From Richard Linklater to Judd Apatow: Steve Carell’s top 10 greatest film performances
“In my wildest dreams I never thought – well, I never thought I’d work.” – Steve Carell
American comedian Steve Carell has been one of the top comic actors in Hollywood for a while now. Apart from his brilliant roles in films like The 40-Year Old Virgin and The Big Short, he is best known for his portrayal of the beloved character of Michael Scott on the NBC show The Office. Carell has received numerous awards and worldwide recognition, including prestigious nominations for both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes.
Having started his comedy career in college when he joined Burpee’s Seedy Theatrical Company, a student-run improvisational comedy troupe, Carell also acted on stage in a children’s theatre company and appeared in television commercials to support himself. He finally made his film debut in 1991 with a minor role in Curly Sue.
On his 58th birthday, we take a look at some of his best performances in feature films in recognition of his invaluble contribution to the art of comedy.
Steve Carell’s Top 10 Film Performances:
10. Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin – 2010)
One of the most popular animated films of the last decade, Steve Carell is brilliant as the voice actor of Gru, an evil genius who tries really hard to do something monumentally bad but finds himself unable to betray the trust of the three young girls who look up to him. It’s an endearing film about parenthood, morality and everything in between.
Carell revealed why he liked his character so much, “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.”
He added, “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.”
9. Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater – 2017)
Steve Carell plays Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a former Navy Corpsman who reunites with his old friends who served together in Vietnam, asking for their help in burying his son who died in the Iraq War. Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne put up equally powerful performances as the three actors oscillate between moments of humour and sentimentality.
Carell praised Linklater, saying, “That’s the way he directs. He quietly and gently leads you to where you need to be but you never feel like you’re being told what to do.”
The film had a two-week rehearsal process before the production started. Carell said, “It is unusual to take a long rehearsal period for a move now…but I am so glad because I think it makes a difference, especially for a movie like this. These guys have to feel like they know each other and have known each other for years.”
8. The Way, Way Back (Nat Faxon – 2013)
One of Carell’s more unlikeable characters, he played the obnoxious boyfriend in this coming-of-age drama who makes his girlfriend’s son Duncan feel like an outcast. Carell is convincingly arrogant and unfair towards Duncan while he indulges in questionable acts himself.
“I didn’t think of him as a bad guy; I didn’t approach him that way. But he’s not the most likeable person in the world, it was different,” Carell said. “I got the script and I read that first scene, in which he’s really being terrible to this 14-year-old son of his girlfriend, and I liked the scene because it certainly set the tone of the movie.
“It was brutal, but I was brutally honest. I found out later it was based on a true encounter between one of the directors and his stepdad. I think that’s partly why it rang so true, because it was based in reality.”
7. Battle of The Sexes (Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton – 2017)
This 2017 sports film chronicles the historical tennis match which was called the “Battle of The Sexes”. Carell plays the role of ex-champion and proud misogynist Bobby Riggs who challenged World number one Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone). He scored Golden Globe and SAG nominations for his brash performance.
Steve Carell revealed what he thought about the character he played, “Bobby Riggs would do basically anything to promote himself and to promote this tennis match, including this persona of a misogynist. He wasn’t that but he thought, ‘That will get some people interested in this whole thing.’”
6. Beautiful Boy (Felix Van Groeningen – 2018)
Highly intimate in nature, Carell gives a brilliant performance as the father of a troubled teenager who finds himself spiralling due to drug addiction. The film beautifully portrays how the victim is not just the addict but everyone else who loves them as well. Carell masterfully captures the psychological conflict as he does whatever he can to help his son.
Carell explained why he took up this role, “I was attracted to it because I’m a dad. I have teenagers and I am terrified as I’m sure David Sheff was. And it’s – the whole idea, the whole premise of this, is frightening to me, the fact that here is a father who thinks he can control the situation and thinks he can examine it and research it and understand it and then solve it.”
He continued, “But the further into it he gets, the more research he does, he realizes that he’s pretty much useless. And he can’t do anything to control this downward spiral, and it’s a terrifying, terrifying thing.”
5. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay – 2004)
This 2004 absurdist comedy stars Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy, San Diego’s top newsman in the 1970s world of broadcasting. Burgundy’s profession was male-dominated at the time but he feels threatened when a female anchorman is hired at the station. Carell plays the role of Brick Tamland, a dull but sweet meteorologist.
Steve Carell had been preparing for a long time for a role like this because of his stint as a correspondent at “The Daily Show” which lasted several seasons. The film beautifully dismantles all the prejudiced attitudes of the time, covered in layers of irony and satire.
This is certainly one of the funniest roles of Carell’s career and there have been a lot of those.
4. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller – 2014)
Bennett Miller’s truth-is-stranger-than-fiction sports drama features Steve Carell as John du Pont, an eccentric billionaire who hires two U.S. Olympic wrestling champions to be a part of his “Team Foxcatcher”. However, things take an unexpected turn when the problematic billionaire murders one of the wrestlers and kicks the other one out. Carell is compelling and delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance. It earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
“It wasn’t the type of movie that you laugh and you fool around, and then they yell “action” and you snap back into these characters and these situations,” Carell reflected.
“The mood of it really permeated the set, and the fact that Mark Schultz was there and Nancy Schultz was there from time to time gave us this sense of responsibility and a certain soberness to it all. I think within that, yeah, we all – out of respect for these people and for Bennett, and for what we were trying to do – we kind of tried to stay in that space.”
3. Little Miss Sunshine (Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton – 2006)
One of Carell’s most popular films, this road trip comedy focuses on a dysfunctional family travelling cross-country in a VW bus on their way to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, where their youngest daughter is a contestant. Carell is brilliant as Frank Ginsberg, a gay scholar who specializes in the works of Proust and who lives with his sister after an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
“We were so lucky to get Steve at the right time in his career,” Jonathan Dayton said. “The cool thing about Steve is he’s just a guy who wants to challenge himself and it’s exciting for us to be the first film that will show a different side of him.”
2. The Big Short (Adam McKay – 2015)
Carell plays the character of Mark Baum (a character based on real-life investor Steven Eisman) in this satirical chronicle of the 2008 stock market collapse. As the market becomes increasingly unstable, Baum grows disillusioned and disgusted with the world and people’s capacity for bullshit. Carell is fantastic as the headstrong leader of a hedge fund. His performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
While speaking about how the film affected him, Steve Carell said, “The more you learn about it, the scarier it becomes. One of the most frightening aspects was the title cards at the end that let you know it’s possible and more than likely it could happen again. I went to a test screening about a month and a half ago in Orange County, and just, like, random people came to see this movie, and I sat in the back and I listened to the focus group, and it really seemed to affect people.
“They enjoyed it, but at the same time, they were taken aback and a little shocked by it — it felt like a little bit of a gut-punch. This is not fiction. This all really happened. And it’s scary as hell.”
1. The 40-Year Old Virgin (Judd Apatow – 2005)
Thoroughly enjoyable and downright hilarious, Steve Carell steals the show in this 2005 film comedy drama as Andy, a man who feels pressured to pay heed to the societal prejudices against being a virgin. Urged by his friends, he embarks on a journey to get laid but ends up finding love in the process. Carell’s funny and empathetic performance makes the comic romp seem touching at times.
Carell had this to say about the famous waxing scene, “That was 100% real. I completely subjected myself to an actual waxing on camera. It was done in one take, we set up five cameras, and clearly we only had one shot at it because my hair doesn’t grow that quickly. We just figured it would be a funnier to go, ultimately. And more excruciating overall.”
He added, “ I got a strange reaction from my wife. And my daughter asked me why my chest was smiling at her. It was definitely something to live with. My wife made me wear a T-shirt around the house for the next couple of months, she couldn’t bear to look at it anymore.”