Steve Carell’s Smokin’!

Photo: Jeff Riedel/Contour Photos

In January, the 42-year-old Sundance virgin Steve Carell lost his with a bang. On his first trip to Park City, the actor spent a lazy morning skiing with Greg Kinnear, had a great bowl of turkey chili for lunch, and then, late that night, watched as his weird indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine scored the richest deal ever at the 25-year-old festival.

“We were baffled,” he says, speaking for his co-stars Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, and Kinnear. So naturally he called his wife, Nancy Walls, also a comedian, to share the good news.

“Oh, yeah, greaaat,” she said. “You really needed something good to happen to you.”

Walls was referring to Carell’s miracle year, in which the itinerant actor became an overnight star after more than two decades of improv skits and bit parts, on black-box stages and backlots, from Chicago’s Second City (where he met Walls) to Comedy Central. Not so long ago—in 2004, as he’ll remind you—Carell was happy just to be one of the gang on The Daily Show, tapping watermelons as Produce Pete and interviewing UFO nuts. The veteran of three canceled sitcoms, he had until recently paid the bills by recording off-color commentary for Outlaw Volleyball, a video game known mainly for pixellated breasts. “You lost that point,” he’d chirp, “and like your virginity, you can never get it back!”

Of course, everything changed with a much better sex joke last August. The 40-Year-Old Virgin—co-written by Carell and based on one of his old Second City sketches—became an out-of-the-blue blockbuster, grossing $177 million worldwide. And his remake of Britain’s existential cubicle comedy The Office, which had started out slowly on NBC, took a big bounce. Post-Virgin, the ratings topped more than 9 million viewers a week in its much-improved second season, as Carell made Ricky Gervais’s seemingly inimitable office manager his own. Three days before his Sundance coup, he won a Golden Globe for his work on The Office, a fact not lost on his wife (who also appears on the show) during that phone call from Utah. Now he’s nominated for an Emmy.

“I pinch myself that it’s been such a good year,” says the Massachusetts native, who almost always affects the tone of the luckiest guy in the room. “But I’m not delusional—I don’t expect to continue to work, frankly. That’s how I guard against getting used to all this.”Carell understands that earning sympathy is never easy in film and that it’s especially hard to hold onto it in comedy, once you’re hot. Just look at happy-go-lucky Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, who were everyone’s favorite buddies after last summer’s Wedding Crashers—that is, until this summer. So Carell sends up himself before anyone else can.

“Oh, I’m so Hollywoody now,” he tells me. On Conan, he announced that he’s selling out with a sequel called “The 41-Year-Old Whore … It’ll be a hard X.” “I’m a jerk,” he told Matt Lauer. “I’m huge; I’ve totally changed.”

One therapist at Sundance wanted to know, Had Carell ever spent time in a mental ward?

Onscreen, Carell is an unusually versatile comic. Second City founder Alan Arkin suspects it dates back to his improv days, when “every scene required a different style. I never wanted to be a cookie stamper, and Steve doesn’t either.” Carell can go way over the top as well as a Jim Carrey or a Ben Stiller can, hamming it up as the insane Brick “I love lamp” Tamland of Anchorman or slathering himself with Ben-Gay for a “Beat the Heat” segment on The Daily Show. But he’s become a star by grounding characters—a middle-aged virgin, a clumsily lecherous boss—that might have come across as obnoxious or even creepy in the hands of someone less careful (like, say, Carrey or Stiller). That’s no doubt why Carell seemed so right for the warped-family road-trip comedy Little Miss Sunshine, in which he must earn sympathy for the unlikeliest of comic protagonists: a gay, suicidal Proust scholar (see David Edelstein’s review).

That night at Sundance, after the unexpected standing ovation for the first movie by music-video vets Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, fans glommed onto Carell in particular. During a talk-back, one woman said she was so moved that she wished she could just give him a big hug. So Carell opened his arms, and she ran into them. Another, a therapist, said she’d worked with suicidal patients and had never seen such a true-to-life performance. Had he, by any chance, spent some time in a mental ward? “No, I didn’t,” he said. “I guess it’s just … that I am an extraordinary actor.”

Carell says it was a “magical” night, especially because some pros had told him not to take the part. “One producer read the script and actually highlighted all my lines in the movie,” he recalls. “He said, ‘You’re not in this enough. You should be in more of the movie.’ ” Never mind that his character is in almost every scene—he just doesn’t have any “for-your-consideration moments,” as Carell puts it.

Carell as a Proustian depressive in Little Miss Sunshine.Photo: Eric Lee/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

On The Daily Show, Carell once mocked himself with the tune “Steve Carell Salutes Steve Carell,” with the lyrics, “How does he do the things he does to us?” And somewhat less melodically, “What are the processes by which you accomplish these things of which we are speaking just now?” And though he plays a literary critic in Sunshine, he’d prefer not to parrot one in real life.

“As soon as you try to deconstruct any sort of comedy, it’s immediately not funny,” says Carell. “It’s just not like doing something serious, where there are these shades of meaning. With comedy, it makes people laugh or it doesn’t. It’s a Hail Mary in every way.”

So far, he seems to be pulling it off. The Office has been renewed in its plum Thursday-night time slot (his salary has more than doubled), and he’s set to headline a raft of Hollywood projects, including a Get Smart remake and Evan Almighty, the just-wrapped sequel to Bruce Almighty. Carell supported Jim Carrey in the original, but he fills Carrey’s leading-man shoes in the sequel, as a local politician asked by God to build a giant ark. It’s his first big-budget vehicle—though of course he would never describe it that way.

“The way I look at it, it’s not a movie with a big bankable movie star, like a Jim Carrey movie or an Adam Sandler movie,” he says. “I’m just not in that kind of league.”

And then he has to go, in a limo no less. “Oh, no,” he says. “I’m being very Hollywoody again.”

Little Miss Sunshine
David Edelstein’s review

Steve Carell’s Smokin’!