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Steve Carell on Vice, Playing Donald Rumsfeld, Working with Adam McKay and More

One specific joke has followed Steve Carell all the way to his recent hosting of “Saturday Night Live”: that ever since being taken seriously as an actor with his 2014 Oscar nomination for “Foxcatcher,” Carell has left the lighter ways of “The Office” and “Anchorman” to do what Ed Helms called “sad movies.” It’s an unfortunate generalization for an actor who has excelled with many projects that are more nuanced than simply not being happy, and it misses the key spark in his work across the board—whether Carell is playing a larger-than-life finance whiz (Mark Baum in “The Big Short”), or the monstrous billionaire recluse John du Pont in “Foxcatcher,” Carell is a master of illuminating the vulnerability within all of his characters.  

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Just this year, Carell has starred in three movies that rely on his ability to portray non-fictional men who require certain degrees of empathy. In October, Carell portrayed father and writer David Sheff as he deals with his son Nick’s addiction to crystal meth in the wrenching “Beautiful Boy.” This past weekend, Carell portrayed the external emotions and thoughts of outsider artist Mark Hogancamp in Robert Zemeckis’ hopeful “Welcome to Marwen.” In both live-action and motion-capture work, he expressed Hogancamp's PTSD and vivid imagination related to his therapeutic world of WWII dolls. 

With such an eye for vulnerability, Carell aims to humanize Donald Rumsfeld in writer/director Adam McKay's expansive Dick Cheney power saga, “Vice.” Carell plays Rumsfeld throughout the political figure’s time in the White House under various presidencies, starting with a goofy abrasiveness as he welcomes a young Cheney (Christian Bale) to the goings-on behind closed doors, and the two start a decades-long camaraderie albeit founded on corrosive values. Mixing boys-will-be-boys antics with a creeping loneliness, Carell harnesses the comedy of the master-turned-sidekick in a historical position of control, but also articulates what it feels like when such power comes crashing down. 

RogerEbert.com spoke to Carell over the phone about "Vice," finding the playful side of Donald Rumsfeld, portraying all of his characters with empathy and more. 

Even in your history of non-fictional characters, this is your first politician and major public figure. Was that particularly daunting? People have their own idea about Donald Rumsfeld more than they do David Sheff or du Pont, for example. 

Yeah, the fact that he was a little more of a recognizable public figure, there was a bit more responsibility in terms of depicting it and trying to get a little more than just the essence of him, trying to figure out a little more about mannerisms and how people recognize him. 

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Do you normally like to do a lot of research? 

I do, yeah. And with a public figure like Donald Rumsfeld, or Cheney or Bush, there’s quite a bit of information at your disposal, a lot to dig into. There was certainly a lot that had been written about him and by him, lots of video tape on him and certainly public situations. I think the challenge was to try to figure out to the best of my knowledge what he might have been like in private. I think that’s always the biggest hurdle, and it’s nothing more than your best guess, as well, when you accumulate all of the information and trying to surmise what he might have been like on a private personal level. 

Credit : Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures 2018 © Annapurna Pictures, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

When you’re constructing your idea of him, is it about what finding what feels right, but then playing with that essence of Rumsfeld? I think about your first scene, where it's like Rumsfeld doing blue comedy to a room of young interns, which has to have some truth underneath it. 

It’s hard to tell what is playfully exaggerated and what’s actually spot on, because he was a very playful human being. Watch him at a press conference, watch him delivering a speech of any kind, and there’s sort of a … I don’t know if “whimsical” is the word, but there’s a quality to him, that seems very approach able and almost homespun, and accessible. I guess “playful” is the word. I found pictures of him doing handstands on desks and like putting chop sticks in his mouth at a steak dinner, doing silly, playful things. So, the reality isn’t too far from the depiction, I think in terms of that. You might assume some of those things are exaggerated, and I think in terms of all of the characters, you might be surprised. They actually align a lot closer to the reality of the person. 

How much improv did you do on the set of "Vice"? As in, did you come up with calling Tyler Perry's Colin Powell a "nervous Nellie"? Especially as your script is based on specific events, but maybe not the exact conversations. 

It’s hard to look back and determine what was improvised and what was scripted. I think we strayed pretty close to the script. Given that it’s Adam, he always allows for a lot of room of trying different things. You might huddle after a take and decide that you want to try something different, or that he’d like to see something be different, or maybe some different dialogue used. But it’s not like we were just inventing things off the top of our head about these people. We tried to stick pretty close to the research we had done and the script he had written. 

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Credit : Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures 2018 © Annapurna Pictures, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

You’ve been with Adam since the start, from “Anchorman” into “The Big Short” and now here. How has working with Adam changed, and also not changed? 

Well, it hasn’t changed in the sense that he creates an atmosphere on set of fun and invention. There’s a real freedom to try anything you want, so that hasn’t changed at all. And I think that any actor who works with him loves that and embraces it. Exploration is encouraged, and that’s a very freeing thing creatively, and everybody has a good time doing it, because they know if it’s not good it won’t be in the movie. It’s face level. It really comes down to a sense of trust and respect for him, and knowing that you’re in good hands. 

I guess it hasn’t changed necessarily, but I think with “The Big Short” and this movie, Adam has been able to flex a different kind of artistic muscle, in that he’s a very intelligent guy, and opinionated, and makes bold cinematic choices. And now that he is doing films that kind of lie between comedy and drama, you really can’t put your finger on exactly what they are. I don’t think they necessarily fall into any category, I think you see him now able to show another side of himself and his films. And also dig into character work, and dig into the emotion of these people. Whereas a film like “Anchorman” doesn’t lie in that much human emotion [laughs]. 

He’s now making films that really do depict vulnerability. And from an acting standpoint, it’s exciting to work with him because he has both things at his disposal: he has the certainly knowledge of comedy, and a really fine understanding of what makes people laugh and this absurdist sensibility. But now you add to that this emotional resonance that he can find in performances.

It’s interesting you describe him that way, as that’s how I would also describe you. You take characters who are larger than life but have a clear vulnerability to them, like John du Pont or Mark Baum. But then you can contrast that with someone very low-key like David Sheff. Is one mode more comfortable for you than the other? 

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You know, I guess I take a different approach. A character like Mark Baum is an extremely energetic, opinionated. He owns whatever room that he’s in, and he’s a bit of a larger-than-life guy. And he holds court. So, you have to open things up in that sense, and a character like David, in meeting and knowing the real David Sheff, there is an ease to him, but I wouldn’t say that he’s a closed off person. But I would say he’s a much more reserved human being. So, I guess the commonality is that you try to find whatever makes them human, whatever vulnerabilities exist in them. Because I think, you have to have empathy for whomever you’re playing. And in the case of Donald Rumsfeld, it’s sort of the same, I try to find whatever humanity exists in that person, not editorialize or have a preconceived notion. I guess you have to find the decency and the vulnerability. 

Does one type of role come easier to you? Like if you have a particular voice to work with, or a prosthetic nose? 

Not necessarily, no. It’s funny too, because sometimes I get asked about if it’s easier to do a role that lends itself to improvisation. Or whether it’s easier to stick to the written word. It’s on such a case-by-case basis. Sometimes a script is so perfect, just in its initial form that you don’t want to change a word, that it all sounds true and honest and that’s the way people talk to each other. And it’s not a limitation at all, it’s actually a real gift. 

But there isn’t one type of thing that I feel comfortable playing. I actually think that’s sort of a trap, to think there’s an easier, or more comfortable, easy thing to play. Generally, I don’t play things that I think I feel comfortable playing, because that’s not so much … I feel like it’s good to be a little bit afraid of playing something. I think a little bit of trepidation can get your juices flowing [laughs] and helps you out in the long run. I really do. If you become complacent, if you think you know what you’re doing, odds are you probably aren’t doing what you should be doing. 

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Are you constantly looking for bigger challenges? 

Yeah, it’s always good to be a little bit frightened. So if I read something or I’m offered something that I’m not quite sure about, that’s a good sign. 

Credit : Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures 2018 © Annapurna Pictures, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

You have a great scene early into the film with Bale’s young Cheney, in which he asks you point blank, “What do we believe?” And you let out this huge laugh. What’s the actorly key to a great fake laugh? 

Well, it should feel like it’s making you laugh. You just try to hear the words, and whatever is clicking inside that character. You should find something within what’s being said that actually makes you laugh. 

I admire the loudness of your guffaw. I was thinking, that’s acting right there. 

And it’s also for the other person’s benefit. With that moment with Rumsfeld and Cheney, Rumsfeld is definitely, genuinely laughing. But at the same time he wants Cheney to know that he’s laughing. He wants Cheney to feel the disdain about the question asked. 

What was your connection with Bale's Cheney? How did you create this emotional arc? It’s one of the only semblances of friendship that Cheney has in the movie. 

I guess the sense that, Donald Rumsfeld had found a kindred spirit in Cheney, and took him under his wing, taught him all that he knew about the inner workings of Washington, D.C.. Towards the end of the movie, the tables are turned, and the teacher becomes the student, essentially, and it’s kind of a bittersweet moment for Rumsfeld. Here’s a guy who has always been a formidable presence in Washington, and has been incredibly powerful and in that moment he feels all of his work slip away. I think there’s something heartbreaking to that. No matter how you feel about Rumsfeld politically, just on a human level, you can understand that that’s a tough moment for anybody to try to get through. 

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