Movies

Steve Carell On Playing The ‘Terrifying’ Donald Rumsfeld In ‘Vice’ And Why He Doesn’t Watch ‘The Office’

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In the last couple of months, Steve Carell has had three movies hit theaters. There was Beautiful Boy, the true-life story about drug addiction co-starring Timothée Chalamet. Then there’s the upcoming Robert Zemeckis film, Welcome to Marwen. But the most controversial will, no doubt, be his turn in Adam McKay’s Vice, playing, as Carell puts it, the both homespun-yet-terrifying Donald Rumsfeld.

Vice is both polarizing and very strange. At times it’s horrific, at times it’s absurd. Adam McKay’s take on Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale) is a lot of things, but it’s certainly not conventional. This is, after all, a movie that features a fake ending and an entire scene done in Shakespearean dialogue.

Ahead, Carell takes us through what it’s like trying to get inside the head of the two-time Secretary of Defense (for both Presidents Ford and George W. Bush) and trying to find some semblance of humanity in him. Also, after co-starring with Amy Ryan in Beautiful Boy, Carell says it never once entered his mind people would make a connection to The Office. Then again, he doesn’t watch The Office and explains why.

When I told my editor I was talking to you today, he asked, “About which movie?” You’re very busy right now.

[Laughs] It’s weird. You know, over a year and a half, two years, you do three movies and then they all come out within a month. And then you don’t do anything for another four years.

Well, I’m assuming you’ll do something in the next four years.

We’ll see!

Your line as Donald Rumsfeld, “What a nervous Nellie!,” has stuck in my head ever since I saw this.

Yeah, I think, in a way, that encapsulates how I thought of Rumsfeld. There’s something so homespun about him, but at the same time terrifying.

It’s interesting watching you play him, because you’re not doing an impression, but you do have a point of view on this guy.

Well, it’s interesting. In watching all the video of him at various public functions, you get a sense that he’s this kindly uncle sitting on the front porch. He’s very ingratiating. There’s something very warm and comforting about him. But, at the same time, you hear stories about Nixon and Haldeman and Kissinger saying, “You have to watch out for that guy.” And for those people to be saying that about Rumsfeld, it speaks volumes.

You have a long history with Adam McKay, but did you have reservations about doing this political of a movie? The Big Short is political, but it’s not quite the same thing.

No, not really. You know, it’s such a cliché, but everyone’s entitled to their opinion on who someone is, or a point of history. I was more interested in the idea of working with Adam again. I think he’s a very bold filmmaker and he makes big choices. I just like his style. I think he’s very absurdist and funny and dark and intelligent. I was in immediately. I thought it would be fun to do and it would be fun to play a character like Rumsfeld. I haven’t really played anybody like that before. He’s a curious guy.

Is the tone on set with Vice or The Big Short different on set than it is for something like Anchorman? Or is it surprisingly similar?

It feels more similar than different. You know, obviously, you’re not lining jokes up, but there is a sense of freedom to play around and explore and find new things and to throw stuff in. And I think that’s based out of a sense of trust for Adam. Because you can try anything, and if it’s not good, it’s just not going into the movie. He won’t use it. So, you know you can trust yourself to explore and take some chances and not worry about it being terrible. Because if it is, he won’t put it in.

You’re not lining up jokes, but there are some surprisingly funny moments.

And I think that’s sort of the magic of Adam. He’s inclined to take risks, but he wants to infuse things with humor. Because at its core – I mean, it’s very serious – there is a lot of very dark material that he’s discussing.

And with real footage, too, and that’s just jarring.

It’s incredibly jarring. And to sort of infuse a bit of comedy, I think is helpful. Because it makes everything else go down a little bit more easily. It’s a way in, for sure, and it’s a way of softening the blow of the reality and the intensity of a lot of the subject matter. So, I think he’s very smart that way. You know, he’s a satirist. He’s able to look at really dark things in our society and shed some light on them in a humorous – often dark humor – but in a humorous way.

And this movie is very weird. There’s a scene that uses all Shakespearean dialogue.

And there’s a lot of weird stuff that didn’t end up in the movie. That’s the other thing.

Oh, I bet.

At one point there was a big musical number in the movie. And some of it works in the context of what he’s trying to achieve as a film and a story, and some of it doesn’t. I think in the editing process it becomes evident to him what stuff is playing, and what stuff isn’t.

Adam McKay has been very vocal on where he stands and how he feels about George Bush and Dick Cheney. But, I could see someone who likes Dick Cheney going, “Yep. He did what he had to do.” Does that make sense?

It does. And I think Adam is aware of that. Adam actually, I think, was hoping that that was the case. He references the movie Patton as sort of a template.

Oh, that’s interesting.

Some people will go see the movie Patton and say, “Well, that guy was crazy, and what a megalomaniac. That’s all insanity.” And other people will see the movie Patton and say, “Oh, well, there’s an American hero for you.” Again, it’s all context. It’s all how you’re coming at the information. And I think you’re right, I think that could very well happen. He’s done a bunch of Q & A sessions and test screenings, and there are a fair number of Republicans who quite liked it and said, “Yep. That’s what happened. That’s true.”

Oh wow.

Adam is very brave. I really feel like he isn’t afraid of backlash and has a really specific vision as to what he wants to achieve in a film. And that’s pretty great. Whether you like his political leanings, you have to acknowledge the fact that he takes big swings when he’s doing a movie and I really appreciate that.

There’s no doubt he took a big swing here.

It’s always fun to do something that you’re a little afraid of, you know?

And the joke at the very end of Anchorman, about Brick joining the Bush administration, now has a payoff.

[Laughs] You know what? It’s so funny. That was brought to my attention just a week or two ago.

Paramount

Really?

I had never made that connection. And then after all of these years, yeah. It seems like it was pre-planned from 14 years ago.

It’s fantastic.

It was always in the cards. I was going to play Rumsfeld.

There’s even one scene, when Cheney is firing him, where you make Rumsfeld sort of just a little empathetic.

I mean, at the end of it all, he’s just a human being. And like most people, he has vulnerabilities, I’m assuming. And it’s really just, so much of it’s a best guess in terms of exactly how they are in private. But, we figured that would be an interesting turn, to feel a little bit of empathy, perhaps, towards somebody who you might not have expected to feel that way about.

And then one of your other movies, I interviewed Amy Ryan about Beautiful Boy and she said she almost didn’t take the role because she thought people would think of Michael and Holly on The Office. For the record, I didn’t think about that until after the movie was over.

Yeah, I really didn’t think people would make that connection, but I don’t watch The Office. You know, I mean, it’s something that we did years ago together. You don’t think about it continuing out there and people continuing to think about these characters and their connections. So, yeah, it didn’t really cross my mind. But, man, it was fun to work with her again.

She’s the best.

She’s so, so good. She is the best.

As far as an interviewer-interviewee relationship goes, I think she’s my favorite person to see. We have a shtick.

I completely agree. And she’s one of the loveliest people and one of the most talented. She just, she’s never not good. She’s always, I don’t know, she’s just somebody I really admire, both professionally and personally. She’s great.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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