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His first leading role is playing a naïve virgin and his next is playing the legendary Maxwell Smart, made famous by the recently deceased Don Adams; Steve Carell is not the overtly funny comedian, but frequently plays a repressed jerk or asshole, as he tells it to Helen Barlow.

Mild-mannered and not particularly aggressive in Hollywood terms, Steve Carell for some time has been appearing in supporting roles in movies like Bruce Almighty and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, with his more famous funny buddies Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. Now he is being elevated to leading man status in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and as the US$25 million movie closes on $100 million at the US box office, Carell’s star is surely on the rise. The 42-year-old has numerous other projects in the pipeline, including the role of Max Smart, Agent 86, in the movie based on the television series, Get Smart.

"my forte was playing jerks and assholes"

Naivety seems to be Carell’s forte, I suggest. “I guess, but you know, before this movie I guess my forte was playing jerks and assholes, so I range from naïve to asshole to jerk to idiot,” he says.

Carell is not an overtly funny kind of comedian. He is more straight-faced and repressed and today there’s something of that in his demeanour, as he sits in a London hotel room wearing a buttoned up shirt and pants and with, well, no distinguishing features, other than a pair of rather engaging eyes. He explains almost immediately how he doesn’t drink and has never smoked, that he is married with two kids, and lives “a simple life”. His one vice he confesses is Diet Coke, though his drug is clearly comedy and The 40 Year-Old Virgin, which he co-wrote with the film’s director, Judd Apatow, is very much his baby.

It tells of Andy, a nice, unassuming kind of man, who works as a clerk in an electronics store and who is discovered by his three male workmates (played by Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen) to be a virgin. They take it upon themselves to educate him regarding the ways of women, even if their ideas on women are not particularly enlightened (think American Pie and The Wedding Crashers), and he is as keen as they are to for him to have his first sexual encounter.

“I just thought it might be funny and sort of sweet to hang a story on this guy who is discovered and wants to cut tethers to his past and grow up a bit and face his fear,” says Carell.

At times though our unlikely hero takes on a little too much of the advice of his friends, and in the film’s most hilarious scene, he has his chest hair waxed. While it all seemed a little too furry to be real, it turns out to be Carell’s own hair.

“What did you think that was some kind of wig?” he says chastisingly. “Oh no that’s real, that’s absolutely real,” he insists. And he unbuttons his shirt to prove it.

Still, it looked as if it was made into little balls for the film.

“No it was made into nothing. I didn’t have a chest hair coiffure at all I just decided to do that for myself because I figured it would at least amuse the crew. The woman who did it was incidentally an actress/waxing technician so I can’t say she was completely proficient at waxing, and I did end up bleeding a little. Once she started putting the wax on with that Popsicle stick, at that very moment I thought this might have been a bad idea. Up until that I was very cavalier about it, thinking this will be hilarious, how much could it possibly hurt? And it hurt so much more than I thought.”

He has now learned a valuable lesson regarding what women endure.

"penchant for improvisation"

“I have such a high regard for women because they give birth and they have to do bikini waxes - and those two things alone you have to respect them for.”

Following Carell’s own penchant for improvisation, the scene was filmed so that his own pain and his friends’ laughter were real. “Otherwise there would be no way of recapturing them enjoying it. There’s something about guys watching another guy go through excruciating pain- if it’s not life threatening - and I thought to capture that on film would be the funniest part, because it’s just a stupid thing to do.”

Stupid was certainly the reaction of his wife, Nancy Walls, also a comedic actor. “She was fairly horrified when I got home. I told her I was doing this chest-waxing scene and she didn’t know what to expect. I’d never done it before and I came back with these patches in the shape of a face on my chest, so when we’d get into bed she forced me to wear a t-shirt every night for two months. I can’t say it did anything in the romance department for her. My daughter, who is four, said ‘Daddy, why is your chest smiling at me?’ So she thought it was a bit bizarre too.”

Not that his daughter knows what a virgin is, even now. “We do not say the word, because I think four is a little too early to broach the subject of virginity, so when we talk about the movie we talk about it as the 40-year-old guy. She can’t read yet, but she sees the billboard with my face smiling down, which is a little disconcerting for her already.”

Carell’s breakthrough came when he was hired for Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe, where John Belushi and Bill Murray got their starts. “I gauge my success from how long it was since I had to wait on tables to support myself, and that was 1988,'' he says. It was Jon Stewart's Daily Show that brought him recognition and led to steady supporting roles in movies, mostly alongside Will Ferrell. His appearance in Anchorman prompted the film’s writer-director, Apatow, who was impressed with Carell’s improvisational jokesmanship, to ask if they could work together. Ultimately, The 40-Year Old Virgin’s premise came from an improvisation of Carell’s that became the film’s poker sequence.

“This guy is in the midst of other guys telling dirty stories, and he's obliged to tell a dirty story, of which he has none. He feebly attempts to regale the others with a sex story, and it's soon evident he's out of his element. He has no frame of reference, and his virginity is discovered.''

Talking about your personal virginity loss has long been an icebreaker for strangers who meet on a train, or friends having drinks in a pub, so that the idea of a film about a 40-year old virgin is a natural curiosity to us all. Carell was indeed on the hot seat as he prepared to do interviews for the film.

“I knew that journalists were going to ask me about my loss of virginity and my wife had the best response: don’t tell them. Make up a different story every time. But you know, my story is like almost everybody else’s. It was awkward and weird and uncomfortable and not that particularly memorable - yet I will never forget it. There was nothing romantic and enticing about it. I was clearly too young emotionally, at 17, and had I known then what I know now I probably would have waited till I was in love.”

" it was fun, a real bonding experience"

There was no avoiding discussing his virginity loss with his cast mates however. “Oh, I know more about them than I ever want to know,” he says ruefully. “Part of the rehearsals was just us talking about our own experiences revealing things to each other. And I found out the most terrible things about my co-stars. But really it was fun, a real bonding experience.”

Carell also researched middle-aged virginity and was surprised to discover that his character fitted the bill perfectly. “These people aren’t angry or emotionally damaged at all. They are just normal people who for one reason or another have given up. They might have had some bad experiences or they felt that time has passed them by and at this age it would be more difficult to try. So they’ve put it away and go through life trying not to make too big a deal out of it. I think it reflects this character--that he’s not a weird guy or someone who’s been emotionally scarred. He’s just a normal likable guy who has that secret.”

Unlike with the huge male audience who frequent gross-out comedies, women went to see the still fairly ribald 40-Year-Old Virgin more than men when it opened in America. The milder approach to the genre seems to have worked—an explicit masturbation sequence was deleted from the film because it went against the film’s naïve tone—so that the film is above all emotionally involving as Andy literally reaches his climax with the woman he loves (Catherine Keener). Though Carell says that at test screenings women enjoyed the dirty jokes too.

None of his famous friends drop in for cameos either as has been the way with so many recent US comedies. “We wanted it to be a simple, readily identifiable movie, and we thought that a lot of cameos would take audiences out of the movie.”

The film was no doubt bad for Carell’s status as a sex symbol. “Absolutely, and I’m very cautious about my sex symbol status. I think the triad of sex symbols are now Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and myself, and we have lunch all the time and talk about what it’s like to be international sex symbols. I think they can really relate to my dilemma right now.”

So who would be his dream woman to play Agent 99 in Get Smart? “Well, this will actually be good fodder for the tabloids. Angelina Jolie. And I think my wife will not appreciate that at all.” (His wife, in fact, plays the therapist in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.)

It’s likely that his $500,000 salary for The 40-Year-Old Virgin will increase at least tenfold for his upcoming studio films. He was indeed hoping the film would elevate his career to another level.

“Frankly I’ve been happy with how my career’s been going prior to this, so it wasn’t something I was betting or counting on. As we were shooting it, I thought if this is the only movie I’m ever the lead in, so be it. It’s been great and fun and exciting, just an incredibly rewarding experience to have. I really wanted it to be funny but didn’t see it as a vehicle for myself. I think everybody in the movie is funny so I don’t in any way feel that I’m carrying the movie.” A Mr Nice Guy indeed. Still if I were him, I’d think about getting rid of that chest hair.

Published October 6, 2005


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