In Foxcatcher, Steve Carell portrays John du Pont, the hyper-intelligent and troubled heir to the du Pont chemical fortune. In real life, du Pont was a man of many mysteries, who latched onto the sport of wrestling and eventually provided housing and training for the U.S. Olympic team at his Pennsylvania estate. Du Pont died in jail in 2001, while serving a sentence for the murder of wrestler and coach Dave Schultz, whom he gunned down on the property in 1996.
If you choose to delve a little deeper into du Pont’s story, you’ll come away with a tale that’s both tragic and sadly familiar, a portrait of what can happen when wealth and mental illness land on an ill-fated crash course. In the film, directed by Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), du Pont is a perplexing force to be reckoned with. And Carell delivers the most disturbing performance of the year, flanked by costars Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, who give humanizing life to Dave and his brother Mark, respectively. As a whole, Foxcatcher is tense, tightly wound, and stunning in its ability to unnerve. “It’s unrelenting, and it’s unapologetic,” Carell said in a recent interview with The Santa Barbara Independent. “It doesn’t make it easy for an audience.”
Throughout the industry, Carell is often referred to as The Nicest Man in Hollywood. And in conversation, he’s about as humble and affable as they come. Needless to say, if acting awards were doled out based on transformation alone, Carell’s trophy case would currently runneth over.
On Friday, February 6, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival honors Carell with its distinguished Outstanding Performer of the Year award. Prior to the event, I caught up with Carell to discuss Foxcatcher, Oscar nods, and what happens after the role of a lifetime.
After watching the film, you almost can’t help but try to psychoanalyze this guy. How did you go about getting to the heart of what made du Pont tick? Oh, well, who knows whether you actually ever get close to getting to the heart of anything, really? You do your best. I did as much research as I could, and I talked to people that knew him and that had been coached by him and had worked for him, and I read his books, and I just tried to get a sense as best I could as to the kind of guy he was. Bennett and I talked about it, too, because there were certain aspects of his personality that you couldn’t put in a movie. It wouldn’t have worked in terms of the narrative that Bennett was creating. I think some of the incidents that were documented were so strange that people might have thought they were made up.
How did you come to the role? I got a call. My agent had seen the script and had contacted Bennett and had suggested me, but I knew nothing about it until I heard from Bennett himself. He sent me the script, and I read it, and we met and discussed it for a few hours over lunch, and that was the beginning. I was vaguely familiar with the story, but I didn’t know it very well — I didn’t know the specifics of it at all. Once we started discussing it, it grew more and more interesting, and the relationships seemed fascinating. It’s a tragedy — it’s a Greek tragedy, I think — and the way Bennett described how he saw the movie playing out got me very excited. But let’s face it: If you’re asked by someone like Bennett Miller to be in a movie, you just do it. There’s really not much of a question there. But it wasn’t something I pursued at all. It wasn’t the type of part that I was searching for necessarily. It just kind of came to me.
What was your experience balancing that persona with your normal day-to-day life? Boy, it’s so hard to talk about stuff like that because you run the risk of sounding incredibly pretentious. You would hope that you could just separate the two and essentially look at it as a job where you don’t want to bring your work home. I think people do that in all lines of work. If there’s something stressful or there’s something going on, you try as best as you can not to bring it home, because it impacts on your family.
But at the same time, it can’t be easy to turn that off. I can’t imagine going home and doing the whole, “Honey, how was your day?” thing. It is difficult. There was a somber feeling on set. It was not lighthearted in any way: There was no joking around; there was no levity. I think everyone took it very seriously, in great part because it was a true story. Out of respect, everyone approached it with a degree of seriousness and tried to have as much grace with it as we could. [Dave’s wife] Nancy Schultz was there, and [Dave’s brother] Mark Schultz was there for a good deal of the time, and that added to the weight that we were all sensing. It was important to try to get it as right as we could and to not be cavalier about it in any way.
How did Dave’s family react to the film? I think it’s such a personal thing that I wouldn’t want to presume how they reacted individually. They were very proud, I think. That’s the sense that I got. You can’t take a victory lap after a movie like this because no one really comes out ahead. It’s intrinsically a very, very sad story. I hope they feel that we did it justice. It’s difficult because it is a movie and it reflects their lives, but it isn’t an exact depiction of their lives. But I think in understanding that, they support it. They were so gracious all the way though. And all the people that had been there — either the Foxcatcher wrestlers or people that knew du Pont — those we spoke to were very gracious with their time and made an effort to be helpful and forthcoming and supportive. It was nice in that way.
You’ve reached the point in your career where people are coming to you with projects like this, where, for all intents and purposes, you don’t have to work and you can choose your roles … [Laughs.] I can be snobby about it.
[Laughs.] Kind of. But at this point in the game, what gets you excited about a project? I feel spoiled right now. After working on something like this, I feel like other experiences pale in comparison because Bennett is such a good director and, I think, makes really good movies. I’m proud to be in it. I won’t say it was fun, because that’s a strange experience to say was enjoyable, but it was really challenging, and it was a very worthwhile experience for me.
Going forward, though? I have no idea. I think everyone hopes they can be a part of good things. I love being a part of a good ensemble. That’s something that’s always been a draw to me. I like to be around people who are in it for the team, who believe it’s the sum of the parts. That’s always where I feel the most comfortable. And to be a part of interesting stories and stories that matter to people and affect people and move people in a certain way or make them laugh.
But I don’t know. You’re always on the lookout for something good, and you just never know. You can read things and think, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ and then in the execution maybe it’s not, but you take your best shot, and you take chances on things. I guess that’s where I am right now; I think I want to take chances and not be too precious about what the next thing is. I’ve never taken a part or done a play or a movie or a TV show in order to impress upon anyone a sense of who I am. That’s a long way of saying it, but I’m not so concerned about what people’s perceptions are of me. I think if you take chances and take risks, you may fall on your face, but conversely the upside is much bigger. That’s exciting for me.
Did you feel like playing du Pont was a huge leap for you? It was scary, but I wouldn’t use the term “leap.” I consider myself an actor. I figured I’m being offered this part; a director is convinced I’m the right person for this part. As an actor, I’m supposed to be able to play different kinds of parts. It’s not something that I had done, but it wasn’t completely out of my wheelhouse. I have acted before. [Laughs.] Not to sound jerky about it, because it was scary, but I don’t know if it was such a crazy extension of what I’ve done up until this point.
What are you going to do if you win the Academy Award? [Laughs.] That is honestly the furthest thing from my mind, and this sounds really corny, but I am so happy that I got nominated. I really am. I didn’t expect to be, and it was such a shock and an honor. I tend to set the bar low for myself in terms of such things. [Laughs.] I think it’s always much better to be happy and content and appreciative with what’s going on in the moment, so I’m just going to enjoy this. This is pretty great. But I will probably stammer like I am right now. I can’t even imagine something like that happening.
Steve Carell receives SBIFF’s Outstanding Performer of the Year Award at the Arlington Theatre on Friday, February 6, at 8 p.m. For more info, visit sbiff.org.