No judging: Steve Carell discusses marriage, Meryl Streep, ‘Hope Springs’ — and his historical obsession

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

Can Steve Carell do "deep" as marriage counselor Dr. Feld in "Hope Springs"? Yes! It turns out the "Office" star is no 40-year-old virgin when it comes to discussing sex and intimacy with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as unhappy marrieds. When I asked "Devil Wears Prada" director David Frankel why he cast Carell, Frankel said: "I looked at the full range of Steve's performance in 'The Office' -- he can always find the pathos in Michael Scott. No one could do that without deep compassion. He is Dr. Feld in real life."

Thelma Adams: So, Steve, what drew you to this project?

Steve Carell: Here was a movie with Meryl Streep attached inviting me to be a part of it. Buy me a plane ticket!

TA: What was it like working with her?

SC: She brings such a joy to acting. She lived up to every expectation. She would try new things. After this incredible career, there's no resting on laurels whatsoever.

TA: Did you get any acting tips?

SC: I gave her a lot of tips.

TA: You play a marriage counselor, and she's your patient. What insight did you bring to this role?

SC: My intent was to have a guy who is nonjudgmental and earnest to a fault. To me that is what a therapist is about, creating an environment of comfort and enabling people to open up…

TA: …in a safe space.

SC: In a very safe environment. That was all I wanted to achieve, because the movie is not about me. I'm there to assist this couple and to help them try to connect the dots.

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TA: Have you ever seen a marriage counselor?

SC: No, I never have, but I spoke to counselors.

TA: Did you have a model for Dr. Feld?

SC: I modeled him after one man in particular who had that voice and demeanor. One of the things I loved best about him was that he wore sandals and white socks, but it almost seemed like too much of a character type.

TA: What did you discover?

SC: Every therapist has a different approach. The approach that I was taking was that this guy isn't there to solve your problems. He's there to open up lines of communication that may have been dormant for a long time. There's no eye rolling. My character doesn't comment on any part of what they're saying in any sort of judgmental way, which to me was a real challenge because so much of comedy is that taking it in and formulating an opinion about what you're hearing.

TA: And responding.

SC: And responding. With this character, you're taking out that formulating a personal opinion. It's all about committing to helping these people open up to each other.

TA: Although I think this is part of the problem in couples therapy. I've been married 25 years...

SC: Seventeen today.

TA: Congratulations!

SC: We're doing all right. [knocks wood on coffee table]

TA: To have a roommate, much less a soulmate, for 17 years, 25 years, or 31 years like Kay and Arnold in the movie, is not easy. I do think that marriage counselors tend to have their favorite within the couple. Do you think that was the case with this character?

SC: No.

TA: I would say yes.

SC: Well, certainly not consciously.

TA: Because Streep's Kay is so much more sympathetic.

SC: Yes. But I think that that's also kind of a trap to fall into, because in the mind of my character, Jones's Arnold is a harder nut to crack. It's clear from the get-go that he was the one who was dragged there. She was the one who was already cognizant of the fact that there was a problem, so he was the one who needed to be focused on, and was more work.

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TA: So, he's the therapeutic challenge

SC: He's more of a challenge. They both are a challenge, because you can't deny the fact that she's there, but she doesn't know how to go about it. She needs to be let out, and led along as well. It's not as if I looked at the two of them and thought: OK, you're way ahead of the curve. I don't need to worry about you. I tried to look at them as a package. The last thing you want the therapist to do is take sides.

TA: I was laughing with my husband this week because we moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York, and there's always something wrong with the house. I said, "Honey, I love you, and the reasons I married you 25 years ago have nothing to do with fixing the septic system."

SC: Mm hmm. [murmurs therapeutically]

TA: Do you find that's the case with you and your wife, Nancy? After 17 years, you've figured out how to do a mortgage together, you've had two children…

SC: You assume different roles. My wife has somehow become the technical guru. We're equally inept, but in terms of anything to do with technology, she has assumed the role of the technician, only because when things have gone wrong, she has fixed them. There are other roles that I have taken on.

TA: Such as…

SC: Such as the deep cleaning of the house, the removal of years of clutter -- that falls under my job description. When we really need to purge and organize things, I'm the one.

TA: On the career front, what's the story with the Charlie Kaufman script about the Hollywood awards mill, "Frank or Francis"? Are they holding off because they need a window between your current projects for you to star? Were you too busy?

SC: No, that wasn't it. I was completely available. I don't know the particulars. I hope it happens because it's a great script.

TA: That's what I've heard. Kaufman is crazy and crazy brilliant.

SC: I worked with him years ago on "The Dana Carvey Show." So I've known him for a long time. I hope that comes together.

TA: Do I have to launch a Kickstarter campaign?

SC: [laughs] I hope it happens.

TA: And what's happening with "Anchorman 2"?

SC: We shot the trailer. We have not seen a script. We just want to do another one. It was like riding a bike. The four of us put on our costumes and characters.

TA: It's you, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner…

SC: I know we're going to have fun.

TA: Now, returning to your deep and dark history: You were a historical re-enactor, right?

SC: I was a fife player in a re-created British regiment called the 10th Regiment of Foot. I grew up in Massachusetts, and there was a unit that would re-create April 19, 1775, the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War. My brother played the drums, and I played the fife. We were kids, and it was fun to be part of the fife-and-drum corps. And then I got more involved with the historical aspect of it. I ended up becoming a history major, so it did appeal to me on that level. I was fascinated by the true historical aspects of it all.

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TA: It interests me that in this age of technology, so many people still get involved in re-enactment. It's so endearingly unhip.

SC: Totally unhip. It's like living history. You go to Colonial Williamsburg, and these people are walking around, and they're showing how life was. As a kid, what was interesting to me was people in character. They're kind of doing a play, but they were in public. It was like theater in a sense but…

TA: It's also role-playing because they have the facts, but they're improvising based on who walks into the frame…

SC: Right. It was like historical role-playing and certainly not a hip or sexy thing to be a part of, but I loved playing fife-and-drum music. I still like it. There's something kind of haunting to it to me.

TA: Well, I'm glad we could create a safe space for you to discuss this little-known obsession. No judging.

See Steve Carell in this clip of 'Hope Springs':

'Hope Springs' Clip: Next Step