Daily Show mainstay Steve Carell knows plenty about appearing on a critics’ darling, and he’s familiar with remakes, having signed on to play Maxwell Smart in a Get Smart feature. But nothing could prepare Carell for the wrath he’s bound to receive from millions of disgruntled comedy fans when he stars in NBC’s remake of the BBC’s The Office, which starred the sublime Ricky Gervais as David Brent. Adam Sternbergh spoke to Carell about donning Gervais’s suit.
I guess the first question has to be, are you nuts?
Yes, when they announced the show, I could hear the simultaneous eyebrow-raise across the land.
Are you a fan of the original series?
I’d never seen it. Then just before I auditioned, I had a chance to look at the pilot. At that point, my eyebrow raised as well. No one involved has any aspirations to equal the original or make it better—we just want to make a good show.
Have you since watched the series?
No. Just that portion of the pilot, to get the tone. I figured the more I watched, the less chance I’d have of creating anything original. It’s one of these definitive television characters. I’m definitely intimidated by it, and I don’t want to try to copy him.
So how did you develop your character, Michael Scott?
I based it on the same tenets that prop up David Brent: this middle manager with an absolute lack of self-awareness. That same archetypal character, but more in my wheelhouse. The best piece of advice that Ricky Gervais gave me was just to try and make the other actors crack up.
Was he watching you on set?
No, no. He and Stephen Merchant [the British show’s co-creators] came for a read-through early on, met with the cast, and talked through ideas. Then they’d watch clips and weigh in through e-mail.
Have you ever worked in that kind of office?
Not like the one on the show, but I’ve had a number of odd, strange jobs. I worked in Acton, Massachusetts, sorting mail and then going out on a route as a rural mail carrier.
Did you enjoy it?
Honestly, it was probably the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s just eternal. The mail keeps coming.
You got great reviews as the dim-witted weatherman in Anchorman. What connects the characters you like to play?
What links them is the fact that I’m hired. I don’t have any master plan.
Do you think The Office can be a hit?
I would like to say, “Absolutely, it’s going to be a Friends-style hit!” I think people are ready for this—that it’s different, yet accessible enough. But honestly, the things I like are not the kind of things that will be enormous hits.
You’re also playing the Paul Lynde role in this summer’s movie version of Bewitched. And then Maxwell Smart.
I am filling huge shoes wherever I go.
It seems fearless to keep tackling these roles that are ingrained in people’s minds.
Fearless or idiotic. Is idiotic the word you’re looking for?
NBC, Premieres Tuesday, March 22, 9:30 p.m.