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Funny how real he is

Special to The Times

On a sound stage now dressed to look like an electronics store, the crew of “The 40 Year Old Virgin” bustles about with the laid-back efficiency typical of movie sets. There are only a few days left on the film, which stars Steve Carell, who also co-wrote the project and is an executive producer.

As the crew hustles to light the next setup, moving from the scene of an after-hours poker game to a getting-ready-to-go-out scene in the employees’ locker room, Judd Apatow, director, co-writer and producer of the film, pops a disc into a machine on the cart of monitors, wires and assorted gadgetry from which he directs. His friend, director Jake Kasdan, has dropped by, and Apatow seems eager to get a reaction to the 30 minutes or so of scenes that have already been cut together. At the start there are perhaps six people watching, but as the scenes play out, the crowd gathered around grows steadily, and each laugh gets that much louder.

The biggest surprise is not how funny the scenes are, but how tender and unexpectedly sweet, delivering an emotional tug one might not expect from a movie whose potentially raunchy premise is conveyed in the matter-of-fact title.

“The name is misleading to a degree,” Carell said. “Just based on the title, you think it’s going to be this extremely bawdy, over-the-top summer comedy,” he added a bit later. “There are elements of that, really funny set pieces and craziness, but we really wanted something that was grounded in a sense of reality.

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“I’ve certainly played a few characters that have been rather broad. With this, I didn’t want to do that. We’ll see. I hope it plays.”

“Virgin” caps off an amazing period for Carell, 41, who until now has made a career of playing disconcertingly over-the-top characters -- and often outshining more boldfaced names in the process.

Starting out in Chicago’s famed Second City comedy group -- that is also where he met his wife, Nancy Walls -- Carell later landed on “The Daily Show.”

There, his segments as an obliviously unflappable newsman led to similar reporter roles in “Bruce Almighty” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” It all helped lead to other roles, including a small part in Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda,” a character voice for the animated feature “Over the Hedge” and a part in this summer’s adaptation of “Bewitched,” opening June 24.

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But now the roles that follow are starring ones: In addition to carrying “Virgin,” he plays the lead (to mostly positive notices) in NBC’s much-hyped “The Office” and is set to star in the film adaptation of the television show “Get Smart,” filling the role made famous by Don Adams.

A few minutes before shooting resumes, Carell explained what differentiates his “Virgin” character from the other blissfully un-self-aware characters he has played.

“I hope he is very different from those other guys,” he said. “It’s more grounded. ‘Anchorman,’ that was more cartoonish. ‘The Office,’ that guy maybe is sweet under all the layers of phobia and self-possession.

“Here he’s a sweet and normal guy. It’s more close to me than anything I’ve done, and that’s hard to play when you have moments that are not that far from who you are.”

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The “Virgin” project resulted from Carell meeting Apatow, known for his work on “Freaks and Geeks” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” when both were working on “Anchorman.” Carell, who had done some writing work when he was on “The Dana Carvey Show,” had never written a feature script but pitched a character idea to Apatow.

As Apatow explained, “He had this idea of a 40-year-old virgin, which I took to instantly. I related to it in a way. It’s along the lines of ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ in that a lot of the characters are afraid of intimacy, afraid of sex and humiliation. I knew the terrain well.” Apatow sold the idea to Universal late last summer, and the two men set about writing the script. The film went into production early this year and opens Aug. 19.

“It’s so funny to think of something and then see someone paying to make it a reality,” Carell said, noting the film’s unusually swift journey to the screen.

“And it’s weird to see it come out the way you saw it.”

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“Bewitched” director and co-writer Nora Ephron said that casting Carell in the role of Uncle Arthur, played by Paul Lynde in the original series, was “sort of a no-brainer.”

“I don’t think we were brilliant to think of him,” she said. “Everybody has been thinking of him. He’s just hilarious, as well as easy and charming and fun to work with.”

With “Bewitched” stars Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell to worry about, is Ephron concerned about Carell’s scene-stealing ways?

“It doesn’t seem like the worst problem you can have,” she said.

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Apatow is particularly excited that in “Virgin,” people will see another side to Carell as his character stumbles his way to romance, fumbling a number of interludes opposite actresses Elizabeth Banks, Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife) and even Carell’s own wife -- Walls -- as well. The actor not only assumes the leading role for the first time, but also gets the girl, played by Catherine Keener.

“That’s been one of the fun challenges,” Apatow said, “to figure out how to help Steve learn how to carry a movie. Every day you discover what his strengths are. If you make a movie with another comedy star, you have this body of work to give you clues as to how he would work in the story. Since Steve hasn’t played a romantic lead in a movie before, a lot of it is new ground.”

THE DAILY REALITY CHECK

THE push-and-pull of promoting the launch of “The Office” while finishing “Virgin” has been physically tiring for Carell, but not all that difficult from a performing standpoint.

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“If I didn’t have this character down by now, I’d be in much bigger trouble,” he said, back on the set one morning after an appearance on “The Tonight Show” to promote “The Office.”

But even if he does complain, the father of two is not likely to find a sympathetic ear.

“I got home one day and sat down on the couch. My wife has spent the day with our kids. I told her, ‘I’m so tired. What a day.’ She shot me a look that said, ‘You’ve been making out with Elizabeth Banks for 15 hours.’

“Whenever I find myself complaining, all I have to do is ask her, ‘What do I have to complain about?’ I’m the lead in a studio movie, out of nowhere.”

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The next shot is finally ready, and Carell is being pulled away.

“I can’t believe I’m working, frankly. It’s so insane,” he said. “I haven’t had to wait tables since 1987, and that’s really how I gauge it.”


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