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TIME TO SHINE COMIC STAR STEVE CARELL BASKS IN `SURREAL' SUCCESS.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

Things just keep getting better for Steve Carell.

And if that doesn't change soon, he'll be mighty surprised.

``It's surreal,'' the comic star of ``The Office,'' ``The 40-Year-Old Virgin'' and now the indie sleeper hit ``Little Miss Sunshine'' says with a shrug. ``It was not anything that I anticipated to happen. I definitely don't take any of it for granted,''says Carell, who turns 43 next week. ``I'm not banking on it to continue into the stratosphere.''

That puts him in a group of one. The American version of the universally acclaimed British sitcom ``The Office'' -- in which Carell stars as perpetually clueless workplace manager Michael Scott -- returns for a third season this fall. ``Evan Almighty,'' the upcoming sequel to the hit film comedy ``Bruce Almighty'' -- in which he had a brief but memorable role as a colleague tormented by Jim Carrey's godly powers -- was rewritten specifically as a star vehicle for Carell.

And even though he made ``Little Miss Sunshine'' before ``Virgin'' turned him into a bankable movie star, Carell's participation in the ensemble comedy is certainly encouraging more people to check it out. A huge audience pleaser at January's Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight paid a record $10.5 million for its theatrical distribution rights, ``LMS'' had taken directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris years to get financed.

Now it's the rare festival favorite that's slowly rolling out to equivalent box office success (it clocked a smokin' $25,520 per-screen average last weekend, more than twice that of any other film in the top 25; it opens wider this weekend). Co-starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin and little Abigail Breslin as members of a dysfunctional family struggling to get their daughter to a children's beauty contest, the film humorously calls into question common American notions of failure and success.

Kind of like the way Carell talks. He plays an uncle, Frank, who's just lost everything -- his boyfriend, his tenured professorship, his will to live -- who finds himself crossing the Southwest in a broken-down Volkswagen van with his unhappy relatives.

``I was looking specifically for a suicidal, gay Proust scholar when I just happened to come across this,'' Carell deadpans.

``No, I wasn't looking for a departure,'' he says of Frank, who couldn't be more different from the idiot weatherman (``Anchorman'') or hyperactive squirrel (``Over the Hedge'') Carell has played. ``I just thought it was a really good script. It made me laugh and it touched me. I thought the script was sweet and, at the same time, very unsentimental. There was a lot of gray area within the characters. They had a great degree of humanity and pathos, but not in a cloying sort of way.''

Indeed, Carell insists that funny is a secondary consideration whenever he takes on a role. As far as one ``LMS'' co-star is concerned, she was working with an actor, not a comedian.

``I'm glad I got to know Steve before the explosion of `40-Year-old Virgin','' says Toni Collette (``The Sixth Sense''), who plays his sister in the movie. ``I believe an actor should be able to play anything, and he really can. And he's such a smart, softly spoken, lovely man ... I was actually shocked by `The 40-Year-Old Virgin,' because I got to know him through this project beforehand.''

Although he got his basic training at Chicago's improv comedy institution Second City and first got noticed as a correspondent for the satirical ``Daily Show,'' Massachusetts native Carell indeed put more thought into Frank's catatonic depressiveness than in dreaming up gags.

``Without overanalyzing it, he just seemed like a guy who had removed himself from others,'' the actor explains. ``And when thrown together with this family, he starts to reconnect -- with them and, a little bit, with himself.

``But I never thought of it in terms of what could make this guy funny. I thought if it's going to be funny, it will be because of the situations or something that someone else does in the context of a relationship.''

This from a guy who actually allowed his own chest hair to be yanked off for ``Virgin's'' squirm-inducingly hilarious waxing scene. According to collaborators, Carell will do whatever he feels a given piece calls for. Yet, whether he's playing an imbecile like Michael Scott or an intellectual such as Frank, there's a consistent comic standard in most of the actor's performances.

``There are completely different comedic voices between Steve and Jim Carrey,'' says screenwriter Steve Oedekerk, who completely rewrote ``Evan Almighty'' to accommodate Carell's sensibility after Carrey dropped out of the project. ``They're both really good at physical humor, but from a dialogue standpoint, from where it really comes from, Jim's really more proactive and Steve is reactive.''

Or, at least, he puts on a good show of it. Never more so than when he won a Golden Globe award in January for his work on ``The Office.'' Carell read a speech allegedly written by his wife, fellow Second City and ``Daily Show'' alum Nancy Walls, who has also appeared in ``The Office'' as a love interest for Carrell's Michael Scott.

In that speech, his shortcomings as a husband were uproariously enumerated.

``I've always been conscientious about my wife's contributions; it's never too far away from my thoughts,'' insists Carell, who lives in the Valley with Walls and their two children. ``I wrote that acceptance speech, but I ran it by her the night before so she could get a sense for what it was, and she thought it was great. And at the actual awards, she definitely played off of it. We share very similar senses of humor, and that's been great.''

As for the endurance of ``The Office'' -- a show that was considered marginal from the start, despite fervent critical support -- well, Carell is unsurprisingly as surprised as anybody.

``I didn't know whether `The Office' was going to go past six episodes, let alone elevate anybody's career,'' he says of the series that earned him an Emmy nomination for best actor in a comedy as well as a nomination for the production itself. ``Obviously, the comparisons to the BBC `Office,' right off the bat, made everyone really dubious about re-creating what's now a classic show. Us included. We just thought it was a really funny premise, and we hoped to make a pretty funny show out of it.

``So, no, I didn't expect anything. And the fact that it's incrementally grown and is gaining a following is nice.''

The same humble disbelief applies to every other aspect of this atypically thoughtful performer's new status as one of the funniest people in Hollywood.

``In my wildest dreams, I thought if I could just be the wacky neighbor on a sitcom, I would be completely content and that would be the pinnacle of success for me,'' Carell insists. ``So, really, this whole thing is beyond my wildest dreams, and I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around it.''

And he may be wrapping his hands around that Emmy on Aug. 27.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

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3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) mrc. sunshine

Steve Carell lights up TV, big screen in string of hits

(2) Steve Carell, second from right, joins his dysfunctional relatives crossing the Southwest en route to a children's beauty pageant in ``Little Miss Sunshine,'' also starring Abigail Breslin, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear.

(3) Steve Carell stars as clueless workplace manager Michael Scott in ``The Office.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 11, 2006
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