With his past work on The Daily Show and The Office, as well as films like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and even Hope Springs, Carell demonstrated an ability to weave himself into an ensemble. But he's also a reliable leading man, as evidenced by the likes of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Get Smart. As an actor, he thinks of both types of roles identically, saying, "I don’t approach anything differently. I just approach it like a character. I’m always astounding that I’ve ever played a leading character in anything and my wife concurs with that. I always thought I’d be at best the wacky neighbor on a sitcom. This is all a surprise and a joy."
In order to create Steve Gray, something of an amalgam of Criss Angel and David Blaine, Carrey brought many ideas to the role, but was always building off the basis of the screenplay by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. "It was a great script and it’s always great to start with a great script and a fantastic idea," he said. "I always like to bring whatever I can to something and I’m always thinking. I don’t sleep. When we threw the wig on the character, I did a 180 and it required a little more of 'Who is this guy?' He struck me as a guy who had a Christ complex. That kind of psychological warfare, I like to play with as a joke. It really suited me and the combination of what is written and what feels right in the comment is always the best way. But you always start with something solid."
Carell and Carrey are familiar comedic leads, but some audiences may be surprised to see Steve Buscemi wearing a blond wig as Marvelton. Though he's known principally as a dramatic actor, Buscemi has shown his comedic chops in many an Adam Sandler movie and in a recurring role on 30 Rock. "I’ve always loved comedy," said Buscemi. "Growing up it was the comedies that I responded to, I don’t know it turned out that when I started acting, I started getting a certain kind of role that I never saw myself as growing up. I love when I get the opportunity to play a role like Anton where I can dive in and work with Steve, Jim, and Olivia, how can I not do this movie – when I read the script, 'Oh, yeah, thank God.' This is the kind of stuff that I really love to do. I hope to do more, but I’m just grateful that I got to do this."
He and Carell execute multiple elaborate magic shows that lay on the theatricality. Buscemi found himself particularly enjoying the duo's dance style, as he said, "To me, one of the fun things about it was the dancing that we did. I was just following Steve’s lead. It was so much fun. These guys probably discovered it in the show and probably just kept with it. This is what works. They probably don’t even think about it. For us, it was so much fun to work out that stuff."
Asked about the similarities between magicians and thespians, as well as the movie's theme of corruption, Carell replied, "Actors and magicians are both performers and they represent things that are not necessarily who they are. In terms of the corruption, success can – it does in the story of this movie that this guy starts out as a boy finds magic, it elevates him. It enables him to find himself and gives him a purpose. Somewhere along the line, he loses his joy and starts to think differently about himself and the world and magic and about performing. "
"Not a lot of differences between magicians and actors," answered Carrey. "Although I think magicians are a lot more arrogant. That’s what bothered me about magicians growing up. I was always fascinated by it growing up, they’re kind of like, 'Abracadabra, you’re an idiot!' They don’t let you in on the joke. Comedians are in on the joke, unless you’re Andy Kaufman. And corruption, my characters is one of those guys who would mess his hair up for three hours to look like look he doesn’t care. He’s coming at them trying to undermine their confidence and disrupt their lives. Pointing at them like they’ve been corrupted, yet he is totally the corrupt one. He really wants what they have."
To ensure that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone authentically captured the magical arts onscreen, director Don Scardino recruited famed illusionist David Copperfield. Carell explained, "David designed the hangman trick and we shot that without any special effects. That was fun, and I’m sworn to secrecy and cannot divulge the trick, which is very cool. In terms of slight of hand, we worked for several months beforehand with various professional who tried to get us to the point where we could replicate. These guys are so great at what they do, and its years and years of practice. Just to get to the point where it look at least plausible is what I hoped to get. I thought Jim got really good with the fanning of the cards."
Carell's own preparation to play Burt Wonderstone involved familiarizing himself with a magician's tricks and sense of style. "Part of is just replicating the showmanship of it all. I learned in going to all these performances that so much is the buildup to the illusion," he said. "It’s the flair, the sense of mystery that they try to create and speaking to these professionals, it’s something that they find important. It’s not so much the trick. It’s the buildup to the track. That’s one thing I tried to emulate."
As befits such a flamboyant character, Carrey had one scene in which he removes his shirt to reveal an elaborate chain tattoo. "I’ve just never taken my shirt off in a movie before. It was good to finally do that. Figured that was Matthew McConaughey’s thing and I was just going to leave him too it. It’s not a natural place to live in that kind of shape. It looks great. It’s fantastic, it gets a lot of attention, but you have to eat like antimatter to stay in that kind of shape. It’s not a happy place to live. I’m back now, I got Mr. Cuddly back," he said, pointing to his stomach.
Shooting the film in Wonderstone's natural habitat was helpful, according to Carell, who explained, "It was informational to be shooting here in Las Vegas. It does inform the characters a lot. There is obviously a different vibe in Las Vegas and at several times I walked around in full hair and makeup, and costume and no one batted an eye, which led us to believe we were on the right track with the character development. On the poster, it looks absolutely ridiculous. But, it’s not really ridiculous in the context of Las Vegas. For example, we were suspended almost sixty feet above Las Vegas Boulevard in a Plexiglas box on the Las Vegas strip and we didn’t even gather a crowd. We tried to get a crowd. We wanted extras and didn’t want to pay for them! We figured people would just gather and we’ll shoot that. Nobody cared! That told us a lot about our environment."
"There’s everything here. You can’t pinpoint it," said Carrey. "This big Vegas glitzy thing, you have to get people’s attention. When you look out on the strip, it’s blinding the energy that they have. Last night it blacked out. That was me using my hairdryer. But, I found the breaker and fixed it. I’m not a gambler, not the Sin City part of the deal. I like the shows. I used to perform here with Rodney Dangerfield years ago at Caesar’s. I used to open for him. I brought my dad down to the see the show. To see your name up on that big sign is such a thrill. 'Wow, I’m really here.' Then I had a shift and got away from impressions and I started dressing weird with spiky hair and started imitating cockroaches avoiding vacuum cleaners. I totally lost the audience, which of course I planned to do from time to time. Rodney Dangerfield used to stand backstage and howl with laughter at my failure. I’d come off stage and he’d say, 'Man, they’re looking at you like you're from another planet.'"
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 15th.