The funnyman managed to be not-funny to play Tommy Lee Jones' and Meryl Streep's straight-talking sex therapist in Hope Springs. So...how'd that go?
We all know Steve Carell to be a brilliantly funny guy, which is why it comes as a surprise (albeit a pleasant one) that he plays things straight in his latest role – and up against two Hollywood heavyweights, to boot.
In Hope Springs, Carell is renowned marriage counselor Dr. Bernard Feld, charged with guiding Kay and Arnold Soames through the pitfalls of their crumbling, complacent 31-year marriage. The film features some unforgettably poignant, funny and uncomfortable scenes between the two on Dr. Feld’s couch, and approaching the role without a comedic bent was one thing for Carell – but also consider that Kay and Arnold are played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.
We sat down with Carell (coincidentally, on his 17th wedding anniversary – wife Nancy was en route to celebrate with him in New York as we spoke) to discuss slinging sex terms at Meryl Streep, borrowing voice intonations from a real-life therapist, the challenges of playing an understated character, and the enduring legacy of Brick Tamland.
Fandango: Did you ever imagine that you'd one day get paid to say "vaginal orgasms" to Meryl Streep?
Carell: No! Initially when I read the script, you put yourself in that place -- how is that going to unfold? How am I going to say these things to these two actors? But then once you're there and you're all in character, you don't even think twice about it.
Fandango: Since your wife played the sex therapist to your character Andy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, did she give you any tips when you took this role?
Carell: That's so funny - I completely forgot about that! No, we didn't talk about that! [laughs]
Fandango: You’re really playing it straight in this film and just riffing off Meryl and Tommy Lee -- that had to be an interesting new challenge for you.
Carell: To me, it was all about them. It's not about my character at all -- I'm just a sounding board, and I went in thinking, "All I want to do is support their story and what they're doing -- as the therapist would."
Fandango: It must be tough, as an actor, to melt away and not quite be there. It’s egoless, in a lot of ways.
Carell: It totally is -- completely. Because my character's not funny. To me, what was funny was how the two of them were reacting to my questions, to my earnestness. I think another challenge was to do it without any sort of irony. There's no comment, there's no judgment in any way -- and none of it can read in a therapist's face. If there's any sort of judgment, people pick up on it immediately.
Fandango: Your voice in this movie is very soothing -- it has those "therapist" intonations. How did you develop it?
Carell: I met with a few therapists, and I kind of modeled it after one guy who -- it wasn't a put-on voice, that's the way I'm sure he always talks. But there was such a kindness and soothing quality to it that I thought, "That's the guy who would be helpful to these two!"
Fandango: You know who the voice kind of reminded me of? Bob Ross.
Carell: [laughs] Oh, yeah! I did not model it after him.
Fandango: Those scenes with the three of you in your office are so natural, they're kind of like verbal ballet -- did you ever go off-script and just run with it?
Carell: No, not at all -- it was exactly as scripted. Like, word for word. It's great that you react that way, because you want it to seem like it's improvised.
Fandango: I was really surprised by the raw, in-your-face intimacy between two middle-aged people in this film -- it's unusual to see, at least in American cinema.
Carell: I think it's usually played purely for comedy. You know, those uncomfortable moments. And I think comedy, in a way, gives a safety valve to decompress a really charged situation like that. What I like about this movie is it's funny in its awkwardness and its straightforwardness. But at the same time, it doesn't let you off the hook.
Fandango: Before the Anchorman 2 sequel was greenlit, Adam McKay was thinking of making it a musical. Any chance that will have some effect on the content -- maybe we'll see some even bigger song and dance numbers?
Carell: I have not read it -- they just turned in the script. So I don't know the plot, I don't know anything about it! I think everyone just wants to do it -- we're just game to jump in.
Fandango: Speaking of Brick Tamland -- have you seen the Mitt Romney "I Love Lamp" mashup circulating around the Internet?
Fandango: It’s this cut of a speech he gave in Michigan where he just started rattling off things he loved -- trees, lakes, cars -- and it's interspersed between your scene with Will Ferrell in Anchorman.
Carell: Oh my God!
Fandango: You have to check it out - it's so funny.
Carell: Did you see at Wimbledon, in between one of the plays, somebody in the crowd yelled, 'Loud noises!' [laughs] I was like, "Wow! I've made it!"