Steve Carell has come a long way from loving lamp in 2004’s Anchorman. The Massachusetts native was once best known as loveable idiot weatherman Brick Tamland, The Office’s cringey boss Michael Scott and, of course, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But within a decade he made a name for himself as a go-to actor for more serious dramatic roles with a startling turn in Foxcatcher. As the 55-year-old returns to the big screen with tennis comedy-drama Battle of the Sexes, we look back at Carell’s transition from clown to Oscar-nominee.
Years before making his first waves in Hollywood, Carell was earning a living as a writer and performer on programmes including The Dana Carvey Show, Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, on which he played a version of himself as a senior correspondent. SNL has of course been an American institution and crucible of comedic talent for decades, and Carell has gone on to become one of its most famous alumni. These small screen experiences helped him hone his comedic style: deadpan delivery but with a propensity to bring the wacky too.
Carell also put a handful of film credits to his name but the Jim Carrey-starring Bruce Almighty proved his breakthrough. Cast in a small role as Bruce’s rival news reporter Evan Baxter, Carell wowed in a hilarious scene where the now all-powerful Bruce humiliates him live on air. The role would lead to a spin-off sequel for his character, the Noah-riffing Evan Almighty in 2007.
Soon after, Carell would be back in the newsroom as everyone’s favourite weatherman with an IQ of 48, Brick Tamland, in endlessly quotable comedy classic Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. From extending invites to the pants party to killing a guy with a trident, Carell clearly had a ball being gloriously stupid for 90 minutes.
After these breakout roles, Steven John Carell started on a journey to superstardom in 2005, landing the lead – ‘world’s greatest boss’ Michael Scott – in the American remake of The Office and starring in Judd Apatow comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The latter saw him largely playing the straight man in a range of crazy situations, his low-key believability offset by Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks propelling the comedy.
Dipping a toe in dramatic waters
A year later came Carell’s first surprisingly dark performance, as successful yet depressed academic Frank in indie hit Little Miss Sunshine. We meet Frank after a failed suicide attempt, a tough ask for an actor previously known for comedy, but Carell imbues Frank with sadness, fragility and intelligence before absolutely selling his character’s move towards acceptance and cautious optimism. It was a casting gamble, with Bill Murray and Robin Williams initially preferred for the part. Co-director Valerie Faris admitted: “We didn’t know he could do this based upon what he had done. But when we met with him … he was right on the same page with us.” But Carell had nailed it, fitting in perfectly in an ensemble piece that balanced tragedy and comedy on a knife edge. It would come to be a speciality of Carell’s.
Yet it would be a while before Carell would really flex those dramatic acting muscles again. The next few years were defined by more comedies (Knocked Up, Get Smart, Date Night) and voice-overs for kid-friendly animations (Over The Hedge, Horton Hears A Who! and the Despicable Me franchise). And of course, this side of his ever-growing body of work continues to show his range and versatility. But it made his starring role in Bennett Miller’s true-life crime/sports drama Foxcatcher all the more surprising and extraordinary.
Making a murderer
Carell was cast as John du Pont – a millionaire, published ornithologist, philanthropist, wrestling enthusiast, sports coach… and murderer. The remarkable true story: du Pont recruits Olympic gold medallist Mark Schultz to his Foxcatcher wrestling team as well as his older brother Dave. As events, relationships and his mental health spiral downwards, du Pont shoots Dave dead.
The role required Carell to not only portray a troubled, mentally ill man who goes on to become a killer, but also to represent a real person for the first time in his career. Facial prosthetics aside, Carell alters his voice, his way of speaking, his posture and affects a haunted stare to play du Pont. It’s truly a remarkable performance, for any actor, but it’s even more powerful coming from a man who usually makes us laugh. The scenes were du Pont bullies and belittles Mark are harrowing. Yet Carell’s portrayal captures the essence of the man without being an impersonation. He shows us the human, not just the psychopath.
“I never saw him as a villain, and I didn’t want to depict him in that way,” Carell told The Guardian. “Here was a guy who was the product of his upbringing, his enormous wealth. He was someone who didn’t possess the tools to achieve what he wanted out of life; and in that regard, incredibly heartbreaking.”
Carell was showered with awards nominations for Foxcatcher, including at the Oscars and BAFTAs. He missed out on both occasions to Eddie Redmayne (for The Theory Of Everything) but there was no doubt he’d wowed the academies, as well as audiences.
The best of both worlds
Since then, Carell has moved along a trajectory where he nimbly bridges the gap between comedy and drama, light and dark. As well as continuing to voice Gru in his now Minion-dominated Despicable Me series, he’s also played another quasi-real-life character in The Big Short. He’s been in Woody Allen’s Café Society, yet also appeared in true-life drama Freeheld.
Coming up are Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, an Iraq-war dramedy in which he provides ‘the real emotional grounding, in a wonderfully reserved role’, before becoming former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for next year’s Backseat.
All of which makes his latest role in Battle of the Sexes seem perfect Steve Carell material. It’s a comedy-drama which teams him up once again with Little Miss Sunshine‘s directing duo, where he plays self-confessed ‘male chauvinist pig’, former tennis champion Bobby Riggs – not as a one-note villain of the piece but as more of a showman than a misogynist. Steve Carell is pushing himself in the directions he wants to go, and it’ll be fascinating to see what evolution happens for him in the next ten years.