Steve Carell Charts a Return to TV Comedy With ‘Space Force’

The Four Percent

As an actor, Steve Carell has shown remarkable elasticity.

He can be an outright dope, like the barely articulate Brick Tamland of “Anchorman,” or a lovable, misapprehended loser, like Michael Scott, his breakthrough role on “The Office.” Occasionally, he has been a sheer terror, like John E. du Pont, the murderous scion he played in “Foxcatcher.” They are characters that don’t share much more than the actor behind them, and reveal almost nothing about him.

For all his time as a film and TV star, Carell, 57, remains a bit of an enigma. Almost anyone who knows him will tell you that he’s a nice guy — dedicated husband and father; generous, friendly collaborator.

But it turns out he does sometimes get the slightest bit disgruntled, at least with himself. Listen closely and you may hear it, in the course of a conversation about the making of “Space Force,” when you ask him how he decided who he wanted Naird to be.

“I wanted to find a certain humanity,” Carell said, his gentle tone giving way to strident self-flagellation as he heard his own words. “God, it is so overused to say things like that when you’re talking about comedy. Ugh, shut up. ‘Rooted in humanity.’ Give me a break.” It was only a phone interview, but you could practically hear him rolling his eyes.

Then a calm returned to his voice as he assured himself: “But I think things resonate more if there’s an underlying earnestness to them,” he said.

It is a show that Carell knows will nonetheless be viewed through the lens of his previous sitcom. “We didn’t want to make the space version of ‘The Office,’” he said with a chuckle, “which is funny, because as soon as it was announced, that’s what everybody started calling it. But that was a conscious decision. We didn’t want to retrace our steps in any way.”

“Space Force” is also a window into Carell as a performer and creator — one who sees his successes somewhat differently than viewers do, who finds contentment in blank slates and who seems comfortable remaining elusive to his audience as long as his choices make sense to him.

He just doesn’t find it easy to talk about himself or to talk about why he can’t quite talk about himself. “It’s so weird to break down a show like this and talk about the components and preparation,” he said. “That doesn’t really matter to anybody except the actor. I just hope it plays.”

As he planned his next round of work, Carell said, “I just wanted to do something funny and silly and lighthearted. A straight-ahead comedy.”

“We just went out on a whim,” he said.

To build this new show, Carell wanted to re-team with Daniels, a creator of “King of the Hill” and “Parks and Recreation,” who had successfully adapted the British cringe comedy “The Office” into its kinder, more heartfelt American incarnation.

“If it were me,” Daniels explained, “I probably would have said, ‘I love the show — but I could do twice as many movies if I wasn’t on the show.’”

“It took like 10 years after it went off the air for people to fully embrace it,” Carell said of “The Office,” which never ranked higher than 41st in overall viewers for any of its nine seasons. “I’m telling you, nobody cared about it when it was on the air,” he said. “It had a core following of several hundred people.”

Though he and his co-stars enjoyed their time together on the show, Carell said that when he discusses its popularity with them now, “I think we’re all tickled by it for sure, but I don’t think any of us quite understand it.”

“The good thing is,” he added, “we had an appreciation for it while we were doing it.”

The endurance of “The Office” also means that Carell and Daniels will get asked about it when they talk publicly about “Space Force,” and they expect this. Naird, they said, is neither a floundering clone of Michael Scott nor Carell’s attempt to escape his association with his best-known character.

“Michael Scott is not a millstone around his neck,” Daniels said. “He’s a point of pride.”

As Daniels explained: “Michael Scott was a very mediocre leader who would do anything that anybody else suggested. All he cared about was being liked by other people.” Naird, by contrast, he said, “is a guy who’s had a lot of success, has a family, is a great leader and is very inflexible.”

Carell said he “wanted there to be a dignity to the character and not have him be a buffoon or a blowhard.” Rather than mock Naird for his deep attachment to the military, Carell said, “Whatever’s comedic about him would stem from other eccentricities, his inability to change and to adapt outside of this thing that has been such a strong part of his life.”

Carell isn’t naturally effusive about how he approaches his job. Asked about the specific choices that he made to play Naird — the precise, orthogonal way that he carries his body or the clenched way that he speaks — the revulsion momentarily crept back into his voice.

“The most boring thing is to hear an actor talk about process,” he said, mocking himself. “Oh, God, what was your process? Yuck.” In a more sincere tone, he continued: “That being said, yeah, I thought a lot about how this guy is.”

“You want there to be a public face to the character, that he shows to his subordinates and to his peers, and even those two things are different,” he explained, “and that’s juxtaposed with how he is around his wife and daughter.”

Rather than try to tie together the strands of the many different characters he has played, Carell pointed to his admiration for actors like Peter Sellers, the chameleonic star of films like “Being There” and “The Pink Panther.”

“He could play the broadest character while at the same time being completely human and relatable,” Carell said. “His Inspector Clouseau was just this side of a cartoon, and yet, it was a guy who was always trying to maintain a sense of dignity in the face of his own bumbling.”

The spirits of “Dr. Strangelove” and military comedies like “M*A*S*H*” and “Catch-22” are also palpable in “Space Force,” which Carell and Daniels have populated with a wide variety of bureaucratic foils for Naird, including an inscrutable chief scientist (John Malkovich) and a bullying military rival (Noah Emmerich), as well as a wife (Lisa Kudrow) and daughter (Diana Silvers) who complicate his life at home.

Malkovich, a two-time Oscar nominee making a rare foray into comedy, said that he could see Carell quietly striving to meet his own personal standards of perfection in their scenes together.

“He wants to get it really right,” Malkovich said. “I always had the feeling he maybe hears something and/or feels something, some secret tone or a hieroglyphic that he’s trying to get. I think he knows when he gets it, and I think he knows when he’s not quite getting what he wants. I don’t think it’s something, necessarily, that I or anybody else would know.”

Even if he could not fully comprehend Carell’s exacting approach to his work, “It’s good to be relentless in pursuit of something,” Malkovich said. “It’s good to keep after it.”

Carell explained that these kinds of atomic-level details were less crucial than whether “Space Force” strikes the right tone — one that laughs with its characters rather than at them. In saying so, he came perhaps the closest he would in the conversation to laying out a unified philosophy of what makes comedy work for him.

“You hope that you’ve set up the tone correctly, but you never know,” Carell said. He laughed as he continued, “Whenever I read or hear people talking about the struggle” — he sarcastically stretched out his pronunciation of the word — “of making a comedy or the nuts and bolts aspect of it, it’s just so sad to hear, any sort of angst that goes into comedy. It just should be a joy.”

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