Steve Carell: The serious business of laughter

By Tim Lewis

Tim Lewis talks to Steve Carell about his new movie, Anchorman 2, and being funny by playing it straight

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

What's your favourite line in the new film?

Paul Rudd has a line where he says: "You've heard the old saying, 'Nope'?" It's just his delivery that sells it. He's stealthily funny.

There's a video doing the rounds of your audition for the original Anchorman 10 years ago. How important was that?

Oh, huge. Adam [McKay, the director] and Will [Ferrell] are probably more responsible for my subsequent career than anybody, because they gave me a shot. I wasn't well known - none of us were except Paul - but they took a chance and from there I met Judd Apatow, one of the producers, and we wrote The 40-Year-Old Virgin together. That led to other things, so it was an incredibly important time in my career.

In Anchorman 2 your character, Brick Tamland, eats lipstick and butter. Where would you draw the line for a laugh?

Those were moulded chocolate - I wasn't getting stunt pay for those days - but I don't think you draw many lines in comedy. Look at people like Will, who will always go out on a limb comedically and take all sorts of chances. In this movie there was one day where they were scooping jellyfish out of the way with a shovel so he could swim in the ocean. He'll try anything: he doesn't put any constraints on how he approaches comedy.

There are a record-breaking number of cameos in this film, from Harrison Ford to Kanye West. Did that get surreal?

It was surreal, and it felt like camp, comedy camp: it was all for the sake of being silly for a few days and sharing in that. You know, it's a movie that's not trying to change the world. On a certain level it is smart and insightful but overall it's just a big, fun, ridiculous movie.

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You've just appeared on Saturday Night Live in the US with One Direction. Are you a fan?

My daughter's a big fan. I got a signed photo of them and that's going to be in the Christmas stocking. They were so sweet. I can't imagine how tough it is to be that age, that successful, that in-demand and still remain grounded and cool and human.

A lot of celebrities have mansions and garages full of Ferraris. But you're the only one, to my knowledge, who has bought a general store in Massachusetts ...

Yeah, it's a little shop that my sister-in-law runs. I had no intention of owning a general store but I grew up in Massachusetts with one of those stores close to my home and it has since disappeared, and I just thought, 'That was special to me as a child, I'd love to preserve this for other people." People text one another but I think there's a lack of the face-to-face conversation - the local barbershop, the local diner, the place where people congregate - and this is one of those places. You sit on the front porch eating a popsicle in the summertime with your kids. It's very comforting to me. It's just from a simpler time.

Do you have mixed feelings about technology? You seem to post on Twitter about once a month ...

I don't even know why I went on, because I don't find my life so interesting that I think people want to share in my daily thoughts. But some people are hilarious.

I know you're an admirer of Peter Sellers. Did you hear this week that they retrieved a couple of his early short films from a skip?

Oh, I hadn't, but I'm a huge fan. I'm interested to see.

What is it you like about Sellers?

He never indicated that he thought what he was doing was funny; he never winked at the camera. He was always completely committed to the characters he played. What I learned from watching him was that characters in comedies don't know they are in a comedy. They are just in life. He was a perfect personification of that.

You've written scripts in the past - a couple of episodes of the US version of The Office, The 40-Year-Old Virgin - but not for a while. Will you go back to that?

I've actually written a very silly TV pilot with my wife [Nancy, also an actor] called Tribeca. It's essentially a comedic version of Law and Order with a female protagonist and it's completely silly. There's no sentiment at all; it's sort of in the vein of Naked Gun and Police Squad. I'm going to direct the pilot episode in February, so we are casting right now. It's a hard thing to find the right actors who will play it straight; again, not indicating that they are doing anything funny but at the same time doing the most ridiculous things.

It is true there's an alternative version of Anchorman 2 out there?

Yes, Adam has a cut of the movie that has all different jokes; I think it will be on the DVD. It's all the same scenes but - because they had many options for every scene - every joke in the movie is switched for a different option or an improvised scene. There was an entire musical number, complete with background dancers, that didn't end up in the final cut. We spent a whole week shooting it and I wouldn't go as far as to say Busby Berkeley-esque, but it was a pretty big production.

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