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Kickin' back with Steve Carell

This summer, the star returns to Massachusetts for some much-needed R & R. Of course, that includes keeping things humming at the Marshfield General Store.

(Photograph by Kerry Brett)
By Ty Burr
July 24, 2011

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This is the day for which New Englanders endure their winters. Not the kind of day. The day. It’s June 30th – a Thursday without humidity, the temperature parked in the mid-70s, the heavens a rich and shimmering blue. Puffy white clouds out of a Japanese anime chuckle obligingly in the sky.

In fact, it’s the perfect day for a movie star to go on vacation. A studio production designer couldn’t have ordered it up better.

Steve Carell is back in Marshfield, which is sort of a big deal but probably not as big as you think. The star of broad comedies (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Get Smart), fluky indie films (Little Miss Sunshine, Dan in Real Life), and one beloved TV show (The Office) heads East every year to take his summer leisure in this sleepy South Shore town. He and wife Nancy (Walls) Carell – herself a comedian with a mid-1990s season of Saturday Night Live under her belt – own a house here, to which they bring their children, Annie, 10, and Johnny, 7, for a month or so of non-Left Coast beach time. His 45-year-old wife’s family is from the South Shore, and Carell was raised to the northwest, in Acton. This isn’t exactly where the couple live anymore, but it’s perhaps what comes to mind when they think of “home.”

Maybe that’s why the 48-year-old Carell bought the corner grocery. Taking up half of a low-slung 1853 wood-frame building – the other half houses the Post Office – the Marshfield Hills General Store came up for sale in 2008, and locals feared the business might close, eliminating a vital community gathering place. During a visit to Los Angeles, Nancy’s sister, Marshfield resident Tish Vivado, mentioned that the business was available, and in the months that followed, Carell flew out, closed the deal, and installed his sister-in-law as manager.

It wasn’t for the profits, that’s for sure. Tucked away off a country road that eventually winds its way toward Scituate, the store feels like the last remaining proof of your childhood summers. You can buy balsa wood airplanes here – the kind with the rubber band-driven propeller that always gives you a wicked snap on the fingers. A rack of penny candy jars takes up one corner, leading one local to call the peppery Vivado, 48, the “neighborhood crack dealer.” There’s coffee and trinkets and T-shirts (including an Office one hanging toward the back), and there are just enough groceries to tide you over in a pinch. Still, the warm vibe of the place emanates from the wax lips and pop guns, the Silly Putty, and the basket of rubber snakes. They sell gimp here. Not “lanyard.” Gimp.

“It’s such a bad investment,” groans Carell as he surveys the bustling morning scene this perfect end-of-June day. He couldn’t be happier. After seven fruitful but hectic years, he has stepped away from NBC’s The Office, on which he played Dunder Mifflin’s toweringly clueless boss Michael Scott. Less than a week ago, Carell departed the LA set of his current production, a semi-apocalyptic road-movie romance called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, in which he stars opposite Keira Knightley. True, before July is out, he’ll be in New York, embarking on the press tour for his latest release – Crazy, Stupid, Love. – in which he gets dumped by wife Julianne Moore and receives stud-lifestyle coaching from Ryan Gosling. But right now, here is what he has to do: nothing.

Actually, he has to spend the next couple of hours talking to a reporter who’s feeling guilty about encroaching on another man’s downtime. The subject is ostensibly Crazy, Stupid, Love., but the air’s too pure and the sun’s too warming for crass commerce. Let’s just say the star is proud of the movie (it’s his first as a producer), I enjoyed it, and you should probably go see it when it opens July 29. OK? OK. Now let’s move on to more important topics, like the worst teenage summer job Steve Carell ever had. Was it his stint working at the Ramada hotel in Woburn? Alphonse’s Powder Mill restaurant in Maynard?

“The produce department of the old Triple A Supermarket in Acton,” he says without hesitation. “I was terrible at it.”

How can you be terrible at produce?

“One of my jobs was to wrap the fruit in plastic wrap,” Carell explains, “and they had a heat pad that you would essentially sear the bottom to seal it. I burned the hell out of my hand. I also – I remember this so vividly – I poked a hole in a bag of unpopped popcorn, and it was pouring all over. So rather than tell the manager, I took a price gun and put, like, 15 prices over the hole – which my manager found an hour later and peeled off. I was just bad at it.”

In person, Carell is taller and more poised than you’d expect, with a splash of gray at his temples. He’s dressed in crisp, unassuming dad-wear: blue plaid shirt, neatly pressed denims, tan bucks. He’s surprisingly slim, too, the result of a recent diet. Artist and Marshfield Hills native David Brega, a family friend, greets the actor in the general store and asks, “So what are we doing? Are we Jenny Craig-ing?” “No, we’re just eating less and working out more. It’s amazing how that works.”

Being back on the East Coast makes Carell open to the charms of nostalgia, and he talks readily about being young and not yet formed on the outskirts of the western suburbs. His own childhood summer vacations were spent camping with his parents and three older brothers up in the White or Green mountains, sometimes Canada, the whole family piling into a little pop-up trailer at night. As a teenager, Carell grew his hair long, played hockey, did summer stock, and bombed up and down Route 128 in a succession of sturdy, unglamorous Toyotas. Asked about his adolescent tastes in music, he squirms and divulges his darkest secret: Steve Carell was a Jethro Tull fanatic. “It was the first concert I ever went to, at the Boston Garden,” he remembers. “This was the Minstrel in the Gallery era. The codpiece! And the tights!” He shakes his head in mortification. “That was also the first date I ever went on. I was a sophomore in high school, and I took a girl to see Jethro Tull.” He laughs with remembered chagrin. “She wasn’t a fan . . .”

He was soaking up comedy albums, too: Bill Cosby, George Carlin, the Firesign Theatre, and – a crucial influence – the young Steve Martin. “I think I studied his records without knowing that I was studying them,” Carell says now. “For hours on end I’d listen and put the needle back to the one part where he’s talking about balloon animals, and gonorrhea, and where did that come from? Just listening to how he timed it out, because it made me laugh and I wanted to understand why.”

A normal, mildly obsessive Massachusetts upbringing, in other words, and its privileges were hard-won. Carell’s parents, Edwin, an electrical engineer, and Harriet, a psychiatric nurse, worked to send their sons to private schools, and Steve traveled each day to Concord, first to the Fenn School, then to Middlesex School. By the time he graduated from Ohio’s Denison University in 1984, he was all set – to become a lawyer.

“I thought I wanted to be an attorney,” Carell says. “That was the goal. All through college, acting and theater were just a hobby, and I felt that I owed my parents more than that. After all that they’d invested in me, I felt I owed them a real career. And I knew the odds of being a successful actor were infinitesimal.”

As he was filling out law school applications one night, though, he came to an essay question that stumped him: Why do you want to be a lawyer? “I just didn’t know. I didn’t have a valid answer. I went in to talk to my parents, and they sat me down at the kitchen table and said, ‘Well, what do you like to do? Let’s make a list.’ Theater was always one of the things that I’d enjoyed, and they said, ‘Try it. Give yourself a year or however long and see how it goes.’ ”

He got a job delivering mail in Littleton for around six months while he saved up for a move to Chicago, where, after waiting tables for three years, he joined the touring company of the fabled Second City comedy troupe. There he met his future wife, as well as a colleague named Stephen Colbert, and embarked on a journey that would take him through countless failed TV series, a foothold on The Daily Show in 1999, and, in 2005, the double-whammy breakthrough with The Office on TV and The 40-Year-Old Virgin in theaters.

Think about that: How many parents urge their children to become actors? “It was a great lesson to learn and something I hope I can pass on to my kids,” Carell says. “I’ll never forget, they said: ‘It’s your life, it’s not ours. It’s about doing something that you enjoy and that fulfills you.’ That, I thought, was the best advice ever.”

And if they had told him, Steve, honey, the acting thing is just too risky?

“I’d be the most unhappy attorney you’ve ever met.”

***

Here's the thing you have to realize about Carell: He’s not funny in person. Rather, he doesn’t try to be funny. Unlike a lot of comedians, famous or otherwise, he doesn’t seem to care about being “on.” In fact, right now he’s putting a lot of energy into being off.

Carell realizes this, and he’s a little self-conscious about it. “Is this the driest interview you’ve ever gotten?” he asks. (Not by a long shot.) What he lacks in manic invention, though, he more than makes up for in droll observation. Carell is delightful to spend time with because he finds humor everywhere and in everything, and it constantly cracks him up. When he’s working, he can be funny enough to make your teeth hurt, but when he’s not on the job, things make him laugh rather than the other way around.

This confuses some people, especially those who believe that A) entertainers should be entertaining upon request or that B) Steve Carell actually is Michael Scott. “It must be awesome being funny all the time,” gushes one fan outside the general store, perfectly misunderstanding the pact a comedian makes with audiences: You pay to see me, I make you laugh, and the rest is my business. Throughout this sunny morning, Marshfield residents trickle through the store, buying coffee and the paper. Some do cartoon double takes when they see the star. Others scrupulously keep their cool. A few ask Carell to pose for a photo or for his autograph. He’s unfailingly gracious with each and every request. “I don’t think I’m at a level of celebrity where people really care that much,” he says during a quiet moment. “In LA, we live around the corner from Miley Cyrus, and I can’t imagine navigating that sort of life. It’s constant, people waiting outside her driveway to follow her places. If you follow me, I’m going to take you to the dry cleaners and maybe the supermarket and then back home.”

That self-effacement, coupled with a prodigious work ethic, makes others speak of Carell with a weird reverence that you don’t hear often in Hollywood. Lorene Scafaria, writer-director of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, saw the actor as the emotional mojo holding her directorial debut together. “I think of him as a box of baking soda that you have in the fridge,” she says, “keeping everything fresh, but you don’t even see it, really, unless you push the milk aside. He is constantly working, constantly thinking, wheels constantly spinning.”

Office-mate John Krasinski is another local boy – the actor grew up in Newton Centre – and can testify to Carell’s full docket and his ability to clear it for the important stuff. This, in large part, was behind the star’s decision to leave the NBC hit: After seven years of soundstages and movie sets, Carell simply wanted time with his family. “I totally get it,” Krasinski says. “I mean, the guy has probably been working harder than anybody else in the business. Certain breaks we’ve had, whether it be Christmas or summer, we’ve all had time off, and he was squeezing in 16-hour days on Dan in Real Life or Evan Almighty. And every time we’d go to the Emmys, all we’d have to do was sit in chairs, and he’s always up on stage doing some bit. You realize that he just never stops.”

***

That's what Marshfield's for. That, and the general store. “This represents a lot to me,” Carell says, nodding at the shelves. “The reason I bought this, ultimately, was that things like this are few and far between. They disappear very quickly, and once they disappear, you can’t get them back. I mean, to see kids just hanging out or people from the neighborhood sitting and talking and reading the paper together, that’s becoming more and more rare.”

His long-ago postal route in Littleton has been on Carell’s mind of late, too. He genuinely respected the people who worked alongside him, and he came to appreciate the way mail carriers can knit a community together in an invisible web. He put his memories into a TV pilot that he pitched to NBC, and while it didn’t get picked up, the idea’s still cooking on his back burner. “I might make a little independent film,” he says. “I think it would be a comedy, a smaller, more subdued kind of thing. About a kid who really doesn’t know where to go with his life and ends up delivering mail but because of that learns a lot about himself and what he does and doesn’t want to do.” Write what you know, they say.

To Carell, a general store and a post office are part of the same endangered cultural phyla. He feels protective about them. “Sending a handwritten letter is becoming such an anomaly,” he says. “It’s disappearing. My mom is the only one who still writes me letters. And there’s something visceral about opening a letter – I see her on the page. I see her in her handwriting. Getting an e-mail is fine, and it’s thoughtful and nice, but receiving something that took that amount of care – it’s an art, I think, and a lost art. Not to get too sentimental about it, but I see it as a very human thing.”

Because he is, after all, a professional ironist, there’s only so much sincerity Carell can express before he has to backtrack briefly. “I don’t want to sound all pretentious in that overly homespun way,” he insists, diving into a Titus Moody cracker-barrel accent – “We’re sittin’ out on tha po-ach front!” before assuming the voice of you, the cynical reader, rolling your eyes at the Hollywood poseur: “What a phony. It’s all a facade.” Having worked that out of his system, he reverts to being Steve Carell again, looking at this lovely millstone of a store he has bought. “I don’t know,” he says, searching for the through-line. “This means something. And it’s tiny, and it will never, ever make money. And that’s OK.”

***

The morning's turning hot. Carell fishes out another bottle of water from the store’s cooler and lets out an amused whinny. “You know what’s so funny? For the first year, I paid for everything. And then I realized I was buying it twice.” Then he gets serious again, talking about his dislike of mean-spirited comedy – how that hung him up during his early Daily Show assignments until he hit on the tactic of making himself more ridiculous than his subjects. And he talks about his approach to creating comic characters that ring true. This leads to a paradox.

“I guess if there’s one thing I always attempt, it’s to not try to be funny,” he says. “To commit to the character itself, as opposed to try and find funny things to say and do. You never saw Peter Sellers the actor trying to make you laugh. All he was doing was the character. What I’m saying is that I don’t think you should know you’re in a movie. I don’t like it when actors are winking at the audience and saying, Right, isn’t this funny? Are you with me?”

This makes sense with some of Carell’s more fully fleshed creations: the 40-year-old virgin, for instance, or his heartbreakingly forlorn, suicidal, gay Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine. But what about a brilliant doodle like Brick Tamland, the idiot TV weatherman in 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy? Does Brick know he’s in a movie?

Just mentioning the name sends Carell into happy convulsions. “Brick?” he wheezes. “Brick doesn’t even know he’s a weatherman.” This confirms a suspicion some of us have had that it’s impossible for anyone to even think about Brick Tamland without dissolving into giggles, both at the character’s mythic stupidity and Carell’s evident joy in playing him. That this turns out to be true for the actor himself only makes it a better joke, as if Brick were just out there waiting to be found and Carell got there first.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says about the film’s production. “I laughed until I cried every day for seven weeks. I’ve never been around funnier people more consistently, and it was so stupid. What I loved about Anchorman was its complete lack of sentiment. There was no heart at all to that movie, and unapologetically. I wish we could do a sequel. I would do that in a second.” In fact, he says, Will Ferrell and his partner Adam McKay have pitched a sequel to Paramount, but the studio’s not interested. At the suggestion of getting a write-in campaign going in these pages, Carell perks up. “You know what? Will and Adam would love that.” The ball’s in your court, America.

***

It's not even noon; the day, this perfect summer day, straight out of central casting, still beckons. Carell’s going to Acton to visit his parents. His wife and kids are headed to the beach. He’ll try to join them later, but he’s wary of making plans. How to do nothing? This is what summer vacation promises: liberation through the absence of structure. But how do you structure that? Like any reasonably thoughtful dad, Carell ponders the best way to let the message sink in without turning didactic. “My daughter gets on this schedule, too,” he says, reciting a familiar routine of classes and after-school programs and sports and music lessons. “I want her to understand that summer is a different pace and to not worry about filling every second. But I think kids are so loaded up that they feel like they’ve got to go go go. So you know what we’ll do this morning? We’ll play in the sprinkler in front of our house, and that’s it. And then maybe we’ll make some Creepy Crawlers. Just let it go.”

Which, in the real world, is hard to do. Especially for a Hollywood workaholic.

“It is hard to do,” Carell says. “But when you take control of your own day, you can learn a lot. Let’s just see what comes.”

He sits up suddenly, squinting at a patch of peeling paint on the underside of the store’s rain gutter. “Wow, looks like we need to redo that,” he says. “I’m always seeing something that needs to be done.”

Ty Burr is a film critic for the Globe. E-mail him at tburr@globe.com.

  • July 24, 2011 cover
  • July 24, 2011 cover
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