Carell wrestles with drama in Cannes contender Foxcatcher

Director Bennett Miller (left) turned comic Steve Carell into the darkest of characters
Director Bennett Miller (left) turned comic Steve Carell into the darkest of characters

In Knocked Up, Kathryn Heigl’s character is commended for the rare achievement of managing to make Steve Carell look like an ass-hole.

Capote and Moneyball director Bennett Miller manages to make him look a whole lot worse than an ass-hole, in Foxcatcher, his Palme d’Or-nominated third feature. A Carell – so unregonisable that I was wondering why they’d cast someone who sounded exactly like the comic actor, but looked nothing like him in anything but build – stars as the multi-millionaire philanthropist John du Pont, who ran a wrestling coaching centre on his estate, before going just a bit bonkers, with tragic consequences.

It’s perhaps befitting that this film got its first public outing at the Cannes Film Festival that opened with the critically panned Grace of Monaco, because that was rejected as much by the Grimaldi family as by reviewers. In the case of Foxcatcher, the families involved in the story were very much more involved in the production process.

Miller says he spent a bit of time with the Du Pont family before the shoot, but it was the Schultz family – the wrestling champions Du Pont used to live his dream – who played a more integral part.

As well as spending six months learning to wrestle, Channing Tatum, who plays Olympic champion Mark Schultz, and Mark Ruffalo, who plays his older brother Dave, also an Olympic champion, spent a lot of time with the families of the characters they portrayed.

“I spent a lot of time with the real Mark Schultz, which was special,” Tatum recalls. “He coached me, but it was polarising,” he admits. “Sometimes I was grateful that he was there. Other times I felt terrified and distracted.”

The real Mark also spent a lot of time on set. Ruffalo acknowledges that it was “emotionally intense” to have him around, as it meant reliving a very difficult time in his life. “Very early on, I met one of Dave’s close friends,” recalls Ruffalo. He became a guide and technical adviser to the cast. Ruffalo says the research felt like he was becoming an investigative journalist.

Now, without wanting to spoil anything for readers who are not familiar with the Du Pont wrestling episode, I’ll say no more than that it ended in the most unexpected and tragic way, and it was John du Pont who was to blame.

Carell recalls the moment when he first met Dave Schultz’s family. “I was in character, which made it doubly awkward, as they tried to make me look as much like him as possible.” Indeed, it took four hours in make-up every day to wipe any visual trace of Carell himself off the film. Meeting the family afterwards, when he was no longer in character, was much better, he remembers.

With du Pont’s character – largely his emotional well-being – changing markedly during the years covered by the film, Carell says he watched and read as much as he could about him, to get the type of person he was. “A lot has been written about the family,” he notes. “And there’s quite a lot of video tape. He commissioned documentaries about himself,” highlighting the growing self-centred, self-important eccentricity of the man who increasingly became a mad millionaire.

Miller believes that it was his supremely competitive nature that got Du Pont into wrestling in the first place to try to match his mother’s sporting success with racing. She had a stable of horses while he built a stable of wrestlers. But the death of his formidable mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, was the beginning of his unwinding, according to the director.

Carell is far better known for his comedy, although his forays into more dramatic roles, in films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Dan in Real Life and The Way Way Back have been more than adequate. But playing the real-life sociopathic megalomaniac millionaire took his acting to another level, although he says the process for preparing for a drama is no different from preparing for a comedy. “Characters don’t know if they’re in a comedy or a drama,” he observes. “I didn’t approach it as a drama. It was a story and he was just a character in that story,”

With critics at Cannes already touting Carell for an Oscar nomination, perhaps that story will have a happier ending than it might have done, for him at least.