NEW YORK: Steve Carell is not going through Michael Scott withdrawal – at least not yet.“ I don’t sit at home and think of ‘that’s what she said’ jokes and wish that I could do them one more time,” says the actor, laughing. “But it’s only been a few months, too, so I haven’t really had any time. All of that is still fresh to me.”
Carell’s sendoff from “The Office” (for which he received a parting Emmy nomination) is still fresh in many viewers’ minds, too. The emotional hubbub over his exit after seven seasons caught Carell by surprise. He was flattered, he says, but, with typical humility, considers it “just an actor leaving a show.”
He moved on to spend more time with his family (wife and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Nancy Ellen Walls and their two children) and to expand the movie career he had previously squeezed into summer breaks from shooting the hit NBC comedy.
The first glimpse of Carell’s post-”Office” days is “Crazy Stupid Love,” an ensemble romantic comedy in which he stars and that he produced.
“It is sort of a new phase,” Carell said in a recent interview at the Ritz-Carlton. “We’ll see how it goes. It’s just, just started. You’re witnessing day one of the new phase. So far so good.”
“Crazy Stupid Love” mirrors the type of movie Carell wants to pursue, particularly its blend of comedy and drama, and its focus on character-based realism.
Carell plays a suburban father who, when his wife (Julianne Moore) cheats on him and they separate, remakes himself as a ladies’ man with the help of a suave pick-up artist (Ryan Gosling). The film also examines love stories in different generations (Emma Stone pairs with Gosling).
Glenn Ficarra, who directed with John Requa, calls the role a “transitional piece” for Carell that shows he can do more serious material.
“Steve’s a writer, so he’s always thinking about scenes in a slightly different way, not just as an actor,” says Ficarra. “Like ‘40-Year-Old Virgin’ is a very kind of crass concept, but it’s a very heartfelt movie. Steve always approaches everything he does trying to come from a real place, as opposed to a wacky place. So I think it’s a natural extension to move toward dramatic stuff, because you’re just dealing with reality.”
After memorably funny roles in “Bruce Almighty” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (which Carell co-wrote with Judd Apatow) catapulted Carell’s movie career. The former Second City stand-out and “Daily Show” correspondent responded with a steady string of movies.
He has vacillated among blockbusters (“Get Smart,” “Despicable Me”), box-office flops (“Evan Almighty”) and absurdist comedies (“Dinner for Schmucks”). But he’s shown a respectable inclination for adult-minded comedies such as “Dan in Real Life,” “Date Night” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”
But in the constant back-and-forth between movies and the mockumentary-style “Office,” some TV habits were hard to break.
“The one thing that’s hard getting away from is looking into the camera,” says Carell, laughing. “This happened all the way through ‘The Office,’ when I would go off and do a movie. For the first week, I would continually look into the lens of the movie camera. I’d stop myself and go, ‘What the hell am I doing? This isn’t the documentary.’”
Directors have often praised Carell’s ability to improvise on the spot, performing repeated alternative takes in comedies to twist a scene in different directions. An admirer of great actors such as Alan Arkin, Jack Lemmon and Peter Sellers, Carell has always favored character-based comedy and detests “jokey jokes.”
“In real life, people don’t walk around telling jokes to each other,” Carell says. “That, to me, is not what’s most funny about real life. Real human situations and responses are what really make me laugh. When you hear a joke – and it depends on the context and the movie – you feel like you’re being set up that way and manipulated. I never like that in a movie. I would much rather buy into a character and laugh at what they’re doing as opposed to how funny they’re trying to be.”
Julianne Moore, who has won Oscar nominations for roles in such dramas as “Far From Heaven,” “The Hours” and “Boogie Nights,” believes Carell’s approach works, regardless of genre.
“Steve has got a kinetic acuity like nothing I’ve ever seen,” she says. “It is effortless – or seemingly effortless. … He’s great at connecting and noticing things that are going on around him.”
“Crazy Stupid Love” is the first film produced by Carell’s production company, Carousel Productions. As a producer, he picked the directors, contributed to casting and had input on keeping the tone of the movie as realistic as possible – using “treacle cutters,” he says, to weed out sentimentality. In one low-point scene for his character, his wife leaves and it begins to rain. Carell improvised a self-conscious line: “Ah, what a cliche.”
Carell is producing a documentary on the last six decades of comedy, to be hosted by David Steinberg. Upcoming acting jobs include co-starring with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in “Great Hope Springs,” another tale of marriage woes. He will also play a magician in “Burt Wonderstone,” and he recently shot the romantic comedy “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” with Keira Knightley.
Carell, who hasn’t been credited as a writer since a few 2006-2007 “Office” episodes, plans to write more now that he has time. He knows wistful emotions might kick in when, in a few weeks, “The Office” returns to production for its fall season without him, but thus far, he’s relishing his new period – particularly his time with his kids.
“It’s been great,” he says with a smile. “It’s been exactly what I hoped it would be.”