Magic Man: A Q&A with Burt Wonderstone‘s Steve Carell

The star of 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' talks about 'The Office,' learning magic, and acting opposite Jim Carrey

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He pulled off one of television’s most memorable vanishing acts when he left The Office in 2011. Now, Steve Carell is up to some new tricks — namely, playing a blowhard magician opposite Jim Carrey in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (opening March 15). Carell plays the title character, Burt, whose relationship with former BFF and partner-in-magic Anton (Steve Buscemi) reaches the breaking point as their stale act battles dwindling audiences and Burt’s enormous ego. But when an edgy, rival street magician (Carrey) starts stealing their thunder, Burt and Anton have to learn — with the help of their beautiful assistant, played by Olivia Wilde — how to rediscover the magic. Here, the 50-year-old actor lets loose with TIME.

Your hair in the movie is pretty epic.

Yeah, there’s a lot of hair going on. Everybody has their own hair in the movie. James Gandolfini, Steve Buscemi, everyone. Alan Arkin. Hair is a big part of the whole adventure on this one.

Now that you’ve rocked a blond mullett, can you say that blonds have more fun?

I would say, in my experience, blonds have less fun.


The blond mullet look was not working for the missus.

Part of the movie filmed in Las Vegas. What’s your craziest Vegas story?

I’m not a crazy Vegas guy. I’m not a gambler. I don’t really drink. So that whole aspect of the city is lost on me. I do enjoy a good dinner and a good show. Steve [Buscemi] and I actually went to a few shows together that were really fun, but nothing sordid. Nothing that would make good press.

Did you see magic shows?

We did, we saw Copperfield, we saw Criss Angel. I have seen Penn & Teller before. We went to the Magic Castle in L.A. We tried to take as much in as we could.

The looks of the characters are based on real magicians. Did you and the cast study them while preparing?

It was more of an aesthetic thing. I was really just trying to get the sense of the showmanship and the performance quality that these guys have. There are different styles. There are more comedic-based magicians, there are close-up, sleight-of-hand magicians, there are big-prop magicians, there are shows ranging from incredibly spectacular to intimate. You kind of pick and choose, and you try to emulate different aspects of each of them. What I was doing was a conglomeration of a bunch of different things I observed.

David Copperfield designed Burt and Anton’s signature trick in which the two magically switch places during a mock execution on stage. Real magic or movie magic?

That’s real magic. There were no special effects with that one. We all had to sign confidentiality agreements. To get a look behind the curtain on that was really fun.

So you’re a real-life magician now?

I learned some coin tricks. I learned some card tricks, some of the things you see in the movie. I wanted them to look as legitimate as they could with a few months of training. You can only get to a certain point after that. The guys who really do it are far beyond anything you could even imagine. They make it look so easy.

Do you ever break out the card tricks at parties?

Never. I will never be that guy. You will never see me do that at a party. I just don’t want to be the guy who goes, “Hey, turn down the music, I want to show you something. Stop the party so I can do a card trick.” That would be no fun.

Your character dresses in some ridiculous velvet suits. I heard you walked around Vegas in costume and no one noticed?

That, to me, was a sign that we were on the right track in terms of the character looks. We didn’t want it to be a parody. We wanted it to be an amplified version of Las Vegas, but we also wanted to be tethered to the reality of Las Vegas. I found that no one batted an eye. When we were doing this big Hot Box sequence, Steve Buscemi and I were suspended in this Plexiglas box over the Las Vegas strip. We figured a crowd would gather, and we’d shoot the crowd. Nobody stopped because it’s Vegas. Stuff like this is happening every day.

You also show a lot of chest in this movie. I couldn’t help but flash back to your waxing scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

When I pitched that scene to [Virgin director] Judd [Apatow], little did we know that eight years later, people would still be referencing it. It seemed like a fun little thing to do on one day of the shoot. I’m as surprised as anybody.

Burt also has a big ego and an attitude problem. Is that fun to play?

I think anyone loves to play a character that is either evil to a certain extent or has a real definable character flaw. Those are always really fun, and, I think, funny. This guy deserves so much of what happens to him. At the same time, the challenge for me in this — and not to put too fine a point on it, because it’s comedy and it’s silly and fun — I did want to walk the line between a character that’s deplorable, but at the same time, someone you hoped would redeem himself.

You recently hit the one-year mark on Twitter. How do you like it?

When I first started looking at Twitter, I followed people like Steve Martin, who will just write the funniest non sequiturs now and then, which I thought was really fun. That’s kind of the road I’ve taken. Every now and then, something comes into your mind and you put it out there. It’s very innocuous. I think it’s kind of fun.

On Twitter, you chronicle some interesting interactions with fans. How many times a week do you hear “That’s what she said” from The Office?

It comes up from time to time. Sometimes I hear that, sometimes I hear “I love lamp.” There are a couple choice phrases that seem to have followed me the last few years.

Are you tuning in to watch The Office series finale? Is that something you keep up with?

I do, yeah, I watch it. They’re all my friends. We spent years together every day, so I have a great affection for them and for the show.

Jim Carrey plays rival magician Steve Gray, and you played his rival in Bruce Almighty. Is it fun to be his opposite?

The fact that I got to be in another movie with him is a big deal to me. He’s a phenomenal person to watch perform. You see him in a movie, and it’s funny and committed, and he does things nobody else does. But when you watch him on a take-after-take basis, it’s like a different planet. He is so supremely gifted, and his mind is so fertile. I’ve never seen anyone commit to a character like he does. He’s unrelenting, and he works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. He wants it to be perfect. He wants it to be the very funniest it can possibly be, and he won’t quit until he achieves that. It’s inspiring. He’s just in another league.

Are you coming back for Bruce Almighty 2?

I don’t think so. Is there a Bruce Almighty 2? That’s a bad sign. The fact that I don’t know about it probably means I’m not coming back. I would venture to guess, no.

You’re going to play millionaire murderer John du Pont in the upcoming drama Foxcatcher. Talk about mixing it up.

It’s a completely different thing tonally, but it’s the same level of commitment. You just have to jump into it and trust the writing and trust the director, so it’s very similar. What’s fun about it is, for the last three months, I did this very dark, tragic story, but now I’m about to go into Anchorman 2. I couldn’t be more happy to be doing it. Where what I just left was very dark and not a laugh a minute, Anchorman is diametrically opposite to that as just a work experience. So it’s jarring, but in a really good way.