There’s a Protestant comfort to be taken from the success story of Steve Carell. The idea of “making it” in Hollywood can be alienating to the common person for any number of reasons, but perhaps the most alienating aspect of all is that now more than ever, the metrics of success are baffling, bordering on inconceivable. They are one of those ethereal sequences of floating numbers film directors put in movies about math.
But Carell’s equation is mercifully simple: a young man identified something he loved to do, recognized it as a sort of talent, then worked at it very hard for a pretty long time. He was rewarded incrementally at first, joining the touring company at Chicago’s Second City, eventually moving into critically lauded roles on The Dana Carvey Show and The Daily Show. Then, in 2005, there was his unforgettable face on the poster for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, haloed with sunshine and staring all twinkly eyed into the middle distance, somewhere between the portrait of a communist leader and a boy in his fourth-grade school photo. And while his blockbuster turn as Michael Scott on seven seasons of The Office might have won him a Golden Globe and a legion of prime-time fans, his ascent remained conspicuously unflashy, devoid of scandal or sensation, just a steady chug to the top, where the stars live.
In the opening scene of his most recent film, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Carell’s character is told by his wife (played by Julianne Moore), as they are driving home from a romantic dinner, that she has slept with someone else. The guilt of Moore’s admission takes hold and gains momentum, until she’s helplessly blabbing the gory details of the transgression as Carell begs her to stop talking and turns gray with heartbreak. Then suddenly, with only the lightest of warnings, Carell opens the passenger-side door and tumbles neatly out of the speeding car onto the pavement. The thought I had when I saw this was not, Oh, god! but, Of course! That seems to be Carell’s most impressive playing card: his knack for making the utterly absurd choice seem like it’s the only reasonable option in the world.
I met with Carell in his office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California. We talked for nearly two hours, and during that time he was unhurried, generous, and so humble that he rambled self-consciously whenever faced with a question that broached why he’s so good at what he does. When we were done talking, he motioned to the coffee table between us and at the dozen glass containers filled with various chocolates and Red Vines and said, “Please, take some candy!” I chose a few Reese’s peanut butter cups. Concerned, he then apologized for not being in the position to offer me a lottery scratcher, which he sometimes keeps in their own special jar, next to the candy.
THE BELIEVER: You also taught improv. What kind of teacher were you?
STEVE CARELL: Lazy. I was a lazy teacher. Keep in mind, you can teach certain elements of improvisation and people can become better at it, but I don’t know if it’s a skill that can be taught from scratch. It’s like any art. [Pause] Do I want to compare it to art? [Longer pause] Yeah, I guess it’s an art. You can take a drawing class and get better if you’re not so great, but I think you have to have something inside you. And I could tell there were people in my class who had that thing…
BLVR: What is that thing? Curiosity?
SC: Not exactly. I think it’s the ability to listen. A lot of people would come in and think that it was a class to learn how to make jokes and be funny. Some people came in thinking it was a comedy class. But that’s not what Second City did, or what I was trying to teach. And there’s nothing more boring than watching two people get up onstage and improvise “funny.”