Steve Carell Talks About 'Despicable Me'

Steve Carell provides the voice of Gru in 'Despicable Me.'
Steve Carell provides the voice of Gru in 'Despicable Me.'. © Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures

The villains are the central characters of Universal Pictures' animated family film, , and Steve Carell (The Office, ) lends his voice to one of the movie's two 'bad' guys. Carell voices Gru, a dastardly villain who wants to steal the moon. Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Jason Segel voices Despicable Me's other villain, Vector, and although they both star on hit TV shows, the two funny men had never met until Despicable Me.

Rivals on screen, Carell has nothing but nice things to say about the actor who voices his character's archenemy. "The first time I met him was, I believe, about four months ago. We were doing some advance promotion for the movie together. Incredibly sweet guy, really funny, and just a nice person. Clearly has a good heart. Yeah, we immediately liked one another. I can’t even jokingly say that there would ever potentially be an animosity. He’s great and I think he’s hilarious."

At the LA press conference for the PG-rated film, Carell talked about what sets Despicable Me apart and about finding the unique voice he uses to bring Gru to life on screen.

Steve Carell Despicable Me Press Conference

In most of the characters you play, we see you as this great deadpan comedian who’s so good at playing it straight and making it funny. Is this a different side of your sense of humor we get to see where you do a crazy voice and go wild?

Steve Carell: "It’s fun to go wild and it’s interesting when you’re trying to create a character in animation.

It’s really a communal effort. It’s not like I would just come in with a singular idea and start doing it. I saw the artwork. I talked to the directors and the writers and got a sense of what they wanted. And then, what’s great about it is that you do have the license to just go for it, and you trust that the editors and the directors will put in what’s necessary.

I felt like my job description on this was to just give as wide a range as possible – do things small or smallish and then sort of blow the doors off on other takes because you never know what they’re going to need in any given moment in terms of the narrative of the movie."

Is it a side you’d like to show more?

Steve Carell: "It’s a side that’s fun to do. It’s all fun. It’s fun to kind of mix and match and play around with different voices. This character’s accent was just ridiculous. It’s fun to just play and experiment. What was great about this in particular was there was no impetus to do it correctly or within the lines. It was very freewheeling and very supportive. We had a great freedom to fail, which I think is really liberating."

Julie Andrews does the voice of your mom and the whole relationship between the two of them is sort of like Tony Soprano and his mother who never appreciated what he did. Did you ever get a chance to meet her? Did you guys talk at all?

Steve Carell: "We’ve met a few times over the years. We actually went out to lunch together a few years ago just to talk and hang out and meet one another. She’s someone that I’ve wanted to work with forever and I’m an enormous fan.

It’s remarkable because she’s Julie Andrews. It’s such an overused word, but she is an icon. She is so elegant and beyond what you would expect her to be. She’s exactly what you expect her to be and more and lives up to every expectation. I hope I’m not setting the bar too high for her. [Laughing] She’ll come in and you’ll hate her. But no, she’s an exquisite person and to play someone… I guess she balked a little bit initially to play someone who is a little bit dark and mean and a little nasty. But, even when she plays a character like that, there’s the underpinning of goodness that she just can’t get away from. Even her nastiest person, you still like her. I don’t think you can help but like her."

Becoming a dad totally changes Gru. How did first becoming a dad change you?

Steve Carell: "I think that’s one of the things I identified with in the script.

Here’s a guy who has his life set up the way he’s accustomed to, and then is introduced to these three little girls who essentially turn his life upside down. They change all of his patterns. They change everything about what he thinks is important, and I think, generally speaking, that happens when everyone has kids. And you try to explain it to people who are about to have children, and I don’t anymore, because you can’t. It’s something you understand once it happens. But everything changes. It’s such a diametric change that you really can’t explain it."

"For me, at least, all of my career goals, all of my focus, everything just shifted and the importance was my children and that’s where all the joy came from as well, and I think that’s what’s kind of touching about the character too. It doesn’t change him but it taps into a part of him that was always there that he didn’t know about, which I think is what happens when you have kids."

How was it finding the right tone to play evil but not have a scary voice? How did you find the right tone to play that character?

Steve Carell: "Well that’s what we played around with a lot initially, and with the look of the character too. They wanted him to be a bit sinister looking but also accessible and that’s a very tricky line to walk. We tried to do that with the voice as well. That’s part of the reason we didn’t focus on one specific nationality. I wanted it to sound sort of scary but not really scary, mostly funny and silly, but a little bit scary. So that’s what I tried to keep in the back of my mind, that underneath it all here was a guy who might… He doesn’t have a black heart, but he doesn’t have a heart of gold either. I’d say he sort of has a heart of bronze and he discovers that as the movie progresses."

Can you recall a particularly memorable 'despicable me' moment you might have had in real life?

Steve Carell: "Well I had the Minions wash my car the other day. A despicable moment that I have had? Like specifically something I have done that was despicable?

Never! I’ve never done anything despicable in my life. Boy!"

Not even in traffic in L.A.?

Steve Carell: "You know what? That’s something that actually came to mind, but like what do you do? Do you yell at people? Do you give them the finger? There’s really no recourse in Los Angeles. If somebody takes the parking place you were waiting for, I tend to kind of let it roll off my back. Maybe I’m harboring a lot of something and it will all explode somewhere down the road, but I tend to just let it slide off my back."

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Steve Carell Despicable Me Press Conference

Do you think that animated movies are the new workshop for actors because they’re so freeing and you’re not playing off of anyone else? Is it more of a way for you to keep your acting chops sharp?

Steve Carell: "I don’t know if it’s more of a way. I don’t think it’s necessarily a new sort of workshop, but it’s different. It’s sort of using a different muscle in a way because you’re not communicating with other actors, which for me is such an important thing when you can register what somebody’s going through on a given take and listen to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it because you pick up a lot from the people that you’re acting with.

Generally speaking, at least for me, the better the person you’re with, the better you’re going to be because they’re giving you so much more. So, this is different. This is like a completely different exercise because you are by yourself. You’re just standing there with a microphone and you have the script in front of you. All you try to do – at least in my mind – was give them options."

"It’s sort of an imagination exercise more than anything else because you have to not only imagine what your character might be going through physically, emotionally, what he might look like at this point, what your surroundings or your world might look like, so you kind of have to close your eyes and imagine what might be happening around you. And, on top of that, all the other characters, you have to give different types of line readings that might fit in with what all the other actors are doing as well.

So, it’s fun and very freeing because ultimately you don’t have control over any of it. You’re just giving them many, many puzzle pieces that then they go off and fit together. Or, to use another analogy, it’s like the voice actors in this are just one paint color that the artists are painting with and you try to give them as great a spectrum as you can, but it’s their job ultimately to take it and create something wonderful out of it.

And, it’s such an ego thing too because you go and see the movie and it’s fantastic because of everything that they did and you’re just this little tiny part of it, but also, at the same time, you feel so proud because you’re part of this greater process."

What was the ratio in terms of what was scripted versus improvised?

Steve Carell: "I have no idea because you forget what is scripted and what you might have improvised. We’d always do the script as written and then they’d ask us to play around and come up with alternate lines and alternate jokes. But in the end, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. The script was great. The script could have just been done as is and the movie would have been fantastic. But I think because they had people like Russell (Brand) and Jason (Segel), they allowed for lots of improvisation, in part I think just to loosen the actors up and let them have fun."

Your character is kind of hamstring-challenged with no legs…

Steve Carell: [Laughing] "Hamstring-challenged? That was actually the alternate title for this movie."

How did you feel about that aspect of your character?

Steve Carell: "I thought the character’s physicality was fantastic. It’s interesting because you don’t really know how the character is going to move until you see it, and that’s maybe a year or more before you start seeing the first rough animation of how the character might be moving down the street or some of the facial expressions.

It’s remarkable because it’s everything you’d hoped it would be and it’s also a little scary because there are little qualities of what you do that are incorporated as well. And so, yeah, that was essentially it. I loved the way the character looks and I think they did strike that balance between being a little bit sinister and being fun and accessible."

"The one thing about this movie too is I don’t think it’s condescending to children. I really think kids see that and they can feel it when they’re being spoken down to, and I think for the same reason, it’s appealing to adults because it then doesn’t seem like a kiddie movie. It just seems like a movie, a story that anyone can enjoy."

This is one of the first movies where the villain actually becomes likable at the end, which is pretty good for children. Do you think this will set a precedent?

Steve Carell: "Well, it was this and Hannibal Lecter. Those are probably the two characters that become super cuddly at the end of the movies. [Laughing] Will it set a precedent? I don’t know. That was one of the things that was appealing to me about it. You rarely see movies as told from the perspective of the villain, which I thought was interesting, and especially a family movie based on a villain versus another villain. I like the idea of incorporating these orphans into a villain’s life. I think the dichotomy there – not to get too heady about it – is really funny and an interesting dynamic. Whether it will set a precedent, if this movie does enormously well, then yes, there will probably be other movies like it because that’s usually how it goes."

The poster says "Steve Carell in Despicable Me." Do you feel any additional pressure having that kind of responsibility on your shoulders? And how do you like 3-D and do you take your kids to 3D movies and do they like it?

Steve Carell: "They do. They love 3-D. It’s fun to watch a movie in 3-D with your children or with a group of children because you see the kids in front of you from time to time reaching up. You see little hands reaching up to grab things that they think are right there. I think it’s remarkable and it does obviously, literally add another dimension to the movie. It’s fun with things like this because you feel like you’re stepping inside of a world, so I think that will continue. It’s remarkable. The technology is pretty amazing."

"Do I feel extra pressure? Not really. I approach it like I approach anything. I’m proud of it. I think it turned out well. I’m really happy to promote it. It’s nice to be able to promote something that you like and that you wholeheartedly endorse. That, to me, is really my utmost concern going into something like this. I want it to be as good as it can be, but I don’t worry about how it will do necessarily because that’s out of my hands. At this point, that’s for everybody else to decide.

But from my perspective, I like how it turned out."

Do your kids know that that’s you?

Steve Carell: "They do, although we saw a screening of it a couple weeks ago... my son and daughter loved it but my son was disappointed that I didn’t play a Minion. He thought the Minions were really the coolest thing."

With the news that the seventh season of The Office might be your last with the show, every time we’ve gotten to speak with you, you’ve always said you’d stay with The Office as long as they wanted you. Why is now the right time to consider moving on?

Steve Carell: "Well, my contract has always been for seven seasons and I just feel like now is the time for my character to move ahead. Yeah, it just feels like time to me. I have no doubt that the show will continue and continue to be really strong. I think it might actually be a benefit to the show because any time you shift the dynamic of a show like that, great things can happen and you can find new avenues to explore. I look at it as just one piece of an ensemble drifting off. I was actually surprised that anybody thought it was any big deal because I think it’s the show and the ensemble is what, to me, was always important about the show."

Will Michael Scott go out in a big way?

Steve Carell: "I don’t want him to, frankly. I think in keeping with…what I love most about the show is when it examines the minutia of life and those little tiny moments that you then base a whole episode on. There’s one show that Stanley and I waited in line for pretzels, the entire show. It was pretzel day in the office and all we did was stand in line and wait and talk about what kind of pretzels we were going to get. I love those sort of moments so I would be inclined to make it a more subtle and simple departure as opposed to any big 'very special episode of' kind of thing."

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Despicable Me hits theaters on July 9, 2010 and is rated PG for rude humor and mild action.