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Steve Carell Has Always Just Wanted to Blend In

Beloved by his peers, adored by audiences, the unassuming film and television star doesn’t hog the spotlight or have much interest in showy roles. But sometimes that modesty can be a limitation

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

One of Steve Carell’s great strengths is that he doesn’t think he’s all that funny. It can be exhausting to watch some comic stars take on a role, so overly confident in their own hilarity that there’s no room for discovery, only our dutiful adoration of their supposed genius. Carell is funny because he isn’t trying that hard, which isn’t to say he’s not trying. There’s a humility to his humor that makes him relatable in a way other comedians aren’t. There’s no ego. He genuinely seems like a nice person.

But do we want our comic superstars to be nice? Sure, in an age when Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais are telling anti-trans jokes, maybe “edginess” is overrated. Still, the idea of “nice” runs counter to the chaotic, sometimes dangerous energy we get from, say, Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey. Ryan Reynolds comes across as a decent dude, but his signature sarcasm is meant to undercut that sweetness. Meanwhile, Steve Carell is the king of nice — and like everyone who’s ever been described as nice, it’s a compliment but also a bit of a dig.

He’s going to turn 60 in August, now well into his silver-fox period. He’s proved himself to be an understated dramatic actor and an ace comedic one. With Minions: The Rise of Gru about to hit theaters, sure to be another blockbuster, he’s coming close to being famous for nearly 20 years. And yet, he never quite dominated the Hollywood landscape like some of his comedy peers — and he hasn’t done the hard pivot to reshape himself as an ultra-serious performer the way that some former funnymen do. Can a superstar actually be content to just be a star?

Carell grew up outside of Boston, never dreaming of superstardom but definitely interested in comedy — or, rather, interested in how comedy worked. “Especially George Carlin and Steve Martin — over and over I’d listen to those routines,” he said in 2018. “I think what I didn’t realize at the time was that I was studying. I was trying to understand what made them funny, why I enjoyed it so much, what they were doing with the language, what they were doing with the misdirection. Steve Martin in particular, his brand of comedy was so different and so absurdist that I really took to that immediately. But I never thought of myself as particularly funny.”

His parents weren’t in the business. (His mom was a nurse. His dad was an engineer.) And anytime he’s asked about his childhood, he works very hard to insist that he wasn’t the class clown. “I’ll be honest — I was a dull kid,” he said a few years ago. “I wouldn’t say I was straightlaced, but I wasn’t a party guy. I played a lot of sports, I was in school plays, I was on the student council, I was on the social committee.” Most comics as boys were trying to stand out or garner approval, using their sense of humor as an attention-getter or a defense mechanism. But it sounds like Carell didn’t lead with humor. “Like most people, I have painful memories of trying to fit in as a child,” he once wrote. “I wore, said and did pretty much what everyone else did. My goal was to not stand out in any way. I aggressively homogenized myself. I did not aspire to be ‘cool.’ That was the lofty stuff of a Clint Bajakian, or a Paul Slye — classmates of mine. I wanted only to avoid being ‘uncool.’ A second-tier matador doesn’t worry about vanquishing the bull; he concentrates on survival.”

You have to wonder if that homogenization process ended up reaping benefits for Carell in his career, because he’s rarely better than when he’s playing a “normal” person — albeit, one who’s just slightly askew. But initially, acting wasn’t where he thought he was headed. “I thought I wanted to be an attorney,” Carell told The Boston Globe. “That was the goal. All through college, acting and theater were just a hobby, and I felt that I owed my parents more than that. After all that they’d invested in me, I felt I owed them a real career. And I knew the odds of being a successful actor were infinitesimal.” 

But after being flummoxed by a fairly straightforward question on his law-school application — “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” — he realized that maybe he should pursue another path. “I went in to talk to my parents, and they sat me down at the kitchen table and said, ‘Well, what do you like to do? Let’s make a list.’ Theater was always one of the things that I’d enjoyed, and they said, ‘Try it. Give yourself a year or however long and see how it goes.’”

Carell’s career got going when he moved to Chicago, becoming part of Second City in the early 1990s, befriending Stephen Colbert. From the start, Carell possessed a nerdy love of comedy. In a 2010 profile in The New Yorker, Carell said, “I look at improvising as a prolonged game of chess. There’s an opening gambit with your pawn in a complex game I have with one character, and lots of side games with other characters, and another game with myself — and in each game you make all these tiny, tiny moves that get you to the endgame. Not that your character would remember them all — who keeps track of everything he’s said to everyone? — but you as an actor have to remember everything.” He had the ability to make this not sound pretentious — his enthusiasm was too contagious for that to happen.

Soon, he got cast on the short-lived Dana Carvey Show with his buddy Colbert, the duo’s beloved sketch “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food” a highlight of a series that only lasted a handful of episodes but whose reputation has soared in subsequent years because of the rising young talent that was part of the show. From there, Carell and Colbert moved on to The Daily Show, part of the first group of correspondents who became stars in their own right. On recurring segments like “Even Stephven,” they satirized cable news’ blowhard commentators, both actors able to deliver brilliant deadpan. But he wasn’t as thrilled about doing the remotes, where his character had to go out and find dummies to mock. “I felt many of these people were sincere and sweet and doing something they truly loved to do, giving the world diversity and color and joy,” he told The New Yorker. “So I decided, ‘I’ll put the onus on me, and make the character I’m playing into a total buffoon.’”

His first major film roles found him playing more buffoons, first in 2003’s Bruce Almighty, where he’s a jerk named Evan who gets a coveted local news-anchor job over our lovable hero Bruce (Jim Carrey). But once Bruce gets to be God for a week — don’t ask — he decides to mess with Evan when he’s on air. It gave Carell a chance to display to filmgoers the buttoned-down chops he’d been honing on stage and on the small screen. 

A year later came Anchorman, the hit comedy that cemented Will Ferrell’s transition from Saturday Night Live to movies. But it also further proved that Carell could be a scene-stealer: Just like in Bruce Almighty, he was the funny guy you weren’t expecting, turning his weatherman character Brick Tamland into a low-grade weirdo who might be harmless but who also might not be harmless. Even in the audition, Carell grasped that Brick had to be played as straight as possible, which would make his daft non sequiturs and upsettingly intense laugh hit with more force. You laughed, in part, because you were sorta scared of the guy.

His star just kept ascending from there, Carell pulling off the impressive one-two punch of comedy and drama with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine. Much like Anchorman launched Ferrell, The 40-Year-Old Virgin established Judd Apatow as a major comic filmmaker, providing Carell with his first starring role. Everyone now thinks of that movie as the “one where Carell had his chest waxed for real (and almost lost a nipple in the process),” but the bigger comedic set pieces obscure what’s so sweet about the love story between him and Catherine Keener. Carell had written the script with Apatow, coming up with the idea of an adult man who’d never gotten laid. But as usual, he wasn’t that interested in mocking the character, telling an interviewer about the unusual research he’d done while working on the project.

“We were given several case studies by Universal, which we read. Seriously! And there are quite a few case studies documenting middle-aged virginity, and who these people are, and where they live, and what are their likes and dislikes,” Carell said. “And what we found to be the case, more often than not, is that they’re just normal people who, for one reason or another, never did it, and just very similar to the character, at some point, just kind of gave up on the whole notion because … it was more difficult to keep attempting than to just give up.”

The bro-ness of The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s comedy was offset by Carell’s gentle performance, giving that film a humanity you might not have expected from the premise. The 40-Year-Old Virgin was the furthest thing from a raucous, brain-dead sex comedy, but it helped firm up Carell’s membership in the so-called Frat Pack that would dominate Hollywood comedies over the next several years. He always seemed like an outlier, though, somebody too grownup and sober to be comparable to a Vince Vaughn or Will Ferrell. In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, he admitted, “It’s not like I’m a wallflower. I think I’m fairly average. I don’t stand out. I don’t attempt to stand out in any way. I’m not out there. I’m not somebody who’s constantly entertaining. I’m not the life of the party. But on the other hand, I am at the party.”

Little Miss Sunshine, which premiered at Sundance in 2006, was the other side of the coin: a funny-sad indie road movie about a dysfunctional family co-starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin and eventual Oscar-winner Alan Arkin. Emblematic of an era of Fox Searchlight films that possessed a lightly “arthouse” sensibility while being broadly appealing in a feel-good way, Little Miss Sunshine saw him play a depressed, suicidal man, but Carell never overdid the emoting, never tried to wow you with his brilliance. There’s always a nonchalance to his performances, as if he spent all the prep time figuring out how to make it seem like it was no big deal. He doesn’t disappear into roles so much as he winnows them down so that you take for granted what he’s doing on screen.

In the midst of these movies, of course, he was also beginning his stint on The Office, the American remake of the celebrated U.K. original, which had made Ricky Gervais a sensation. But David Brent always suggested that, deep down, maybe Gervais really was that needy and obnoxious. By comparison, Carell played Michael Scott as a fool but one who seemed divorced from the real Steve Carell. Many big names were up for the part — including Louis C.K., who had been head writer on The Dana Carvey Show — but it ultimately came down to Carell and Bob Odenkirk. 

“We still had Bob as somebody we were in love with as a comedic performer,” executive producer Ben Silverman later said. “But Steve, even though he’s from the Northeast, had such a Midwestern-accessible, lovable comedic energy, like the great primetime sitcom stars of the ‘50s and ‘60s. He had that thing. There was something about us that wanted to soften the character. Bob has hard edges, like he has angularity to him. He’s brilliant, but he literally has angularity.”

Carell had never seen the original Office when he auditioned, and maybe that helped. (Other actors up for the role, such as Rainn Wilson, who went on to be cast as Dwight Schrute, tried to copy David Brent in their audition.) Carell gave Michael his own spin, nailing the sort of falling-upward, deeply mediocre American white male you see in every office across the U.S. of A. But you didn’t hate Michael, although he could be loathsome, and that was all due to Carell, who found a quiet decency in such a self-involved doofus. David, you wanted to see get what was coming to him; but Michael, you actually rooted for, seeing in him the capacity to become a feeling, sensitive human being.

The series, which Carell was on from 2005 to 2011, won Emmys and established itself as a separate entity from the U.K. original. But whereas other zeitgeist-y programs, such as Will & Grace or Sex and the City, have come back in recent years, Carell has resisted the idea with The Office, telling Esquire in 2018, “The climate’s different. I mean, the whole idea of that character, Michael Scott, so much of it was predicated on inappropriate behavior. I mean, he’s certainly not a model boss. A lot of what is depicted on that show is completely wrong-minded. That’s the point, you know? But I just don’t know how that would fly now. There’s a very high awareness of offensive things today — which is good, for sure. But at the same time, when you take a character like that too literally, it doesn’t really work.”

His time on The Office coincided with a run of movies where he seemed to continue the Virgin/Little Miss Sunshine dance between laughs and pathos. Get Smart was a just-okay remake of the TV series, with Carell lovingly embodying Don Adams, while Dan in Real Life was a more mature date-night offering. Evan Almighty is among the worst spinoff films ever, while Crazy, Stupid, Love. was a misguided look at relationships. I actually have some fondness for Date Night, in which he’s teamed with Tina Fey to play a married couple who rediscover their spark during a crazy night full of intrigue and mistaken identity, but his big hit of the period was Despicable Me, a broad, silly animated film about a dastardly supervillain, Gru, who comes to care for some adorable kids. 

That everybody ended up falling in love with Gru’s henchmen, the Minions, who have become more popular in the culture than Gru, seems to speak to something about Carell’s appeal — and perhaps its limitation. Even as the star, he doesn’t stand out — it’s not his style. (When he was stealing other people’s movies, there was a modesty to the theft.). But as a result, it’s very likely a lot of people will check out this weekend’s Minions: The Rise of Gru because of Gru’s sidekicks, not him.

In the last decade, Carell has largely moved away from comedy, preferring thoughtful dramas (or comedy-dramas), although he occasionally returned to his roots, whether in Anchorman 2 or the super-silly (and underrated) The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. But the serious stuff was where he shined, playing a righteously angry hedge fund manager in The Big Short (reuniting with Anchorman filmmaker Adam McKay) and the oilily charming Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes (reuniting with Little Miss Sunshine filmmakers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton). However, his best performance — and the one for which he’s received his sole Oscar nomination to date — was in 2014’s Foxcatcher, where he played John du Pont, whose patriotism inspired him to invite champion wrestling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) to his lavish estate to train for the 1988 Summer Olympics. 

Foxcatcher was as close as Carell has gotten to doing the sort of “go big” portrayal that usually garners actors awards, but even here he refused to do anything so blatant. If he’s guilty of being too nice, then sometimes that can translate into a commendable restraint that makes his muted performances remarkable. His du Pont is a fool like so many of Carell’s creations — he’s as needy of approval as Michael Scott — with the actor’s face remade through makeup to more resemble the real-life heir to a family fortune. But as he’s demonstrated over most of his career, Carell found something sad and vulnerable within the man, which made the character’s strange fascination with these brothers all the more tragic and riveting. The way du Pont seems so removed from the world, he comes across as a sad little monster who eventually does something absolutely terrible.

“Here was a guy who was the product of his upbringing, his enormous wealth,” Carell later said. “He was isolated to a great extent from many of the things that he longed for — and it was compounded with mental issues, of course. He was someone who didn’t possess the tools to achieve what he wanted out of life; and in that regard, incredibly heartbreaking.” In that same interview, Carell resisted the idea that, like so many other comic stars, his move to serious fare suggested a desire to be considered a legitimate artist. “I’ve never cared about being taken seriously — I just see myself as an actor,” he said. “Most of my career, I’ve just taken what I’ve been offered. I always feel most comfortable as part of an ensemble. Whether it’s a comedy or a drama, I like to fit in. It’s best not to stick out.”

Fitting in, not sticking out: Those have been watchwords for Carell, not just over his career but in life. His reputation in Hollywood is pretty sterling. (That 2018 Esquire profile was titled “Mensch at Work.”) He’s beloved by costars, he’s been happily married to his wife Nancy since 1995, he’s one of those guys you’re tickled to see in anything. Well, maybe not anything — he’s been in a bit of a slump in recent years. He was nicely reserved in the likes of Beautiful Boy and Last Flag Flying, but the films felt so muted, smothered by their own tastefulness, that they didn’t really take flight. Welcome to Marwen was a misfire, and as for Space Force, his Netflix sitcom with Greg Daniels (who was behind the U.S. version of The Office), it mostly made you concerned that Carell had forgotten how to be funny. Over the last few years, he hasn’t stuck out, but not in a good way — rather, he has seemed to shrink, perhaps the inherent limitations of his artistic modesty starting to reveal themselves.

Carell is the type who insists he never wanted to be a big star, and I believe him. You think about the real comic titans of our time, and they seemed hellbent on world domination. (Even his old friend Stephen Colbert, a fairly modest person himself, has a theatrical flair that made him perfect to play a faux-conservative commentator or lead a top-rated late-night talk show.) Carell has always made it clear that he didn’t find himself funny, and I understand what he means. His humor, like his acting in general, comes from careful consideration — he’s not the dynamo who blows you away, even though he has done that in some of his work. In that 2010 New Yorker profile, Judd Apatow remarked, “When I work with someone, I always try to figure out ‘What’s your wound? Who hurt you?’ It’s easier to write for them if I can figure out the neurosis. With Richard Pryor, who grew up in a whorehouse, you could track it, but I’ve never been able to figure that out with Steve.”

The Frat Pack has faded away, The Office now lives on in streaming, and Carell is a warm presence on chat shows — not to mention one of the internet’s favorite hot dads. (Not surprisingly, his family means a lot to him, having two kids in their late teens and early 20s. “Being a dad changed me,” he once said. “That instantly became the most important thing I did and will ever do — it gave context to every other part of my life, and I think I’m a good dad. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes, but I’m trying my best.”) And he’s still occasionally doing interesting work, like his brief stint on The Morning Show, playing the co-host of a morning show whose history of sexual misconduct finally comes out. 

It was one of the first programs to address the #MeToo movement, and Jennifer Aniston, who was also an executive producer on the show, later sang Carell’s praises, declaring, “The Morning Show had to hire a talented, unimpeachable man to play that role, and that kinda narrowed the list down, well, just to Steve. That was it.” The implication was obvious: Carell is one of the good guys in an industry that has a dearth of them. And as was his presence, on The Morning Show he was part of an ensemble, ceding the spotlight to higher-wattage stars Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. That arrangement was literally true in the moment that Aniston said what she did about him: She was at a podium in front of a large audience, accepting an award from Carell, who quietly stood in the background while she spoke.

The scene felt indicative of Carell’s entire essence: He wasn’t the life of the party, but he was at the party. Carell is simply too talented to be denied, but his inherently understated manner may keep him from being considered one of the all-time comedy greats. That might bother other stars, but Carell seems too reasonable — too smart, too sane — to let those things bother him. There’s a very good chance he’s destined to be underappreciated. Don’t make that mistake.