Back in the summer of 2010, less than a year before the airing of what was assumed to be his last episode of The Office, Steve Carell proved that he could have a lasting and major impact in the world of film – and he did so with an animated character. Putting on a goofy, non-specific Eastern European accent, the comedic star took on the role of the supervillain/protagonist Gru in Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me and created one of the most memorable roles of his career thus far. And this weekend Gru is back.
A couple weeks ago I was invited to go to participate in a press day for the newly-released animated film Despicable Me 2, during which time Carell fielded questions from film reporters during a press conference. Read on below to discover the origins of Gru’s voice, fear of becoming a too overprotective parent, and the horrible, lasting effect that romantic rejection early in life can have.
Like Gru, you have a teenage daughter, right?
Not quite. She's 12. Don't push it. You're rushing it.
Are you starting to experience similar things that Gru is experiencing with his daughter, or does it make you get a little nervous?
We're not quite there, and I hope not the same sort of dad. I hope I don't react that way with a freeze ray gun. It's tricky because I don't want to be that over-protective dad, but at the same time I do want to protect them. And I understand what the character in the movie's going through because you don't want to see your kids get hurt. That's the main thing. You know they're going to have their hearts broken at some point, and you can't ultimately protect them against them having that happen. But boy, I'm enjoying their childhood as long as I can. Let me put it that way because I know there's another period of time that's going to be a very, very different and difficult growth period for everybody, my wife and I as well.
How do you like returning to the role? How do you like the evolution that your character takes in this?
I love it. And I love the fact that this itself is an evolution. I think it's a natural extension of the first movie which I thought was smart. The characters changed and grew – no pun intended – but at the same time, the sense of the movie feels familiar. The tone of it is the same as the first one, but the family is different. That dynamic is different, and he's no longer officially a villain. And not to put too fine a point on it, not to over analyze the movie, but there are certain things that kind of struck me about the story. One, that Gru is looking, he's searching for what he's going to do. And he thinks he's going to start a jam and jelly business, and that doesn't seem to be working out. And he can't go back to being a villain, but ultimately something that will fulfill him which I think is a very relatable thing for parents because when you do have kids, I found, it becomes all about the kids. And it's very easy to lose your sense of self within that. And you do kind of have to keep your career and that side of it intact because I think ultimately, that makes you a better parent as well.
In The Way, Way Back you play another kind of dysfunctional parental figure. As an acting challenge, which is more fun to play, one like this where it's sort of intended to be funny? Which do you feel like you can actually learn more from?
You mean from an audience perspective? What lessons I learn from it? I don't know. They're so different. Keep in mind, I show up, and I provide a voice. And so much of this character is the animation, really most of it. They're geniuses at it. And you go see the final product, and you want to claim credit for all of it. But I only have to do a small percentage of what goes into the movie. And it's just fun. There's an enormous freedom to fail, and you can do anything. And the voice is really simple and easy, but I keep saying, with the accent, I set the bar really low for myself because it's not really an accent. It's kind of – there's no doing it wrong. Let's put it that way because it's a conglomeration of every middle European country in the world plus a little Latin America, maybe some French. I mean, it's all over the map. So I made it very, very simple for myself in that way and very, very easy. It's just fun. It's just light. And there are things, I don't know if they're necessarily lessons to be learned within it, but I think there's a sense of goodness to – I don't want to overstate it either – but the movie's just very kind. And that's what I liked about both of these. It's very simple in a way and it has a very good heart. And it is so much fun to do a kind of villainous, but comedic character within that. The Way, Way Back, the guy is a jerk. He's somebody who, in my opinion, somebody who might, himself, had a trying childhood. I liken him to a coach. I had coaches like him growing up who were very hard on the kids in the name of building character, but it could have the opposite effect on kids. So I think both are identifiable, but for different reasons, and I think, different results.
How did you find the voice for Gru in the first film, and how did it help you build the character in returning to do that voice again for the film?
We just started playing around with different voices that first session of the first movie. Didn't really know what he would sound like. Actually the look of the character changed quite a bit from the very first picture, the very first illustration that I saw. He originally was much more angular looking and sort of darker, more menacing looking than he ended up being. So I wanted the voice to match that, to be vaguely menacing, but also kind of approachable in a strange way and funny. And that's definitely the voice that made everybody laugh. That's the voice that made my kids laugh the most. When I went home and I said, 'What do you think of this guy?' They were like, 'That's it, Dad.” And no matter what I said, they laughed at almost everything. “Who wants pancakes? I'm going to make pancakes now.” And they just were, like, “More, more, more.” So that was a good sign it was on to something. And the animators too, they're so good at layering in all these – I saw the movie for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I mean I don't know how you felt, but animation now, it's like you're watching real, living, breathing people. Even though they're from a parallel universe, they might not look exactly like human beings, you really get the sense that they're alive. And it's kind of remarkable, I think.