It used to be Sir Cliff Richard who entertained crowds during tennis match delays. These days, it seems another vaguely ludicrous character is doing the job for him.
“It happened at Wimbledon last year,” laughs Steve Carell. “There was a break in the tennis and someone in the crowd yelled out that Brick quote from Anchorman: ‘LOUD NOISES!’ I thought that was really amusing.”
Amusing it most certainly is, but it’s also a clear indication of Carell’s ever-widening comedy influence. His brilliant performance as treacle-brained, lamp-loving meteorologist Brick Tamland in 2004’s Anchorman has been affectionately mimicked in schools, offices and – apparently – tennis courts across the globe, while his Golden Globe-winning turn as Michael Scott in the US Office isn’t far behind in the oft-quoted stakes. And that’s without mentioning The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s Andy Stitzer, who famously maintained that a woman’s breast felt like “a bag of sand”.
Ahead of his latest role – the eponymous egomaniac magician in new comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone – ShortList headed to Los Angeles to speak to the 50-year-old about sleight of hand, improvisation and the Anchorman sequel…
Did you hang out with any real magicians in preparation?
A little bit. I visited the Magic Castle in LA [a social club for magicians] and spoke to a few magicians about their childhoods. And I went to see David Copperfield’s show in Vegas.
Did he teach you any tricks?
Not really. Actual sleight of hand is such an art that even after practising for a few months I was still only marginally good. Most of what I learned from them was about their stage personas. Every magician has a different way of presenting magic; some are comedic, some are flamboyant, some are a little drier.
Jim Carrey’s in the film, too. He’s famous for his improvisational skills – did he come up with anything memorable on the film?
Jim is so good. He has such a fertile mind. Steve Buscemi and I would stand there and watch him with our mouths agape. There’s a scene where his character is sleeping on hot coals – intermittently snoring and screaming – and at one point, he scratched his nose sleepily between screams. That made me laugh so much. The idea that there’s a tiny itch on his nose and that’s what bothers him while he’s on hot coals.
You taught improvisational comedy at Chicago’s Second City theatre – what kind of wisdom did you impart?
It’s important not to pre-determine what you’re going to say. If you pre-determine, you’re not in the scene; you’re not connecting with the other actors. People also make the mistake of trying to just come out and say funny things. We focused more on characters and situations.
What kind of characters came out of your early improvisation?
Well, The 40-Year-Old Virgin was based on an improvised character I did at Second City. There was also a sketch called ‘Germans who say nice things’.
Which, presumably, was you saying nice things in a German accent?
Exactly. My favourite was, “Let’s all pile into the mini-van and go get some frozen yoghurt!” I don’t think that idea could ever have been more than just a 30-second bit [laughs].
Was your “I love lamp” line as Brick in Anchorman improvised?
It was. Sometimes Adam [McKay, the director] would say to us, “At the end of this scene, just add something, whatever you like.” I started naming things I saw in the room – “I love rug, I love lamp” – and Will [Ferrell] called me on it as the cameras were still rolling. He was like, “Are you just looking at things and saying you love them?” And that’s what ended up in the movie.
What can you tell us about Anchorman 2?
We start shooting in a few weeks. The first movie was the most fun I’d ever had, professionally. Every day, I laughed until I cried. So I don’t expect the sequel to be any different. I can’t tell you anything about the plot, though.
There are rumours that Kristen Wiig will play Brick’s love interest…
Yes, I heard that too. But I still can’t tell you anything [laughs].
Fair enough. Who would be your dream Anchorman 2 cameo?
Meryl Streep told me she was a huge Anchorman fan and she’d love to have a cameo in the sequel. That could be really funny. There are going to be plenty of great cameos in this movie.
The US Office ends this year and you’ve said you won’t be returning as Michael Scott for the final episode. Does that mean we’ve seen the last we’ll see of that character?
Yes. I just don’t think there’s any reason for him to come back. I’m sure he would go back and see his old colleagues [at Dunder Mifflin], but I don’t think he’d do it in front of the ‘documentary’ cameras [through which the show is seen].
Did you take any memorabilia with you from the set when you left the show? Surely you’ve got Michael’s ‘World’s Best Boss’ mug somewhere?
No, I didn’t take anything. Although, there was a joke in the show that Michael had this certificate in his office that said he was ‘The proud owner of a quality Seyko timepiece’ – with Seiko spelled deliberately wrong. So, when I left the show, the prop department actually made me a ‘Seyko’ watch as a going-away gift.
How do you get on with Ricky Gervais? He has a reputation for teasing his friends mercilessly…
Oh, he teases me mercilessly. But I take that as a badge of honour. If you’re being teased by Ricky Gervais then you’re doing something right.
You worked with Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Is the man as irritatingly perfect as he seems?
He is everything he’s purported to be and more. But that image of him as this heartthrob is only a tiny part of who he is. He’s somebody I’d work with any time. Before he’d even been hired [for Crazy, Stupid, Love], he reminded me that we had worked together before. I’d forgotten all about it. We’d done a pilot for a TV show years ago, when he was just a kid. It was a crazy show. I was playing Tim Curry’s evil henchman and Ryan played Corbin Bernsen’s son. Everyone had superpowers.
How did this show not get a full series? It sounds great.
[Laughs] I don’t know. But when Ryan reminded me of it, I remembered seeing him at the first script reading. He’d just finished with The Mickey Mouse Club, I guess. It’s funny that our paths crossed again all those years later. He turned into such a good guy.
Were you the funny kid at school?
Not at all. I’d do plays and musicals but I was never the class clown. Comedy certainly wasn’t something I ever considered as a career path.
You also played ice hockey as a kid. In the UK, we associate the sport mainly with fights – is that fair?
Well, it became like that, but not when I was growing up. Also, I was a goalie and we wore masks, so if somebody punched me in the face they were just going to break their fist [laughs].
What was your worst injury?
Being knocked out by the puck. The last thing I remember was the puck flying towards my face and the next thing you know, I’m looking up at my dad on the ice. He’s saying, “Steve… how many fingers?”
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is at cinemas nationwide from 15 March
(Image: Rex Features)