Despicable Me - Steve Carell
Despicable Me - Steve Carell voices his character Gru © Universal Pictures

Steve Carell’s career has soared in the past 10 years, leading to starring roles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Get Smart, Dr Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, Date Night and Little Miss Sunshine. He also stars as Michael Scott on the American adaptation of Ricky Gervais’ popular TV series The Office.

In his new movie Despicable Me he voices the character of Gru, one of the world’s greatest super-villains who meets his biggest challenge when three children enter his life.

In most of the characters you play we see you as this great, deadpan comedian, and you’re so good at playing it straight and making it funny. Is Gru a different side of your sense of humor, where you do a crazy voice and go wild?

Despicable Me - Steve Carell
Gru (Steve Carell) uses a freeze ray to get to the front of the line © Universal Pictures

It’s fun to go wild. It’s interesting when you’re trying to create a character in animation, it’s really a communal effort and it’s not like I would just come in with a singular idea and start doing it.

I saw the artwork; I talked to the directors and the writers and got a sense for what they wanted. What’s great about it is that you do have the license to just go for it, and you trust that the editors and the directors will put in what’s necessary.

It’s fun to kind of mix and match and play around with different voices. This character’s accent was just ridiculous. What was great about this in particular was there was no impetus to do it correctly or within the lines, so we had a great freedom to fail, which I think is really liberating.

How was it finding the right tone, you play evil but you don’t want to have a scary voice.

Despicable Me - Steve Carell
Gru (Steve Carell) © Universal Pictures

That’s what we played around with a lot initially, and with the look of the character too. They wanted him to be a bit sinister looking, but also accessible, and that’s a very tricky line to walk.

We tried to do that with the voice as well, and that’s part of the reason we didn’t focus on one specific nationality.

I wanted it to sound sort of scary, but not really scary, mostly funny and silly, so that’s what I tried to keep in the back of mind. That underneath it all here was a guy, he doesn’t have a black heart, but he doesn’t have a heart of gold either, I’d say he has a heart of bronze. And he discovers that as the movie progresses.

Julie Andrews does the voice of you mom, and the whole relationship between the two of them reminded me of Tony Soprano and his mother, because she never appreciated what he did. Did you ever get a chance to meet her?

Despicable Me - Steve Carell
Gru (Steve Carell) and his minions try to steal a shrink ray © Universal Pictures

We’ve met a few times over the years. We actually went out to lunch together a few years ago just to talk and hang out. She’s someone that I’ve wanted to work with forever, I’m an enormous fan and it’s remarkable because she’s Julie Andrews. It’s such an overused word, but she is an icon. And she is so elegant and beyond what you would expect her to be, she lives up to every expectation.

I think she balked a little bit initially to play someone who is a little bit dark and mean and a little nasty, but even when she plays a character like that, the underpinning of goodness that she just can’t get away from (shows through) and you still like her.

Becoming a dad totally changes Gru, how did becoming a dad change you?

Despicable Me - Steve Carell and minions
Gru (Steve Carell) and his minions © Universal Pictures

I think one of the things I identified with in the script was that here’s a guy who has his life set up the way he’s accustomed to, and then is introduced to these three little girls who essentially turn his life upside down, they change all of his patterns, they change everything about what he thinks is important, and I think generally speaking that happens when everyone has kids. Everything changes.

For me all of my career goals, all of my focus, everything just shifted and what was important was my children and that’s where all the joy came from as well. I think that’s what’s kind of touching about the character too, is that it doesn’t change him but it taps into a part of him that was always there that he didn’t know about, which I think is what happens when you have kids.

The news is that the seventh season of The Office will be your last on the show. Why is now the time to move on?

My contract has always been for seven seasons, and I just feel like now is the time for my character to move ahead. And I have no doubt that the show will continue to be really strong. I think it might actually be a benefit to the show, because anytime you shift the dynamic of a show like that, great things can happen and you can find new avenues to explore.

I look at it as just one piece of an ensemble drifting off. I was actually surprised that anybody thought it was any sort of big deal, because I think the ensemble is what to me was always important about the show.

Do you have any idea how you would like Michael to move on in the show?

There was one (episode) where Stanley and I waited in line for pretzels the entire show. It was pretzel day in the office and all we did was stand in line and wait and talk about what kind of pretzels we were going to get. I love those moments, so I would be inclined to make it a more subtle and simple departure as opposed to any big, very special episode


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.