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How Steve Carell Created a Character Without Humor in ‘Foxcatcher’

Cannes 2014: “I don’t think characters know if they’re in a comedy or a drama,” says the actor of his transformation in Bennett Miller’s rich film

Steve Carell goes through the most remarkable transformation of his career in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” in which the guy known as a funnyman doesn’t look like himself and doesn’t act like anything we’ve seen from him in the past. As chemical heir John du Pont, whose murder of wrestling coach Dave Schultz is chronicled in the film, Carell does get some laughs – but they’re laughs at his character’s social awkwardness, and they turn dark and deadly as the movie goes on.

“It obviously doesn’t resemble anything he’d ever done before,” said Miller at a Cannes Film Festival press conference that followed the rapturously-received first screening of the film. “It was so far outside his comfort zone … and I’d never seen Steve do anything that would give any material evidence that he could do that.

“But we just talked, and I saw how he had a vision for the character. And I thought, He can do it. It might hurt, but he will get there.”

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Carell, though, didn’t admit that it hurt. “I think it’s really the same approach you take to a comedy,” he said. “I don’t think characters in films know if they’re in a comedy or a drama. They’re just characters in films. So I didn’t approach it as a drama, necessarily. It was just a story, and a character within a story.”

Still, du Pont is a distinctive character – an enormously wealthy but tightly coiled and socially inept man who for some reason becomes fixated on turning part of his estate into a training camp for Olympic wrestlers, beginning with 1984 gold medalists Dave and Mark Schultz (played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, both of them beefed up for the roles).

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“I remember in rehearsal one day, I asked [Steve] to imagine what life would be like if he did not have a sense of humor,” said Miller, who then turned to Carell. “Do you remember that you said?”

“I do not,” said Carell.

“I saw you go to a dark place, and you said, ‘No, I cannot imagine it.'”

But Carell researched and imagined du Pont with vivid detail; his performance might be the showiest and most surprising part of a quiet but multi-layered and richly detailed drama in which, in Miller’s words, “there’s a lot of American male repressed non-communication happening in this story.”

At the press conference, Chaz Ebert asked Miller to talk about working with actors who completely disappear into their characters, mentioning Carell and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar for his role in the Miller-directed “Capote.” The director deflected the question for a while, passing it off to others, then reluctantly began to answer.

“I’m avoiding the question, because it makes me emotional,” he said, visibly choking up. “To work with actors who are willing to put faith in you, you have to be grateful for the rest of your life.”

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For Carell’s part, the actor said he read a lot about du Pont and his family, and also listened to recordings and watched videos – as the film depicts, du Pont liked to commission documentaries about himself.

“You can do all sorts of research, and listen to somebody’s voice and watch them and figure out who they are, but ultimately you forget about all of that,” he said. “None of it felt like an acting exercise. It felt like a different experience, and I give Bennett the credit for that.”

But the transformation, which involved extensive makeup, also led to at least one awkward moment on the set, when he met Dave Schultz’s real-life wife while dressed as her husband’s murderer. (The real du Pont was convicted of third-degree murder and died in prison.)

“When I met Nancy [Schultz] for the first time, I didn’t meet her as myself,” he said. “I met her in character, which was a bit awkward. It was incredibly emotional, obviously, and she was very giving and understanding of what we were trying to do.

“But it was an overwhelming experience for me as well, to meet her in character and talk to her that way. It was much better for me to talk to her later, when I wasn’t in character.”