Steve Carell's Turn as a Vegas Magician
By Deborah Baer
In Las Vegas, you can tell a lot about a man by his game of choice. The mysterious loner often gravitates to the poker room. Blackjack draws the big spender with the mountainous chip stack, while Rat Pack wannabes belly up to the craps table looking for lucky dice or a lucky dame. So it takes a brave man, a confident man such as Steve Carell, to earnestly claim as his game the arguably uncool roulette. “It allows me to move at a much more leisurely pace,” he says. “You have to wait for the ball to go around and around. I find it comforting that it’s not as fast-paced as many of the games are. I sat down to play poker once and was done in about seven minutes. It was ugly.” He pauses. “I have absolutely no game.”
He may not have game, but he certainly had the clout to assemble an allstar comedic cast (Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin) to lampoon the high-stakes world of Strip magicians in the new movie The Incredible Burt Wonderstone—right in their own backyard. Carell even got the blessing of legendary illusionist (and 20-year Strip headliner) David Copperfield, who served as a consultant on the film and makes a hilarious cameo. “They were poking fun at my world, but we have a sense of humor about ourselves,” Copperfield says. “It was a great experience and so much fun.”
Carell’s washed-up Wonderstone finds that to save Vegas from Carrey’s David Blaine–inspired illusionist, he must mend fences with longtime stage partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) and rediscover what made him love magic in the first place. The leading man insists, however, that they aren’t sending up the subculture. “It’s not a parody,” Carell says. “So much of it is based in reality. You don’t have to push it too hard.” During the weeklong shoot on the Strip, outside Bally’s, and around Fremont Street, Carell sported a deep “tan” (which can only be described as burnt sienna), at least one monochromatic velvet suit, and a feathered mane that channeled Siegfried. Or Roy. Or both.
“As ridiculous as you might think I look,” Carell says, “I walked around Vegas and nobody batted an eye.” Adds Wonderstone director Don Scardino, “He didn’t stand out. He fit in perfectly.”
Fremont Street, with its dozens of costumed street performers competing for tourists’ dollars, may be the only place Carell and his star power don’t stand out anymore. Though he describes himself as “shy” and confesses to not liking “being the center of attention,” Carell, an alum of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, broke out from the pack after being hired as a correspondent on The Daily Show in 1999. Six years later, cast as eccentric yet lovable manager Michael Scott on the American version of the UK’s The Office, Carell started developing what Scardino calls the “hallmark of his work.” His characters— underdogs, really—could be described as buffoons or sad sacks, but Scardino insists they’re “anchored by an emotional journey”: Andy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Barry in Dinner for Schmucks, and Cal in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Carell’s style of comedy, however broad it may seem, is actually quite technical, rational, and consistent, Scardino believes, much like the man himself. “Steve’s even-tempered, smart, and grounded,” he says. “It’s refreshing. He’s not carried away by celebrity. When Crazy, Stupid, Love came out, he would drive out of his way so his kids didn’t see the billboards. He didn’t want to explain why his face was so big.”
Called one of the nicest guys in Hollywood ad nauseum, Carell has been married to wife Nancy for 17 years and says watching his two children— Annie, 11, and Johnny, 8—grow up is the greatest joy of his life. So it makes sense that he spent his free time in Vegas seeing shows (David Copperfield, Cirque du Soleil’s CRISS ANGEL Believe and The Beatles LOVE) with Buscemi instead of gambling or drinking with the guys. “That part of Las Vegas is wasted on me because I’m already too old and responsible,” Carell says. “I don’t have any crazy, whacked-out kinds of stories.”
Though Carell once tweeted, “The next person who calls me a ‘nice guy’ is going to get punched in the face,” he secretly admits that he doesn’t mind that label. “I sometimes joke that I need to be mean or have some bad press about me, be edgier,” he says. “Honestly, you just are who you are. What’s ironic is that I’m not really that nice. I’m sort of an average level of nice. Tom Hanks makes me look like a complete a******. But it’s much better to be called nice than almost anything else. I try to treat people with respect. But that’s how I think anyone should be. You know what? My wife thinks I’m nice. I’ll take that. That’s all that matters.”
Carell says that he and Nancy, 46, rarely spend more than two weeks away from each other and that when their family is all in one place, they cherish the time by doing “simple” things like going out for lunch, riding bikes, or heading to the beach. “We like being together,” he says. “I’m just enjoying the fact that our kids still love to be with us. I know that might not always be the case when they’re teenagers.”
In fact, the kids were instrumental in helping Nancy plan a huge surprise party for Carell’s 50th birthday this year at an Italian restaurant in LA, where they live. More than 100 people from his past and present attended, and they were treated to a tribute video with shout-outs from a few famous pals. “It was very moving,” Carell says. “I’m a fairly private person. I get a little nervous about that. But I enjoyed seeing the spectrum of my friendships and relationships over the years and how many good people are a part of my life. It was a perfect night.”
While some actors might dread and fear the milestone birthday, Carell genuinely embraced it. “It didn’t really make me reevaluate my life; it just made me appreciative of everyone and everything that I have,” he says. “It was just kind of a warm thing, very joyful.”
Carell certainly has a lot to be happy about, both personally and professionally. He can collect upward of $12 million a film. Plus, he’s branching out into more dramatic roles in the upcoming movies Foxcatcher, costarring Channing Tatum, and The Way, Way Back, in which he plays a cruel, overbearing boyfriend. The latter film garnered a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
“It’s fun to switch things up a little bit and try some things that are a little bit different,” he says. “I don’t want to do those kinds of parts to prove anything. There’s no pretense behind them. It’s just a great opportunity. That’s most important to me—to get a chance to work with very talented people.”
But have no fear, Carell’s not hanging up his comedy hat. In fact, the biggest news of 2013 (okay, maybe not for him, but for his devoted fans) is the highly anticipated Christmas release of Anchorman: The Legend Continues, in which he’ll reprise the role of numbnut Brick Tamland alongside Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy. Though the script is shrouded in secrecy and Carell won’t confirm the rumor that Kristin Wiig will be playing Brick’s girlfriend, he will allow that the screenplay is “really funny” and has a lot of exciting cameos. “The first film set the bar kind of high,” he says. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything. I laughed until I cried every day on that movie. So if this one is half as enjoyable to watch as I’m sure it will be to make, it’ll be really fun.”
Reteamed with his friend and Bruce Almighty costar Carrey in Wonderstone, Carell admits he was “mesmerized” in the scenes they had together. “Sometimes I would forget I was in the scene and would just be watching him,” he says. Scardino adds that Carell was almost deferential to his costar: “Steve said, ‘Looking back, Jim will be the Charlie Chaplin of our time.’ I think looking back, Steve will be the Buster Keaton.”
Photography by Robert Ascroft; photography by John P. Johnson (Buscemi), Ben Glass (Arkin et al.)