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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.
One of the charms of the film all around is that everybody is doing a voice. It's not just celebrities, it's their own voice. Do you ever do the voice for your younger fans?
Well, I did Ellen a couple of weeks ago as Gru. I figured I want to do it once. I want to go on a talk show and just be interviewed as the character, and not wink about it, not try to get me to break character, but really just do an interview with this guy. And one Ellen's staff's daughters was there, and when I went out, she said, “Mommy, see. He's real. I told you. This guy's real.” So she brought her back to the dressing room, and I hadn't taken off any of my makeup or costume. And she was shy, but she wasn't scared. And I think she was five or six. So I played the whole thing out with her. “Oh, what's your name. Hello, Stacey. It's very nice to meet you.” And went through the whole thing, and she thought she was talking to this guy. And it was really sweet. And just in terms of the voice, it is the best party trick for friends of my kids. They love it.
They designed an outfit that was the exact match for what I wear in the movie. I had a bald cap. I had a big, round face, and this nose that came out to about here. It's on the in-tra-net.
Do you see your own little ticks and quirks in the character of Gru as we see him in the movie? Or does your family notice it?
They notice it. I don't. That's the weird part because you don't see yourself in the mirror all day, but your wife and your kids do. And as you're recording, they have a camera. As you're taping it, as you're doing all the voices, there's a little camera that's on you at all times, and the animators will watch that tape and use it for reference. And not that they're modeling the character completely after you, but they do use expressions. And so from time to time, I couldn't tell you where, but my wife will nudge me and say, “That's you. That's it. That's exactly what you do.”
Your appearance in the final episode of The Office was such a great surprise. I was curious how early in the process you knew, and how did you keep it secret?
I lied. I lied for months to the press, to almost everyone, really. And I felt terribly for the cast and for Greg Daniels because they all lied too. They all went on talk shows and everyone just lied, continually, because we just figured it would be a fun surprise if people weren't expecting it. And I didn't want it to be a big thing. I did it out of respect for the show and for the actors, and it was really based out of that. And how early? Several months. And I talked to Greg Daniels about it. My only hope with it was I didn't want it to be about Michael coming back. I didn't want the story to be about him in it any way, but I wanted it to be more of a tip of the hat to the show.
In Despicable Me 2, we discover Gru's weak spot which is basically women and dating. How did you feel about the backstory about him having been rejected as a youngster?
Completely related, I have to say.
Do you think that has an effect on men later on in life?
Are you kidding me? [laughs] Yeah, definitely. I honestly did relate to that, and I bet most people do. In one way or another, not just in terms of girls or boys or dating. But I think even the most self-confident people at one point in their lives felt like an outsider or felt like they weren't being heard or seen or witnessed in some way. So I think that's a really relatable scene. And it definitely informs a lot about who Gru is now. But yeah, I was so shy, and all you need is that one – see that could go either way too – you have that one time where the girl says, 'Hey. You're all right.' Then that boosts your confidence. But that one time where you get shut down which I didn't have exactly that scenario, but yeah, it stays with you. Personally, I was shy for a long, long time with girls. I know, it's amazing.
You've been on this ride from The Daily Show, through Anchorman, to The Office, is it still surreal at this point, or has it just become second nature?
No. Well, this is still surreal. I mean, I'm doing a press conference for an animated movie that I'm going to be in? How did that happen? Who cares what I have to say? Yeah, I don't think it will ever feel second nature. I don't think it will ever feel deserved. You know what I mean? Like, oh, well, of course, this is the culmination of my career. This is where it was ultimately headed. I never felt that way. So it's a continual surprise that it's continued.