Despite playing the American version of the world’s worst boss on The Office for seven seasons, Steve Carell has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most affable and generous professionals in entertainment. It’s that perception that makes his portrayal of blue-blooded Olympic benefactor—and deranged murderer—John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher so effectively unsettling, and it certainly contributed to the film’s ecstatic critical reception at May’s Cannes Film Festival. More than two months before Foxcatcher’s Nov. 14 release date, Carell is already on the short list of contenders for a Best Actor Academy Award.
Perhaps Carell wasn’t the obvious choice to play du Pont, who was psychologically unraveling when he inexplicably gunned down an Olympic wrestler in 1996. But Miller, who memorably cast Jonah Hill in Moneyball, saw an advantage in playing with Carell’s public persona. “That it’s not obvious was part of the reason why it was right,” Miller says, “because who we think [du Pont] is and who he turns out to be are very different things. I think some of the more obvious choices would have not worked, because right off the bat, you would put them in a category. But having spoken to Steve about the story and a little bit about life, it just felt like one of those opportunities that would permit him to reveal an aspect of himself and hitherto unrevealed talents that he had. It was an occasion to arise to for him. I remember feeling, ‘Well, if it could work with him, there really is nobody better suited to it.’”
“I didn’t look at the role as a juicy role, per se,” Carell says. “I tried to approach it like you would approach any part, try to understand what type of person this man might have been. Ultimately, it’s only your best guess, but it was extremely challenging.” He dove into the character, studying the documentary footage that du Pont himself had commissioned to herald his achievements, and wearing a prosthetic nose that helped locate the character. “Just the reflection of what you see in other people and how they respond to you, I could tell that I was off-putting,” he says. “People just naturally weren’t inclined to be around me, based on how I looked. It was a little creepy.”
Playing du Pont became a lonely journey for Carell, who ate meals alone and never had a real out-of-character conversation with Channing Tatum—who plays champion wrestler Mark Schultz—until they did press in Cannes. “Most of us really rarely ever saw Steve out of makeup,” says Miller. “He put himself in a zone where he needed to be for the duration to the point where he and Channing didn’t spend any time off-set together.”
“It’s hard to look at something like this as ‘fun,’” says Carell, who met many of the real people involved in the tragedy (though not du Pont, who died in prison in 2010). “It was not a light set—especially for me. I would generally get to work a few hours before everyone else because of the makeup, so by the time most people got there, I was already in character. So I felt very separate going through the days. I think, overall, it was somber. Everyone felt that they had this responsibility, and it’s not a frivolous story. It’s dark and it has sharp edges to it. So Channing and I just naturally avoided each other. We weren’t precious about it in any way, but I think we both felt that it was valuable. That way, when we were doing those scenes, they had a different feeling to them.”
The first teaser for the film underscores that unnerving tension between the actors, and Carell is both proud and relieved by the early buzz. “Bennett put a lot of faith in me,” he says, “and I wanted to make sure that he never felt that he had made a mistake.”