Steve Carell tries a softer, gentler role with ‘Dan in Real Life’

[22 October 2007]

By Terry Lawson

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

(Michael Goulding/Orange County Register/MCT)

(Michael Goulding/Orange County Register/MCT)

Steve Carell and Peter Hedges have at least one thing in common.

When director Hedges started working on “Dan in Real Life,” which opens Friday, he figured he’d be working on the approximate scale of his previous film “Pieces of April,” an indie-comedy that won a lot of hearts and support at the Sundance Film Festival. (The film went on to have some success on the art-house circuit.)

He didn’t expect it to star the hottest actor in comedy.

As for Carell, when he took the leading role in “Dan in Real Life,” a widowed newspaper advice columnist who, by falling hard for his brother’s girlfriend, finds himself discarding his own best advice, he didn’t expect to be the hottest actor in comedy.

For most filmmakers, this would be cause for popping champagne corks and new car shopping.

But this isn’t the case, it turns out, for both Hedges and Carell.

“I find myself trying to explain what this movie isn’t, more than what it actually is,” says Carell, who was a character actor and “The Daily Show” correspondent.

“It’s not a high-concept thing or a side-splitter like `The 40 Year-Old Virgin.’ It’s a lot - oh, I don’t know, quieter, softer.

“It’s funny, yeah, but it’s sad, and sort of uncomfortable and truthful. I was interested in it the same way I was interested in `Little Miss Sunshine.’ It doesn’t come with some kind of implied laugh track: you know, here’s where you laugh, here’s when you laugh harder.

“I’m not really that enamored of movies or TV where the characters try to be funny, or even know that they’re funny. And that’s really where Peter comes from, too,” Carell says. “He was like, `Just play Dan. Let the audience decide if they think he’s funny. You just try to make him real.’ He’s not that into jokes. He’s into people.”

In “Dan in Real Life,” which Hedges co wrote with Pierce Gardner, Carell’s columnist has three daughters, level-headed teen Jane (Alison Pill), hormonal horror-show Cara (Brittany Robertson) and sweet, vulnerable pre teen Lilly (Marlene Lawston), whom he dutifully drags to their annual Thanksgiving vacation with his family at their Rhode Island cottage. Immediately offered a parenting break by his mom (Dianne Wiest), he goes off to the local bookstore, where he ends up trading reading tips and having breakfast with Marie (Juliette Binoche), the first woman he’s been truly attracted to since his wife’s death.

But when he returns to shyly share this good news with the family, he discovers Marie is already there - as the guest of his younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook), who adores her.

Hedges, who wrote the script for “About A Boy” and the novel “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, ” which he turned into a screenplay for the 1993 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, says that when he got the news that Carell was seriously interested in doing “Dan in Real Life,” he asked him if he had any thoughts on who should play Marie.

“Somebody with a big heart and the sense of the absurdity of it all,” Hedges says, recalling Carell’s reply. “As far as I was concerned, that gave me the best excuse possible to get in touch with Juliette, who I think has all that and terrific comic skills. She tends to get cast here as this mature, exotic beauty, but in France, she’s not so rarified. She can be funny, she can be one of the guys, and she’s always sexy. She was perfect for this.”

Carell, however, did have some concerns.

“My first thought is, who would believe that Juliette Binoche would ever be attracted to me unless she had been infected with some mind-altering drug? But you know, that wasn’t enough for me to raise the question.

“I also figured it might give me some leverage at home,” says Carell, who is married to comedienne Nancy Walls, whom he met when both were recruited for the original Second City Improv comedy troupe in Chicago. “I could always say, `Well, Juliette Binoche is attracted to me.’ And my wife would say, `Uh, Steve, the “Real Life” part is just the title of the movie.’”

Hedges adds, “The thing is, that anybody’s who has worked as long and hard as Steve has, looks at success in an entirely different way than somebody who makes a big movie or gets a part on a hit TV show without having to go through all the stuff it takes to get there. As a director, it makes the process a lot easier, because he’s more interested in the work than investing in his career. It’s why it puts us in this funny position. We think we know what we did, which was make a movie about the weird and sometimes uncomfortable way that love comes around when it’s actually sort of inconvenient.”

Carell says, “I got the `Dan in Real Life’ script, I sat down and read it cover to cover. It was the same experience I had when I was approached about doing `The Office,’” the acclaimed comedy whose fourth season is now being aired. “I was like, OK, maybe some people will be wary at first, but give `em a minute and they’ll figure out it’s not what they might have expected. But it’s better for being that. It’s different from what you expect, and that’s a good thing.”

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