Cannes 2014: For Steve Carell, skill at a game he isn't playing

Cannes 2014: For Steve Carell, skill at a game he isn't playing
Steve Carell and director Bennett Miller at the Cannes Film Festival premiere of "Foxcatcher." (Bertrand Langlois)

Award season loves nothing more than a good reinvention story. And there's no reinvention story better than a comedic actor doing something dramatic or creepy.

In other words, Steve Carell's turn as John du Pont in Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" is about as good as it gets, award-wise.

Earlier this week, Carell made the first few what will doubtless be many media appearances in the coming months, sitting for a packed news conference with hundreds of worldwide journalists, then attending a lunch with a smaller group of U.S. reporters.

The actor best known from his outsized characters on shows such as "The Office" and "The Daily Show" took even jaded Cannes festgoers by surprise with his role as Du Pont, the scion of a wealthy family who would come to fatally shoot former wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996.

Carell has done some dramas before -- "Dan In Real Life" is a notable -- but nothing like this.

In it, the actor offers a physically detailed performance, his halting cadences and dead-behind-the-eyes expression managing to suggest a nuanced, Freudian character even as his destructive tendencies become increasingly clear as the film progresses.

At the reporter lunch in a sharp checked blazer and close-cropped beard, Carell cut a professorial figure, answering questions politely and thoughtfully, with the occasional dry quip tossed in.

"I'm so wary of saying anything like 'I stayed in character,'" he said. "It just sounds so pretentious. But there was no escaping it," he added, noting how he sometimes would find himself still walking and talking like Du Pont when he returned to his Pittsburgh quarters during the shoot.


Carell's replies all felt very genuine, a humble person not that interested in calling attention to the clearly extensive character work he's done. Yet at the same time, that humility does play extremely well among media and tastemakers, a man who conveys the ambition of what he's done without appearing to want to convey the ambition of what he's done. Though some actors embrace discussion of these affects, Carell almost seems uncomfortable with touting them -- which of course endears him to us even further.

Carell was equally candid about the particular Cannes post-screening tradition in which actors and directors stand at their seats and bask in the applause as their faces appear on the on-theater screen. If a movie is well-received this can last 10 minutes or longer, which can be ... odd.

"You don't really know what you're supposed to do," he said. "It's a high-class problem but it's still so awkward." He said at some point during the curtain call he looked at the actress Jessica Chastain, who went through it herself at Cannes three years ago after the premiere of "The Tree of Life." She basically shot him a gaze that said "calm down and hang in there," he said. He settled down.

Carell's film-preparation narrative is likely to play well too. All fact-based characters have an advantage because they offer an additional real-life angle to talk about, but Carell has a particularly intriguing story.

The real-life Du Pont died in prison in 2010, but Carell met with Schultz's widow, in character -- the unimaginably painful interaction in which a Hollywood celebrity is impersonating a murderer in front of the woman whose husband was murdered.

"It was doubly awkward because they tried to make me look as much as Du Pont as possible," Carell said at the news conference. "It was sort of an overwhelming experience."

Miller, the director, said that as strong as Carell is, he was far from a slam-dunk choice, in part because financiers were wary.

He said that in his many years of seeking to get the film made -- dating back to the afterglow of  "Capote" in 2005 -- he would pitch "Foxcatcher" to money types and get back the more expected names to play a middle-aged creep. (The movie in the end was financed by Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, which takes an unconventional approach and eschews some of these Hollywood formulas.)

But the director liked Carell, in part precisely because of his inexperience with this type of part.

"The thing about Steve is because of all that he had done before, he would make the audience feel safer," he said. "And that makes the effect [when the villainy comes] that much greater." "Sure, it was a risk," he added. "But I thought, 'Why not? Shoot the moon.'"