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"I'm not sure if we are morally corrupt, I'm just an actor"

Steve Carell, who provides the laughs in The Big Short, about the financial crash, plays coy when it comes to his personal politics

By Kaleem Aftab

Steve Carell says: "Oh, my God, we are starting right there." I've just asked him if he thinks capitalism makes us morally corrupt. It's the dilemma his character, Mark Baum, faces in The Big Short, the Golden Globe-nominated drama that deals with the 2008 economic crash.

Baum is based on Steve Eisman, a hedge-fund manager who bet that the US sub-prime housing market would cause the banks to lose billions. Carell gathers his thoughts before answering: "I don't know. I'm just an actor. I don't think that it's necessarily true. I think it can, but I don't think it's a steadfast rule."

I must admit I was expecting a more animated answer from the man whose first brush with the mainstream was doing a pastiche of investigative journalism on The Daily Show, where he worked alongside Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

It's also odd, given the way his career has been shaped by making observations on real-life events, that he decided to hide behind being "just an actor". The Daily Show was political satire and he proved himself to be one of the great comedians of his generation in films such as Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he co-wrote with the director Judd Apatow.

Carell is a very funny man. At least he is on screen. In person, he has a mild manner and speaks at a slow, deliberate pace that seems designed to give him time to weigh up every response.

As he has moved from doing comedy to more serious roles in recent years, it is reality that interests him. In Foxcatcher, for which he received an Oscar nomination, he played John du Pont, a US philanthropist and wrestling coach turned murderer. In Freeheld he plays Steven Goldstein, the placard-waving founder of Garden State Equality, who campaigned in support of police officer Laurel Hester as she fought to have her pension benefits transferred to her same-sex partner. Carell (53) will also be starring in Battle of the Sexes, about the infamous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

He says: "There is something accessible about portraying a real-life person and there is a responsibility built into that as well, which I like. You still have free rein to interpret, but the groundwork is already laid."

Apart from Du Pont, he has tried to meet the person he is playing in order to discover that reality. For The Big Short, he met Eisman.

"I tried to get an idea as to what made him tick and what he was feeling through this period of time," explains Carell.

"There was a sense of outrage that he exudes, and still does. I think all of these guys are still reeling from what happened. They are all still angry that nobody went to jail and no reforms were put in place."

Judging by the roles he picks, he seems politically engaged. Yet when I ask if he shares that outrage or likes to support campaigns, he again replies with a straight bat.

"I don't really wear my politics on my sleeve. I just tend not to."

The Big Short is directed by Adam McKay, who was introduced to Carell in Chicago by the actor's then-girlfriend and now wife of 20 years, Nancy.

It was McKay who gave Carell the part of weatherman Brick Tamland in Anchorman, yet he says it has taken him more than two decades to understand Carell.

"I really got Carell on this movie," says McKay. "Working with him on this film was very different to the comedies. I just realised he has a great instinct for when it's for real and when it's bullshit."

The actor seems happiest when talking about his process, or other people. Carell says: "Did you see The Truman Show? The scene where Jim Carrey is in the boat and he bumps up against what is essentially the edge of the set, and he realises that there is no more there.

"It's interesting to think of that in terms of your brain, and when you find yourself bumping up against the limits of what you perceive as your frame of reference, or your ability. I think with the right director that can expand out."

So are the boundaries put on Carell the same as Truman's - an expectation that he will be funny? Have his recent dramatic roles been his attempt to confound expectations?

For the first time, Carell becomes animated when he says: "I don't care how people perceive me. To choose parts based on how it's going to be perceived and how people will interpret me as an actor doesn't help me. If people think of me as a comedic actor that's fine, and as a dramatic actor, whatever. I'm fortunate to be getting jobs, so people can think what they want."

The Big Short is in cinemas now

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