Steve Carell has emerged as one of Hollywood's most sought-after comic actors. He first gained recognition for Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and has won huge acclaim for his Golden Globe Award-winning performance as Michael Scott in the US version of hit British comedy 'The Office'. Carell saw his first feature film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he co-wrote, open at number one at the US box office, taking over $175 million worldwide, and he earned huge praise for his role in the acclaimed Academy Award-nominated comedy Little Miss Sunshine. He will next be seen in Evan Almighty, the follow-up to the Jim Carrey smash Bruce Almighty. Carell returns as his character from the first film, Evan Baxter, but this time he is the lead, called upon by God to build him an ark, much as Noah before in Biblical times.
Q. Does it feel good to follow in the footsteps of Jim Carrey?
SC: Yeah. He gets all the power of God. I get pooped on by birds. He gets to blow women's skirts up in the air, and I get to hang out in a sweaty robe for three months.
Q. There are a lot of animals in this film. There must have been some mad moments?
SC: There was a scene where these two baboons had to hand me lemonade when I was building the ark, and one of them spilt the lemonade, so I improvised and said something like, 'Hey, man, what are you doing?' The baboon went crazy. He thought I was being aggressive and he got mad, and bared his teeth. I continued with the scene and later the animal trainer came up to me and said, 'Look, don't do that - don't improvise with the baboons and don't look them in the eye!' And I thought well maybe he should have told me that before I started the take! That was pretty funny. I'm not sure if that's in the final cut of the movie, but when you talk about real, organic moments, that was very real.
Q. What was the most difficult animal to work with?
SC: The birds. I spent three days covered in birds for one scene, and what people often don't realize is that birds smell. They have a really distinct odor to them, kind of like a bird body odor, and when you have them up and down your arms and legs and across your shoulders, you become quite familiar with their eccentricities.
Q. What animal did you like best?
SC: I enjoyed the elephants and giraffes. They were incredibly sweet. A giraffe up close, they have very soulful eyes and their faces are kind, and elephants are the same. They seem to have a real soul and they're very smart. They knew what they were doing, and you got a sense that they knew what they were a part of.
Q. It’s your biggest budget film to date. Do you feel an added pressure?
SC: I am aware that this was an expensive movie to make, and I hope that people like it. I think it has the potential to be something sweet and kind and something that the entire family could truly enjoy. It’s not just a movie that only the kids will like - it's something that will cross generations.
Q. What makes Evan himself funny?
SC: He starts off as kind of a blowhard. He has a ripe ego and thinks very highly of himself. As a congressman, his campaign slogan is 'change the world.' But to him that's just a slogan. And yet he gets to learn what that statement really means, and that's where the interplay with God comes in. He doesn't truly understand his motives until the end. It's more of a situational comedy, rather than laughing at how goofy he is or whether he says something wacky. It's more that he's struggling to understand what is happening. There is a huge shift in his life; he's gone to Washington to become a congressman, but finds himself hanging off the side of an ark with thousands of animals aboard. He's trying to keep his job as a congressman, and he's going crazy.
Q. The film's message is global, rather than centred on America?
SC: There's a lot at stake in the movie in terms of the world. It does have a world view, rather than an American politics view. There's some of that, in terms of how America is using its natural resources, but it's a very broad idea, about what we are all doing. How we are protecting the world and each other... so that's the real focus thematically of the movie.
Q. Evan becomes Noah in this movie, are you at all religious?
SC: I'm Catholic, born and bred. It's interesting because that really didn't come into play when doing the movie. I didn't decide to do it because I’m Catholic, I just thought it had a nice message. And I don't see it as a religious movie, it a film about kindness and being aware of the earth and the environment. It's also about one man's self-discovery and his journey to learn what's important to him and how he can do his own small thing.
Q. Evan starts out as a congressman. Do politics appeal to you?
SC: I have never aspired to a political life. I think that is a difficult and often unrewarding way of life, because I think there's so much red tape and manoeuvring in political circles to get things done and I just don't possess that kind of attitude. I think you need a very strong ego, be very self-possessed, and you need a great deal of confidence, but you also have to appeal to a wide spectrum of individuals. It seems a commitment that I would never have. Plus, there's the standard issue mockery that goes with being in politics. For Gerald Ford it was that he was always falling over; with Jimmy Carter I think he said he lusted after women in his heart, and comics got a lot of mileage out of that. A friend of mine from the Daily Show spoke at the White House press dinner and really dragged George Bush over the coals, so there's certainly a lot to go after.
Q. Your humour has never been about jokes or ridiculing people...
SC: My comedy is more about the every day man. Someone asked me to make a glib comment about Britney Spears and the fact that she shaved her head. I thought, why? She's a young kid struggling to figure out what's right in her life. To me, what's funny is a situation. A real person in a real situation, and how they get out of that situation, or how they struggle through that situation.
Q. Do you believe the best comedy comes from when the performer doesn't appear to know that they're in a comedy?
SC: Yes, I'm a firm believer in that. As soon as you see an actor, I refer to it as 'winking at the camera,' letting the audience know that he knows what he’s doing, you lose something there.
Q. You prefer comic actors like Peter Sellers, then?
SC: Yes, Peter Sellers was master. His Clouseau character was incredibly broad and silly, but you never got the impression that Peter Sellers or the character thought it was funny. He was in these situations that were incredibly absurd and of a heightened reality, but they somehow rang true because he was completely committed to it. And you never sensed his awareness.
Q. What do people most want to talk to you about, the chest-waxing scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin?
SC: Yes, all the time. People can't believe I did that. I remember one guy saying that he'd told his son that it wasn't real and it was all specials effects. But it was real - it was one take and it was a bloody mess, literally a bloody mess. In this movie there's a whole scene where I'm trying to get rid of this beard on my face and it keeps growing back. I really can will a beard to grow in a matter of hours.
Q. You're a modest guy. Does all this attention seem weird to you?
SC: It's so strange, and I sometimes wonder how I got invited to this party. The past two years have been crazy and irrational and something that I would never have anticipated. I went to the All Star basketball game in Las Vegas and was sitting there with Cameron Diaz, Beyonce and Dave Chappelle, and all these famous people. I looked at the ticket price, it was $5000, and sometimes I can't wrap my head around that.
Q. What would God say to Steve Carell?
SC: I never think in those terms. I hope that God gives me guidance and that he directs me to make good choices, and that he helps me with my family. But that is such a personal thing and I think everyone has a different idea of what God is and what he represents. I know what Morgan Freeman would say, and I have to say that in my mind, I can't imagine anyone else playing God. He has such a specific demeanour and presence that when he walks on set you feel that if it isn’t God, he is at least a higher power of some sort!
Q. You're now working on Get Smart, a big screen remake of the US TV show…
SC: Yes. It's set in modern day. I play Max. It's an updated version of the original, and while there will be elements of the original, I'm not doing a Don Adams' impression. It'll be a similar character but not the same sort of breed.