BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Steve Carell pops out of his hotel suite to greet a reporter. Wearing well-tread sneakers, jeans and a modest sports coat, he could be anyone: your accountant, your neighbor, your college roommate.
What he doesn’t look like, or act like, is a top-line comedy star. The head of “The Office” on NBC, the surprise star of big movies both sublime (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) and regrettable (“Evan Almighty”), he says he still feels like a stranger in a strange land of fame. And he says it so earnestly that it’s impossible not to believe him.
“It’s nothing I ever expected to happen,” he says at the end of a long day of interviews to promote “Get Smart,” the big-budget comedy that opens on Friday. “It’s nothing I ever anticipated or prepared myself for.
“The other side of that is: I don’t assume it will continue.”
Come again? He’s got back-to-back Emmy nominations for playing guilelessly insensitive paper supply office honcho Michael Scott. He’s a go-to guy for intimate indies (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Dan in Real Life”) and summer tent poles like “Get Smart,” based on the popular Cold War TV spy comedy.
It’s just that it’s all happened a little fast for Carell, who a few years back was just one of the fake news correspondents of “The Daily Show.” So he keeps expectations low because ...
“I think it protects me from buying into the whole idea and getting too high on myself,” he says. “I know it can go away as quickly as it came, so I’m trying to enjoy it and not be wary of the other shoe dropping. I try not to take it too seriously.”
Which is another way of saying he’s a genuine guy with a good head on his shoulders, although he’s far too self-effacing to put it in such complimentary terms. He’s far more likely to take a dig at himself.
Which does he prefer, TV or film?
“I can’t believe I can even answer this question,” he says. “The fact that I’ve been able to do both is so remarkable to me.”
Is he sent a lot more scripts than he used to be?
“That whole idea of being sent a script or being asked to be in a movie still feels relatively new to me,” he says. “I’m very used to auditioning for things. To just have someone ask you to be a part of something is a weird and unique thing. I never want to take that for granted. I still have my resumes. They’re in a drawer in case I need them. I’m not assuming anything.”
Does he think he’s funny?
“Not particularly, as evidenced by this interview,” he says. “I’m not the life of the party. I’m not someone people gravitate to and want to hear the stories from. I know people like that, but I’m not one of them.”
Fortunately, other people are pretty certain he is funny. Even if they agree that he’s not particularly flamboyant.
“Steve is an Everyman,” says “Get Smart” director Peter Segal by phone from his office. “He may hate hearing that, but it’s an extreme compliment. It means people can relate to him. People can relate to the awkward situations that, say, Michael Scott gets into and they can say ‘Hey, I know that guy.’ He’s also a very intelligent actor. He knows how to underplay things.
“That, and he wears funny shoes.”
Carell actually agreed to do “Get Smart” a ways back, between his scene-stealing role in “Anchorman” and his breakout turn in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” the film that established him as a humbly deadpan comic star. “I loved the series,” he says. “It wasn’t even a consideration in my mind whether to do it or not. It just sounded like fun, and I thought potentially it could be a really funny, exciting movie.”
He could use one of those, even with his rapid ascent from supporting actor to featured player. The stench of last year’s expensive flop “Evan Almighty” overpowered Carell’s charms, and even if “Get Smart” has been in the hopper for a while, it will still be seen as his blockbuster follow-up.
Of course, these are precisely the kinds of things Carell doesn’t like to think about.
He’s still waiting for the other funny shoe to drop.