TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It may not be the most admirable thing to gossip about what jerks we encountered at some dinner party, but we do it and that guilty pleasure is at the heart of the new comedy "Dinner for Schmucks." That's opening in theaters this weekend.
Our guests are Steve Carell, who stars in the film, and Jay Roach, who directed it. Carell is a veteran of "The Daily Show," and starred in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Little Miss Sunshine." Carell recently announced that next season will be his final season on the NBC comedy series "The Office." Jay Roach directed the three "Austin Powers" films, as well as "Meet the Parents," "Meet the Fockers," and the HBO movie "Recount."
In "Dinner for Schmucks," Paul Rudd plays an ambitious young financial analyst whose mean-spirited boss hosts an annual event he calls the Dinner for Winners. It's actually a competition in which he makes his subordinates bring the biggest idiots they can find. They all make fun of the guests and the boss decides who's the biggest jerk. Carell plays Barry Speck, the idiot that Rudd's character brings.
Steve Carell and Jay Roach spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Jay Roach, Steve Carell, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Steve Carell, talk a little bit about this character.
Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): Barry Speck, I see him as a guy who lives on the fringe of society. He's an incredibly optimistic person, wears his heart on his sleeve and just wants to make everyone else around him happy, and in doing so it has the exact opposite effect. He tends to spread misery...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CARELL: ...wherever he goes. But it's so well-intentioned and so well-meaning, and he has such a big heart. And that's really what drew me to the character. I just, I found him to be a very kind character, but someone who inflicts damage.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: A true gift for saying and doing the wrong thing.
Mr. CARELL: Yeah.
DAVIES: And let's listen to a clip from the film. This is Steve Carell's character, Barry Speck, who is sitting down for lunch at an important meeting for a client of his friend. And, well, you'll get the idea. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of movie, "Dinner for Schmucks")
Mr. CARELL: (as Barry Speck) Where are you from?
Mr. DAVID WALLIAMS (Actor): (as Mueller) We are from Switzerland.
Mr. PAUL RUDD (Actor): (as Tim) Barry, you know what? We're going to focus on business right now.
Mr. CARELL: (as Barry Speck) Switzerland. I love Switzerland. It is one of my favorite countries. I love your army knives, with the toothpicks, and your cheese. Does the cheese come out of the cow with the holes? Our countries are not enemies. They are friends. We are friends.
Ms. LUCY DAVENPORT (Actor): (as Birgit) You have been to Switzerland?
Mr. CARELL: (as Barry Speck) No. But I have a friend who drives a Volvo.
DAVIES: And that is Steve Carell from the film "Dinner with Schmucks." He is our guest, along with the film's director, Jay Roach.
Steve, so this guy, he talks a little too loud and a little too distinctly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CARELL: A little too much.
DAVIES: A little too much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CARELL: Yeah, well, he's - when you see that scene play out, David Walliams plays this Swiss industrialist with piercing blue eyes. I think he decided to wear these ultra light blue contacts and dye his hair blond. So it's this image that Barry is going up against is so steely and so cool and so intimidating, I think that adds to the whole idea of the scene.
DAVIES: And he is utterly unfazed.
Mr. CARELL: Oh yeah. Well, again, all Barry is trying to do in that scene is help his friend Tim. And everything comes from such a generous place with him. And, you know, it's very sweet. And as Jay said as well, it also - I think underpinning all of it is a sense of sadness, you know, a true sense of loss in his life. He's somebody - and when Jay and I first started talking about the character, I said I feel he's the type of guy who always needs to keep moving, either physically or mentally, because if he stops, if he reflects for too long, he'll spin into a terrible depression, because his life is sort of pitiful, you know - certainly in the minds of others.
DAVIES: Now, I know that there was a lot of script revision and a lot of improvisation in the film. Do you guys remember whether the scene we just heard was kind of as originally written, or riffed?
Mr. JAY ROACH (Director): The predicament of the scene was scripted pretty carefully, actually. But that thing you just heard was almost entirely made up by Steve on the spot, and - as were a number of other things. We had a great script by Dave Guion and Michael Handelman, but once you have such a great predicament scripted and a lot of great lines, you know, obviously then what happens when you work with brilliant improvisers, they find other things, particularly when their character - they're so just completely connected to the characters the way Steve is, and yet they're playing with dialogue and playing with different lines but it's always, you know, dialed in to the character and to the suspense of what's going on in the scene. So that was a really good example of the mixture of script and brilliant improvisation.
Mr. CARELL: I don't think improvising will solve a problem in a script. I think it can embellish. You can find different jokes or different options, but if the script isn't solid, if the narrative isn't good, you have nothing to go on as an improviser. And that's kind of the way I try to go about it, is that I just, you know, I try to place, obviously, myself where the character is and say things and do things that the character might do in that moment and - or just react to things that other people are improvising. That's always - to me, that's always the greatest gift to get, is, you know, when somebody else throws, you know, a curve ball in and you have to react to it. And it can change up the scene, it can - even if the lines are exactly the same, it can give the scene a different kind of essence. And so that's, I think, the fun of it.
DAVIES: One of the things that's really funny about improvisation is that -is when the audience knows that you're improvising, because then you come up with a line and they think not only, hey, that's a clever line, but man, he just came up with that line off the top of his head. And...
Mr. CARELL: You know what the best thing is?
Mr. CARELL: I - sorry to interrupt. I think the best thing is really when you have a scripted line that people think was improvised. That to me is - that to me is the best. And there are moments in this movie that people think are improvised but they're scripted, only because they were so well played. So that to me is really the most wonderful moment, is when it's seamless between the two.
Mr. ROACH: Yeah, I was going to disagree too, because I love it when the audience - I like that they are trying to sort of in the back of their mind wonder what - whether some of it's being made up. But I actually love it when, like when Steve does it so often, you can't tell the difference. And I think, like, there's a difference in, like, "Saturday Night Live" or when you're watching a certain kind of skit comedy live, when you really love that sense of the high-wire act. Like, oh, they're making it up and they're going to have to keep the ball in the air and - but when, when you - the best improvisers, I think, you enjoy not knowing and you sort of sense it's going on in the background.
DAVIES: Our guests are Jay Roach and Steve Carell.
We'll talk after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guests are actor Steve Carell and Jay Roach. They both collaborated on the new film "Dinner for Schmucks."
Jay Roach, you've had a great career doing comedies. You did "Meet the Fockers" and "Meet the Family" and the "Austin Powers" films, but I really loved the HBO film "Recount," which you directed, which is the...
Mr. ROACH: Thank you.
DAVIES: ...dramatic recreation of the Florida recount following the 2000 election. You want to talk a little bit about making this stuff work on film? It's a complicated political and legal tale, and you've got to give it drama and suspense.
Mr. ROACH: You do. But the story had so much built-in drama and suspense. It was an incredible script by Danny Strong, and he just found a way, you know, to keep you on the edge of your seat. It was really - I credit that script more than a lot of what I did. And I - and then I - then the only thing I would say that I tried to add to it was a little bit of humor. It was such an absurd situation in so many ways, with some fairly absurd characters. And I find when you - I like films where they cast people who can be funny and can find irony in the situation to play very dramatic parts. So I, you know, casting people like Kevin Spacey and Laura Dern and Denis Leary to me was kind of the secret to having people pay a little closer attention because they knew it wouldn't be too serious.
DAVIES: Yeah. There's a wonderful moment where the Denis Leary character and the Kevin Spacey character are talking about butterfly ballots and hanging chads. It's like a minute that explains this and it works just beautifully.
Mr. ROACH: Oh thanks. Yeah, that was one of my favorite scenes too, which could have been just really expositional, but those two guys found a way to turn it into something. They improvised a little bit. We didn't improvise much on it, but that, some of that was Denis and Kevin just going off.
DAVIES: Right. And the visuals of actually illustrating what they're talking about, which I think is your craft at work, was terrific.
Let's listen to some of that scene.
(Soundbite of movie "Recount")
Mr. DENIS LEARY (Actor): (as Michael Whouley) Right now we're down by less than 2,000 votes. Meanwhile, there's 175,000 ballots out there that their count machines have declared non-votes, okay? So that's 175,000 uncounted ballots.
Mr. KEVIN SPACEY (Actor): (as Ron Klain) How does a thing like that even happen?
Mr. LEARY: (as Michael Whouley) Because punch card ballots are (bleep) primitive. You've got cardboard chad that get punched but don't go all the way through the holes so they're hanging off the end of the ballots.
Mr. SPACEY: (as Ron Klain) Hanging chads.
Mr. LEARY: (as Michael Whouley) Chad.
Mr. SPACEY: (as Ron Klain) What?
Mr. LEARY: (as Michael Whouley) There's no S.
Mr. SPACEY: (as Ron Klain) The plural of chad is chad?
Mr. LEARY: (as Michael Whouley) That's great democracy.
Mr. SPACEY: (as Ron Klain) Jesus.
Mr. LEARY: (as Michael Whouley) Yeah. So when you take these ballots, and you put them through the tabulating system, who happens is the hanging chad get pushed back into the holes and the machines read it as if the holes were never actually punched. So then these are discarded as undervotes. But wait, sometimes hanging chad don't even hang, they're just dimpled.
Mr. SPACEY: (as Ron Klain) Dimpled.
Mr. LEARY: (as Michael Whouley) Yes. Okay. Which means that the voter didn't align the ballot properly in the machine or just didn't push hard enough to get the chad to go through to the other side.
Mr. SPACEY: (as Ron Klain) Well, how hard is it to punch a paper ballot?
Mr. LEARY: (as Michael Whouley) Pretty (bleep) hard when you're 80-something years old, you're arthritic and you're blind as a (bleep) bat. Unfortunately for us, blind as a (bleep) bats tend to vote Democratic. Not to mention the fact that the Votomatics, sometimes these things don't get cleaned out for years and years and years, so they can get completely jammed up with chads.
Mr. SPACEY: (as Ron Klain) Chad.
Mr. LEARY: (as Michael Whouley) And the next...
Mr. SPACEY: (as Ron Klain) Sorry.
Mr. LEARY: (as Michael Whouley) The next thing you know it's impossible for the voter to actually penetrate it at all, so you just end up with dimpled chad. This tends to happen in poorer neighborhoods where they don't have up-to-date brand new voting equipment. I don't have to tell you who those people - generally speaking - vote for. Okay? All I'm saying, Ron, is, we have to have actually live human beings doing this recount. That's where you...
Mr. SPACEY: (as Ron Klain) Well, what about Kristen Daly? They don't want...
DAVIES: You know, doing a film on politics is such a minefield, particularly with this many, you know, prominent and living characters.
Mr. ROACH: Yeah. Yeah.
DAVIES: And I know that and there was a lot of effort in the script to make it historically accurate. Much of the dialogue is verbatim from first-hand accounts. And many folks liked it, including James Baker, who was a key member of the Bush team. But Warren Christopher was unhappy.
Mr. ROACH: Right.
DAVIES: Said that they'd invent - that the film had invented a character and put his name on it.
Mr. ROACH: Yeah.
DAVIES: How do you deal with criticism like that?
Mr. ROACH: Well, I'm glad you asked me about that, actually, because I was always puzzled by that. We - I got to listen to a lot of the interviews Danny did and...
DAVIES: That's the writer. Yeah.
Mr. ROACH: Danny Strong did, right, the writer. And, you know, and people have come up to me since confirming that Danny got it right. I mean that there, a lot of what happened in those rooms, a lot of what - the choice the Democrats made, you know, which were, in my opinion, I mean I actually identified with Warren Christopher because I, like him, believe that an election should be run in a sort of statesmanlike way. And he was criticized for it at the time and I suppose in the film, to some extent, for seeing it that way. But I wanted to ennoble that and so I really rooted for him. But we - I still think we got that right. And I was disappointed that that came out that way, because I just think it was not - I don't think - I think he was worried about how he was portrayed, but I wish he wasn't and I think it was fairly portrayed.
DAVIES: Right. I mean just to clarify for folks who may not have seen the film, Warren Christopher was there to direct the Gore effort and his notion was this needs to be a statesmanlike effort. We're not going to sue. It's not a street fight.
Mr. ROACH: Right.
DAVIES: And the Bush team, much more ready to mix it up and seeing this as a political brawl that they had to win.
Mr. ROACH: Yeah.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Steve Carell and director Jay Roach. Their latest film is "Dinner for Schmucks."
We have to talk about "The Office," you know, the NBC series which - this is seven seasons now, right? And it is the last. Is that right, Steve Carell, for you?
Mr. CARELL: Not the last for the series.
DAVIES: For you?
Mr. CARELL: The last for me. Yeah. I want to honor my contract, and that was always - my contract was always for seven seasons, and I want to fulfill that. And then I just, I thought it was time to move on. I'd like to spend some more time with my family. I have two little kids. And it just seemed like the time was right for me.
But, you know, I've been asked this before. I think the show is incredibly strong and the writers are great and the cast is really an ensemble. I've always thought of myself as a member of this great ensemble cast, so I see it as just one member of that ensemble sort of drifting off. And the show has shown itself to be very resilient and, you know, to incorporate new characters and new scenarios and storylines. So I have no doubt that it will continue to be incredibly strong.
DAVIES: Well, that'll be a challenge, losing this member of the ensemble, I think. Why don't we listen to a clip from a recent episode. This is Steve Carell, our guest, playing Michael Scott, who has corralled the staff of the Dunder Mifflin Company for another meeting that nobody really wants to attend.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")
Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Who enjoys the weekends? Of course. Now, the weekend is always great if you have someone, which I do. I have Donna. She is hot. She has a Pilates butt. But we need to find something to do this weekend beside have sex. Did I say that? Yes, I did. And the reason you are here is that I need ideas for things that Donna and I can do on the weekends. So just shout it out.
Mr. LESLIE DAVID BAKER (Actor): (as Stanley Hudson) I have an idea for your weekend.
Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Okay.
Mr. BAKER: (as Stanley Hudson) Let me go back to my desk right now.
Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Okay. You get out of here, big dog. No, no, no, no. You guys sit down. I need ideas.
Ms. JENNA FISCHER (Actor): (as Pam Beesly) Stanley got to go.
Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Yeah, well, Stanley doesn't help with anything. Come on. Shout 'em out, shout 'em out.
Mr. ED HELMS (Actor): (as Andy Bernard) Walk around apple orchards.
Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Oh.
Mr. HELMS: (as Andy Bernard) Super romantic.
Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) That's fun.
Mr. RAINN WILSON (as Dwight Schrute) Eel fishing.
Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) All right.
Mr. CRAIG ROBINSON (Actor): (as Darryl Philbin) Curl up with your favorite DVD.
Ms. KATE FLANNERY (Actor): (as Meredith Palmer) You and Donna should hit the Poconos. They have heart-shaped Jacuzzis. Room enough for three.
Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) We actually went to the Poconos last Tuesday. We headed up there, we went to a little Chinese bistro, um, P.F. Chang's.
Ms. MANDY KALING (Actor): (as Kelly Kapoor) Why would you go all the way to the Poconos to P.F. Chang's when we have the Great Wall in Scranton?
Mr. CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Because when your super-hot girlfriend says I wanna go to Mount Pocono, you go to Mount Pocono.
DAVIES: Still funny to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Steve Carell in "The Office" with that ensemble cast. You really think that your role could be replaced, all modesty aside?
Mr. CARELL: Yeah. I do. You know, I don't even think it's a matter of replacing the role. I think it's a matter of just sort of shifting the dynamic of the show. I - and ultimately, I think it might not be a bad thing, because, you know, I think shows can get complacent or audiences can become complacent about them. And even if a show stays consistent and very high in quality, people get used to it and then they want something else to happen. And I think this might be a good thing.
DAVIES: And you've been making a lot of films. I mean you've been really, really active - are you going to stay as active making films?
Mr. CARELL: I would love to. Yeah. I mean that's the hope. But you never know. I don't take any of it for granted. I'm very fortunate to have had this level of success, so - I guess I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm always waiting for the career to go off the cliff, so I'm prepared. If it does, I'm fine with that and I've had a good run. So - but yeah. I mean I'd love to continue to work. It'd be nice.
DAVIES: Well, you'd said you wanted to spend more time with your family and...
Mr. CARELL: Well, that's just to engender good will and sympathy.
DAVIES: That's what you say when you really don't want to explain why you're leaving "The Office"?
Mr. CARELL: That's right. Yeah. It's...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CARELL: I don't even remember my kids' names, frankly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Steve Carell, Jay Roach, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CARELL: Thank you.
Mr. ROACH: Thank you.
GROSS: Steve Carell and Jay Roach spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
Carell stars in the new movie "Dinner for Schmucks," Roach directed it. The film opens this Friday. You'll find links to clips from the film on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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