Steve Carell takes on the darkest role of his career as the disturbed — and eventually murderous — millionaire heir John du Pont in Foxcatcher. But there are still humorous moments in Bennett Miller’s onscreen tragedy, moments clearly informed by Carell’s background in comedy.
The film is based on du Pont’s involvement with two ’80s-era Olympic champion wrestlers, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). The brothers are lured at different times to du Pont’s estate. Mark Schultz eventually flees while David stays with his wife, Nancy, and their two children — a disastrous decision that ends in David’s murder (hardly a spoiler, since the true story has been told many times). Du Pont was convicted for killing David and died in 2010 while serving his sentence.
Carell’s performance as a lonely, troubled eccentric has generated Oscar buzz for the actor. While casting Foxcatcher, Miller had Carell on a short list, which initially baffled the 52-year-old star, best known for his comedic roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman, Despicable Me, and TV’s The Office. But Miller, who directed Philip Seymour Hoffman to an Academy Award for 2005’s Capote, saw Carell as someone who could inhabit the delusional du Pont.
With Foxcatcher heading to theaters this weekend, Yahoo Movies caught up with Carell to discuss his much-lauded role:
Bennett Miller is open about the fact that, while tragic, there’s something darkly comic and absurd about this story. What’s the most absurd John du Pont fact you learned while filming that didn’t make the film?
He was buried in a wrestling singlet.
How did taking on the role of someone who is so clearly disturbed affect you personally?
I can’t say that it affected me personally. I think that implies that there was something wrong as I was shooting. I think we all felt that there was an obligation, and I think we all had a respect for the story and for the people who were involved, because a lot of those people were there.
Mark Schultz was there for quite a bit of time and Nancy Schultz visited set a few times. I think we all agreed that that was the most palpable thing about shooting was that there was a darkness. There was a soberness to what we were doing, but I don’t think it adversely affected any of us.
I read that you respectfully declined meeting Nancy while filming. Why is that?
I actually remember it differently. I introduced myself. I didn’t want to have a long involved conversation with her when she was there. I just thought that would be strange. And it wasn’t because I was in character, I just wanted to be respectful of her and I can only imagine how difficult it was for her to be there in the first place.
On that day, I briefly met her and said, ‘Hi’, and thanked her for being there. And then later at the hotel when I wasn’t dressed as du Pont, we chatted for a while and I just felt like that was a better moment to connect with her than on set in all of that makeup and looking like this man for whom I’m sure she has some very, very deep feelings.
When you took the prosthetic nose and makeup off at night, were you able to shed the character with it?
Yeah. It’s so hard to talk about because it’s so easy to sound really pretentious about the process and the acting of it. So in that way it’s difficult for me to discuss because it all sounds so actor-y and full of itself.
There was a state of mind I feel we all were in when we were shooting the movie, and at the end of the day, everyone would go home, go back to their rooms — at least I would — and I didn’t socialize with anyone. I didn’t hang out with Channing and Mark. I didn’t get to know them very well.
It was a very somber time and we all chose for it to be that way. Bennett definitely established that as a tone. There wasn’t any great deal of levity or cheerfulness there, or small talk. It was mostly work-based.
We always sort of stayed in the mindset, whether we were in character or not … we always stayed within the realm of what we were doing. Because it’s a hard thing to pop in and out of and try to keep truthful and honest.
Did you speak with any of the du Ponts by any chance or other people who know John du Pont?
I didn’t. Out of the blue — and this was way after we shot, just a few months ago — I was shopping at Target and a man introduced himself to me as a distant-cousin du Pont. He was asking me questions about the film and specifically about certain Christmas traditions that the du Ponts had and was wondering whether we used those in the film.
He was very nice and was just curious. Again, he introduced himself as a du Pont. I don’t know if he was necessarily. But no, I didn’t have any contact with the family [while filming].
Did this film change your perspective on anything?
It made me feel differently about the kinds of films I’d like to make. Because Bennett is such a good director and the way this movie seems to be resonating with a lot of people is very rewarding. Just the experience of doing it was exciting and challenging and … I feel like you learn a lot about yourself when you do something that’s outside of your comfort zone.
I talked to Mark about this. Mark Ruffalo. When you put yourself out there on a limb and you really don’t know if it’s going to work or not but you’re taking a chance, that’s a really exhilarating thing to do. That’s what I learned about. Like the one percenters. I think there are many themes in the movie and that’s one of them. About wealth and power and how it can corrupt and it can confuse and it can isolate and it certainly insulated this human being from a reality and it’s tragic. I think it’s a very, very sad, tragic story about these men.
What was your most challenging day filming?
They were all pretty challenging. Probably the first day because I never worked with Bennett before. I wasn’t sure how he worked. I wasn’t sure whether he was the type of director who would want scenes to be done exactly as scripted and exactly as rehearsed and whether he was very button down that way.
And he wasn’t. He was just the opposite. He was very encouraging of exploration and having the actors challenge themselves and challenge the scene and challenge each other. We pulled the scenes apart and put them back together and he explored with us and as clear a vision as he had about the movie, he was very much a partner and a collaborator. I think going in not knowing how that was going to be, what that experience with him would be and then sort of understanding a language with him and with each other, it became — I wouldn’t say easier — but it started to expand and the experience started to expand the further we got into it.
There was one scene with you and Channing Tatum in the helicopter on the way to the high-society party. Specifically the end of that scene seems like it was improvised. How much improvising happened?
There was quite a bit. Sometimes we’d improvise and sometimes if we’d start with the dialogue that was written. We’d improvise and we’d learn something about the scene and come back to the dialogue as written. Sometimes we would rewrite bits and pieces of the dialogue. Sometimes we would just improvise the scene. Sometimes there was no dialogue and we would improvise dialogue that hadn’t been there before.
The helicopter scene, Bennett just opened it up and let us take some runs at it. I think it’s a critical scene because Mark, Channing’s character is clearly [confronted with] a fork in the road. He was being enticed to go down one way. I think it’s important that way and it’s heightened because there are drugs involved and it has a different tonality than the scenes leading up to it. So Bennett just let us loose with it and we improvised a few lines of that.
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