Steve Carell made his name with comedic roles: The former star of “The Office” has mostly stuck to lighter fare like “Anchorman” and “Despicable Me,” with the occasional appearance in a feel-good indie dramedy like “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The Way, Way Back.” Now, Carell is set to make the biggest departure of his career, portraying the true story of millionaire heir-turned-schizophrenic murderer John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.”
So far, “Foxcatcher” is the biggest standout at Cannes, and the positive critical reception has led to the year’s first Oscar buzz, for none other than “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Looking at the promotional materials for “Foxcatcher,” you might not even realize that Carell is in the film. Exaggerated prosthetics hide his most recognizable features, and the comedian seemingly drains himself of all his trademark charm to portray du Pont and his increasingly twisted quest to build an Olympic wrestling team out of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). In his scenes in the trailer, Carell convincingly conveys a man who is steadily becoming unhinged.
It’s a risky move to cast a comedian as a tormented figure like du Pont (who died in prison in 2010), and even when Carell flirted with Michael Scott’s darker side on “The Office,” he never seemed this genuinely disturbed. By all accounts, though, the gambit seems to have paid off. The Telegraph calls “Foxcatcher” a “swirling, smoke-black parable of modern America,” and outlets like Variety, the Wire and the Guardian have speculated that Carell is a sure shot for an Academy Award for his performance. It’s still unclear whether distributor Sony Pictures will submit him for consideration as a supporting or a leading actor.
Miller, whose past two films “Capote” and “Moneyball” both earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, acknowledges that the film plays against type for Carell, but says subverting audience’s expectations is a crucial part of his performance.
"Everyone's description of du Pont, and I spoke to more than a dozen people who knew him, was that he was benign, nobody could believe he would do what he ended up doing," Miller told the LA Times in an interview at Cannes.
"When you're casting a murderer, I have no interest in putting a guy in there who on first glimpse you know is going to kill somebody,” he continued. “You want someone where you don't believe it until it happens, where the shock of it coming from this character is what is meaningful."
For his own part, Carell says he studied du Pont extensively, not a difficult feat considering that the multimillionaire commissioned documentaries about his own exploits. To prepare for the role, Carell stayed in character for long periods of time, something he likely never had to do for “The Office.” At a press conference at Cannes, Carell recalled that the first time he ever met Nancy Schultz, real-life widow of Dave Schultz, he was in character as the man who murdered her husband.
American audiences have to wait until November to catch Carell’s transformative performance, but Sony has offered a glimpse in the teaser trailer for “Foxcatcher” below.