If you watched any of the 148 episodes of the long-running TV comedy "The Office" featuring Steve Carell, you probably feel like you know the guy. Funny. Decent. Full of good intentions. Handsome in a way that "Anchorman" director Adam McKay once described as: "He knows he'd be the best-looking guy in his town in Indiana."
Carell is, indeed, all these things, though, we can't entirely vouch for the Indiana part, not having fully canvassed the place. He's polite, friendly, unassuming, a "good person," as his former "The Daily Show" boss Jon Stewart puts it, with feeling. Carell loves his wife of 19 years, Nancy, and his two children and can almost bring you to tears with tales of bedtime stories with his youngest and what it will be like the night he opens a book and his son says, "Nah, I'm good." ("Then again," Carell notes, "every year I say, 'They're the perfect age right now. But then they get a year older and I say, 'No, no. This is the one.'")
Carell makes no bones about his love for Taylor Swift and laments that when a video went viral of him singing her latest hit, "Shake It Off," it failed to also include the part where he explained why he thinks Swift is a "good egg." ("I saw a video of her with a young cancer patient and it wasn't a concocted publicity stunt," Carell says. "She was just playing her guitar for this kid. It was so pure and beautiful and she was so kind and generous and has such a big heart and I thought, 'I'll love her forever.'")
We mention these things because they have a cumulative power. We feel we have him down pat and we take comfort that he's out there, making us laugh.
That's why it's plainly shocking the first time we see him in his new movie, the true-crime drama "Foxcatcher." Playing eccentric billionaire John du Pont, Carell wears a prosthetic nose and layers of pasty makeup, speaks in a halting cadence and greets the world with a cold, dead-eyed demeanor. He is a man used to getting what he wants and what he wants is to start an Olympic wrestling training facility on his estate and serve as the coach to these world-class athletes, even though he doesn't know the first thing about wrestling.
It's an absurd story and later turns tragic when the friendless Du Pont becomes unhinged and fixated on two wrestlers, brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), inviting them to stay with him and ultimately killing Dave.
Director Bennett Miller had Tatum in mind from the beginning and met with Carell after the 52-year-old actor's agent floated his name. Believing there's often a divide between comic actors' public personas and their guarded, private sides, Miller invited Carell to lunch and, 3 1/2 hours later, came away convinced he had found the right man to play Du Pont.
"Nobody expected Du Pont to kill anybody, so it made sense to put somebody in that role who we would not expect was capable of such a thing," Miller says. "There's something about Steve that is benign. He told me he'd only played characters with mushy centers. And though Du Pont appeared to have a mushy center, he did not. He looked like a bungling fellow, but inside he was dangerous."
For his part, Carell was simply flattered Miller wanted to talk. Throughout a long conversation near his Toluca Lake home, Carell repeatedly says he likes to navigate his career with low expectations. He doesn't like to feel like he's auditioning for something or trying to convince a filmmaker that he's right for the part. It doesn't feel genuine. And authenticity is important to him.
"To be offered this movie was such a surprise," Carell says. "I feel very much indebted to Bennett for trusting me. People ask, 'How did you feel you were capable of doing this?' In great part, it was because Bennett felt I was and I trusted him. Because I didn't read the script and say, 'This has me written all over it. I have to get a meeting with him.' It's just not how I work."
One thing about harboring low expectations, though, is that when everything clicks, you're in for a fun ride. "Foxcatcher" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, winning a standing ovation that seemed as if it would never end. Carell says he never wants to go back to Cannes — because "it can never be that good again."
"My wife and I walked this ethereal red carpet with music from the movie playing in the background and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion," Carell remembers. "Then that response when it was over. My wife and I were looking at each other, like, 'Is this really happening? Look where we are.'"
Carell says he has no idea how the acclaim for his dramatic turn might change his career. The first offer he received after Cannes was to play a serial killer. He passed. He is making a thriller that "defies description" with Gore Verbinski in March. Just how description-defying is it? Carell: "It's a … it's … it's a … I don't know how you would classify it. It's a different character for me to play. No, not a serial killer."
He also recently went against his laid-back career approach, pursuing a meeting with a "big gun" director who owns the option on a "moving, important" story he'd like to tell.
"That's the one and only time I've ever thrown my hat in," Carell says, almost in disbelief. And … how did it go? "I could hardly talk, I was so nervous. It was one of those conversations I walked away thinking, 'That did not go well because I was an idiot and couldn't put two words together.'" He laughs and then mock-bellows: "You see what happens when you put your heart out there?"