No Stunt Hair Necessary

Photo courtesy Comedy CentralFor a guy whose debut as a comedy leading man is as a mild-mannered electronics store worker with zero experience in the sack, Steve Carell managed to get Hollywood into bed with him pretty easily. “I was thinking of fish-out-of-water scenarios, and the pitch was a group of guys telling raunchy sex stories,” the 42-year-old actor explained recently during an interview at the Four Seasons. “Then one guy tries to tell his own, and it's quickly apparent he's not only a bad storyteller, he's never had sex. Like, 'You know how when you reach under their skirt, it's like baby powder?' And the other characters are saying, 'What?'”

Hearing the idea was writer-producer Judd Apatow, then working on the Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman, where it was becoming clearer every day, with Carell's uproarious, scene-stealing performance as infantile weatherman Brick Tamland, that the actor was a resource to be tapped. Apatow's response was immediate: “He said, 'I could get on the phone and sell that this afternoon.'”

Everything about The 40-Year-Old Virgin, from concept to script to production, happened so fast that Carell—who only shot his first movie a few years ago, as the TV newscaster hilariously tongue-tied by Jim Carrey's Bruce Almighty—is a little awestruck. “It's all surreal,” he says, a golly-jeepers tone entering his voice. “This was just something I thought might be potentially amusing.”

Apatow, who calls Carell “the nicest man on earth who just happens to be freaking hilarious,” says his collaborator and star hardly behaved like someone with a movie being built around him. “If he didn't drink for 11 hours, he wouldn't even ask for a glass of water,” says Apatow. “He's going to be a huge star, but he's also making sure the casting director he hired likes him, so that if the movie bombs she'll hire him next year in someone else's movie.”

Befuddlement has suited Carell well, from his priceless tenure on The Daily Show(as one of its oblivious jackass correspondents) to Virgin's wallflower Andy, a portrait of modern male romantic haplessness perfectly in line with the zeitgeisty rise of screen boobs Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller. On the subject of inspiration, Carell cites the bawdy-yet-sweet movies he and Apatow had in mind when writing the script—The Graduate, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, There's Something About Mary—while noting that Apatow also thought of Virginas a latter-day episode of his brilliant-but-canceled high school series Freaks and Geeks. “We wanted the audience to be able to identify with this guy, care about him, as opposed to just laughing at everything,” says Carell. “It needed to be grounded and real. We weren't trying to make Porky's, but we weren't making Shoah, either.”

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Today Carell is sporting a blue blazer—hardly the uniform of the next big comedy thing—but it's his clean-cut, middle-management vibe that gives the Massachusetts-born Carell a great starting point for his unhinged characters. It's how he's made the NBC version of The Office(the second season of which he's shooting now) his own, and why he was perfectly pegged to star in the upcoming Get Smartremake. He had even wanted to be an attorney, but a stint at Second City in Chicago, where he sharpened the improvisation skills that have awed those who work with him, made him a performance lifer. He also reveres his time at The Daily Show, a gig his pal Stephen Colbert got for him. “The best thing about that was having the opportunity to fail on a nightly basis,” he says. “If something didn't work—no harm, no foul. You tried again the next night.”

In movies, though, sometimes one take is all you get, and in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the scene sure to be treasured most by connoisseurs of gonzo comedy—albeit less for its laughworthiness than for its masochism—features Andy dabbling in a bit of metrosexualism by getting his chest waxed by an Asian aesthetician. “There was no stunt hair,” says the hirsute Carell, who insisted—for the sake of the gag—that cameras film him really going through with it, complete with hilarious impromptu cursing and the nauseated looks of co-stars Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Romany Malco. “Once she started spreading the warm wax on with that popsicle stick, I thought, 'This might have been an ill-informed choice on my part.'” The sacrificial ripping stopped at the point where the hairless sections formed a crude smiley face; Carell then had to go home to his wife, fellow Daily Showalumna Nancy Walls. “She was slightly horrified. She actually made me go to bed with a T-shirt on for several weeks after that.”

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