LIKE A VIRGIN
He’s flirted around the fringes of Hollywood with an array of scene-stealing roles, so DVD Review asked Steve Carell how he finally went all the way on the big screen with The 40-Year Old Virgin…
Words: Leigh Singer
Like a bag of sand. That’s how mild-mannered electronics store employee Andy Stitzer describes the feel of a woman’s breasts. Given that he’s stammering his description to a bunch of raucous frat-boy work colleagues at a poker night, it’s also the moment Andy gets rumbled. Obviously he’s never touched a woman there – or in any more intimate areas. His secret spills out – rather like sand from an open bag, in fact. Yep, Andy Stitzer is a forty-year old virgin.
He’s also Steve Carell, the forty-two year old star and co-writer of the year’s best mainstream comedy. You might recognize Carell’s face without necessarily being able to place him. Memorable supporting roles in Bruce Almighty and Anchorman (as clueless weatherman Brick Tamland) – not to mention the Ricky Gervais role in the US version of The Office - have raised his profile of late, so he’s no screen virgin. Still, it was Carell’s own concept for the movie that finally let him step up to the leading man plate and cover all the bases a lot more quickly than his onscreen persona.
“The seed of the idea was essentially that poker sequence,” Carell relates one fine morning, ensconced in a plush London hotel suite, “a man just desperately trying to keep up with a raunchy story and failing miserably.” Looking well groomed and dapper in a designer suit that’s a long way from Andy Stitzer’s dorky leisure wear, Carell’s the picture of relaxed grace. He’s a handsome chap, if no Brad Pitt, but there’s something instantly warm and engaging about him. It’s presumably what helped such a high-concept pitch from falling straight into obvious low-brow mugging, though, ever modest, Carell quickly shares the credit with his Anchorman director and Virgin co-writer Judd Apatow.
“Judd just loved that notion of someone with a deep dark secret and it's been discovered,” Carell continues. “And then having him deal with that and try to grow up. He really saw the fact that it could be more than just a one-joke premise. It could be a movie with a heart and real characters and a real story as opposed to just a broad, wacky comedy.”
Not that anyone’s knocking broad, wacky comedy. Given the subject matter, it’s no surprise to learn that much of The 40-Year Old Virgin gives a welcome return to ribald adult humour, as opposed to mere “gross-out” gags, that’s been missing from mainstream cinema for far too long. Once Andy’s buddies David (Paul Rudd), Jay (Romany Malco) and Cal (Seth Rogen) discover his secret, they make it their mission in life to plug that gaping hole; a situation that lands Andy with plenty of sexually transmitted unease.
“We talked a lot about tone,” explains Carell. “I think that anything grounded in reality has the potential to be funny and moving at the same time. And we also wanted it to be realistic in terms of how guys talk about the topic of sex. And it gets raunchy. So we knew this would be an R-rated movie and we didn't want to censor or limit ourselves.” Judging by the violently vomiting drunk dates, man-eating temptresses, a few choice foul-mouthed tirades and large boxes of pornography on display, self-censoring never became a problem.
But – and, as with J.Lo, it’s a big but – where Carell and co have scored big time, is their blend of the bawd and the beautiful. At heart, the movie is an unashamed and touching love story between Andy and Trish (Catherine Keener), the 40-ish divorced mother of two he encounters one day in his store. The careful balancing of raunchy boys’ talk and heartfelt romance even has Carell admitting with a sly grin, “the film’s really a romantic comedy masquerading as a sex comedy. There are those elements certainly to satisfy the ‘sex comedy goer’, but they go with their girlfriends and the girlfriend sees that there is a heart to it without being too corny.”
The morning we meet, the film is announced as having topped the U.S box-office that weekend. An upbeat Carell identifies something noteworthy about these prized statistics. “The one little piece of the breakdown that was really interesting to me was that 54 percent of the audience on opening weekend were women,” he says. “That really surprised me and it made me feel like the movie is really working the way we wanted it to.” Still, as he’s also quick to point out that, if The 40-Year Old Virgin proves anything, it’s that the easy dichotomy of swearing guys and swooning gals no longer covers today’s younger generation, as can be witnessed on the DVD.
“There’s a longer version of the speed dating sequence and there are so many really funny women in it who improvised really, really dirty stuff,” he chuckles. “The improvs that the women in this movie did are probably the raunchiest parts of the movie that had to be clipped down. They really went for it.”
They weren’t the only ones. One of the film’s standout set pieces is a sequence where Andy’s pals take him for a chest wax. Think of it as the equivalent of Pretty Woman’s makeover scene - only with ripped flesh and lots of blood. Carell did his own stunts for real, live on camera, captured in its own special DVD extra. And yes, the hirsute Carell would give Robin Williams a run for his money in the body hair stakes.
“I thought that would be amusing,” he reasons, wincing at the memory. “Maybe not during the actual waxing - during it, I thought it might have been a horrible, horrible choice. There's something about seeing another man going through excruciating pain - if it’s non-life threatening - that you just can't help but laugh. Personally I thought that's the funniest part of the scene, when the camera cuts to the three guys and they’re doing their damnedest not to laugh.” As for the woman playing the waxer, apparently “she was an ‘actress-slash-waxer’,” Carell reports, shaking his head. “I can't say that she was the best waxer in the world but she got the hair out of me - and I say ‘out’ as opposed to ‘off’ of me.”
There’s an inherent irony in that, for a risqué film, the sentiments espoused to towards virginity could be seen to dovetail with the new youth trend towards clean-living chastity from organizations like True Love Waits and its ilk. Of course issues of abstinence pre-date and encompass a wider context than simply recent Christian-based movements. And the strange social stigma it can bring was something that the filmmakers were eager to disprove.
“Universal compiled case studies for us about middle-aged virginity,” Carell explains, “so we read up on these people who were very similar to the character. For the most part they were entirely normal, had every day jobs and were not emotionally damaged or strange or weird or creepy, they were just individuals who for one reason or another had missed out or might have had some slightly bad experiences and gave up on the whole notion of sex.”
Some of the film’s highlights are the scenes that show just where Andy came unstuck early on – painful encounters with bra straps, girls with metal braces and a toe suck that ends with the girl streaming with blood after being inadvertently kicked in the head by his flailing foot. Many of these incidents were derived from real life stories. “We spoke to lot of friends and people weighed in and we had people saying, ‘Oh, I did this when I was young’,” Carell recalls. “And there were very specific details that we could never have written that were brought in by the actors improvisation.”
More often than not, however, people are a little more circumspect about their own chequered sexual history. “”You get a lot of, ‘I know this guy who…’, and for the most part everybody knows that you're talking about yourself,” he notes. So what about his own past exploits? Any that were used in the film? “I would say no,” smiles Carell, “just to protect myself.”
Carell talks in a similar way about being ‘protected’ for his first lead movie role. According to him, when he came up with the film’s pitch, the idea of playing the protagonist was “never really considered” and only developed later, in collusion with Judd Apatow. The pressure of carrying his first movie, then, didn’t weigh on him the way it might have.
“When you’re writing it and getting it made, at the back of your mind you're never really thinking ‘this thing is going to be huge’,” he shrugs. “It could have gone straight to video or never been actually completed. And in terms of carrying the movie, there are so many funny people in the movie that I didn't feel like it was just me - it really is an ensemble and everybody's funny so I felt like there was an enormous net under me. So if what I was doing didn't work, there were so many other elements in the movie that were funny.”
Certainly Rudd and less familiar faces like Malco and Rogen make quite an impression as Andy’s crude but all equally emotionally screwed-up posse, one that’s all the more welcome for not being the familiar “Frat Pack” faces – Ferrell, Stiller, Wilson and company. And having an award-winning actress like Being John Malkovich’s Catherine Keener in the frame lends a dramatic quality that many comedies lack. “There really were no egos involved,” Carell confirms, “and everyone was sharing the wealth in terms of the comedy.”
Still, as co-writer and star Carell is the main man and already reaping the rewards of The 40-Year Old Virgin’s success. Despite the pedigree of his earlier work, notably his stint as a correspondent on acclaimed news satire The Daily Show, it’s those lead movie roles that really make Hollywood sit up and take notice. His future slate looks crammed, with projects as varied as Evan Almighty, replacing Jim Carrey in the Bruce Almighty sequel, and starring in the remake of much-loved spy spoof Get Smart already announced. And he’s continuing his role in The Office, currently shooting the new series, even though he claims all he saw of the original was the pilot.
“Ricky was so good that I figured if I watched any more I’d just end up doing an impression of him,” Carell claims. “And I didn't want that stuck in my head. He was incredibly supportive about the decision to take that character in a totally different vein. I figured my best way of going about was to create something different.” Spoken like a 42-year old comedy veteran; albeit one enjoying a brand-new experience and ready to keep audiences coming again for a long while yet.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME?
Andy Stitzer is only the latest in a long line of movie character struggling to throw their virginity away – or keep it intact at all costs…
Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul) – Dragnet (1987)
Forever referred to by her straight-arrow law enforcing amour Joe Friday (Dan Aykroyd) as “the virgin Connie Swail”, it’s only when Friday finally drops the first two words from his description that everyone knows Swail finally dropped her… guard.
Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) – The Graduate (1967)
“Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?” bleats confused young Ben Braddock, as his parents’ friend and contemporary practically forces herself on to him, despite the fact he fancies her daughter. Suppose he’ll take that as a yes.
Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman) – Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
The prize budding blossom in 18th century Paris’ hothouse of a court, poor innocent, voluptuous Cecile’s fate is to be deflowered by the scheming Vicomte de Valmont in his thorny sexual joust with equally vicious Madame de Merteuil.
Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) – American Pie (1999)
Of the four college friends who vow to break their respective cherries by prom night, it’s our Jim who takes the most desperate measures. Before long he’s enjoying an all-too close relationship with a home baked apple pie. No cream.
Solitaire (Jane Seymour) – Live and Let Die (1973)
Dr. Kananga’s tarot card-reader has fortune telling powers that only work as long as she remains a virgin. Too bad the next person asking for a reading is one Bond, James Bond with a rigged tarot deck. Lovers it is, then.