‘Life’ Lessons: Comedy Standout Steve Carell Is At Home With Dramatic Roles, Too

While Steve Carell has won raves for his uproarious comedy antics in “The Office” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” for the past couple of years, it shouldn’t prevent the talented actor from experiencing a bit of a real life once in a while.

After all, Carell has proven that he can add a bit of raw human emotion to his portrayals with his memorable turn in “Little Miss Sunshine,” and he does it again as the star of the recent romantic comedy-drama “Dan in Real Life.”

Carell said in a recent interview that audience members shouldn’t assume that he’s making a concerted effort to do more “serious” fare. Basically, when he’s looking for new projects, Carell is attracted to the material that he finds most interesting, whether it’s comedy or drama — or both.

“I can’t say that I’ve ever been too predetermined in my career,” Carell said in observation of his roles. “I don’t think I make conscious decisions to do either a broader comedy or smaller film or a subtle comedy. At this point I just want to do things that might be entertaining and fun to do.”

Carell plays Dan, a newspaper advice columnist and widowed father of three outspoken girls, whose solitary life takes a sudden turn for the better when he finds a romantic spark with Marie (Juliette Binoche) at bookstore while vacationing in his hometown.

But when Dan and Marie unexpectedly meet again a short time later at his parents’ house — where she is introduced to the family as his brother Mitch’s (Dane Cook) girlfriend — it introduces a problem the two must eventually confront.

Fortunately, Carell said, he’s never faced Dan’s quandary in his own “real life.”

“I can’t say that I used any personal experience to create that part of the character — but I can understand it,” said Carell, who in real life has two children with his wife, actress Nancy Walls. “I certainly can understand what it must be like to have feelings for someone you shouldn’t have feelings for. And that’s a tricky situation.”

Carell felt that director and co-writer Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April”) handled the “tricky situation” smoothly for “Dan in Real Life,” and avoided any implications that Dan and Marie are conspiring to purposefully ruin other people’s lives.

“Marie and Dan are people who have an immediate connection but realize that it could potentially hurt other people, but they’re both good individuals,” Carell said. “That’s what’s important about them in this movie. They’re not doing it in disregard of other people or to spite other people. It’s an emotion and feeling that they can’t resist.”

Carell and Binoche establish that emotion immediately after they meet one another again at the Burns’ annual family gathering The amazing thing is, it’s not what’s said, but what’s not said that gives the scene its punch. It’s a beautifully awkward moment.

“I attribute that to Peter; he has a very good eye for the subtlety of a situation. One of the things I love about how he directed is how he allowed the movie to breathe,” Carell enthused. “I don’t feel like the dialogue tells you how people are feeling, but he allows the audience to feel it, as opposed to being told how to feel about it. He allows for pauses and moments to play out that aren’t necessarily verbal. I love that sort of stuff.”

Hardly ignoring Carell’s comedic talents, Hedges also allowed room for the actor to breathe life into “Dan” with some physical humor — including a hilarious bar dance floor scene with Binoche, Cook and co-star Emily Blunt. The irony was, the room to breathe nearly caused Carell to have a vapor lock.

“I was suffering from acute bronchitis during that scene, and I almost passed out while filming because of lack of breath,” Carell said with a laugh. “We only did two takes. I had no lung capacity at all. I think I was close to an asthmatic attack.”

Carell is billed as the lead in “Dan in Real Life,” but he doesn’t like to think of the movie as his and his alone. Much like his other projects, like “The Office” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” there’s plenty of room for every actor — including John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest (who play Dan’s parents) — to shine.

“This movie I saw as an ensemble and a family —  and I felt like that the actors Peter brought into the movie were so good and so nuanced and thoughtful, I just wanted to be a part of that world,” said Carell. “I didn’t want to stand out in any way or apart from anyone in the cast. I think everybody felt that. There was no one reaching beyond what the story dictated. It was a very comforting place to be. The light didn’t have to shine on anyone. It was about the whole unit as opposed to any one individual.”

In addition to his new season in “The Office,” fans can look forward to seeing Carell as Maxwell Smart in the big-screen adaptation of the classic Don Adams sitcom “Get Smart.” That film is scheduled to be released on June 20.

Before that, Carell is re-teaming with his “Bruce Almighty” co-star Jim Carrey for the big-screen computer-animated adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic book “Horton Hears a Who!” Carell voices the Mayor of Whoville, opposite Carrey’s Horton. “Horton Hears a Who” is due in theaters March 14.

Tim Lammers writes about movies for the Internet Broadcasting Network, which includes WNBC.com in New York, KNBC.com in Los Angeles and NBC5.com in Chicago.