Like its subject matter, “The Big Short” is hard to describe. Based on Michael Lewis’s best-selling 2010 nonfiction book about a small group of money managers who made millions by betting against the housing market during the subprime mortgage crisis, the film is part comedy and part drama. It even includes tongue-in-cheek documentary segments featuring Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath) explaining to the camera abstruse concepts of high finance.
Directed by Adam McKay (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”), the film features an ensemble cast led by Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell as Mark Baum, an amusingly abrasive yet self-righteous character based on real-life money manager Steve Eisman. We spoke with Carell recently about the nature of satire and defying expectations.
Q: I heard an interesting comment from a viewer after a screening of “The Big Short.” She said she felt like throwing up. I’m not sure if she meant it as a compliment, but I wonder if it can be taken as one.
A: I think anyone involved with the movie would take that as a compliment. Certainly Adam McKay. If not vomit-inducing, he described it to me as it would be some sort of gut punch at the end. I think that’s great.
Q: What is the intended response? Outrage to the point of nausea? Laughter? Emotional connection with the characters?
All of those responses are terrific. That’s what Adam had in mind. When I first met him, he said first and foremost that he wanted it to be entertaining. It’s very dry material and very complicated. He didn’t want it to become a two-hour lecture on subprime mortgages.
Q: Except, perhaps, as delivered by Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez?
It makes the medicine go down a little more easily.
Q: Can you explain, in 25 words, what a synthetic collateralized debt obligation is?
I go back to — and this is in the movie, where it’s being described to me what a synthetic CDO is — which is that you have CDO-A, and then you have CDO-B. And they both get pooled together as CDO-C, which is known as CDO squared, or a synthetic CDO. That’s how it was explained to me.
Q: A bit more than 25 words, but impressive.
What’s so funny is that I read the book, and then I almost immediately had to go back and reread portions of it again. It’s dense material. What I came away from the movie with is that you don’t really have to understand all of the minutiae, if you get the emotional arcs of these characters. It’s almost like watching a foreign movie and looking up from the subtitles and still getting it.
Q: Adam McKay really does understand all this stuff. In fact, isn’t he a little obsessed with it?
Oh, yeah. He understands it on a very deep level. We had financial advisers, we had people who knew this world inside and out whom we could ask questions of, all the way through. But Adam was just as adept at fielding questions as they were.
Q: Did you take advantage of the help?
Ryan [Gosling] and I actually went to a tutoring session. What’s tricky about this movie in particular is that Adam McKay likes to improvise, so unless you know a little bit about what you’re saying, you can’t improvise. You have to have a little bit of the language in your back pocket or you’re kind of sunk.
Q: You can’t fake it.
No. You can’t learn this stuff phonetically. On the other hand, I have a cursory knowledge of it. Talking to [Steve Eisman], he could lose me in a matter of minutes. Ryan’s character [Jared Vennett, based on hedge fund manager Greg Lippmann] points out that it is complicated for a reason: The whole world has been set up to put off lay people from understanding what’s going on. If you feel dumb, there’s a reason.
Q; The stock in trade of “The Daily Show,” where you spent five years, is that fine line between outrage and comedy. Did your experience on the show help you walk that fine line here?
I never actually made that connection, but I think you’re right. They’re very similar. You’re throwing stones and you’re indicting people, with a sly grin on your face.
Q: Give me an example of one of the film’s improvised moments.
I do remember Ryan saying, “I’m jacked to the tits,” which was not a scripted line. That just comes from the mind of Ryan Gosling. You have to put it in the movie. And, of course, you put it in the trailer. Most of the banter that my team had, almost all of that was improvised. The way Adam shot it was important, too. A lot of it was done with long lenses, so the camera could be in a corner where the actors couldn’t see it or know what the camera was doing. There was a freedom.
Q: You have to have a quick mind to improvise, especially with this source material. Yet Adam is known for what some might call dumb comedy.
I guess I don’t think of his movies as being dumb humor. I see them as being absurdist. Adam’s satire is hidden under ridiculous characters sometimes dressed as ’70s newspeople. There’s a lot more going on in his movies than meets the eye.
Q: With your dark Oscar-nominated role in “Foxcatcher,” you defied the stereotype that some people may have had of you. You smashed an expectation of who you should be.
That’s an interesting way to put it: an expectation of who you should be. More often than not, it’s described as an expectation of who you are. I think that’s true, but it wasn’t something I did on purpose. You never know if it’s going to work or if people are going to buy it.
Q: What did you take away from meeting Steve Eisman?
He’s a really confident guy, and not in an off-putting way. Someone who is comfortable in his own skin and will not back down and not feel intimidated in any situation. That’s an interesting way to navigate life.
Q: Is it fair to describe your character as the film’s moral center?
That’s hard for me to say. I think he’s very conflicted about what’s going on and the benefits that he stands to reap from these horrible things happening. I suppose you could say that. He definitely has a strong moral compass but is conflicted as well. It’s not like he’s not going to take the money.
Q: Maybe he’s as close as you get to a moral center.
You know what? Someone asked Adam in a Q&A the other night, “Are we supposed to think that these guys are heroes?” I’m going to paraphrase him. Essentially he said, in the context of this world, yes. They’re sort of as close to heroes as you get.
The Big Short (R, 130 minutes). Opens Wednesday at area theaters.