Steve Carell follows up his incredibly creepy, Oscar-nominated performance in 2014’s Foxcatcher with another outstanding one in The Big Short. Carell plays Mark Baum (not the actual person’s real name), manager of a hedge fund called FrontPoint, who sees how the bets being placed against an unstable housing market by other investors could bring about the collapse of the entire banking system — and yet even as he rages against it, his firm makes billions off the same bets.
Adam McKay’s satirical yet infuriating film about the 2008 financial crisis that rocked Wall Street and the world is a kaleidoscopic blend of comedy and tragedy, with celebrities like Selena Gomez explaining things like credit default swaps and characters breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience. Carell fits perfectly into this mix as Baum, who’s tortured yet remains righteous. We spoke with Carell about embodying this complex yet ultimately moral man.
You play a character, Mark Baum, who’s a great study in contradictions — we don’t know whether we like him or don’t like him. Can you talk about that tension between Mark Baum knowing what’s right and wrong, and then doing it anyway…?
Steve Carell: He has an ethical dilemma certainly, because he’s doing his job, you know. He’s betting against something which he feels is going to fail, but what is potentially going to fail is ultimately the nation’s economy and the banking system itself. So in meeting the real guy, I believe he saw himself as a hero and someone who was sort of a solitary figure. He had all this weight on his shoulders and he was trying to right a wrong. But at the same time, like you said, it’s conflicted because he stands to make a fortune by doing this, and to the ill effect of millions of people.
There’s a lot of anger in Mark and in the performance. Were you able to channel any anger you might have had over the effects of the financial crisis?
I didn’t think about it. I didn’t go into it in sort of a self-righteous way. It’s a terrifying subject matter — ‘cause I didn’t know much about it in 2008. But what I learned through the book and the screenplay was really scary. And I think the character is a guy who’s so self-confident and he always feels like he’s the smartest guy in the room. Then he proceeds through this story, and the more he learns about what’s going on, the more shocked he is. Because for someone who always felt like they were the smartest guy in the room, to not have any comprehension of what’s really going down is — I think it’s shocking to him and it makes the character angry and confused and (he) sort of becomes unhinged.
How much of the stuff like the celebrity cameos did you know would be in the finished film?
It’s exactly what was in the script. The actual personalities changed, just based on scheduling and who could and couldn’t do it. But those were always in. You’d have to talk to Adam, but the way he describes it — to have these pop culture icons breaking down these pretty complex financial concepts — was a great way to make them accessible, but also kind of pointing to how we get our information these days: from these voices, you know, from these people that we love and admire who are our zeitgeisty personalities.
You’re going to play tennis legend Bobby Riggs (in Battle of the Sexes). How’s your game?
I went on eBay and I found the racket that he used — he used a Headmaster, like one of these little aluminum rackets, and it changes your game. It’s completely — like, I had to go back to the way I used to play 30 years ago. So it’s different and there’s going to be a lot of tennis elbow involved in the next few months for sure.
When four outsiders saw what the big banks, media and government refused to, the global collapse of the economy, they had an idea: The Big Short. Their bold investment leads them into the dark underbelly of modern banking where they must question everyone and everything. Based on the true story and best-selling book by Michael Lewis (The Blind Side, Moneyball), and directed by Adam Mckay (Anchorman, Step Brothers) The BigShort stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.
The Big Short is now playing in limited release. It will expand nationwide on December 23, 2015.
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