the Burpee's Seedy Theatrical Co.

To some extent, Carell’s accessibility reflects the perfectly normal world he grew up in. The youngest of four brothers, Carell was raised in Concord, Massachusetts, in an immensely supportive middle-class family. His mother, a psychiatric nurse, and his father, an electric engineer, let him pursue his interests from band to hockey and even theatrics. Carell recounted to The New Yorker an appearance in a school play that was the source of much pride: “I paddled on both sides of the canoe...and our teacher made special mention of it: that I was the only one making sure we didn’t go in circles.” While Carell did a little more acting in high school, he also played baritone horn in the band, served as goalie on the hockey team, and even served in student government. Later, in college at Denison University in Ohio, Carell started to develop his dramatic (and comic) muscles as a member of Burpee's Seedy Theatrical Co., the school’s improv group. After graduation, Carell returned to Massachusetts to contemplate his future and deliver mail for a short period. He attempted to apply to law school. “My parents had sacrificed to put me through private schools,” Carell told The New Yorker, “and I felt a responsibility to make good on their investment.” It was his parents, however, who pushed him to pursue his acting dream. In 1987, he moved to Chicago, joined the Second City comedy improv group, honed his comic skills, and met people who would change his life. Professionally, he befriended Stephen Colbert, who’d be a mainstay in his career. And later, in 1994, when he was teaching impov, he met Nancy Walls, who became his wife the following year.

Steve Carell | Ready for Prime Time

Steve Carell as Michael Scott in The Office

In 1995, Carell moved to New York City, after his wife joined Saturday Night Live. There, ex-SNL star Dana Carvey, who’d just been given a TV show, hired Carell, along with writer Charlie Kaufman, comic Louis C.K. and Stephen Colbert. Unfortunately, the show’s cutting edge humor proved a bit too sharp for network television, and The Dana Carvey Show was quickly cancelled. Carell got another chance, however, when he was cast as the manic, temperamental chef Yorgo Galfanikos in the Tim Curry-anchored, aptly-named sitcom Over the Top, which was canned after three episodes. The next year, Carell’s Second City friend Stephen Colbert pushed him to try out for Comedy Central’s revamped The Daily Show, which had recently been taken over by Jon Stewart. If Carell had previously played loud, sometimes crazy characters, his on-air presence on The Daily Show was just the opposite. Carell excelled as the straight-faced interviewer who let his subjects dig their own comic graves, as he did with his first piece on an Elvis impersonator who ran a Venom Research Facility in Nebraska. Carell later defined his on-screen persona to Playboy as “someone who had been a network anchor but had since been demoted to working on a Comedy Central news show. He had a bad attitude about where he should be as opposed to where he was.” Indeed, Carell’s passive satirical style for his six years on The Daily Show helped define the program’s unique humor, and pushed Carell into being cast in a series of TV comedies. In 2000, he starred in the pilot for H.U.D., a comedy action project that imagined the federal housing department as a front for a secret law-enforcement agency. In 2002, Carell was cast in Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ short-lived vehicle Watching Ellie and two years later he showed up in the failed sitcom Come to Papa, as Tom Papa’s inept newspaper office boss. While on that show, Carell was invited to audition for a new project being developed at NBC based on a popular BBC sitcom called The Office. While many feared that the American version might water down the dry British humor of the original, The Office with Steve Carell as the bumbling boss Michael Scott, heading up a branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in Scranton, Pennsylvainia, became a defining TV show for the first decade of 21st century. The initial New York Times review identified Carell’s character as “a master of the malapropos joke who despite crushing evidence believes that he is a born comedian and that his employees admire him.” As the show progressed and found its own voice, many saw Carell as its emotional heart and comic center. IGN remarked about the 2008 season that “Carell is delivering what is arguably the best performance on network television - comedy or not.”

Steve Carell | Human in Real Time

Steve Carell and Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old Virgin

While much of Carell’s early work was on TV, he found a few bit parts before being hired to play Jim Carrey’s newscaster nemesis in the 2003 religious comedy Bruce Almighty, a part that caught the attention of many critics when Carell hilariously was made to speak gibberish during his newscast. Indeed, Carell proved so good that when Carrey turned down the sequel, director Tom Shadyac asked Carell to play the lead in the 2007 Evan Almighty, in which he plays a modern-day Noah. In 2004, Carell continued his newscaster roles as intelligence-challenged weatherman Brick Tamland in Adam McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. For Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter, Carell’s character’s “continual inability to understand reality is endlessly funny.” While making Anchorman, Carell started working with the film’s producer Judd Apatow on an idea he’d had since his Second City days, that of a middle-aged man who’d never had sex. The resulting film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, an ensemble comedy centered on Carell’s Andy Stitzer, an average Joe whose friends all band together to get him laid, proved a first in many ways. It was Apatow’s directorial film debut, as well as Carell’s first screenplay and first lead role. But it also marked a shift in Carell’s onscreen persona. His previous large, sometimes raucous, sometimes doofus, characters were now subdued. As Owen Gleiberman commented about Stitzer in his rave Entertainment Weekly review, “Carell plays him in the funniest and most surprising way possible: as a credible human being.” The film was a huge hit, and made Carell a bona-fide movie star. The next year, Carell refined his comic style again in Little Miss Sunshine. As part of the ensemble of this runaway indie hit, Carell played Frank Ginsberg, a gay Proust scholar who’s close to suicidal after a recent breakup. USA Today’s Claudia Puig heralded this as “one of his best performances yet.” While Carell could still go in for slapstick humor, as in the 2008 action comedy Get Smart, his film work also explored the complex line between real emotions and comic effect. In 2007’s Dan in Real Life, Carell captures both the pathos and comedy of love when an advice columnist falls for his brother’s girlfriend. In the 2011 Crazy, Stupid, Love, Carell again moves back and forth between tender and tough as a man desperately trying to pull his life back together after his wife leaves him. The Los Angeles Times’ Betsy Sharkey notes that the film’s realism allows Carell to find his “sweet spot,” playing “the decent guy who's trying to do the right thing even when he makes a mess of it.”

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