Carell's repertoire of characters includes more than just lovable buffoons. Over the past decade he has played a gay Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine, an arrogant newsman in Bruce Almighty and its sequel, Evan Almighty, a dim weatherman in Anchorman and a widowed advice columnist in love with his brother's girlfriend in Dan in Real Life.
No one is more surprised by this success than Carell himself. The Massachusetts native, the youngest of four brothers, was convinced at a young age he would end up in a nine-to-five job. As a student at Ohio's Denison University he assumed he would be a lawyer. Oddly, it took his parents to convince him he should give up practicality in favor of something he really wanted to do, like show business.
He moved to Chicago after graduation and began performing at the legendary Second City improv-comedy theater, but things didn't go well. He lost his bid to get on Saturday Night Live. He appeared in a string of failed sitcoms, as an easily incensed Greek chef on Over the Top and Julia Louis-Dreyfus's obnoxious ex-husband on Watching Ellie. His first break came in 1999, when he was hired (thanks to a recommendation from friend and Second City cast mate Stephen Colbert) as a correspondent on Comedy Central's news satire The Daily Show. Along with recently hired anchor Jon Stewart, Carell—and the show—became a hit.
It wasn't until 2005 that he made the leap from dependable comedy sidekick to unconventional leading man. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which Carell starred and which he co-wrote with director Judd Apatow, raked in more than $177 million at the box office worldwide.
Since then the 45-year-old Carell has apparently been unable to do wrong. And through it all, the actor and comedian has enjoyed a seemingly normal family life, marrying fellow comic Nancy Walls—they met at Second City (she was his student in an improv class), and she has been his occasional acting partner in everything from The Daily Show to The Office—and raising two children.
We sent writer Eric Spitznagel (who most recently interviewed Tina Fey for Playboy) to speak with Carell. He reports: "I expected Carell to put on his usual self-effacing routine. He likes to evade questions that get too personal with a barrage of gags and tongue-in-cheek modesty. But after we waded through the humor, it became apparent that his humility isn't a facade. When you cut down to the bone, he really is just a nice guy who stumbled into comedy stardom.
"When he hosted Saturday Night Live, Carell joked during his monologue that 'money falls from my ass.' The more you talk to Steve Carell, the more you realize he really does believe his success is just that random and inexplicable."
PLAYBOY: In Get Smart you play a bumbling idiot and—
CARELL: No, I do not.
PLAYBOY: Really? We're talking about the same movie, right?
CARELL: I never saw Maxwell Smart as bumbling. He's not a Jacques Clouseau kind of character. He's very good at his job. If you watch the TV show, Don Adams plays Maxwell as somebody who is quirky but always knows he will succeed in whatever he attempts. He has a lot of self-confidence.
PLAYBOY: But his confidence is misguided, isn't it?
CARELL: Well, sure. But when he gets into a fight, he can take care of himself. He knows how to handle a firearm. Part of what makes the character so funny, at least to me, is that he lacks any self-awareness and may take himself too seriously. But he is still a good spy. He gets the job done.
PLAYBOY: Adams served in the Marines during World War II and was comfortable shooting a machine gun. What's your military training?
CARELL: You mean aside from being a Navy SEAL? As a special-ops alumnus, I'm not supposed to talk about my training too much. As you'll see in the movie, I'm extremely proficient in the ways of killing people. No, this was my first experience using a gun. I did some firearms training, mostly safety-based. There's a lot of gunplay in the movie, and we had live rounds in our weapons.
PLAYBOY: Live rounds? They gave you actual bullets?
CARELL: Well, no, they weren't live live. They were blanks. You see, in the magical world of filmmaking it's always to the producer's advantage to keep the cast and crew unharmed for the duration of the shooting schedule. Blank rounds are especially helpful if the director wants to do more than one take with living actors.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of realism, there's an urban legend that the CIA called the producers of Get Smart and asked, "Where did you hear about the shoe phone? That's top secret!" Has anything similar happened to you?
CARELL: Oh yeah, they were all over us. The CIA, the FBI, the NSA, Tobacco and Firearms, NASA, the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Mint, PBS. They were all closely monitoring our set. You know, that sounds like a good story, but I highly doubt the CIA called the producers of Get Smart and said, "Where on earth did you get the idea for the Cone of Silence? We have one of those!" That sounds a little far-fetched. If the CIA is using shoe phones, we're all in grave danger in this country.
PLAYBOY: The TV show was a spoof of James Bond-type spies and the Cold War. Does that kind of satire translate to 2008?
CARELL: Given our present-day international tensions, absolutely. The situation in North Korea, the constant threat of terrorism, worsening relations with Russia—the political landscape isn't as far from the 1960s as one may think. Also, I've never thought of Get Smart as a spy spoof. I think of it as a spy comedy.
PLAYBOY: What's the difference?
CARELL: A spy spoof parodies the genre of spy movies, whereas we tried to make Get Smart funny without being self-referential. When Warner Bros. offered me the role, they asked what I thought the movie could or should look like. I wanted it to be a comedic version of the Bourne spy series, in which the villains were actually scary, substantial and posed a threat, the action did not seem contrived or cartoonish, and characters were in situations realistic enough to create a sense of plausible jeopardy. Within that framework the comedy would resonate all the more because there would be a reality to anchor it.
PLAYBOY: As with The Office, Get Smart is another remake of a classic comedy. Do you ever get tired of saying, "We can never be as good as the original"? Don't you want to come out and say, "They're gonna eat our dust"?
CARELL: Never. I've never felt that way. I feel very much the same about the original Get Smart as I do about the original Office. It's not about trying to be better than the original. You want to make something that isn't just an impersonation or a copy, because if that's the point, why even do it? The challenge is to take elements of the original and reexplore it in a new context. The most difficult part for me was incorporating some of those famous Maxwell Smart sayings: "Would you believe...?" and "Missed it by that much" and "Sorry about that, chief." All of those lines are so ingrained, and we're all familiar with the delivery behind them. So I wanted to pay homage to them without necessarily changing anything just for the sake of change. It was a bit daunting.