There’s a notable lineage in cinematic history of gifted comedic actors who have gone on to achieve great commercial and critical success as dramatic players. Perhaps the most famous example is Robin Williams, whose career began with his now-iconic role as a wacky, displaced alien on “Mork & Mindy” before giving way to parts with considerable heft, from the titular lead in “The World According to Garp” to his revelatory turn in “The Fisher King” to his Academy Award-winning performance as Matt Damon’s therapist in “Good Will Hunting.”

And there are scores of other comedians, from Jackie Gleason to Michael Keaton to Bill Murray, all three of whom received Oscar nominations for their dramatic work in “The Hustler,” “Birdman” and “Lost in Translation,” respectively.

And now there’s Steve Carell, who rose from a “senior correspondent” on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” to loner workaday hero Michael Scott on NBC’s “The Office” to sexually inexperienced nerd in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” before transforming himself into twisted multimillionaire John Eleuthere du Pont in Bennett Miller’s dark and lugubrious sports crime drama “Foxcatcher,” a role that netted Carell an Oscar nom in the lead actor category.

Carell, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Jan. 6, is eyeing his second Oscar nomination for his explosive performance as hedge fund manager Mark Baum in “The Big Short,” Adam McKay’s subversive retelling of Michael Lewis’ tragicomic account of the 2008 housing bubble collapse. It’s a performance so wanton in its rage and contempt for the collective evils of big banking that it cements Carell’s reputation not just as a competent dramatic actor, but one of the best of our time.

Carell fielded rave reviews for his role as a short-fused hedge fund manager in Adam McKay’s comedic drama “The Big Short.”
Courtesy of Paramount

“Rather than gravitating toward a tone or style I think I gravitate toward a script,” says Carell of his decision to tackle serious tropes. “The projects that have tended to be more serious in nature all sort of fell into my lap. They were happy coincidences. I never thought of myself as a comic actor when I first decided to pursue acting as a profession — I was looking for anything I get hired to do; early on they were more comic in nature. For ‘Foxcatcher’ I just got a call from Bennett, so that was a complete surprise to me. It wasn’t part of a master plan. It’s all based on just trying to find things that are good and interesting and I found ‘The Big Short’ to be a really interesting story.”

Baum is one of a handful of financial gurus who predict the subprime mortgage crisis — Brad Pitt, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling play some of the others — but he’s the only one to express true remorse over the fact that he’s going to profit from this devastating fiscal loss.

While millions of Americans will lose their homes, Baum is going to get even richer. Yet, somehow, he still doesn’t come across as the bad guy. Instead, he’s conflicted, frustrated and, essentially, traumatized — beset by a confusing welter of emotions that result in Baum constantly mouthing off to those around him. Only a highly skilled actor could pull off this tricky balance.

After watching Carell in “The Way, Way Back” — “there was this anger and subtlety in the way he played that character and he just blew me away,” says McKay — the director knew Carell was “the perfect guy” for the part in “The Big Short.”

“Out of all the characters (Baum) is the most human,” says McKay, who made his initial mark in the arena of broad comedy with “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers.” “I’ve always described Carell’s character as sort of our Greek hero, our Jason and the Argonauts venturing out. There’s no question he’s supposed to be the audience. He’s the most outraged, he doesn’t suffer fools, he’s the one who can’t keep his mouth shut. At the same time he’s also one of the most vulnerable characters. And (Steve) is the perfect blend of a grounded, passionate actor, but yet he’s got chameleon-like abilities and can deliver performances in a very realistic way, and that’s how we knew he could just nail this. When we cast him I was 100% confident that he could do it, and then he did a way better job than I ever imagined.”

“The older I get the more scared I want to be by the next thing because I think within that you learn.”
Steve Carell

To amplify the vitriol felt by Carell in the film, editor Hank Corwin used herky-jerky cuts that create an almost chaotic, paranoid abruption of time and space.

“For Steve’s character, I tried to make the editorial initially be explosive. The cuts were fucked up — you know, deliberately so. You know, he was grating, he wouldn’t finish a sentence, and I would just move on. I would just cut to something else. Because I wanted to feel the anger in this guy, to (show) that he was seething. He really works himself into the moment. He becomes the character through just hard work, on camera. It was really hard for him to get to where he wanted to go. But part of his brilliance is that he always got there.”

While Carell didn’t go completely method for “The Big Short,” he dove into the role with a ferocious commitment that served as an emboldening force throughout the shoot.
Says McKay, “Steve finds the emotional timbre of the scene from the second he’s walking on set, and sort of loosely living in that — not to the point where he’s screaming at other people or anything, but you can just tell his mood ring changes a little bit when he comes on the set for a particular scene.”

Rainn Wilson, who starred alongside Carell for seven seasons on “The Office,” recognized from day one that Carell was an actor possessing “extraordinary range.”
“When I saw Steve in ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ I just thought what a nuanced,
delicate performance it was,” Wilson says. “It was so fleshed out internally. There’s something that Steve has that’s so rare as an actor. He never indicates anything. He never gives his hand to the audience of what’s going on with his character. He never looks sad if he’s sad or looks angry if he’s angry — it’s always a very nuanced performance and that’s what makes him so interesting. His character might be feeling one thing and showing another thing and that’s a very difficult thing to do as an actor.”

Comedy “Little Miss Sunshine” received a best picture Oscar nom among four nominations.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

“The Office” creator Greg Daniels, who decided to cast Carell based on the actor’s ability to “maximize the comedy while still preserving a sweet vulnerability,” points out the rarity of a performer who “can play several levels at the same time.” It makes sense, Daniels says, that Carell can so convincingly segue from lighter fare to more serious material, because, whether he’s playing a short-fused financier or a bumbling company boss like Michael Scott, the performances are all “rooted in truth.”

“He is constantly trying to observe how people really behave and respond, and he can find humor in being accurate about people’s temperaments and motivations,” he says. “There is nothing too broad, wacky or unreal in his comedic work, just a ton of compassionate understanding of human nature. His comedy approach has basically always been just really good acting, and the same approach that I imagine a great dramatic actor would use.”

Carell will next reunite with “Little Miss Sunshine” helmers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for the real-life-based tennis drama “Battle of the Sexes,” where he’ll play Bobby Riggs opposite Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King. He’s also been tapped for Woody Allen’s next as-yet-untitled comedy.

“I’m really open to anything and a lot of that has to do with the script and the story and the people you get to work with,” Carell says. “It’s all part of the
equation. And so much of it is just luck. You hope things turn out well and you go in to every project with your best thoughts and wishes and you have to take some chances. I want to take some chances and mix it up and try to play some things that are interesting. The older I get the more scared I want to be by the next thing because I think within that you learn and you challenge yourself. I don’t want to do something that seems derivative or anything I’ve done.”

He adds one more thought: “The idea is to not take myself too seriously.”