Carell Gets Past First Base

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 21, 2005

VAN NUYS, Calif. They're taping an upcoming fall episode of "The Office," the NBC sitcom about the life of your average white-collar cubicle rat, trapped in some Dilbertian nightmare, harassed by the clueless boss, the character played by Steve Carell. Executive producer Greg Daniels watches the monitor as Carell bounds into the scene, clutching a fleshy, life-size, inflatable female doll. The setup is that the employees are in the middle of a seminar about sexual harassment.

"Steve has just grown so much as an actor," Daniels says. He is not being ironic.

A few nights earlier, at a press screening of his new movie, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," in which the former fake newsman from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" makes his debut as leading man, there is a scene in which the Carell character, Andy Stitzer, is trying to break his decades-long losing streak, and is in bed tearing through a carton of candy-colored prophylactics, trying to figure out how to put one on. The audience is bent over, working to get oxygen into its lungs between the spasms of laughter. The movie, co-written by Carell, opened nationwide on Friday, and the industryites at Universal Studios are crossing their manicured fingers, hoping they have a summer hit in the R-rated romp and that Carell is going to pop big and become a comedy brand, like a Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller.

So there are expectations this weekend, people.

This seems to make Carell anxious. Sitting in his trailer behind the soundstage where they're taping "The Office," eating his lunch of broccoli florets and seared meats, he is as polite as a mortician, though he seems slightly stunned with the rapid acceleration of his career, as if he just traded in the family Dodge minivan (he's got two young kids) and is now behind the wheel of a Ferrari F430 Spider.

"I guess, naturally, I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop," he says. "Never believing in the success that comes my way. Maybe it's just a way to protect myself."

From what? "Oh, I don't know. Crushing bitter disappointment?"

You know, they say every joke contains a kernel of truth.

Later, Carell confesses he has a backup plan if this all doesn't work out. He'll teach history and coach a few sports at a prep school back east, like the one he attended, the upper-crusty Middlesex in Massachusetts (average SAT score: 1,320).

About this, he is not kidding. "I think it unwise not to have a backup plan." Then he blinks. "It would be very fulfilling." The high school thing. "And something I hope I'll never have to do."

* * *

Jon Stewart answers the telephone.

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