Why Steve Carell Has Left Comedy Behind—For Now
In the new film Last Flag Flying, Carell plays what might be his most dramatic roles yet. Next up? Donald Rumsfeld.
In 2015, Steve Carell got a Best Actor nomination for his terrifying portrayal of John du Pont in Foxcatcher. The next year, he co-starred in Adam McKay’s Best Picture nominee The Big Short. A decade earlier, he played a suicidal gay professor in Little Miss Sunshine, also nominated for Best Picture.
This year, he has two more films in the Oscar conversation: Battle of the Sexes, in which he plays misogynistic tennis pro Bobby Riggs and this week’s Last Flag Flying from director Richard Linklater.
And yet, after all that, most people think of him as comedian who’s just dabbling in this whole acting thing.
“What’s funny about it to me is I haven’t done a comedy in a while,” Carell tells The Daily Beast. “I haven’t done a comedy in like five years.”
In fact, the most recent live-action comedy film in which Carell got top billing was 2013’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Can you really blame him for branching out into more substantive material?
Carell insists that his move toward more dramatic roles has not been intentional. “I’d love to do another comedy,” he says. “But like anything you just go with the best thing that’s in front of you. And for the past few years they’ve been more dramatic.” He says he has no idea if his Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher opened the door for more dramatic roles, adding, “I would have never expected to get a call from Richard Linklater asking if I’d be interested in being in one of his films.”
It’s the tail end of a long press day at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills and the newly-crowned “silver fox” of Hollywood is looking dapper as ever in a gray blazer and dark polo shirt. A couple of hours later, he will be cracking jokes on the red carpet for Last Flag Flying’s big premiere. But for now, he’s lounging on a couch in his suite, sounding almost as soft-spoken and introspective as the character he plays in Linklater’s new film.
Each of Carell’s dramatic characters has maintained some element of comedy, just as his Michael Scott on The Office could project pathos from time to time. The same is true for the man he plays in Last Flag Flying, who has his share of humorous moments. But Larry “Doc” Shepherd is also one of Carell’s most interior and tragic characters to date.
When Linklater spoke to The Daily Beast about Last Flag Flying, he described how it took Carell some time to understand the character Doc, a Vietnam vet who, within the span of a few months, loses his wife to cancer and his son to the Iraq War.
“Well, there’s not a lot on the page,” Carell says. “The character doesn’t talk a lot, so it’s hard to define him based on a lot of intricate dialogue. One of the questions I had for Rick was, why did he choose these two guys to be his best friends? Or did they choose him? What was it about the dynamic between the three of them that worked, that made them so tight?”
In the film, Doc tracks down his two Army friends — Sal Nealon, an erratic drunk played by Bryan Cranston, and the reformed reverend Richard Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne‚ and asks them to help him retrieve his son’s body.
“They’re incredibly different,” he says of all three characters. “So at least at first, it seemed odd to me that this type of guy would be such good buddies with these live wires. Especially Sal, who is just this crazy man. And Mueller, who at the time was equally crazy. Based on the story and what I gathered about Doc, he wasn’t that guy at all. So I think a lot of that spoke to me about who Doc was and the kind of choices that he makes.”
Carell’s 92-year-old father fought in World War II, but he has never been eager to share what he went through with his children. “That generation is very stoic, generally speaking,” the actor says. “And I know my dad was, and still is. He didn’t discuss his experience to us as kids.”
“It wasn’t until we were adults that we could kind of pry some of the details of his wartime experience out of him,” Carell continues. “And it was horrifying. It was incredibly traumatic and brutal, some of the things he went through. And at the same time, he’s an incredibly mild-mannered guy. And I would have never known that he had experienced all of those things and had come out the other side and was still so stoic and had such a gentle heart.”
Carell also spent a lot of time thinking about the “very special and unique” relationships that his father had with his fellow soldiers. ”Because these three guys in this movie have a very specific, unique bond to one another. I saw that in my dad and the people that he served with.”
Yet while World War II is thought of as a good and necessary war, the two wars that are examined in Last Flag Flying are viewed very differently. Carell’s character Doc has been touched in tragic ways by Vietnam and Iraq, both of which are now considered by many to be unnecessary wars.
“It’s unimaginable, first of all, to lose a child,” says the actor, who has two teenage children with wife Nancy Carell. “And to lose a child in a war makes it no easier I’m sure. But to lose a child in what is then perceived as an unjust war, has to add to the regret and the anger and the resentment.”
In Last Flag Flying, we see Doc and his two war buddies arrive at Dover Air Force Base to collect the body of his son, which is lying in a flag-draped coffin. That is the same base that Myeshia Johnson had just pulled up to when she received a call from President Donald Trump about the death of her husband, Army Sgt. La David Johnson in Niger.
Describing the call, Johnson told Good Morning America, “The president said that ‘he knew what he signed up for but it hurts anyways’ and it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it.”
It’s not always easy, but Carell says he tries to avoid viewing the film through the prism of modern politics. “When we shot this, the campaign was underway and the election took place when we were on location in Pittsburgh,” he explains. “Like so many things these days, themes of the movie seem to become more relevant based on the political climate today.”
“I looked at the movie in a very simple way, about these individual characters and how they connect to one another and what each of them are going through,” he adds. It’s the same approach he took with his previous film, Battle of the Sexes, which in many ways had even more parallels to the 2016 election.
“Again, things that were not intentionally designed to then by relevant in 2017 seem all that much more relevant,” Carell says. “I think you could point to a lot of things that seem more relevant now than they did two years ago.”
If Carell’s Doc is unlike the characters played by Cranston and Fishburne in Last Flag Flying, he’s even further away from the flamboyant former tennis star Bobby Riggs, whom he portrays in Battle of the Sexes.
“That actually took a lot of time,” Carell says of finding the Riggs persona. To prepare for the role, he spent time playing tennis and talking about Riggs, who died in 1995, with the player’s best friend and coach, Lornie Kuhle. “Over a couple of months, I got a much more detailed picture of who he was.”
“There’s a responsibility when you’re playing somebody who’s a real person,” Carell says. “I think the last thing you want to do, if you’re playing a real-life person, is to just do an impression. Because that’s what it comes off as. The best rule of thumb, I think, is to try to figure out the same types of things you would try to figure out about a fictional character. You try to understand what motivates them and all of the other details of what makes them tick.”
Next up for Carell is his most prominent real-life figure yet: Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
On Monday, he begins his first day of shooting on his old friend and frequent collaborator Adam McKay’s newest film Backseat about the life of Dick Cheney. In the highly anticipated movie, Carell plays Rumsfeld opposite Sam Rockwell’s George W. Bush and Christian Bale, who has made himself utterly unrecognizable as Cheney. “He’s such a good actor,” Carell says of Bale, with whom he appeared in McKay’s The Big Short. “He goes for it. He’ll be tremendous.”
Carell has been reading up on Rumsfeld and watching a lot of footage of him to prepare for the project. “I can’t wait to dive into that,” he says with a chuckle.
That film may not be a comedy either, but don’t be surprised if Carell finds a way to make it funny.