Despicable Me, the inaugural 3-D CGI feature from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, tells the story of one of the world’s greatest super-villains. Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), surrounded by an army of mischievous little minions, is planning the biggest heist in the history of the world – he is going to steal the moon. Just when he thinks he will prove his villainy to the world and vanquish all who stand in his way, he encounters three little orphaned girls who change his life forever.
At a press conference for the film, actor Steve Carell talked about creating the right voice for Gru, playing a loveable villain and the joy of making a movie that appeals to everyone. He also explained why he thinks Season 7 will be his last season on The Office.
With most of the characters you play, you are this great deadpan comedian who’s so good at playing it straight and making it funny. Is this a different side of your sense of humor, where you do a crazy voice and get to go wild?
Steve: It’s fun to go wild and it’s interesting when you’re trying to create a character in animation. It’s really a communal effort. It’s not like I would just come in with a singular idea and start doing it. I saw the artwork. I talked to the directors and the writers and got a sense for what they wanted. And then, what’s great about it is that you do have the license to just go for it, and you trust that the editors and the directors will put in what’s necessary. I felt like my job description on this was to just give as wide a range as possible, and do things small, and then blow the doors off on other takes because you never know what they’re going to need, in any given moment, in terms of the narrative of the movie.
Is it a side you’d like to show more?
Steve: It’s a side that’s fun to do. It’s all fun. It’s fun to mix and match, and play around with different voices. This character’s accent was just ridiculous. It’s fun to just play and experiment. What was great about this, in particular, was there was no impetus to do it correctly or within the lines. It was very free-wheeling and very supportive. We had a great freedom to fail, which I think is really liberating.
Julie Andrews does the voice of your mother, but did you ever even get a chance to meet her?
Steve: We’ve met a few times, over the years. We actually went out to lunch together a few years ago, just to talk, hang out and meet one another. She’s someone that I’ve wanted to work with forever, and I’m an enormous fan. It’s remarkable because she’s Julie Andrews. It’s such an overused word, but she is an icon. She is so elegant and beyond what you would expect her to be. She’s exactly what you expect her to be and more, and she lives up to every expectation. I hope I’m not setting the bar too high for her. She’s an exquisite person. I guess she initially balked a bit about playing someone who is a little bit dark, mean and nasty. But, even when she plays a character like that, there’s the underpinning of goodness that she just can’t get away from. Even her nastiest person, you still like her. I don’t think you can help but like her.
Becoming a dad totally changes Gru, drastically. How did first becoming a dad change you?
Steve: I think that’s one of the things I identified with in the script. Here’s a guy who has his life set up the way he’s accustomed to, and then is introduced to these three little girls who essentially turn his life upside down. They change all of his patterns. They change everything about what he thinks is important and, generally speaking, that happens when everyone has kids. You try to explain it to people who are about to have children, but I don’t anymore because you can’t. It’s something you understand once it happens. Everything changes. It’s such a diametric change that you really can’t explain it. For me, at least, all of my career goals, all of my focus and everything just shifted, and the importance was my children. That’s where all the joy came from as well, and that’s what’s touching about the character. It doesn’t’ change him, but it taps into a part of him that was always there, and that he didn’t know about, which is what happens when you have kids.
How was it to find the right tone to play evil, but not be too scary?
Steve: That’s what we played around with a lot, initially, as well as the look of the character. They wanted him to be a bit sinister looking, but also accessible, and that’s a very tricky line to walk. We tried to do that with the voice as well. That’s part of the reason we didn’t focus on one specific nationality. I wanted it to sound scary, but not really scary. I wanted it to be mostly funny and silly, but a little bit scary. That’s what I tried to keep in the back of my mind. He doesn’t have a black heart, but he doesn’t have a heart of gold either. I’d say he has a heart of bronze, and he discovers that as the movie progresses.
Is the enjoyment of doing animated movies the fact that they’re so freeing?
Steve: It’s using a different muscle because you’re not communicating with other actors. You can register what somebody’s going through, on a given take, and listen to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it because you pick up a lot from the people that you’re acting with. Generally speaking, at least for me, the better the person you’re with, the better you’re going to be because they’re giving you so much more. So, this is different. This is a completely different exercise because you are by yourself. You’re just standing there with a microphone and you have the script in front of you. All I tried to do was give options.
It’s an imagination exercise, more than anything else, because you have to not only imagine what your character might be going through physically and emotionally, but also what he might look like, what your surroundings or what your world might look like, so you have to close your eyes and imagine what might be happening around you. And, on top of that, because of all the other characters, you have to give different types of line readings that might fit in with what all the other actors are doing as well. So, it’s fun and very freeing because, ultimately, you don’t have control over any of it. You’re just giving them many, many puzzle pieces that they then go off and fit together.
The voice actors in this are just one paint color that the artists are painting with. You try to give them as great a spectrum as you can, but it’s ultimately their job to take it and create something wonderful out of it. It’s such an ego thing, too, because you go and see the movie, and it’s fantastic because of everything that they did, and you’re just this little tiny part of it. But also, at the same time, you feel so proud because you’re part of this greater process.
What was the ratio, in terms of what was scripted versus improvised?
Steve: I have no idea because you forget what is scripted and what you might have improvised. We’d always do the script as written, and then they’d ask us to play around and come up with alternate lines and jokes. But, in the end, I honestly don’t know. The script was great. The script could have just been done as is and the movie would have been fantastic. But I think because they had people like Russell [Brand] and Jason [Segal], they allowed for lots of improvisation, just to loosen the actors up and let them have fun.
How long was this process for you, from start to finish? Was it hard to go back periodically and find this voice again?
Steve: It wasn’t hard because, once the voice was established, it really didn’t take much time to warm back into it. I think we initially talked about this three years ago, and I started the voice-over work about two and a half years ago. Actually, in the world of animation, that’s very fast, from inception to opening a movie, and the animators did such a great job at putting it all together.
What did you think of Gru’s physicality and appearance?
Steve: I thought the character’s physicality was fantastic. It’s interesting because you don’t really know how the character is going to move until you see it, and it’s maybe a year or more before you start seeing the first rough animation of how the character might be moving down the street, or doing some of the facial expressions. It’s remarkable because it’s everything you’d hoped it would be, and it’s also a little scary because there are little qualities of what you do that are incorporated as well.
I loved the way the character looks, and I think they did strike that balance between being a little bit sinister, and being fun and accessible. The one thing about this movie is that I don’t think it’s condescending to children. I really think kids see it and can feel it when they’re being spoken down to. For the same reason, it’s appealing to adults because it then doesn’t seem like a kiddie movie. It just seems like a movie with a story that anyone can enjoy.
This is one of the first movies where the villain actually becomes likeable, by the end. Do you think that will set a precedent?
Steve: I don’t know. That was one of the things that was appealing to me about it. You rarely see movies told from the perspective of the villain, which I thought was interesting. This is a family movie with a villain versus another villain. I like the idea of incorporating these orphans into a villain’s life. I think the dichotomy there, not to get too heady about it, is really funny and an interesting dynamic. If this movie does enormously well, then yes, there will probably be other movies like it because that’s usually how it goes.
What do you think of Jason Segal?
Steve: I’ve only met him a few times now. The first time I met him was about four months ago. We were doing some advance promotion for the movie together. He’s an incredibly sweet guy, who’s really funny and just a nice person. Clearly, he has a good heart. We immediately liked one another. I can’t even jokingly say that there would ever, potentially, be an animosity. He’s great, and I think he’s hilarious.
How do you like 3-D? Do you take your kids to 3-D movies, and do they like it?
Steve: They do. They love 3-D. It’s fun to watch a movie in 3-D with your children, or with a group of children, because, from time to time, you see little hands reaching up to grab things that they think are right there. It’s remarkable and it does, obviously, add another dimension, literally, to the movie. It’s fun with things like this because you feel like you’re stepping inside of a world. I think that will continue. It’s remarkable. The technology is pretty amazing.
With the news that the seventh season of “The Office” will be your last with the show, why is now the time to move on?
Steve: Well, my contract has always been for seven seasons, and I just feel like now is the time for my character to move ahead. It just feels like time, to me. I have no doubt that the show will continue, and continue to be really strong. I think it might actually be a benefit to the show because, any time you shift the dynamic of a show like that, great things can happen and you can find new avenues to explore. I look at it as just one piece of an ensemble drifting off. I was actually surprised that anybody thought it was any big deal because, to me, the ensemble is what was always important about the show.
Will Michael Scott go out in a big way?
Steve: I don’t want him to, frankly. What I love most about the show is when it examines the minutia of life and those little tiny moments that you then base a whole episode on. There’s one show that Stanley and I waited in line for pretzels, the entire show. It was Pretzel Day in the office, and all we did was stand in line and wait, and talk about what kind of pretzels we were going to get. I love those moments, so I would be inclined to make it a more subtle and simple departure, as opposed to any big, “very special episode” kind of thing.