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Smart. Maxwell Smart.

Steve Carell heads a cast of improv comics in the movie version of Get Smart

Steve Carel stars in Get Smart

I improvised everything,” deadpans Steve Carell about his starring role in the big screen adaptation of the classic 1960s sitcom Get Smart. This is after taking a moment to introduce the film’s writer, seated down at the other end of the table here at a swanky Beverly Hills hotel.

Of course, any use of “deadpan” and Carell’s name in the same sentence is redundant: If ever you see one of his characters smiling or laughing, it’s usually in a panic-stricken way signaling the beginning of a complete breakdown. And Maxwell Smart is not one of those characters: Just as he was played by Don Adams, he may get himself into some ridiculous situations, but usually because of overenthusiasm, seldom because of stupidity.

That’s the main similarity between the TV and movie Maxes, but it’s the key to the character and why choosing Carell was such a smart casting decision.

Even if you only dimly recall the show, which was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as a spoof of James Bond-type spy thrillers and ran from 1965 to 1970, it’s had a surprising impact on pop culture through the years, If you’ve ever said, “Sorry about that, Chief,” “Would you believe…?”, “Missed it by that much,” or “And loving it,” you were repeating one of the show’s catchphrases. (I wonder if MacDonald’s has to pay Brooks and Henry royalties?)

Get Smart the movie touches base with the show just enough to please longtime fans without treading on their memories. The cast includes a large number of Second City veterans (Carell, founding member Alan Arkin, as the Chief, David Koechner and newcomers Masi Oka and Nate Torrence, who are very funny as Smart’s gadget builders). Also on board are Anne Hathaway as Agent 99, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Terry Crews, Patrick Warburton, Borat sidekick Ken Davitian, and, in the real stroke of casting genius, Terence Stamp as Smart’s nemesis Siegfried.

While improvisation would seem to be more welcome in an indie film or a show like his hit The Office than in a big-budget summer blockbuster like this, Carell says it still has its place. “It was a mix. We stuck to the script, but there were chances to play. We would come up with alternatives because you never know in the final outcome what will or won’t work. So we tried to give ourselves some options on various takes.”

Carell’s days with the Chicago troupe of Second City (where his understudy was Stephen Colbert) remain dear to his heart. “I carry that experience with me always. Alan Arkin is a huge idol for me. As one of the originators, the genesis of Second City, he’s legendary. The best thing for me about Second City was having that freedom to fail night after night. To be able to try things and experiment and attempt without being too precious about it and knowing that if it didn’t work, you could always try something different the next day. That’s a very freeing kind of thing to have.”

As for his trademark deadpan, Carell says that’s just what you see on camera. “It takes editing to cut out all the times I’m laughing hysterically. Well, more importantly than that, I try specifically not to laugh when someone else is doing their thing. Because if you laugh and ruin someone else’s take, if somebody’s doing something inspired or incredibly funny, it’s a gift. To take that away by laughing and ruining it, that’s a cardinal sin in my mind. But there are some times you just can’t help yourself. There’s a scene in the movie when Alan is trying to pronounce a name at the cone of silence sequence. The scene probably took five times longer than it should’ve because I couldn’t control myself. So I took that gift from Alan. That just killed me.”

While The Office is a bona fide hit (Carell says he will be doing at least three more seasons), he was in his share of less-acclaimed television before joining the cast of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. One in particular sticks in his mind.

“I was on a failed TV series called Over the Top in which I played an outrageous Greek chef in a hotel. One of the reviews referred to me as the Heinrich Himmler of comedy—it said that [the show’s star] Tim Curry was Hitler and every Hitler needs his henchman.

“You know who pointed this review out to me was Stephen Colbert. Much to his delight—it was years later when we were working on The Daily Show. It was the funniest review because the reviewer went on to say, ‘I have experienced pain in my life. I have witnessed the agony of childbirth.’ It went on and on and then likened the premiere episode of Over the Top to all of those experiences.”

Of course, Hollywood doesn’t like to sink all of its money into a movie that’s simply funny, so Get Smart inevitably has a lot of expensive action sequences. Carell’s preparation for these scenes? “I worked out and made my body a physical specimen to be admired. Fine tempered steel is what most people…[time for the truth] I tried not to get killed, was my MO in this. Probably the most dangerous stunt was the scene in which we’re riding a banner behind a moving SUV. So we were on a platform. We weren’t hooked in to anything and just being pulled down train tracks riding on top of this platform. The only reason I think it was dangerous was because everyone said, ‘Okay, are you ready to go? Good, okay, let’s go. Let’s do it.’ But I never felt that anything was in jeopardy and the stunt people did the really heavy lifting.”

As far as any real physical challenge in the filming, he points out the scene where he ballroom dances with a very large woman. “I think the challenge was hers,” he says. “She’s a fantastic dancer and I am not, so I think the inherent challenge there was to try to make me look good.”

And on the subject of trying the keep up with the women in the film, he has praise for his co-star as well. “There were several scenes in the movie where we are running at full tilt. I was running as fast as I possibly could run. Anne Hathaway was wearing four-, five-, six-inch heels and she was kicking my ass. I have no idea how that is physically possible.”

For a complete version of this press conference, including comments from Anne Hathaway, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, Masi Oka, Nate Torrence, Ken Davitian and director Peter Segal, click here!

Watch the trailer for "Get Smart"

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