Panel Nerds: Steve Carell Gets Into His Characters


Who: Steve Carell, interviewed by Tad Friend
: The New Yorker Festival’s “Steve Carell talks with Tad Friend (that’s what he said)
: Acura at SIR Stage37
When: October 3, 2010
: Up

It’s hard to imagine now, but after Bruce Almighty gave Steve Carell some level of fame, an agent contacted him to find out where he was represented. It turned out that at that time he was with an agent from the same firm that the recruiting agent worked for. He said he was “such a low priority they didn’t know I was a client.”

My how things have changed over recent years. When interviewer Tad Friend asked Carell about the philosophy that all comedians are “wounded” in some way, Carell said that he questions whether that’s true. In fact, he’s “reticent” to put himself in any category at all. He looks up to other comedians like Steve Martin and Peter Sellers for their abilities to stay inside a character, no matter how ridiculous. In fact, he says that when he first started at The Daily Show in 1999, he decided that he would approach every interview in character, hoping to be the one the audience would be laughing at. He said that he and his close friend Stephen Colbert still discuss the intricacies and difficulties that go along with sticking to a character without a script.

Carell said that his favorite character on The Office is Toby because he does so much with so few lines and minimal amounts of screen time. This isn’t surprising though once you consider that Carell, in his roles, chooses his spots wisely, largely blending in as observers until his much-awaited entry and timely punchline. He said he’s committed to making his comedy “genuine and real” in order to avoid cliches and anything else predictable. So it comes as no surprise that Carell revealed he improvises many of his lines, especially those in his films when he say he just “plays around” with the script. It’s the director’s job to determine which takes to include, and he’s just trying to give them plenty of options.

Now that he’s leaving The Office after seven seasons, Carell will focus a bit more on movies. But don’t expect him to stick to comedies; he said he’s more interested in “hybrids” that successfully combine humor with “heart.” After all, that’s what seems to have saved The Office, Friend pointed out. After a paltry first season, the NBC show rejiggered things to show more of Michael Scott’s personal life and his loneliness. The audience responded well to it. Carell said that he’s interested in that “gray area” to the character that humanizes him despite his abrasiveness or awkwardness. And he announced that this season the show will work in scenes and references that “show [Scott’s] aware” that the end of his story is near.

What They Said
“I never saw myself as a comedian. I never saw myself as someone who could just perform on stage.”
– Steve Carell says he stumbled into comedy

“It was disposable but you also had the freedom to fail, which I think is a great freedom to have.”
– Steve Carell reflects on the advantage to doing nightly live improv comedy

“If I can make a living, I’m way ahead of the competition. I didn’t care much for artistic integrity.”
– Steve Carell shares his goals for when he was first starting out in the 1980s and ’90s.

“I think the best actors can make a scripted line seen improvised.”
Steve Carell tries to give every role his fullest

“Talking about success sounds like you’re full of yourself.”
Steve Carell has a hard time discussing his career and being in the spotlight

What We Thought

  • Carell at one point mentioned that Friend had told him beforehand that Carell should do most of the speaking during the discussion. Even before this comment, we’d already made a note of how Friend was asking direct questions about giving Carell the floor. Friend achieved his goal.
  • He said he and his fellow actors want to do Anchorman 2 and are even willing to waive their usual fees. But they’d first like to do a Broadway show where they can improvise material that can eventually go into the script. This show sound like a great idea to us.

Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…Microphone Hogs
You’re the first one at the microphone stand so it’s up to you to kick things off for us. You ask a reasonable question about who’s funnier, Carell or Colbert. But once the answer’s been given, it’s time to sit down. We don’t need you to ask an unrelated question about costume design. Even if Carell handled your second question wiith grace, it sets a bad precedent for the rest of the audience waiting in line to ask their questions. As a result, several people stayed at the mike way too long, cutting down on the number of people we could hear from. Next time, keep it to one, please, even if you have two excellent questions to share.

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