With the release of the Academy Award-winning comedy-drama The Big Short released today in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD, Steve Carell (Anchorman 2, Cafe Society) has been talking about the film, working with Adam McKay and his career in both comedy and drama.
Could you explain the housing crisis in a sentence? No more than five words.
[laughs] In a sentence? What this movie is about is various groups of investors who saw a housing bubble and shorted the market. They essentially bet against the economy. The economy failing was their success and a handful of people saw it and made an awful lot of money because of it.
How much of the financial jargon did you have to learn?
I had to learn all of it. I didn’t learn it phonetically – I actually had to have some sort of understanding. Adam likes to improvise so that definitely was an inspiration to do as much research as we could. We had financial advisers and gurus, and Adam knows a lot about Wall Street as well. We all read the book – I read it a couple of times – and it’s daunting because on the surface it’s extremely complex and sophisticated.
There’s a line early in the movie when Ryan Gosling’s character turns to the camera and addresses the audience and says, “Are you confused? Do you feel stupid right now? Well that’s exactly what the banks want. They’ve created this language so you don’t question what you’re doing.” I thought that was a really interesting viewpoint; that if you talk to anyone from Wall Street they can lose you within five minutes if they choose to. I think there’s some truth in that; that this language has been established to keep people at bay and to keep people from questioning what’s going on. There is this insidiousness that’s going on behind that curtain.
After all the preparation, do you feel safe with those terms now? Do you understand how the market works?
That’s a huge question. I’m not starting my own hedge fund anytime soon. No, I don’t know much about it and I’m not a part of that world. I try to leave that to people who are smarter than I am. I don’t study the market. I think in order to really do well at it, you have to have more than a cursory knowledge of it, so no, I’m not an analyst and I don’t study the market. I’m just an actor.
What comes across in the film is how much some of those involved treated the market like a game, and how blasé they were about other people’s financial security.
It is a game. Essentially it’s gambling; you’re placing bets on what you perceive to be the eventual outcome. The bets that these guys were placing were different than everybody else. No one could believe that the mortgage market could collapse. That was a bedrock of the financial institution of Wall Street. It had never had a problem before. These guys had to step up and say, “It’s going to fail, and these banks are going to fail, and we actually want assurances that the banks can pay us off,” which the banks laughed at; they were incredulous. I think what was interesting, reading the script, it was all this gambling and they were betting but at the same time they were betting that millions of people would lose homes and jobs and that’s an awful outcome. There’s this moral ambiguity. On one side they’re just doing their jobs. They’re paid to be making these bets, and they’re paid to sense these things. At the same time, you can cast aspersions because people are going to suffer if they’re right.
Your character says it won’t be the banks that pay for the collapse, but immigrants and poor people. Do you agree?
I think I do, yeah. Because a lot of the people who paid the price were people who were enticed to put their hard-earned money and faith in a system that was fraudulent. Those were the people that were hurt the most. The people that were talked into taking out these mortgages, who really should not have been approved in the first place. They were taken advantage of, because they were the ones who paid the price for it. And they were the ones who were blamed, too, because it collapsed under the weight of these defaults. It wasn’t their fault that they were given them in the first place.
Were you personally affected by the crisis?
I wasn’t, but I knew people who were. Though that wasn’t the reason I was drawn to it. I thought the script was timely and important – it had something to say. But I thought the characters were very well drawn and unique. Again what we’re talking about is that grey area. Are they heroes? Are they villains? They’re kind of neither. But they’re caught in between and have to make some really difficult choices. My character, at the end of the movie, has to make a really difficult moral choice. He can’t feel good about it either way, because nobody really wins, even though he’s walking away with a lot of money. How can you make a fortune but still feel terrible about it? I think that’s an interesting question.
We did a Q&A a few weeks ago after the movie was screened, and somebody in the back stood up. In a rather snarky way he said, “Come on. Are these heroes? Who are the heroes in this movie? Is it these guys? Are we supposed to empathise with them?” Adam had a really good response. He said, “That question; that’s exactly what the movie is asking.” The movie’s not saying they’re heroes and it’s not saying they’re villains necessarily. It’s just presenting these guys and their dilemma in uncovering the truth, but at the same time feeling responsible for what’s going on.
Is it hamstrung by its adrenaline-fuelled culture, do you think?
Yeah, when I met the real guys – and we went to some trading floors and talked to traders – it’s not as sexy as I think some movies have depicted it. They’re businessmen, but they’re so linear in their thinking and so immersed in this world. I was talking to this one guy, and when he’s not trading he is studying. He’s reading charts and graphs. He’s sifting through piles of information on his desk. They are into it. It’s not boring to them. To us, we just see numbers and statistics and it means nothing. They’re sitting in a room with four or five monitors in front of them and they’re assimilating all of this information and connecting the dots. It’s fascinating, and to them that is sexy. That’s their world. They’re completely connected to this world, and when they see a trend and see how other things are following suit, there’s a real passion to it.
I diminish it, really, by saying it’s gambling, because there’s a science to it as well. You do see humanity in them, and to talk to them about what happened in 2008 and how terrified they all were… They were calling home and talking to their spouses saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen; I don’t know if I’m coming in tomorrow. I don’t even know if there’s going to be an economy tomorrow.” They saw what so few of us could really perceive at that time. We were on the precipice of a real global meltdown, and really nothing has changed, discernibly.
Your first movie was BRUCE ALMIGHTY, and we know you as a comic actor, but you’ve had some exceptional dramatic roles in recent years. Was there a turning point when you decided you wanted to do more drama?
You know, it really didn’t work that way. You can’t just say, “I want to do drama,” and expect that people will start hiring you to do it. If you’re not necessarily perceived that way, you can’t convince people that you should be doing it, or that you’re capable of doing it. It kind of takes someone to say, “Ah, OK, let’s offer him.” That’s what happened, and it’s happened a few times. It happened on FOXCATCHER and on THE WAY, WAY BACK. It happened in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Drama’s not completely new to me. I see LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE as more of a drama than a comedy, and I did that right after THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN. So it’s not a completely new arena for me. But from time to time, directors or producers think to call me to do something. That was the case for FOXCATCHER. Out of the blue, Bennett Miller called me and said, “I have a script and I’d like you to read it.” We met and talked about it and he offered me the part. It wasn’t something I was pursuing. I’m definitely not turning my back on comedy; it’s just by virtue of the things I’ve been offered, really.
Did you start out with the intention of being a comic actor?
No, I didn’t. You’re sort of at the mercy of the things you’re being hired to do. When I first started as an actor in Chicago, the things that I got were comedic, and then I got into Second City, which is essentially a comedy theatre in Chicago. Because of that, I think I became known more for the comedic stuff I was doing. I never set out to do that, because I never considered myself a comedian. I’ve never done stand up. I’d be terrible at that. That wasn’t the career I set out for.
Do you think there’s a lack of ambition to cast actors against type?
I think people who are known for doing comedy are getting opportunities. I know Jason Segel has just done THE END OF THE TOUR, which is supposed to be fantastic and I’ve heard he’s great in it. I know Kristen Wiig has done more drama recently. I know many comedic actors that have a lot of depth to them. But, who knows? Comedy’s very subjective, and what makes any of us laugh might not make another group of people laugh. That’s a hard thing to say, definitively; what’s funny or what’s not. It’s so much in the eye of the beholder.
The Big Short is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital. Buy it on AMAZON UK or AMAZON US
Our thanks to Abigail Lepp and Zero Degrees West with the interview.