Sitting down to talk about his work as John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s chilling American drama “Foxcatcher,” Steve Carell is bright-eyed and snappily attired in a dark jacket with a darker sweater underneath, looking more like a well-liked classics professor than one of Hollywood’s funniest actors. Then again, there’s nothing funny about Carell’s work in “Foxcatcher,” a haunting tale of patronage and father figure-hood (and even patriotism) gone awry, and it’s one of the year’s finer pieces of acting.
Playing du Pont—a wealthy wrestling fan who took in Olympians Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and supported their training until his noble oblige curdled into something deadly—Carell gives one of the year’s best performances, playing a man whose absurdities would be funny if they weren’t deadly (read our review). We spoke with Carell in Los Angeles.
Not to insist on parallels between this and your comedy work, but one thing I found really interesting was that delusions of grandeur, or even better, delusions of adequacy, are always funny until they’re not, and it strikes me that Mr. du Pont was someone where his delusions of grandeur and adequacy weren’t really countered because he was so insulated. How do you play someone who is so disconnected from the concerns of ordinary-ness?
I think he was an incredibly sad guy, and I think what you’re saying is exactly right. He’s someone, I believe, who needed help, and he was surrounded by, essentially, employees. He was not surrounded by friends. He wasn’t surrounded by people who would intervene in any way, and I think that is tragic, because here’s someone who needed that, who needed someone to intervene, who needed a friend who could see warning signs, red flags, and he didn’t have that. There’s such a tragedy within that.
Does it boil down to the whole British thing, of the difference between crazy and eccentric is your bank balance? If you have enough money, you don’t have to worry about too many people intruding on what you’re doing?
I think people were eager to overlook the eccentricity because of the money, because he was funding their livelihood and their lifestyles, and who were they to question the source? So, again, I think that is part and parcel with the tragedy of it all. He’s somebody that seemed, to me, to be, at his core, a very lonely human being. He yearned for friendship, he yearned for respect, he yearned for admiration, and he wasn’t capable of garnering any of those things.
And there’s that great scene, where Mrs. du Pont tells her son John, “I despise wrestling. It’s a low sport.” And she would rather have her son be unhappy than “low.”
Well, yeah. That relationship was, again, a very sad one, a very chilling one. He wasn’t someone who experienced physical want from other people, certainly not his family. His siblings were much older. His parents were divorced when he was two. He essentially grew up alone in this state, and he was, from the very beginning, by himself. He was socially ill-equipped to do the things that he yearned to do, and to achieve the things he wanted to achieve.
Not to talk too much about the prosthetic in the room, but did you know you were going to have to wear that, going into it? Was it a tough process of trying on, and getting used to, the du Pont nose?
Really, it’s something that we discussed early on. We talked about how far down the road we were going to go with the look, and how important it would be. There was no adjustment to it. Bill Corso, who did the hair and makeup, he worked on it for months and months and months. It wasn’t just gluing on a nose.
That is not an off-the-rack nose.
No. It’s what he looked like. He had a very, very specific look and demeanor. So, we tried to emulate that, and we thought that was important because so much of how he looked affected how other people treated him.
When you talk to stage actors about playing Richard the III, they put a right shoulder up to make the hump, they bring the left arm in, so it’s “useless.” That affects all of their body language. There’s great stuff in “Foxcatcher” where you’re sniffing the air or using that nose like a prow, almost, to drive du Pont through. Was there a process of saying “I’ve got this. I’m going to use it,” and experimenting with it?
No, it wasn’t about using, specifically, the nose. It was trying to … I don’t know if “emulate” is the right word; I watched a lot of tape on du Pont, and he had a way of carrying himself. He did arch his neck. He had a certain shuffle to the way he walked. He had speech patterns that were distinctive, and all those things combined to make an odd person. He certainly didn’t draw people to him, based on his looks and demeanor. There were never conscious choices to arch my neck on a certain line. I feel like it was a matter of observing him, applying all that makeup, and then trying to forget about all of the above.
Is it a real resource to have video tape of the person you’re playing, not just for vocal rhythm purposes, but also body language?
Oh, yeah. It’s very helpful. I think the most helpful aspect of what I was able to watch were the out-takes, the pieces of film that du Pont would have never wanted others to see, and reflected a much more private sense of who he was. I think those offered me the most insight.
The settings, the sets of the film—they’re so luxurious. It just captures that kind of ’80s WASP privilege. What was it like walking into that world every day?
I think they did a great job, and apparently, it was very accurate. That was just one component of this world that Bennett created for us all, because we did feel like we were on his estate, because we were. Locations were fantastic, but beyond that, he created this tone on set that was very somber. There wasn’t any frivolity. There wasn’t a lot of small talk. We all took it quite seriously. I think the fact that Mark Schultz was there for a good period of time, Nancy Schultz was there, added to the weight of what we were doing, and, I think, the responsibility of what we were doing. All of it is a gift, for an actor, to have locations and makeup and wardrobe and advisers, people who were there. That’s all very generous, I think, of everyone else involved, doing their job in such a specific way. I think it helps inform the director as to where he’s going, and it also informs the actors, in terms of what they’re trying to do. So, yeah, it’s definitely a team effort, and the better everybody is at their individual jobs, the better it is as a whole.
Is this a film where you’re yet able to watch it, or are you still just watching you?
No. I’ve seen it a couple of times, now. The second time I saw it, I was able to sit back in a chair and watch it in its entirety.
As a theatergoer, you thought, “Damn, this is a good movie, regardless of my being in it?”
I’m really proud of it. I think it turned out great; I think Bennett did an excellent job.
“Foxcatcher” opens in limited release on New York and L.A. Nov. 14.