In Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me 2, Gru is back, but not necessarily badder than ever.
Having settled into a life of domesticity with his three adoptive daughters and army of tittering minions, the former supervillain is now working on becoming Super Dad. And that’s one title actor Steve Carell is eager to relate to: The television and movie star places an equal priority on his own family when he’s not creating animated ones up on the silver screen.
Spinoff Online joined a small group of journalists for a conversation with Carell at the Los Angeles press day for Despicable Me 2. In addition to talking about his own family and how it influenced his performance as Gru, he offered some thoughts about the unique appeal of this animated character, and discussed his expanding repertoire – including his upcoming turn in The Way, Way Back as a decidedly less-supportive parental figure – as his career continues to develop.
You have a teenage daughter.
Steve Carell: Not quite. She’s 12. Don’t push it. You’re rushing it.
Are you experiencing similar things that Gru is experiencing with his daughter, or did it make you get a little nervous? How did it make you feel doing that part?
We’re not quite there, and I hope not the same sort of dad. I hope I don’t react that way with a freeze-ray gun. It’s tricky because I don’t want to be that overprotective dad, but at the same time I do want to protect them. And I understand what the character in the movie’s going through because you don’t want to see your kids get hurt. That’s the main thing. You know they’re going to have their hearts broken at some point, and you can’t ultimately protect them against them having that happen. But boy, I’m enjoying their childhood as long as I can. Let me put it that way because I know there’s another period of time that’s going to be a very, very different and difficult growth period for everybody, my wife and I as well.
How do you like returning to the role? How do you like the evolution that your character takes in this?
I love it. And I love the fact that this itself is an evolution. I think it’s a natural extension of the first movie, which I thought was smart. The characters changed and grew – no pun intended – but at the same time, the sense of the movie feels familiar. The tone of it is the same as the first one, but the family is different. That dynamic is different, and he’s no longer officially a villain. And not to put too fine a point on it, not to overanalyze the movie, but there are certain things that kind of struck me about the story. One, that Gru is looking, he’s searching for what he’s going to do. And he thinks he’s going to start a jam-and-jelly business, and that doesn’t seem to be working out. And he can’t go back to being a villain, but ultimately something that will fulfill him, which I think is a very relatable thing for parents because when you do have kids, I found, it becomes all about the kids. And it’s very easy to lose your sense of self within that. And you do kind of have to keep your career and that side of it intact because I think ultimately, that makes you a better parent as well. And way too long-winded response.
Do you think the movie kind of encourages or celebrate adoption? Is that the intention of the franchise? And also, what do you think fathers can learn from Gru’s parenting?
I think it celebrates family more than anything. I think it celebrates a sense of love and commitment to one another, but I don’t think it has any sort of political stance on anything. I think at its heart, it’s just a very sweet, kind movie with sort of these dark trappings because that’s one of the things that attracted me to the first one. It’s a movie that doesn’t condescend to children. It plays to the top of their intelligence. And I know when I was a kid growing up, I wanted to be challenged. I wanted things that might be a little bit scary. Edgy might be too strong a word, but I wanted things to challenge me, even as a kid. So that’s one of the things that attracted me about it, but I think underlying all of that, it’s just a real sense of family and warmth. The first one just made me feel good when I saw it, and that’s why I wanted to do this one too because I think it does the same thing. And it’s funny.
I recently also saw The Way, Way Back, where you play a dysfunctional sort of parental figure. Which of those acting challenges is more fun to play, and then which do you feel like you can actually learn more from and watching this going, “These are things I definitely should not do or should do”?
What lessons I learn from it? I don’t know. They’re so different. Keep in mind, I show up, and I provide a voice. And so much of this character is the animation, really most of it. They’re geniuses at it. And you go see the final product, and you want to claim credit for all of it. But I only have to do a small percentage of what goes into the movie. And it’s just fun. There’s an enormous freedom to fail, and you can do anything. And the voice is really simple and easy, but I keep saying, with the accent, I set the bar really low for myself because it’s not really an accent. It’s kind of – there’s no doing it wrong. Let’s put it that way because it’s a conglomeration of every middle European country in the world plus a little Latin America, maybe some French. I mean, it’s all over the map. So I made it very, very simple for myself in that way and very, very easy. It’s just fun. It’s just light. And there are things, I don’t know if they’re necessarily lessons to be learned within it, but I think there’s a sense of goodness to – I don’t want to overstate it either – but the movie’s just very kind. And that’s what I liked about both of these. It’s very simple in a way and it has a very good heart. And it is so much fun to do a kind of villainous, but comedic character within that. The Way, Way Back, the guy is a jerk. He’s somebody who, in my opinion, somebody who might, himself, had a trying childhood. I liken him to a coach. I had coaches like him growing up who were very hard on the kids in the name of building character, but it could have the opposite effect on kids. So I think both are identifiable, but for different reasons, and I think, different results.
You just touched upon it in your last answer, but creating the voice and finding the voice for Gru in the first film. And then returning to that, how that helped you build the character in returning to do that voice again for the film?
We just started playing around with different voices that first session of the first movie. Didn’t really know what he would sound like. Actually, the look of the character changed quite a bit from the very first picture, the very first illustration that I saw. He originally was much more angular-looking and sort of darker, more menacing-looking than he ended up being. So I wanted the voice to match that, to be vaguely menacing, but also kind of approachable in a strange way and funny. And that’s definitely the voice that made everybody laugh. That’s the voice that made my kids laugh the most. When I went home and I said, “What do you think of this guy?” They were like, “That’s it, Dad.” And no matter what I said, they laughed at almost everything. “Who wants pancakes? I’m going to make pancakes now.” And they just were, like, “More, more, more.” So that was a good sign it was on to something. And the animators, too, they’re so good at layering in all these – I saw the movie for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I mean, I don’t know how you felt, but animation now, it’s like you’re watching real, living, breathing people. Even though they’re from a parallel universe, they might not look exactly like human beings, you really get the sense that they’re alive. And it’s kind of remarkable, I think.
One of the charms of the film is that everybody is doing a voice. It’s not just celebrities, it’s their own voice. I’m curious with younger fans who think of Gru as Gru. Have you had encounters where they meet you, and you suddenly do the voice?
Well, I did Ellen a couple of weeks ago as Gru. I figured I want to do it once. I want to go on a talk show and just be interviewed as the character, and not wink about it, not try to get me to break character, but really just do an interview with this guy. And one of Ellen’s staff’s daughters was there, and when I went out, she said, “Mommy, see. He’s real. I told you. This guy’s real.” So she brought her back to the dressing room, and I hadn’t taken off any of my makeup or costume. And she was shy, but she wasn’t scared. And I think she was 5 or 6. So I played the whole thing out with her. “Oh, what’s your name? Hello, Stacey. It’s very nice to meet you.” And went through the whole thing, and she thought she was talking to this guy. And it was really sweet. And just in terms of the voice, it is the best party trick for friends of my kids. They love it. My kids might be getting sick of it at this point, but they really like it when . . .
So you dressed up like Gru on TV, but you looked like him, too?
Yeah, they designed an outfit that was the exact match for what I wear in the movie. I had a bald cap. I had a big, round face, and this nose that came out to about here. It’s on the in-tra-net [exaggerated].
I think we all fantasize about having our own minions in real life. If you had your own group of minions, what would you have them do for you?
Car wash, because I figure they’re sort of porous sort of sponges, and I think they would make a perfect — just spin them around, drive a car through, and they would wash, wax, polish your car. I can’t imagine anyone could do it better than the minions.
Other than your voice, do your wife and your kids notice things in the animation of the character that resembles you or reveals some movement or gesture of your own?
They notice it, I don’t. That’s the weird part because you don’t see yourself in the mirror all day, but your wife and your kids do. And as you’re recording, they have a camera. As you’re taping it, as you’re doing all the voices, there’s a little camera that’s on you at all times, and the animators will watch that tape and use it for reference. And not that they’re modeling the character completely after you, but they do use expressions. And so from time to time, I couldn’t tell you where, but my wife will nudge me and say, “That’s you. That’s it. That’s exactly what you do.”
One of the little touches about this that I love is at the end, where there’s an edible guacamole sombrero. Have you ever seen that to exist?
I never, but you know that it will exist. You know in Cancun this summer, people are going to be walking around with taco hats on, for sure. And I love how subtly they did it, too. Like toward the end, people walking by just would take a chip off and eat some guacamole off the hat.
Those guys — the writers, the animators — are really smart. And now I’ve seen the movie twice, and there were things I noticed a second time that I didn’t pick up on the first time. It’s really layered, a lot of stuff going on.
It just makes sense, like the hat with the two beers and the straw.
Yeah. It could, after a while, that could get pretty ugly, though, pretty messy. If you’re not having equal amounts of guacamole or chip, you’re going to have a problem.
In Despicable Me 2, we discover Gru’s weak spot, which is basically women and dating. How did you feel about the backstory about him having been rejected as a youngster?
Completely related, I have to say.
Do you think that has an effect on men later on in life?
Are you kidding me? Yeah, definitely. I honestly did relate to that, and I bet most people do, in one way or another, not just in terms of girls or boys or dating. But I think even the most self-confident people at one point in their lives felt like an outsider or felt like they weren’t being heard or seen or witnessed in some way. So I think that’s a really relatable scene. And it definitely informs a lot about who Gru is now. But yeah, I was so shy, and all you need is that one – see that could go either way, too – you have that one time where the girl says, “Hey. You’re all right.” Then that boosts your confidence. But that one time where you get shut down which I didn’t have exactly that scenario, but yeah, it stays with you. Personally, I was shy for a long, long time with girls. I know, it’s amazing.
Both Gru and Eduardo try something else, a different business, they start missing the action. Do you ever fantasize about going away and doing something else. And if you do, do you think you would miss acting and all this stuff?
I don’t know. Part of me thinks that if I stopped, I could very easily not do anything, like not have something else to go to. But really happily, not do anything. I think I’m inherently a very lazy person, but I don’t know. That remains to be seen because there will be a time where I kind of slow down, don’t do anything or do other things. I’ll let you know.
Steve, you’ve been on this ride from The Daily Show through Anchorman to The Office. Is it still surreal at this point, or does it just become second nature at some point?
No. Well, this is still surreal. I mean, I’m doing a press conference for an animated movie that I’m going to be in? How did that happen? Like, who cares what I have to say? Yeah, I don’t think it will ever feel second nature. I don’t think it will ever feel deserved. You know what I mean? Like, “h, well, of course, this is the culmination of my career — this is where it was ultimately headed. I never felt that way. So it’s a continual surprise that it’s continued.
Despicable Me 2 opens Wednesday.