ABOVE: STEVE CARELL WITH TONI COLLETTE IN THE WAY, WAY BACK. IMAGE COURTESY OF WWBSP.
It’s early afternoon in Los Angeles, and one of the biggest names in comedy is completely exhausted. We’re supposed to be talking with Steve Carell about his latest film, The Way, Way Back, written and directed by superstar scribes Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants); but he informs us that he just got off a plane from Australia. It’s early morning where he’s coming from, and when we mention that we’ve just gotten off a plane from Texas, Carell declares with a hearty laugh that this is going to be the worst interview ever.
Known for his larger-than-life comedic characters, such as Michael Scott in TV’s The Office and a host of blockbuster broad comedies such as The 40 Year Old Virgin and Crazy, Stupid, Love, Carell is casually warm and funny, smiling and laughing often. The Way, Way Back is a departure for him. In the story of a discontent teen spending his summer on the Eastern seaboard and finding his own place in the world, Carell plays Trent, a dramatic, stern stepfather figure to Liam James‘ Duncan, offering half-insults and mild-abuse as a kind of tough-love method of parenting. Carell himself couldn’t be farther from that kind of man, and as we spoke, that became ever more apparent.
AMANDA MAE MEYNCKE: I’m used to seeing you as Michael Scott, or those kind of good-guy characters. This character just seems like the worst dad ever, very unpleasant, and there’s not much comedy in the role. Was that a new experience for you?
STEVE CARELL: I didn’t think of him as a bad guy; I didn’t approach him that way. But he’s not the most likable person in the world, it was different. I got the script and I read that first scene, in which he’s really being terrible to this 14-year-old son of his girlfriend, and I liked the scene because it certainly set the tone of the movie. It was brutal, but I was brutally honest. I found out later it was based on a true encounter between one of the directors and his stepdad. I think that’s partly why it rang so true, because it was based in reality.
MEYNCKE: You have to wonder at the kind of man who would have this really harsh and semi-abusive conversation with his girlfriend’s son, and keep needling him even when the kid doesn’t want to talk.
CARELL: Yes, not even in hushed tones; that was a choice too. I don’t think the character believes he’s saying anything bad, so if he’s caught saying these things, it’s just the truth, he’s just trying to help. To me, that’s the saving grace of being able to play a character like that, he believes he’s just trying to help, and he is, in his mind. It’s one thing just to play a terrible human being who has a completely black heart and does things in order to hurt others, but I don’t think that’s this guy. I just think he’s misguided and doesn’t know how to help this 14-year-old boy, so in a way he’s doing the best that he knows to help him out. I played a lot of sports growing up, and you have those coaches who are ruthless, merciless, cruel, and never back off and are just full of negativity and beating you down, and of course in their minds—it’s all in the name of character building. I liken it to that.
MEYNCKE: “That’s what the real world’s like, better get used to it now.”
CARELL: Better get used to it now, right, and I think that’s the way Trent sees himself.
MEYNCKE: What was so unique about the character that you just had to take the role?
CARELL: It’s a type of character I haven’t played before, and it’s a character that seemed familiar too, based on those coaches and other people I’ve known, he didn’t seem like a mustache-twirling villain… he seemed like a real guy.
MEYNCKE: Not one of those “I can’t pay the rent! You must pay the rent.”
CARELL: [laughs] I can’t pay the rent! You must pay the rent! More importantly, I thought the script was really good. Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, and Toni Collette, that’s… I mean, you’re gonna be in that movie. Allison Janney is so great, she’s a very impressive actress.
MEYNCKE: Allison Janney told me that she relies on her costume designers to give her clues as to who her characters are. What helps you find your way into this character?
CARELL: I got a haircut, I grew a little stubble, and I got a tan. I think this guy sort of fancies himself as being a bit of a stud, at least in his own mind. I think he’s definitely an alpha male, and I tend not to play that kind of guy, either. Someone who’s in charge when he walks into a room, it’s his way.
MEYNCKE: Are you growing more into that role? Would you pursue that?
CARELL: I don’t know if it’s a type of part I want to pursue, necessarily.
MEYNCKE: There wasn’t a lot of comedy for your character.
CARELL: My character was definitely more of a straight man in this, which I felt was great. I have no need to be funny in something that doesn’t necessarily call for it. There was nothing funny about this character to me. But at the same time, I didn’t want to play him as a heavy, either. I’ve said this before, I don’t ever want to take a part in order to prove that I’m capable of doing something. It’s all based in doing stuff that’s interesting or working with people who would be fun to work with. After this I did a drama, a straight drama with Bennett Miller. You get asked to do a part for somebody like that and you do it.
MEYNCKE: Was it strange going back for The Office finale?
CARELL: It wasn’t strange. I went back with very specific parameters because I didn’t want to overshadow, I didn’t want it to be about Michael Scott returning. I thought enough time had passed that it didn’t have to be that way. I wanted it to be more of a tip of the hat, and a sign of respect and thanks to the cast and all the people who watched the show. It was fun to see those guys in that context again. I knew what they were going through—I’d gone through it two years before.
MEYNCKE: At this point in your career, you get to be fairly selective with your roles, I imagine.
CARELL: I’m pretty lucky that way, and I initially said no to [The Way, Way Back], only because it was gonna be shooting in July and I generally spend the summers with my family, that’s kind of a no-fly-zone. Summer vacation, I always spend it with my wife and kids but they asked, “Well, where do you go for the summer?” I go back to Massachusetts, a little South shore town. They said they were looking at that area as a potential location, and they ended up shooting it there. It worked out great.
MEYNCKE: Was there anything unexpected that happened on set?
CARELL: Not really, there were no jellyfish stings. The last night, it rained. We had pretty good weather all the way through, but we had one more night left and we had to shoot the big confrontation between Liam [James]’s character and my character Trent, and probably most of that big party sequence, and then the scene where Liam and AnnaSophia [Robb] are on the beach, so two kind of major scenes to shoot that night, and it rained all of the night. It finally cleared at 9 pm, so we had to shoot everything from 9 pm until when the sun came up at 5 am. That was tough, but they did such a good job, that was the biggest sort of…
CARELL: That’s the exact word for it.
MEYNCKE: What have you been reading lately?
CARELL: Alan Arkin’s autobiography. I am such a huge fan of his, and he became a friend.
MEYNCKE: That must be strange, reading someone’s book that you know.
CARELL: It is! I’m such a fan. He’s one of those guys, I got cast in Little Miss Sunshine and I asked who was playing the grandfather and they said, “It looks like it’s Alan Arkin.” [Carell imitates dropping into a reverent state of shock] In my mind I have a few comedic idols, and Peter Sellers is one of them, and Alan Arkin, the two of them are at the top of my list.
MEYNCKE: Who else is on that list of comedy giants that you look up to?
CARELL: Mel Brooks, Billy Wilder, Steve Martin was a huge influence, I listened to all of his recordings… he just deconstructed comedy in such a beautiful way. To work with someone that was an idol like Arkin, it was a little overwhelming, and he’s now a friend of mine.
MEYNCKE: So no summer reading, then?
CARELL: No, I don’t have anything.
MEYNCKE: You should read Preston Sturges’ autobiography.
CARELL: I love Preston Sturges. I worked with a director once who, in the middle of the shoot, said, “We’re channeling Preston Sturges here!” And I thought, “Now you’ve ruined it.” Don’t ever say something like that when you’re in the middle of a movie, because you’re just going to jinx yourself.
MEYNCKE: What’s your summer jam?
CARELL: I listen to the fun music that my 12-year-old daughter listens to. I’m listening to a lot of Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Rihanna. A lot of pop female artists. I have to say I’m pretty well-versed in the pop female category.
MEYNCKE: If you could give yourself any advice 20 years ago, what would it be?
CARELL: I’d go back further, I’d go back to the age of the kid in this movie. I would tell [myself] not to be as shy around girls, because they’re probably just as shy and just as scared as you are. I was really shy. At school dances, I could never ask a girl to dance. I was very, very nervous around girls.
MEYNCKE: Did some of your comedy come from that place? Compensating for that?
CARELL: No, I wasn’t a class clown, I never developed this comedic flair as a kid. Even when I decided to become an actor, it was just to be an actor, not necessarily a comedic actor. [laughs] I wasn’t that guy who struck out with women so he became really funny, and that’s when the women started to like him.
MEYNCKE: You have such a good grasp of what people find funny; are you hoping to do any writing, directing of your own?
CARELL: I’m writing something right now for Warner Bros., possibly to direct, we’ve talked about it. That’s such a cliché thing, “I’m an actor, but…” and I’d enjoy directing. I directed a couple of episodes of “The Office,” that was a lot of fun. Especially with a cast like that, you just have to kind of point a camera at them and you don’t have to do anything. I’m inherently lazy, so that was pretty fun.
THE WAY, WAY BACK IS OUT IN THEATERS THIS FRIDAY, JULY 5.