Since he shot to fame eight years ago with the one-two punch of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “The Office,” Steve Carell has firmly established himself as one of America’s most beloved actors. A large part of his appeal is that both his now-classic sitcom and his string of critically acclaimed box-office hits have been infused with a sense of Everyman decency and kindness while remaining extremely funny to boot.
Mr. Carell’s latest movie, the coming-of-age dramedy “The Way, Way Back” (out Friday), finds him expanding his range to portray Trent, a man who is cheating on his girlfriend in addition to being cluelessly emotionally abusive to her 14-year-old son. Fans needn’t fear that he’s gone to the dark side, however, as the movie’s co-writer/director team of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon — who shared an Oscar for their screenplay on “The Descendants” — treat the story’s starker elements with subtlety and nuance.
That’s an approach that Mr. Carell employed from the start in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” when he and his director and co-writer Judd Apatow used what appeared to be yet another raunchy romp from Hollywood as sneaky cover for a satirical broadside against the over-sexualization of society. Mr. Carell played the title character Andy, a guy who has never had sex and keeps that a secret until it becomes obvious during a poker game with his co-workers. As they try to get him some action, he falls in love with a divorced mother of a teenage girl — and winds up influencing them all to see his innocent worldview as a positive.
“To me, that movie is about love,” says Mr. Carell, speaking in a suite at the swanky beachfront hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica on the press day for “The Way, Way Back.” “Even after all that, he still doesn’t have sex ‘til after he’s married. As dirty as that film is, as raunchy as it gets, I think it has a very innocent quality and is as innocent as that character. That movie was way beyond its title.”
Mr. Carell recalls being frustrated by people automatically assuming that “Virgin” would be merely a stupid sex farce with no redeeming qualities. He “could see [his former classmates’] eyes rolling back in their head” when he told them about the then-impending movie at his high school reunion, and he was shocked to encounter a national morning-TV host who refused to interview him for fear the movie’s subject matter would be unpalatably crass.
Ultimately, the movie proved to be a smash, earning $109 million domestically and nearly $70 million more worldwide despite the fact that when it was released, people barely knew who Mr. Carell was. The screenplay recieved a prestigious Writers Guild Award nomination, proving that Mr. Carell and Mr. Apatow had earned the esteem of their professional writing peers as well.
Beyond the shenanigans that were a large part of the movie’s appeal, “Virgin” had a lot to say with its potent satire about sexual peer pressure among teens and the omnipresent use of sex to sell products in advertising. In a particularly memorable moment, Mr. Carell’s character is seemingly stalked by a truck adorned with a giant ad featuring a couple immersed in graphic sexual behavior.
“You see the scene where Andy is walking down the street and for the first time he’s bombarded with all these images, and it is overwhelming, and I do think that people grow complacent to it,” says Mr. Carell. “I was doing a press junket in Las Vegas a few months ago and brought my wife and kids, and hadn’t noticed how sexualized everything had become. Or maybe it always had been, but I’d never thought about it. I was more acutely aware of it because I was with my kids, and I think that’s partly what that scene was: an innocent seeing those things for the first time.”
Much like Andy looked at the world with a wide-eyed optimism, Mr. Carell conveys a calm sense of peace and happiness as he explains why his role choices are so often positive characters.
“I tend to gravitate toward things that lack cynicism,” says Mr. Carell, who is currently writing his first script since “Virgin.” “I feel there is so much cynicism on a daily basis, and I get tired of it. I like things that are even vaguely hopeful. You look at a movie like [his acclaimed 2006 sleeper hit] ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ and it doesn’t necessarily end happily, but it ends hopefully. Which isn’t to say they’re all going to be best friends from there on out, but there’s going to be change, and there’s going to be a better life for those people from there on out. I like that.”
Even while playing the thoughtlessly cruel Trent in “The Way, Way Back,” Mr. Carell tried — in keeping with his belief that “I don’t think everyone is as mean or as nice as you think they are” — to find the root causes behind the character’s distant exterior. “I think he thinks he is providing a service to this 14-year-old kid, but when you examine it, he’s doing great damage to this kid’s psyche,” explains Mr. Carell. “But I don’t think he has a bad heart, or is a bad person. That’s always intriguing to play, to approach it not as a villain but as someone who has troubles and probably didn’t have the best upbringing himself. It’s kind of sad when people are trying to be a certain way but just don’t have the capability to do what they need to do.”
In the end, despite all the hit movies and an iconic TV series and many more successes no doubt headed his way, it isn’t Hollywood that drives Mr. Carell and gives him purpose in life.
“The most important things to me are my wife and children, truly,” says Mr. Carell. “At the end of my life, when all is said and done, that’s what I’m going to reflect on when I look back on my life. Not what roles I did, what movies or TV shows, so that’s it for me. I love this job, but no matter where I am I can’t wait to get back home.”