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Steve Carell taps into his inner super-villain in ‘Despicable Me’

By Todd Gilchrist

HollywoodNews.com: Even as the bumbling boss on TV’s The Office, Steve Carell basically plays a good guy, and has frequently tackled roles that required him to charm audiences rather than creep them out. But in his new film, Despicable Me, Carell plays an animated super-villain named Gru, a guy who would blow up a balloon animal just so he could pop it in a little kid’s face. Hollywood News attended the Despicable Me press day this weekend, where Carell chatted with press about the prospect of playing a bad guy for the first time in his career.

Hollywood News: In most of the characters you play, we see you as this great deadpan comedian who’s so good at playing it straight and making it funny. Is this a different side of your sense of humor we get to see where you do a crazy voice and go wild?

Steve Carell: It’s fun to go wild and it’s interesting when you’re trying to create a character in animation. It’s really a communal effort. It’s not like I would just come in with a singular idea and start doing it. I saw the artwork. I talked to the directors and the writers and got a sense for what they wanted. And then, what’s great about it is that you do have the license to just go for it and you trust that the editors and the directors will put in what’s necessary. I felt like my job description on this was to just give as wide a range as possible – do things small or smallish and then sort of blow the doors off on other takes because you never know what they’re going to need in any given moment in terms of the narrative of the movie.

Hollywood News: Is it a side you’d like to show more?

Carell: It’s a side that’s fun to do. It’s all fun. It’s fun to kind of mix and match and play around with different voices. This character’s accent was just ridiculous. It’s fun to just play and experiment. What was great about this in particular was there was no impetus to do it correctly or within the lines. It was very freewheeling and very supportive. We had a great freedom to fail which I think is really liberating.

Hollywood News: Julie Andrews does the voice of your mom and the whole relationship between the two of them reminds me of Tony Soprano and his mother who never appreciated what he did. Did you ever get a chance to meet her? Did you see her going in and out of a recording session? Did you guys talk at all?

Carell: We’ve met a few times over the years. We actually went out to lunch together a few years ago just to talk and hang out and meet one another. She’s someone that I’ve wanted to work with forever and I’m an enormous fan. It’s remarkable because she’s Julie Andrews. It’s such an overused word, but she is an icon. She is so elegant and beyond what you would expect her to be. She’s exactly what you expect her to be and more and lives up to every expectation. I hope I’m not setting the bar too high for her (laughs). She’ll come in and you’ll hate her. But no, she’s an exquisite person and to play someone… I guess she balked a little bit initially to play someone who is a little bit dark and mean and a little nasty. But, even when she plays a character like that, there’s the underpinning of goodness that she just can’t get away from. Even her nastiest person, you still like her. I don’t think you can help but like her.

Hollywood News: Becoming a dad totally changes Gru drastically, how did first becoming a dad change you?

Carell: I think that’s one of the things I identified with in the script. Here’s a guy who has his life set up the way he’s accustomed to and then is introduced to these three little girls who essentially turn his life upside down. They change all of his patterns. They change everything about what he thinks is important, and I think, generally speaking, that happens when everyone has kids. And you try to explain it to people who are about to have children, and I don’t anymore, because you can’t. It’s something you understand once it happens. But everything changes. It’s such a diametric change that you really can’t explain it. For me, at least, all of my career goals, all of my focus, everything just shifted and the importance was my children and that’s where all the joy came from as well and I think that’s what’s kind of touching about the character too. It doesn’t’ change him but it taps into a part of him that was always there that he didn’t know about which I think is what happens when you have kids.

Hollywood News: I loved the evolution of the character, Gru, and I think you’re the only one who could have played it. How was it finding the right tone to play evil but not have a scary voice? How did you find the right tone to play that character?

Carell: Well that’s what we played around with a lot initially and with the look of the character too. They wanted him to be a bit sinister looking but also accessible and that’s a very tricky line to walk and we tried to do that with the voice as well. That’s part of the reason we didn’t focus on one specific nationality. I wanted it to sound sort of scary but not really scary, mostly funny and silly, but a little bit scary. So that’s what I tried to keep in the back of my mind, that underneath it all here was a guy who might… He doesn’t have a black heart, but he doesn’t have a heart of gold either. I’d say he sort of has a heart of bronze and he discovers that as the movie progresses.

Hollywood News: How many voices do you think you went through before you got to that final one?

Carell: Four. I don’t know (laughs).

Hollywood News: Can you recall a particularly memorable “despicable me” moment you might have had in real life?

Carell: Well I had the Minions wash my car the other day. A despicable moment that I have had? Like specifically something I have done that was despicable? Never! I’ve never done anything despicable in my life. Boy!

Hollywood News: Not even in traffic in L.A.?

Carell: You know what, that’s something that actually came to mind but like what do you do? Do you yell at people? Do you give them the finger? There’s really no recourse in Los Angeles. If somebody takes the parking place you were waiting for, I tend to kind of let it roll off my back. Maybe I’m harboring a lot of something and it will all explode somewhere down the road, but I tend to just let it slide off my back.

Hollywood News: Do you think that animated movies are the new workshop for actors because they’re so freeing and you’re not playing off of anyone else? Is it more of a way for you to keep your acting chops sharp?

Carell: I don’t know if it’s more of a way. I don’t think it’s necessarily a new sort of workshop, but it’s different. It’s sort of using a different muscle in a way because you’re not communicating with other actors which for me is such an important thing when you can register what somebody’s going through on a given take and listen to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it because you pick up a lot from the people that you’re acting with. Generally speaking, at least for me, the better the person you’re with, the better you’re going to be because they’re giving you so much more. So, this is different. This is like a completely different exercise because you are by yourself. You’re just standing there with a microphone and you have the script in front of you. All you try to do – at least in my mind – was giving options. It’s sort of an imagination exercise more than anything else because you have to not only imagine what your character might be going through physically, emotionally, what he might look like at this point, what your surroundings or your world might look like, so you kind of have to close your eyes and imagine what might be happening around you. And, on top of that, all the other characters, you have to give different types of line readings that might fit in with what all the other actors are doing as well. So, it’s fun and very freeing because ultimately you don’t have control over any of it. You’re just giving them many, many puzzle pieces that then they go off and fit together. Or, to use another analogy, it’s like the voice actors in this are just one paint color that the artists are painting with and you try to give them as great a spectrum as you can, but it’s their job ultimately to take it and create something wonderful out of it. And, it’s such an ego thing too because you go and see the movie and it’s fantastic because of everything that they did and you’re just this little tiny part of it, but also, at the same time, you feel so proud because you’re part of this greater process.

Hollywood News: What was the ratio in terms of what was scripted versus improvised?

Carell: I have no idea because you forget what is scripted and what you might have improvised. We’d always do the script as written and then they’d ask us to play around and come up with alternate lines and alternate jokes. But in the end, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. The script was great. The script could have just been done as is and the movie would have been fantastic. But I think because they had people like Russell (Brand) and Jason (Segal), they allowed for lots of improvisation, in part I think just to loosen the actors up and let them have fun.

Hollywood News: In the end, we see you bust out some sweet dance moves. Did you lend anything to your character’s performance?

Carell: I detect a note of sarcasm to what you’re saying. I didn’t lend any of my own sweet dance moves to this, but I was impressed by my character’s proficiency.

Hollywood News: With the news that the seventh season of The Office might be your last with the show, every time we’ve gotten to speak with you, you’ve always said you’d stay with The Office as long as they wanted you. I was just wondering why now might be the time to consider moving on?

Carell: Well, my contract has always been for seven seasons and I just feel like now is the time for my character to move ahead. Yeah, it just feels like time to me. I have no doubt that the show will continue and continue to be really strong. I think it might actually be a benefit to the show because any time you shift the dynamic of a show like that, great things can happen and you can find new avenues to explore. I look at it as just one piece of an ensemble drifting off. I was actually surprised that anybody thought it was any big deal because I think it’s the show and the ensemble is what, to me, was always important about the show.

Hollywood News: It makes sense because I know you were happy with it. Will Michael Scott go out in a big way?

Carell: I don’t want him to, frankly. I think in keeping with…what I love most about the show is when it examines the minutia of life and those little tiny moments that you then base a whole episode on. There’s one show that Stanley and I waited in line for pretzels, the entire show. It was pretzel day in The Office and all we did was stand in line and wait and talk about what kind of pretzels we were going to get. I love those sort of moments so I would be inclined to make it a more subtle and simple departure as opposed to any big, “very special episode of” kind of thing.

Hollywood News: Your character is kind of hamstring-challenged with no legs…

Carell: (Laughs) Hamstring-challenged? That was actually the alternate title for this movie.

Hollywood News: How do you feel about this challenge to your character? Also, how long was the process for you from start to finish on this, and when there were breaks, was it hard to come back and bring that voice back to that character?

Carell: Well, to answer your last question first, it wasn’t hard because once the voice was established, it really didn’t take much time to warm back into it and there would be breaks. This was over the course of … I think we initially talked about it about 3 years ago so I think I started voiceover work about 2-1/2 ish. I think that’s right. And actually, in the world of animation, that’s very fast from inception to opening a movie and I think the animators did such a great job at putting it all together. I thought the character’s physicality was fantastic and it’s interesting because you don’t really know how the character is going to move until you see it and that’s maybe a year or more before you start seeing the first rough animation of how the character might be moving down the street or some of the facial expressions and it’s remarkable because it’s everything you’d hoped it would be and it’s also a little scary because there are little qualities of what you do that are incorporated as well and so yeah, that was essentially it. I loved the way the character looks and I think they did strike that balance between being a little bit sinister and being fun and accessible. The one thing about this movie too is I don’t think it’s condescending to children. I really think kids see that and they can feel it when they’re being spoken down to, and I think for the same reason, it’s appealing to adults because it then doesn’t seem like a kiddie movie. It just seems like a movie, a story that anyone can enjoy.

Hollywood News: This is one of the first movies where the villain actually becomes likeable at the end which is pretty good for children. Do you think this will set a precedent?

Carell: Well, it was this and Hannibal Lecter. Those are probably the two characters that become super cuddly at the end of the movies. (Laughs) Will it set a precedent? I don’t know. That was one of the things that was appealing to me about it. You rarely see movies as told from the perspective of the villain which I thought was interesting, and especially a family movie based on a villain versus another villain. I like the idea of incorporating these orphans into a villain’s life. I think the dichotomy there – not to get too heady about it – is really funny and an interesting dynamic. Whether it will set a precedent, if this movie does enormously well, then yes, there will probably be other movies like it because that’s usually how it goes.

Hollywood News: Can you take us back to the first time you ever met Jason? What’s your repartee with him like in real life? And, are you two natural enemies?

Carell: Are we natural enemies? I think we’re just the opposite. I think he is someone – I’ve only met him a few times now. The first time I met him was I believe about 4 months ago. We were doing some advance promotion for the movie together. Incredibly sweet guy, really funny, and just a nice person. Clearly has a good heart. Yeah, we immediately liked one another. So not even in a…I can’t even jokingly say that there would ever potentially be an animosity. He’s great and I think he’s hilarious.

Hollywood News: This is a groundbreaking film for Universal and of course, the poster says “Steve Carell in Despicable Me.” So I’m was just wondering for you…

Carell: They’re going to change the name from Steve Carell. It’s going to be Steve Carell’s Universal. The whole company is going to shift.

Hollywood News: I was just wondering for you, do you feel any additional pressure having that kind of responsibility on your shoulders, and secondly, how do you like 3D and do you take your kids to 3D movies and do they like it?

Carell: They do. They love 3D. It’s fun to watch a movie in 3D with your children or with a group of children because you see the kids in front of you from time to time reaching up. You see little hands reaching up to grab things that they think are right there. I think it’s remarkable and it does obviously, literally add another dimension to the movie. It’s fun with things like this because you feel like you’re stepping inside of a world so I think that will continue. It’s remarkable. The technology is pretty amazing. Do I feel extra pressure? Not really. I approach it like I approach anything. I’m proud of it. I think it turned out well. I’m really happy to promote it. It’s nice to be able to promote something that you like and that you wholeheartedly endorse. That, to me, is really my utmost concern going into something like this. I want it to be as good as it can be, but I don’t worry about how it will do necessarily because that’s out of my hands. At this point, that’s for everybody else to decide, but from my perspective, I like how it turned out.

Hollywood News: Do your kids know that that’s you?

Carell: They do, although … we saw a screening of it a couple weeks ago. My son and daughter loved it but my son was disappointed that I didn’t play a Minion. He thought the Minions were really the coolest thing.

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