When you’re in every shot and working non-stop on a movie set, you could easily say you don’t want to do press. You could also be a bit of a diva. But the times I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Steve Carell work up close on a movie, he’s always beyond friendly and extremely giving with his time. He’s absolutely one of the nicest actors I’ve ever had the fortune to talk to. In his upcoming comedy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Carell stars as a Vegas magician whose relationship with his partner (Steve Buscemi) becomes strained as the two start getting upstaged by a hipper illusionist (Jim Carrey).
During a break in filming, I was able to participate in a group interview with Carell. We talked about sexy costumes, working with Carrey and Buscemi, how much magic he learned for the role, how his job as a producer related to the casting, and a lot more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
Before getting to the interview, watch the trailer:
Steve Carell: We were sent a script. Our company was sent a script some years ago that was a version of this one. That was a couple of incarnations ago. I really liked the premise. I thought that the characters had a lot of potential. I just liked the world. I think the world is really funny and that it’s something that we haven’t seen before.
We were watching you film multiple takes and it was interesting to see how your performance evolved throughout. Is that how you generally approach a scene?
Carell: Better that it evolve than devolve. It’s nice to be able to try different things with each take and to find things that work and don’t work. You never know. You never know until you put it in front of an audience. But it’s nice to have options when you’re shooting it. You try to look at it, even incrementally, performance-wise and you try things that might be a little more broad or a little more grounded. Once they’re editing and finding the exact tone of the movie, you have those options.
We saw you were doing a stunt on the first day. Was that scary?
Carell: It was a little bit scary. It takes time to get used to being up that high. It wasn’t so much the height as the fact that the bottom is plexiglass and you could look down 50, 60, 70 feet. I don’t know how high we were. There’s something disconcerting about that. I know at the Grand Canyon they have that plexiglass walkway that you can look down. I think some of the casinos there have the same type of thing. If you have a fear of heights, it’s a little disconcerting. After a while, though, you get used to it. Like anything, you start to trust it.
How many variations of these costumes do you get to wear?
Carell: Boy. There’s different stage costumes for our stage work. We also travel back. There are flashbacks to earlier versions of Burt and Anton. Their costumes chance accordingly. Also, what Burt and Anton wear as their street clothes are very specific to them as well. They’re clearly in costume even when they’re not on stage.
Did you get any insight into designing the costumes?
Carell: No, Dayna Pink designed all the costumes. She works extremely well with all the actors and susses out what will work for them. She’s so good. She did “Crazy. Stupid. Love.”
What was the inspiration for this one?
Carell: I don’t know the inspiration for this particular costume. I know she liked the velvet and she liked the colors. She thought the rhinestones would really pick up the light on stage. I don’t think it’s necessarily a Siegfried and Roy look. That might be the archetype that people will go to but it’s more of an 80’s or 90’s costume that this character thinks never went out of style. I think the character thinks it makes him look sexy. That’s why he’s still in it after all these years.
Carell: Extremely sexy. My agent came today and she couldn’t keep her eyes off me. She’s seeing a completely new person. I wear it on weekends. I wear it to my wife’s delight.
How long have you been looking to wear your own necklaces in a movie?
Carell: Finally! Finally, I get to wear some of my own. I actually don’t own any gold-colored jewelry so it’s extremely odd to be wearing anything gold, let alone 18 pounds of gold. But it changes the way you feel. Wearing this much jewelry definitely changes how you carry yourself as well as the open-chested tight pants look of it all.
How far away do you let yourself stray from what’s written on the page?
Carell: It depends on the scene. This was a pretty tightly-scripted scene. As far as we know, it may play as a one-shot. We may not go into coverage. This one has a lot of overlapping lines. It has to be fast. It’s not something that you can really go fishing for. You can change little things in different readings of the lines, but not wholesale changes.
What about the back-and-forth between your co-stars?
Carell: There’s been a lot of play and a lot of invention. It’s always great because you get it as scripted and that’s always of value. But you never know what else you’re going to find if you have time to play a little bit and see what else is out there. Steve Buscemi is hilarious. He’s really, really good with improv. It’s fun to go back and work with him.
What about playing off Jim Carrey?
Carell: Oh my gosh. Talk about a fertile mind. That guy could do 50 takes and they could all be completely different. The trick with him is really an abundance of riches. You don’t know which one to choose because one is just different and equally funny. Again, he supplies you with so many different variations. It’s sort of an editor’s dream. Whatever is called for in the movie you will find in his performance. He’s completely comitted, too. He was doing things — physical things — that didn’t seem human to me and he was doing them in a practical manner with no special effects. It was all him. It was all just his own commitment to the part.
You mean magic things?
Carell: Magic and just phsyical things. He does this one hit in his head — well, he does a number of very physical things that I think would be very difficult to attempt. I’m a huge, huge fan of his. To be able to work with him again… I just worked with him a little bit on “Bruce Almighty”.
Carell: But he’s still sort of a douchebag. I think that’s fun. I like the fact that he’s arrogant, has a downfall and has a redemption. What I liked about the story is that it’s very, very silly and ridiculous. At the same time, though, there’s a truth to it. There’s a thread of groundedness, if you will, which I think gives you extra license. It’s fun. Apart from everything else, it’s the kind of movie I would want to see. It’s just a good, fun, silly movie populated by incredibly good actors. People like Steve Buscemi, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde. There’s some really, really good people in this who will take what I think is good script and elevate it.
We were hearing that there’s a certain degree of slight-of-hand that you have to learn. How has that been?
Carell: Oh, I’m fantastic. Let me show you! Yeah, I’ve been taking some lessons. It’s tricky, though, because what you can acquire in a few months’ time is not going to replicate somebody who has studied for 20 years. I’ve studied magicians in general, too. I went to the Magic Castle and I went to Vegas and saw a lot of shows. I’ve observed them. Their acts and not just the technique of the trick but the technique of the presentation itself which is, I think, an art form as well. Every magician has a different style and a different way of communicating with the audience. They’re fun. Again, it’s something where, when you go without any cynicism and just embrace it, it really sort of transports you. It’s fun. We went to see David Copperfield and Chris Angel when we were in Vegas and they were fantastic. I’d never seen either of the before. I don’t know. I think it’s a really fertile area for a movie like this.
When you were shooting, we saw that you’d come over after every take and look at the monitors. What is it that you take away each time you do that?
Carell: I’m trying to kind of modulate. I’m trying to figure out, for one thing, a sense of where the cameras are and where they’re looking and what’s reading and what isn’t reading. Just sort of to get my bearings. The first couple of takes I felt like I was just a little bit hot. I needed to be a bit more nonchalant because they’ve done this change thousands of times. He’s probably had the same discussion with his partner as to some sort of in-fighting between them. After watching a couple of them, I got the sense that it needed to feel a bit more well-worn and routine. As well as the technical aspect of getting into new clothes. I wanted that to look like it had been done many, many times before and not that this was the first time for everybody. As a producer on the movie, too, I’m trying to watch all those things and other elements as well. Like what kind of coverage we might need or whether this could play in one. Just to kind of file away for later in terms of what we may need for this scene or that sort of thing. Some of it is from a producorial standpoint.
Carell: I was. I had some very specific casting ideas. What’s interested, being on that side of it, too, is — I don’t have a lot of experience with producing and working in conjunction with a studio — it’s interesting the lists of names and people that are thrown to you and suggested. It’s a matter of kind of gently massaging it to get closer to the people that you originally perceived. Or to get the studio to understand the tone of the movie you’re looking for. There were a lot of people interested in doing the movie but we had a very specific idea as to the types of actors that we felt would be right.
As a producer, do you have the ability to sort of skip over traditional channels and just call James Gandolfini and ask him if he wants to do it?
Carell: No, we went through all the channels. It’s not like I have James Gandolfini on speed dial. It’s fun, though, because there’s all these people that I idolize and respect. Alan Arkin, as far as I’m concerned, I always want to be in movies with him. This is the third time I’ve been able to. I am, frankly, always looking for opportunities to work with him. He’s the greatest guy ever and one of my idols. You look at someone like Steve Buscemi or James Gandolfini and they’re just people I admire so highly. I would be too nervous to call them on the phone and say, “Hey, you want to be in this movie?” You just sort of cross your fingers and hope they like the script. When the did, I remember seeing Steve for the first time. He was so giddy about it. He couldn’t wait. They actually postponed “Boardwalk Empire” by a couple of weeks so that he could fit it all in his shooting schedule. He was really, really committed to doing it. I just had the best time.
Do you watch “Boardwalk Empire”? Do you see a different side of him?
Carell: The first time I watched “Boardwalk”, it was the first season. I was visiting my parents in Florida and they had gone to bed at, like, 7:30, so I had the whole night. I started watching and they had it on sort of a marathon. I watched one after another after another. I must have watched five episodes in one sitting and was immediately hooked. He is so good on that show.
What made you think of him for this part?
Carell: The part has a sort of innocence and a naivete. He’s very kind and a very generous soul. I think that’s a part that — I mean, he’s a great actor, apart from anything else. He could play every part in this movie and be fantastic at it. But he just seemed exactly right. And man is he funny. He’s just so good. He’s real. He makes very specific and clean choices. I’m a huge admirer.
Carell: The most takes I’ve ever done? On “The Office” there was a scene with a director who I think only did one episode who had us do a scene 50 or 60 times. Over and over and over. I think that that’s the most takes I ever did. At a certain point, it’s diminishing returns. You can get all hooked up on something and wanting to make it perfect or not finding something. Ultimately, when you go back and look at it, take three is probably the one they’re going to use. At least I find. Doing it 40, 50 or 60 times isn’t usually going to help anyone. It’ll just bum people out and you’re not finding anything new. If you’re finding new things, that’s always fun. And if you have time. That’s the other thing. On a movie on a budget with a limited shooting schedule — I think we’re shooting for 47 days — it’s pretty tight. It’s not like we have days. Today we shot a bunch of the wirework this morning and then this scene in the afternoon. On any other movie or a bigger budgeted movie, you’d be doing wirework just one day. Just that scene in and of itself. That has a lot to do with how many takes you think you can use. But I think that, after a certain point, it just doesn’t help. You may think you’re coming up with new and inventive stuff but, at a certain point, it just becomes — somebody said and I don’t remember who — it just becomes hamburger.
Carell: He sets the tone completely. Everybody loves him and everybody respects him. That comes from his sense of respect for everybody else. The cast and the crew. Everybody. He creates a really positive, fun environment. He knows what he wants. He has a great eye. He’s very efficient. He’s good. He knows how to move things along and make his day. He’s great. He’s just fun. He’s incredibly positive. He came in Friday and had watched a bunch of footage and was just so ebullient. He was glowing about what he’d seen so far. He was so happy. It’s pervasive. You really feel how genuine he is.
What did Tina [Fey] tell you about him?
Carell: She said he was — and it was short e-mail — she said, “He is the best.” I e-mailed her and said, “What’s your take on Don? You know him.” She said, “Don is the best.” And I think she was mad that we stole him. He is, though. He’s doing the best job.
Here are the rest of my on set interviews from The Incredible Burt Wonderstone which opens March 15:
- Steve Buscemi Talks Balancing Comedy and Drama, and His Experience with Improv On the Set of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
- Olivia Wilde Talks Outrageous Costumes, Improv with Steve Carell, and More On the Set of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
- Director Don Scardino Talks The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Jim Carrey’s Perfectionism, and Film vs. Digital
- Producer Chris Bender Talks the Competitive World of Professional Magic, Filming in Las Vegas, and More On the Set of The Incredible Burt Wonderston