“Your character acts as the moral center of the movie. At one point, he says that it won’t be the big banks that pay the price for the mortgage collapse, but…
…rather “immigrants and poor people.” Do you think that’s what happened? I tend to defer to people like Michael Lewis when it comes to things like that.(Actor Steve Carell)”, Ana Marie Cox, “Steve Carell Does Not Mock the Undeserving”, New York Times Magazine, December 6, 2015
“At least Steve Carell is honest. He essentially says: “I am an actor playing a part. When it comes to the financial crisis, I really don’t know what happened.”, Mike Perry, former Chairman and CEO, IndyMac Bank
Steve Carell Does Not Mock the Undeserving
Steve Carell Credit Andrew T. Warman for The New York Times
Interview by ANA MARIE COX
You didn’t start out with the intention of becoming a comic actor. Now that your career has finally drifted toward dramatic acting, I’m curious: What was the vision of the kind of career that you thought you might have? I didn’t set the bar very high for myself, I’ll be honest. I didn’t have a vision. I just wanted to be employed, and I was willing to do almost everything short of pornography to continue working as an actor. I know that’s a pretty horrible image.
Your new movie, “The Big Short,” is based on Michael Lewis’s book about the housing market collapse. Could you explain to me what a C.D.O. is? I’d rather not! But I suppose I could. I think I got to a cocktail-conversation level of acumen, but little beyond that.
The movie has a scene in which Selena Gomez very effectively explains how C.D.O.s work. That’s a sentence I did not think I would be putting together a week ago. I went to a screening of it recently, down in Orange County. And one woman said: “Boy, I feel like I learned something. I’m smarter, but not in a bad way.” Like, it was informational, it taught me something, but it didn’t feel like going to school. It didn’t feel like a lecture. I thought that was great.
In 2010, Tad Friend wrote that you dislike “jokey-jokes, or dialogue that suggests” your character is “trying to be funny.” Instead, you invest all your “faith and energy in deeply boneheaded convictions.” “Boneheaded conviction” will be on my tombstone, I think.
“The Big Short” seems to be the first movie in which that conceit is true but not played for comedy. Your character’s deeply held, boneheaded conviction — that the housing market is an unsustainable bubble — turns out to be entirely correct. I try not to play characters that ever have any self-awareness that their conviction is boneheaded. And I think that can either be funny or dramatic. After all, a character doesn’t know whether they’re in a comedy or a drama.
Your character acts as the moral center of the movie. At one point, he says that it won’t be the big banks that pay the price for the mortgage collapse, but rather “immigrants and poor people.” Do you think that’s what happened? I tend to defer to people like Michael Lewis when it comes to things like that.
Earlier in your career, you were part of the team that shifted “The Daily Show” from mocking stupid news items to mocking the news media itself for being kind of stupid. Yeah, it became less snarky. Early on it was shooting fish in a barrel. Jon wanted to raise the bar — if we had an ax to grind, it should be with people who deserved it.
One turning point was when you interviewed John McCain in 2000. After a bunch of softball questions, you asked him about an apparent contradiction in his appropriations record. It might have been the first time a “Daily Show” interview was tougher than a traditional news outlet. But of course I immediately backed off it. I didn’t go for the jugular. Once he blanched, I let him off the hook.
You’ve characterized the show’s shift away from field stories about wackos as a moral decision. It was. When I first came on the show, I had to quickly figure out how I was going to make it work for me, morally. I don’t think I would have been able to live with myself had I just gone out and mocked people who didn’t deserve it. So I turned it around on myself: I became the idiot reporter, and the brunt of the joke.
You say you’re not political, but don’t you think determining who is innocent and who is not is a political question? I didn’t see it as political, I just saw it as being a decent human being. Really, it’s very simple: I just didn’t want to make fun of innocent people. There is no joy in that.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
A version of this article appears in print on December 6, 2015, on page MM90 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Steve Carell Does Not Mock the Undeserving.