To play troubled multimillionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher, opening Wednesday, Steve Carell wears an oversize prosthetic nose and layers of pancake makeup that turns his skin pasty. He’s barely recognizable under all that camouflage.
The reason for the cosmetic changes can’t be to make Carell more closely resemble the heir to the family’s gunpowder fortune, because few people know what he looked like. (In actuality, du Pont’s nose was even larger than the movie version.)
More likely, his changed appearance was intended to make audiences forget they are staring at Carell, a beloved comedian — The Daily Show, The Office and the recent Disney movie Be Careful What You Wish For — crossing over to the dark side for the first time in his career.
It doesn’t get much more grim than taking on the role of du Pont, a dilettante with a wrestling obsession who created a facility at his Foxcatcher farm for amateur wrestlers to practice for the Olympics. A tragic event on his farm landed him in prison, where he died in 2010. (The lurid details of what transpired are easily discovered online, but those planning to see Foxcatcher are advised to go in cold.)
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“I guess there is a perception of me as funny, nice Steve,” Carell said, settling into a comfortable chair at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Foxcatcher was featured.
“It is something I can’t worry about because I have no control over it. But I would never take on a role in order to prove that I am capable of doing something else. I don’t have any sort of grand plan.”
For his press day, Carell, 52, is dressed in a preppy plaid shirt under a navy V-neck sweater. He has a direct manner and a way of looking you in the eye that can be disarming but also lends veracity to his words.
One of the first things he would like people to know is that he did not pursue this role but was invited to consider it by respected director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) after Carell’s agent suggested him without the actor’s knowledge.
“I don’t believe I was on any lists to play this originally,” he said. “It was a surprise to me, frankly, that I got a call to come and meet with Bennett, and an even greater surprise when he asked me to play the part. I was incredibly flattered and jumped at the chance to work with Channing and Mark.”
That would be Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who play brother wrestlers who come under du Pont’s spell. Watching the way they kid one another at a party at the Toronto festival suggests the three actors have become pals.
Carell finds himself swept up in Oscar speculation. He’s not a total stranger to this — his name was bandied about for Best Supporting Actor for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 — but this time the buzz is more intense.
“It would be very exciting to be nominated, but it is not something I can even allow myself to think about,” he said. “It’s not that I am steeling myself against disappointment. It is that it’s not based on anything real, and, you know, you can’t live in your own fantasies of what might happen.”
Carell never wrestled, but he spent his childhood near Concord, Mass., playing softball, ice hockey and lacrosse. So he came to Foxcatcher with an awareness of the addictive nature of sports. He understood how du Pont, whose family had forbidden him from wrestling when he was young, might have become fixated on it.
Preparing for the role, Carell interviewed people who knew the eccentric sportsman and read books about him. After watching footage of du Pont, the actor began talking like him.
“He had a very strange, specific way of talking and a very specific vocal pattern, not only the timbre in his voice, but also the way he phrased things and structured his sentences,” Carell said.
Becoming du Pont
His metamorphosis into du Pont began in the early morning with three hours of makeup application.
“By the time other people would arrive, I would already be looking like du Pont, and they would leave before I had taken the foundation off. Almost immediately, I sensed a separation between me and the other actors. That counterintuitively put me in a bit of a bubble,” he said.
Carell does not play du Pont as if he were totally unhinged.
“That was Bennett’s choice,” he said of his director. “He could have made more of the psychosis and the delusions, but he chose not to, and I agree. I wanted to present him as a human being.
“I didn’t want to make him into any sort of villain, because I didn’t see him that way.”
His own theory is that du Pont was struggling with establishing his own identity while carrying the weight of his family name.
“He was trying to kind of step out from his own heritage and forge something for himself, and it was difficult,” Carell says. “He had such a deep desire to be admired and important. But it ended in a terribly tragic way.”
In his own life, Carell fashioned a career far afield from his family of engineers and scientists. He acted in a touring children’s theater company before landing at Second City, Chicago’s esteemed improv company whose alumni include John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Carell’s Little Miss Sunshine co-star Alan Arkin.
In 1988, Carell’s understudy at Second City was a then-unknown Stephen Colbert, who subsequently became a full-fledged company member and acted with Carell in many sketches. A decade later, the two appeared together again on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
By coincidence, Carell happened to be in a meeting with the executive producer of The Late Show the day Colbert was announced as the next host.
“So I was one of the first people to find out,” he says. “That was a very exciting moment, to see such a good friend transitioning into icon status.”
Meanwhile, their mutual friend Stewart took a hiatus from his TV show to direct Rosewater, a well-received political movie about a BBC journalist detained in an Iranian prison.
“It is great to see how we are all exploring new paths and learning new things about ourselves, about the work and our creative directions,” Carell said.
“It is really fun to share and to revel in all the successes that everyone is having.”