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‘Foxcatcher’: Steve Carell on the Darkest Role of His Career

“Do you have any idea who I am?” the actor playing John du Pont asks Channing Tatum’s character, Mark Schultz, at their first meeting in the upcoming film “Foxcatcher.”

The same question could be asked of audiences when they see the largely unrecognizable face and hear the voice of the man who portrays du Pont in the true-life tale of the multi-millionaire benefactor and his demented relationship with Olympic wrestler Schultz and his older brother, Dave.

But look closely — very closely — and you might recognize Steve Carell, a man best known for making us laugh as a 40-year-old virgin, a clueless office manager, an arrogant TV correspondent and an animated super-villain named Gru.

With his chilling portrayal of a mentally ill man who commits a senseless murder, Carell has delivered the most serious, immersive performance of his career — one that thrusts him smack in the middle of the most competitive lead actor Oscar contest in years.

“Whatever people think they know about him or can expect from him, they’re going to be surprised,” says Amy Ryan, who played Carell’s character’s sister in the 2007 romantic dramedy “Dan in Real Life,” as well as his soulmate, Holly, on “The Office” TV series. “I kept looking for clues for the person I knew, and I couldn’t find any,” she adds. “He’s changed his being; he’s gone deep and dark, and it’s fantastic.”

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Jon Stewart, who helped launch Carell’s career on “The Daily Show,” has a more succinct, if quippy, appraisal: “I always knew that guy was an evil asshole. Because he can’t be that good an actor, can he?”

Much of the fascination around Carell’s performance in Sony Pictures Classics’ “Foxcatcher” — which debuts Nov. 14 — lies in the fact that he is primarily known for good-guy roles, whether comedy or drama. He’s done work that balance the two, including “Dan in Real Life,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Way Way Back.” But casting Carell in a sinister drama was part of what intrigued “Foxcatcher” director Bennett Miller, who previously directed Philip Seymour Hoffman to an Oscar win for “Capote,” and cast Jonah Hill against type in “Moneyball.”

“It’s hard to get excited about working with an actor when you only hope to get something that they’ve done before,” says Miller, who didn’t require Carell to audition. “It’s exciting to see an actor who defies your expectation of who they can be.”

When Carell’s longtime agent Michelle Bohan suggested her client to Miller, the dissonance clicked. “When people think of Steve Carell, there’s something not dangerous about him, something benign,” Miller says. “I think that’s what people thought about John du Pont, as well. In some ways, the role had to go to somebody who didn’t make sense on the surface, because this character doesn’t make sense on the surface.”

Carell, widely regarded as one of the most down-to-earth, good-natured actors in Hollywood, is fielding a lot of questions about where this dark side came from. “People are asking about how I approached the role, and what part of myself I brought to it,” says the 52-year-old thesp. Simply put, Carell claims not to have an answer. And if he does, he’s not sharing it.

“They’re legitimate questions, but I don’t think you necessarily need to reveal any of it,” Carell notes. “I don’t want to know too much about how something is made; it’s more intriguing to me if there’s a mystery to it.” He compares talking about acting to doing work for DVD bonus material. “I don’t like doing them, I don’t like listening to them,” he says, almost apologetically. “It’s pulling the curtain back too much.”

When interviewed, Carell consistently shifts the conversation away from himself. Mention how Stewart raved about his performance after seeing “Foxcatcher” at the Telluride Film Festival, and Carell launches into praise for Stewart’s directorial debut, “Rosewater,” which also screened at the fest. Compliment him on his work on “The Office,” and he’ll quickly change the topic to how the supporting cast members were the real stars of the show. “He really is the most generous performer,” Ryan says. “So many times a scene would go well, and he would give me the credit, when we all knew it was thanks to him.”

He even apologizes for being, in his opinion, a boring interview. “I think I’m disappointing because I’m not on,” he warns. “I’m not wacky or funny.” He jokes that his parents, still married at the age of 89, provided too happy a childhood to give him any angst to fuel his performances.

The youngest of four sons born to Edwin, an electrical engineer, and Harriet, a psychiatric nurse, Carell grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. Never a class clown, he was mostly interested in ice hockey, and describes his early life as “completely and breathtakingly normal.”

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He views himself as the anti-Michael Scott, his socially inept character on “The Office,” who is prone to careless insults. When not promoting a movie, he keeps out of the spotlight, living a quiet life in Los Angeles with his wife of 19 years, Nancy Walls, their 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

On this day in October, after finishing a photo shoot, Carell is polite and soft-spoken. Dressed casually in a plaid shirt and jeans, he looks like the soccer dad he is — planning to pick up his daughter from practice after the interview.

“The Office” creator Greg Daniels says that in Carell’s seven seasons as the show’s star, his attitude trickled down to the rest of the cast. “He would help the makeup ladies carry their chairs, and never went ahead in line at the catering tables, always talked to the crew’s family and helped the script supervisor do their job.”

From the start, Carell never saw du Pont, who was 57 at the time he shot and killed Dave Schultz in 1996, as a mere villain. “It’s all a very sad story,” he notes. “No one comes out ahead. It’s a Greek tragedy, and very powerful in that way.”

Heir to the du Pont fortune, John was by all accounts brilliant, a published ornithologist, a philanthropist and a wrestling enthusiast who liked to think of himself as a mentor to athletes. In fact, Dave Schultz (played by Mark Ruffalo in the movie) was living on du Pont’s property, the titular Foxcatcher Farm, when he was murdered. Witnesses would later describe du Pont’s behavior as that of a paranoid schizophrenic. In the film, Carell’s du Pont tells of learning his only friend was paid by his mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave), who is portrayed as withholding and disapproving. Preparing for the role, Carell spent months researching, reading and watching everything he could on du Pont. From the start, the director told him he wasn’t interested in a performance that mimicked du Pont. “He didn’t care about having a dead-on impersonation,” Carell says. “Still, I thought it was important to understand him as best I could.”

While there were extensive makeup tests to match du Pont’s distinctive beaklike nose and receding hairline, Miller says they never even discussed the physicality of the character. While in Pittsburgh, prepping for the shoot, the director saw Carell’s makeup test, and was shocked by just how dead-on it was. “He was moving around in a track suit, jogging around the room the way he’d seen du Pont do in videos,” Miller says. “It’s this limp way with his hands dangling in front of him, and it became clear he had studied the video. He just embodied it.”

Because it took three hours to get into the makeup every day, Carell was always the first actor on set. But it gave him time to get into the mindset of the character — and once there, he rarely left. While he reiterates that he hates talking about process, he says he opted to isolate himself during the shoot. He didn’t want his family with him in Pittsburgh, though he tried to make it back to L.A. whenever he could. “I didn’t choose to connect socially,” he admits. “That aspect of it was hard, because I like being around people and keeping things light. I had to let that go.”

In particular, Carell says he avoided Tatum, whose character begins as an admirer of du Pont before their relationship drastically sours. “It wasn’t this moody, ‘Methody’ thing we did. It wasn’t something we discussed; it just happened organically,” Carell says. “I think we both felt it was important to preserve this strange dynamic we had in the movie.”

In fact, Carell and Tatum first met out of character only when the film unspooled at the Cannes Film Festival (though Carell and Ruffalo had personally met previously).

“Steve and I had sort of an unspoken agreement that we both respected each other’s space, and held that energy and the intention of the people we were playing,” Tatum recalls. “That in turn kind of never allowed us to really meet and hang out as Chan and Steve.”

It was only 10 years ago that Carell, then far from a household name, returned to his hometown in Massachusetts for a high school reunion. He’d had success on “The Daily Show,” and stolen scenes in the films “Anchorman” and “Bruce Almighty,” but in many ways, he was Hollywood’s best-kept secret. When people asked what he was up to, he told them he had just finished a movie called “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

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“I could see when they heard the title a sense of pity washing over them,” Carell laughs. “There was a little condescension, a little patronizing. Like, ‘Oh, well, at least he’s getting out there.’”

Carell doesn’t blame anyone for their reaction; even he had no idea that the film would become a global hit, with ticket sales north of $177 million. Up until then, he assumed major stardom wasn’t in the cards. “Not in my wildest dreams,” he says. “And I truly never thought about it. I just wanted to be an actor, to be employed and make enough to support my family.”

In fact, Carell has been working steadily since 1987, the year he quit waiting tables. After moving to Chicago to pursue his career, he joined up with the Second City comedy troupe, which was responsible for two of the most important relationships in his life: with his wife Nancy and with Stephen Colbert, who helped land him the “Daily Show” gig.

The two worked on the short-lived “The Dana Carvey Show,” and when Colbert got “Daily Show” soon after, he recommended Carell. Though Carell was initially uncomfortable with the idea of making fun of people, Colbert gave him some invaluable advice. “I told him you can’t be yourself,” Colbert recalls. “You have to go out there in the armor of a correspondent and play a role. Play it as a journalist taking it very seriously; it just happens to be a ridiculous story.”

That’s when Carell hit upon the idea of making himself the butt of the joke rather than the people he was profiling. “It’s easier if you’re the buffoon,” he notes. “Making people look stupid isn’t, in my mind, funny or interesting. It’s just mean.” Asked to describe the persona he adopted for the show, he says, “I always thought of him as a failed national news anchor who was demoted, and was now doing this cable show, and had a real attitude about it.”

Carell soon became known for a variety of clueless portrayals, from his Produce Pete and Slimming Down with Steve segments to point-counterpoint arguments with Colbert called Even Stevphens, where the two would hurl childish insults at each other. But while the result may have been silly, Carell always took it very seriously. Stewart was among those who noticed.

“Here’s what I know about Steve: It’s about commitment,” Stewart says. “Whether doing comedy or drama, he approaches it with the same level of intensity.” When his character was supposed to get drunk for a segment on drinking and driving, Carell didn’t play inebriated — he truly got sloshed. In a Slimming Down with Steve segment, he could have opted for a tin of vanilla pudding instead of Crisco, but insisted on the real thing.

To that end, Stewart says he is “impressed but not surprised” by Carell’s turn in “Foxcatcher.” And Colbert says the seeds of such a dark character were evident in the early days at Second City. “He could play comedically dark, but he could also play, very close to the bone, realistically troubled people,” Colbert says. “I remember him being able to snap into sociopathic, bloodless killer eyes. But he was always so funny, it was never uncomfortable.”

Many assume Carell left “The Daily Show” to do “The Office,” but he actually didn’t have a job when he departed in 2005 after five years. “I’ve tended to move on from things when I’ve been comfortable,” he says. “I never wanted to stay past the point when something was fun or exciting, and I don’t like to get complacent about things. I want to challenge myself.” The same held true when he left “The Office” after seven years. “I owed the show so much,” he says. “But when my contract was up, I figured it was time to take a risk and try something else.” While he says he would never rule out a return to television, he’s interested in exploring all available film opportunities over the next few years.

Upcoming challenges include a role in “Freeheld,” a civil rights drama with Julianne Moore; and a film with director Gore Verbinski, called “Pyongyang,” a dark comedy based on the Guy Delisle graphic novel that Carell says defies further description.

His journey also will likely include a trip down the red carpet at next year’s Academy Awards — talk that Carell finds flattering, but prefers not to dwell on. After all, this is the man who was zero-for-six at the Emmy Awards, despite creating an iconic character. “When you start crying about not winning awards, you have to look at where you are, and all the good things that have occurred,” he says. “And what can I complain about? I’ve won the lottery.”

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