Steve Carell is known for playing characters who are off the wall but not in a dangerous or sinister way. From the inept Andy in the 40 Year Old Virgin, to the slightly mentally challenged Brick in Anchorman, to the socially awkward Michael Scott on “The Office” this man knows how to play quirky. With his latest project, Despicable Me he steps out of his comfort zone to lend his voice and his talent to a truly despicable character.
In the film he plays Gru, a super-villain who’s trying to pull off the biggest heist in the world. He wants to shrink and steal the moon! It sounds insane but this is an animated film and if the shoe fits, wear it. The actor recently took part in a press conference in promotion of Despicable Me and spoke about the ups and downs of voice acting, how long the process took, and how he felt playing the son of the legendary Julie Andrews…
Carell spoke about the differences between voice acting and live action performances and they different challenges they present.
Steve Carell: 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.
He describes the process as an “imagination exercise.”
SC: 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 work that goes into finding the right voice was a tedious process but the actor had fun doing it.
SC: 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.
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.
As for Gru’s appearance, they didn’t want him to be too scary. The directors and animators just wanted him to have a “unique” look.
SC: 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.
Sometimes animators incorporate an actor’s movements into their characters, and Carell loved that part of the creative process.
SC: 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.
Carell’s known for his work as an improv comedian and he discussed how he incorporated it into the controlled environment of animation.
SC: 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.
On working with film and stage legend Julie Andrews…
SC: 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.
Overall the one thing Carell loves the most about Despicable Me is the way it reaches out to children.
SC: 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.
Despicable Me debuts in theaters July 9, 2010.