MARINA DEL REY, California — Trying to be wittier, funnier or quicker than Steve Carell is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. But being one of the funniest guys on the planet apparently isn't enough for the former "Daily Show" correspondent who, with "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Little Miss Sunshine," and now "Dan in Real Life," has seamlessly crossed over into quirky character study as well.
MTV News recently caught up with Carell for a far-ranging interview to discuss everything from the "sad clown" phenomenon to romantic betrayal to "Get Smart" and "Green Eggs and Ham."
MTV News: In this movie, Dan's family has a giant talent show with circus acts and ventriloquism. What would the Carell family talent show look like?
Steve Carell: My parents would do a death-defying high-wire walk between our house and the Blackshaws' next door. My oldest brother would breathe fire. My second-oldest brother would tame lions — [he] would buy a lion, and without any sort of training, tame that lion. We have a very talented family, and we wouldn't do, "Ooh, look at that." [He does a thumb-removal trick.] We don't go for those kind of talents. We go hard-core.
MTV: And what would your talent be?
Carell: What would my talent be? I would play the sweetest baritone-horn concerto that you have ever heard in your life. And it would be fantastic, and people would swoon.
MTV: After "Little Miss Sunshine," this is another big dramatic role. Is the sad-clown role an easy transition for comedians?
Carell: Boy, that's something I can't even really speak to. This was fun to do. It felt different. I was just trying to do the most — I don't even want to use the word "real" — but I just wanted it to ring true in terms of the performance. I don't really look at movies as comedies or dramas necessarily. There are things in "Little Miss Sunshine" that, when we were shooting them, none of us thought that anyone would laugh at. Even the scene where we're running through the parking lot with a body under our arms, none of us played that as if we were in a comedy. For all intents and purposes, that could have been a drama. With a different setup, running through a parking lot with a body could have been in a dramatic movie, but based on the ridiculous nature of where it came from, it was a comedy. So I think whenever you're aware of being in a comedy or a drama, you are kind of shortchanging the movie. It's really whatever people decide it is. I don't know if that made any sense at all.
MTV: No, it made perfect sense.
Carell: [He laughs.] Oh, well, I'm a fantastic interview. I really know what I'm talking about.
MTV: Is there a next great sad clown, the actor maybe nobody takes seriously who could break through?
Carell: Between comedy and drama? And back again? I think there are a bunch of them. Will Ferrell is a really, really fine dramatic actor. Jim Carrey can go back and forth. I think the list is sort of endless. [But] I think Sacha Baron Cohen is probably a great dramatic actor and people just haven't seen that [yet].
MTV: In "Dan" your character grabs several random books to impress Juliette Binoche. What five books would you show a woman to impress her?
Carell: "Jaws," "Jaws 2," "Leviathan," "In Search Of" and "Green Eggs and Ham" would probably be the one after that — just as a palate cleanser.
MTV: Is that a metaphor? Are you like the green ham being offered, eventually delicious?
Carell: You've read it recently, I take it. You clearly remembered the theme.
MTV: Yeah, I'm a big fan. You steal Dane Cook's girlfriend in this movie. Have you ever been a part of a romantic betrayal before?
Carell: I was part of a romantic-betrayal company, and that's all we did. We specialized in romantic betrayal. And we went out of business quickly because nobody would actually hire us to do that. [He laughs.] No, I've never been a part of a romantic betrayal. I think [the movie is more] about two people involved with that potential betrayal, who are truly nice people, trying not to betray. It's about the attempt to not betray. It's about the attempt to not fall in love, which I think is pretty funny, when two people who are obviously drawn together know it's a bad idea, and do everything they can to stay apart because they care about all of the other people who might potentially be hurt.
MTV: Fans of the original series aren't going to be "hurt" by "Get Smart." Go!
Carell: I actually met Don Adams' ex-wife, his daughter ... a lot of people came to the set who were connected with the original, and it's nice because I feel like we got some votes of confidence. People who are fans of the original will be happy.
Check out everything we've got on "Dan in Real Life."
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