Seeking New Challenges Before the End of the World
by Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 21, 2012.
When picking an everyman to symbolize the Earth at the end of days, you can’t do much better than low-key funnyman Steve Carell.
The comic actor has certainly made a career of being ordinary guys, from his film breakthrough in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin to his breakout sitcom role on The Office to his recent romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love.
Carell’s new film is the quirky romantic comedy drama Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, in which he and Keira Knightley finally figure out what is important in life right as a 70-mile wide comet is hurtling towards Earth. Poignant and surprisingly funny, the film – the directing debut of screenwriter Lorene Scafaria – finds some unique beats in what could be a played-out storyline, finding black humor and heart in a sci-fi scenario usually played for shock value.
A couple of weeks before the film opened, we were one of several sites who were invited to discuss the movie with Carell, his co-star Keira Knightley and writer/director Lorene Scafaria at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Due to a last-minute engagement, Carell had to stay in Los Angeles, so we ended up speaking with him via Skype.
First, I have to ask you – Are you wearing pants?
Indeed. (He laughs and stands, showing he is indeed wearing pants.)
Did you ever think about the end of the world, what you’ll be doing?
It’s all I think about. Yeah, you know what, that’s one of the reasons why the script appealed to me. It showed this scenario from a different viewpoint. It’s not the viewpoint of the President on the hotline, talking to the astronauts. It’s just people. It’s just the normal rank and file who are dealing with this information. It makes you think about it. It makes you think what you would do and the choices that you would make. I probably would just eat. I’d eat a lot of crap.
The whole idea of facing the end of the world and having limited time left – is that something you would rather know? Or would you rather have a big pop and everything is over?
Just pop me. I don’t want to know. Personally, I don’t want to have the time to put my ducks in a row. I’m hoping that my ducks are in a row already and that I’m living my life the way I want to live it, with joy and happiness. Because I think it puts an awful lot of pressure if you have this much time left to make the most of it. I’d rather challenge myself to make the most of it without that knowledge.
You had a wonderful chemistry with Keira. Could you talk about working together and getting a rhythm between you?
You never know if there will be a chemistry or whether… I think she’s great. I like her on a personal level. She is smart and funny and self-deprecating and sweet. I was really drawn to her. I think she’s a really kind, good person, apart from being a great actor. I loved working with her. We spent a lot of time together. A lot of time in the car. A lot of time just the two of us. Sitting, talking about our lives and families and stuff like that. It’s a cliché, but when somebody is that good an actor, it just makes everybody else better. You can’t help but be better in the presence of someone like that.
You’ve got another summer movie with Meryl Streep. (Hope Springs) Was that very different?
I do. Well, in the same way. You know, Meryl Streep makes everybody better, too. It’s exactly the same thing. I’m a supporting role in that [movie]. I have a few scenes with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, where I play their marriage counselor. It’s really daunting. And exciting at the same time. These big 10-12 page scenes that are just us. It’s essentially doing an one-act play. Those were fun. Those were fun days. Challenging, but exciting, too.
Did you ever make Tommy Lee Jones laugh?
I did. Yeah. A lot. He was great. David Frankel directed it. Just really such a nice experience. It was only about three weeks, but boy, it just flew by. Really.
Whose idea was it to have your wife play your character’s wife, and were you worried that she was maybe enjoying her scene a little too much?
Are you referring to the dagger eyes that she shot me? Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her move so quickly. Bolted out of that car. That was Lorene’s idea. She called and asked whether Nancy would be interested in doing that and she said sure. We actually shot that scene on our anniversary, which was kind of fun. Yeah, it was fun to be together and to be doing a scene about the end of the world in which she leaves me, which is a lot of weird stuff going on at the same time.
How would you define a good friend, and how do you think technological advancements affect the quality of friendship?
I would define a good friend as someone who is honest and loyal. Essentially, somebody you can trust. Somebody you can laugh with. Someone you can grow with. I think it’s like any relationship, friendships change and grow and evolve. A good friend is someone that through all of that evolution remains your friend and finds different aspects of one another to connect to. When you talk about modern technology and people texting and twittering, I just gave a speech at Princeton, where I brought up all of this. The advent of technology and how shameful that its usage is and how it drives us apart. But, of course, being in part sarcastic, because I don’t think it necessarily does. I think it’s a toy, in a way. It would be nice if people connected more on a personal level – face to face. But it’s kind of a moot point. Technology has made it all so much easier to connect with one another. In a way, I think it does help, because you can remain and be more connected with friends and people that you’ve known in the past, through technology. It opens up a lot of avenues that way. (pauses) I have no idea what I just said.
You’re working with a writer/director on this movie. Do you get to improvise occasionally, or just start riffing in scenes? And similarly, when you were with Meryl and Tommy Lee Jones doing these little one acts, was there improvisation there as well?
Not so much with Hope Springs. That was a pretty tightly written sequence. Also as a supporting characterm I wasn’t going to come in there and start improvising and mixing it up with Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep. I felt like I need to service it. I needed to be a good scene partner to them, but I didn’t want to be any more than that. I didn’t want to take any more time to myself. In terms of [Seeking a Friend…], yes, there was some improvising, and some things that we discussed before hand. Things that we might want to try, some line changes. But we didn’t have a lot of time, so when you’re pressed for time you generally don’t go fishing. It wasn’t a very big-budget movie so, there weren’t days upon days at a certain location to be exploring different improvisation. So it was limited, but there was some.
Outside of this movie, do you have a favorite end of the world movie?
Boy, a favorite end of the world movie. (long pause while thinking) Uh, Dr. Strangelove.
Penny took her record albums with her, and Dodge had his dog. If you were in that position, what would want to have to have with you?
To carry around at all times? Huh, like something I could just stick under my arm? I don’t know. Like just a huge flat-screen TV. I honestly don’t know. I guess a good book.
Do you know which one?
Oh, something involving Shades of Grey, perhaps. Some really steamy romance novel. Just to get me through those last couple of weeks.
Did you ever get worried that Sorry [the dog in the film] was trying to upstage you in some of the scenes?
Yeah, that dog was just a bastard. Had a huge rider and all sorts of requests. No, there were actually two dogs that were used. One was good, and one was not so good. We were always happy to have dog number one, the “hero dog” as they called him. But when we saw dog number two coming out, we were always very depressed. Dog number two had very bad breath for starters, and clearly did not want to play. It clearly did not want to be in a movie. Whereas dog number one, it’s like he understood where the camera was. It was kind of uncanny. He would turn on cue. It was like crazy! Really sweet. And dog number two was just sort of an a-hole.
You seem to like mixing it up. You just mentioned a supporting role, this is a low-budget movie that you’re doing now, how do you look at your career post The Office?
Then I have the porno movie that I’m going to be doing. (laughs) Yeah, I guess I am kind of mixing it up but it’s not necessarily intentional, it’s just by virtue of the things that I have going right now. I just finished a much broader comedy with Jim Carrey about rival magicians, that we finished about a month and a half ago. That’s called Burt Wonderstone. Then this fall I’m going to do a movie with Bennett Miller about John du Pont, which is very dark. That’s called Foxcatcher.
Yes, he killed an Olympic wrestler.
It’s very hard to do comedy, yet you find great comedic timing. At what point in your life did you know that comedy was meant for you?
I didn’t go into acting… when I first moved to Chicago I really didn’t have a specific intention of being a comedic actor. I just thought I wanted to work. I wanted to be employed and do plays, The things I generally got were comedic in nature. So I guess it started then. Then I got a job at Second City in the touring company and it evolved from there. It’s not like in high school or college that I thought that comedy was going to be my focus. I didn’t even think that acting was going to be my focus, so this was all a surprise.
What did you think was going to be the focus?
I thought I was going to be an attorney. I thought I was going to go to law school and become an attorney.
What do you think of The Office after your departure and has there been anything about it that surprised you since you left?
Nothing that surprised me. I knew it would be great and the writing is still strong. I wasn’t shocked in any way, because it’s still a really good show. It’s difficult. It’s weird to watch because it’s like if you could graduate from college and then watch your classmates continue to go to class and do all the things that they’re doing in college, that’s what it seems like to me. I feel like I graduated but I still get to tune in and see all of my friends still doing what they do.
Would you be tempted to do a cameo?
You know what, do you really want to see Michael Scott come back on the show?
Me, I don’t. I really don’t. I think people believe they want to see that, but I think in practice they don’t. If something like that would come to pass, it would I think be more of a letdown than something people would embrace. That’s just my feeling.
So they’re not meeting your quote then.
(laughs) There have been no conversations about it. I’m just speaking offhand. It seems like it’s better in theory than it is in practice, to me. But you never know.
They say that comedy is like a game of badminton, you keep going back and forth over the net. Was that true with you and Keira and was that true with you and Jim Carrey, or was that more like a battle for who gets the biggest laugh?
Oh not at all. Jim, boy, he is so funny in this movie too. No, it’s very much the same thing. Obviously, there are different tempos and sort of different energies to those two people. To anyone comedic. You just have to gauge your own performance off of that. You can’t bring the same energy that you would bring to a Jim Carrey scene to a scene with Keira. It’s a different movie. It’s a completely different world. Different thing tonally as well. I mean this movie has a very specific comedic tone. It’s dark and it’s Lorene [Scafaria]’s wicked sense of humor. But it is a game, and I think it is a back and forth, and it’s a sharing. When you’re performing with people that are really good, you feel each other. You feel like, okay now this person is having a moment, it’s time for me to just be supporting that moment and to help make that moment as good and as funny as it can possibly be. It’s very much a shared experience.
Where are you and why are you Skyping?
I’m in Los Angeles, because I’m going to a benefit tonight. I am presenting an award to a friend of mine. Shawn Levy. It’s the Chrysalis Foundation. It’s called the Butterfly Ball. I’m presenting him with an award.
This movie’s got an amazing amount of great supporting actors. Who was your favorite to work with?
You know, I’m a big Patton Oswalt fan. Martin Sheen. There’s all sorts of great actors in this. But just from a comedic standpoint, I’m a huge fan [of Oswalt]. I saw him do stand-up, I think when I was doing Anchorman, and it was one of the funniest stand-up acts I’ve ever seen. I’ve been a fan ever since. So it was really nice to meet him in person.
Is Anchorman coming back?
It is. We’re going to start to shoot in I think February or March. They’re hoping for a release sometime next summer.
Was it hard to persuade you to come back to that?
Oh God, no. This is something we’ve wanted to do for years. The persuasion was on the studio level. We had to persuade the studio to do another one. They’d been reticent about doing it for a number of years. We all wanted to. As soon as we finished the first one, we started talking about doing another one.
I assume your role would be a little bit more evolved than the first movie.
I sort of hope it’s not. It’s almost like that Michael Scott thing. I feel like, maybe you think you want it to be, but I don’t think so. I think Brick should be exactly the same, having evolved not at all. (laughs)
So will there be another Trident fight?
It’s funny how many people quote that movie with, “I’m in a glass box of emotion” or “I ate a big red candle.”
“I love lamp”?
“I woke up and shit a squirrel.” It’s weird how it entered into the pop culture. We got together about two months ago to shoot a teaser trailer and it was like no time had passed. It was really fun.
Can you tell us anything about your project with Charlie Kaufman?
I don’t know where that is right now. I know that he had been assembling a cast of Jack Black and I think I heard Kate Winslet might be involved. He was getting this cast together but I haven’t heard specifically about a shoot date. The script is a Charlie Kaufman Hollywood musical. It’s crazy, and really, really funny. I’ve known Charlie since he was a writer on the Dana Carvey Show, back like ’96.
Yeah, so I’ve been a fan of his for a while. We’ve known each other for quite some time, so I hope it comes together at some point.
Do you want to direct?
Someday. Yeah that would be fun. I don’t know what or when or how, but yeah, perhaps someday it would be fun to do.
Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 21, 2012.
Photos © 2012. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.