Steve Carell and Allison Janney star in “The Way Way Back,” a humorous and heartwarming coming of age story from Academy Award winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash in their feature film directing debut. The film follows 14-year-old Duncan’s (Liam James) summer vacation with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend, Trent (Carell), and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Having a rough time fitting in, the introverted Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), who runs the Water Wizz Water Park and serves as unofficial camp counselor to the kids who hang out there. Through his funny, clandestine relationship with Owen, Duncan slowly opens up and begins to find his place in the world – all during a summer he will never forget.
At a roundtable interview at the film’s recent press day, Carell and Janney talked about their roles, what drew them to their characters and resonated with them when they read the script, what it was like shooting on location in a summer community in Massachusetts, playing parental figures with questionable methods but good intentions, working with co-directors who have a comedic background with The Groundlings, acting opposite River Alexander and Sam Rockwell, mixing up big projects with small indie films, and what’s next including Carell’s feature films “Anchorman: The Legend Continues” and “Foxcatcher” and Janney’s new half-hour CBS comedy, “Mom.”
Question: Can you talk about your roles, what drew you to these characters, and what resonated with you when you read the script?
Steve Carell: The script itself resonated with me. That first scene seemed very true to me, very honest. I was intrigued by this guy because he didn’t in my estimation seem like a pure villain or a complete jerk. He seemed like someone that just didn’t possess the best tools to do what he wanted to do. I liken him to a coach that I might have had growing up, that I may or may not have had. Somebody who is tough on you and wants to build character, but maybe his actions aren’t the most productive. He just doesn’t have the best way of going about doing it.
Allison Janney: And neither does Betty. Our characters are kind of similar that way. They don’t have the best methods, but they have good intentions. They’re just a little misguided. In the script, for me, Betty just leapt off the page. She does in the movie, too. She just comes at you full barrel. It was exciting to play her and also exhausting. But it was also the writing in the script. I happen to have been fans of Jim (Rash) and Nat (Faxon) from watching them in The Groundlings, which is one of my favorite things to do here in L.A. I’ve seen them perform over the years and I’m a huge fan of theirs.
Q: How did you become involved and what made you decide you wanted to be in this?
Carell: Well, the directors primarily and the script. I had never met them before, but I started corresponding with them, and they sent me the script, and we spoke on the phone. I thought they were smart, funny, very talented writers. And then, once I saw the cast that they were assembling, I just wanted to be a part of it. I thought it was an interesting character. It’s the type of character I haven’t done before and that was intriguing to me.
Q: Did you like your character?
Carell: When you approach it, and I hate sounding like the pretentious actor, but yeah, I think you have to find things within the character that are likeable, or at least human, and not to go at it with any sort of predetermined notions as to what that character is.
Janney: You don’t go in with the intention of playing an evil character.
Q: What’s interesting is you grew up not too far from the shooting location of the film?
Carell: That’s right.
Q: How important is it for you as actors to be on location in the actual location with a beach and a summer community for establishing your characters and the dynamics?
Carell: I think it’s enormously important. When they first started talking about doing this movie, I initially declined because …
Janney: They were going to do it in another location.
Carell: We always spend the summer together. My wife and kids, we always go back to Massachusetts and spend the summer there near where my wife and I both grew up. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the summer to go elsewhere. But then they asked, “Where do you go?” I told them the south shore of Massachusetts, and it’s one of the locations that they were thinking about. So they scouted the area and it worked perfectly. It was ideal.
Janney: It was ideal. We all rented houses right on the same street where we shot the movie. We all inhabited this small little town in Massachusetts, and it was a summer vacation we were having ourselves as actors on and off screen. There were no trailers. We all lived together when we were filming the movie in this one house. The actor house they called it. We spent a great deal of time together getting to know each other and having fun and being silly. It was one of the most idyllic spots to shoot a movie and a great experience with an overall summer camp feel to it. It was fun.
Carell: It felt like summer. You can see that in the movie, too. It’s a very familiar type of place where people either go to their house on the lake or they get together in different places. This was a normal, relatable place that I think a lot of people have in their childhood.
Q: Did you get a bump up in pay for helping them find the location?
Carell: Yes! I did.
Q: Will this help you for future roles?
Carell: Yeah, I’ll do it if it’s five minutes away. It worked out really well. The town itself loved having everybody there. Nothing is ever shot in the town so people were [excited]. I felt a sense of responsibility, too, because I wanted it all to work well. I wanted the townspeople to be happy. So I felt an added sense of responsibility to make sure that the townspeople were okay with it all.
Q: You mentioned you don’t see your character as a villain. How would you describe the relationship he has with Duncan, this kid that he calls a “3” at the beginning of the movie?
Carell: One of the aspects of that scene that I liked so much was that it was harsh and it was very real, because it was based on one of our director’s actual exchanges with his stepdad. So it rang true to me in that sense. That’s the scene that drew me into the script obviously because it was the first scene in the movie. But the way I approached that scene was not a guy trying to be mean to a kid, but a guy ultimately trying to help that child, because if you listen to the dialogue, he wants the kid to get out there. He wants him to expand his horizons. He wants him not to live in this little cocoon which he had been living in. In theory, all of those things are good, and it is good advice to a certain extent. But I think his methods were all wrong and really callous, and that way, you can easily see the guy as a jerk, but underneath it all, I don’t think his intentions were all that wrong.
Q: How was it for the two of you working with Nat and Jim as co-directors? Did the fact that they are both actors come into play and add to your comfort level and your collaborative efforts?
Janney: They worked very well together. They’ve been a team far before this movie came together. They’ve written other things together. They were in The Groundlings together. They have a great communication with each other and they worked well on the set. They’re different personalities and they’re very funny to watch. Jim tends to be more serious and Nat’s kind of the crazy loose one, but they’re both hysterically funny. They definitely talked after every take. I never saw them disagree about what direction the scene should go in. They were always interested in giving new ways, for me at least, for Betty, in those crazy scenes I had to do. They were like, “Now try it this way” or “Do it this way.” Or they’d be together and Nat would go, “Why doesn’t she do it this way?” And Jim would say, “She did it that way last time. Let’s have her do it this way.” They had fun. They worked well together. They’re just two of the nicest people on the planet, too, so we’re all really excited for this movie to do well for them because they deserve it. They’re good guys.
Q: Is that beneficial for the two of you, especially in a comedy situation, to have actors who have a comedic background in The Groundlings like Jim and Nat?
Carell: Oh, for sure. I mean, they understand the comedy of the situation, but at the same time, they were confident enough in it to not be looking for jokes. The script itself is really lacking in joke structures. It’s all situational and character-based. That’s their strong suit as writers. They write these characters that are relatable and funny. Allison’s character is so out there, so crazy, but so real at the same time. We all know people like this character in that neighborhood. I didn’t know this until you were talking about it earlier, but your monologues were based on those letters that you get from relatives, the once-a-year letters that recount everything, including my cat has cancer, and just all the stuff you really don’t want to know about a person. It comes out within the first 30 seconds of seeing this woman once a year. That’s funny, but there are no real jokes with it.
Janney: No, and they didn’t direct like they were directing a comedy at all. That’s the other thing I wanted to say. Everything was very serious. Sometimes I wasn’t sure and I’d say to Jim, “Are you happy with what I’m doing?” And he’d be like, “Oh yes, of course. I’m thrilled.” But he was very serious. He was looking at this as a very real moment for this woman, and the stuff comes out of her for a reason. It’s not because she wants to make people laugh, but because she’s desperate to make a connection. She’s so thrilled there are other adults that have come back to the place where they summer together, and there’s someone to drink with, and someone to make her not feel alone. She’s desperate.
Carell: Yeah, I think there’s a sadness underneath all that comedy, too. They wrote it so they had the best handle on it of anyone.
Q: Can you also talk about how the two directors worked between themselves? Did one work more with the actors and the other with the technical aspects?
Carell: I thought it was very equitable. I thought they both did all the things that they needed to do. It’s interesting working with two directors. This is the third time I’ve worked with a directing team, and in each instance, I’ve found that it’s a very efficient way to be directed, because one of the directors may be giving actor notes while the other is helping reset a camera. You can essentially do twice the amount of work in half the amount of time. Like the other directing teams I’ve worked with, they’ve really complemented each other’s styles, and they were very much on the same page in terms of what they wanted to achieve. Not every specific detail of it, but the overall picture and tone and what they were hoping to do with it.
Q: Allison, you’ve got some great scenes with River Alexander. How did the two of you work together?
Janney: I’ve never been challenged so much by another actor, and a child. He’s a great listener and he throws things back at me. He had to wear that eye thing. I don’t know how he did that, seriously, because I would have been driven crazy. They put that fake contact lens on him every morning and he had to wear it. I’m sure it was very hard for him to keep that in because he was blind in one eye using that thing. I just marveled at his ability to take the direction that we were an old married couple. I was like, “How do you know what an old married couple sounds like?” How old is he? Ten? Eleven? Twelve? I don’t even know how old he is. He’s young.
Carell: He’s 32.
Janney: Thirty-two. He knew exactly what that meant. I just found him so funny. He came to this movie with a great deal of experience already. I saw some of the stuff he did on YouTube. We started looking him up because we were so impressed with his acting chops. He’s very, very funny, and I loved doing those scenes with him. It was a challenge to make sure that you saw that Betty loved him. She says some pretty cruel things to him. Just as Trent’s parenting skills are a little misguided, so are hers, but only in her method. She just wants him to have tough skin. He’s going to be teased a lot as a kid with this lazy eye, and she wants him to hear it from her first, and then know how to toughen up and handle it. She loves him. So I put some added physical things in there, like a hand on the shoulder, just something so you see that the love is there.
Q: How scripted was the dialogue in the final cut? How much improvisational input did you have?
Carell: It was mostly scripted. We didn’t have the time to improvise a lot. It was a very tight schedule. We didn’t have days to just meander through things and see what we could find. The script itself was so strong that you didn’t have to deviate from it to find what the scene was about.
Q: You have that wonderful scene with Sam Rockwell at the end of the movie. What do you think of his performance and his character?
Carell: I was a huge fan of his to begin with. He’s an actor in my mind that’s always good. He always rings true to me as an actor, and this was no exception. He’s so likeable. He jokes about channeling Bill Murray, and I can see that, but there’s so much that’s his in this character. It’s such a kind and generous character, but not just that. There’s a lot of depth beyond that, and a lot of his own uncertainties, and his relationship with Maya Rudolph’s character. I thought it was great, in a nutshell. I think he’s somebody that needs to win some awards. I do. He’s just fantastic. Just last night, my son and I rented “Iron Man 2.” He’s a hilarious villain in that. He’s so great. And a couple months ago, I saw “The Green Mile” for the first time, and he was astounding in that. I’ve been a fan for ages.
Janney: Yeah, me too.
Carell: I just think he’s always good.
Janney: Every character in this, even the kids, is going through angst and changes, and all of the adults are very flawed themselves and working through their own life issues. That’s why it relates to a lot of people and it will resonate with them. But Sam’s character, in particular too, he hasn’t grown up and taken responsibility, but he does at the end. Everyone has a slight shift in a positive way.
Q: What’s next for both of you?
Carell: Well “Anchorman: The Legend Continues” is coming out in December. We just finished that, and that’s going to be really fun. And I did a movie with Bennett Miller that’s coming out in November called “Foxcatcher.”
Q: You play John du Pont in “Foxcatcher”? That’s very serious. I’m looking forward to seeing that.
Carell: Yes. It’s a much darker story. It’s pretty intense.
Q: Do you like mixing up these big projects with smaller independent movies?
Carell: Yeah. It’s fun. It’s just getting to work with people like this. I mean, it sounds like a huge cliché, but man, going home at the end of the night and saying to my wife, “Allison Janney is unbelievably good,” and knowing the other side of them, too, on a personal level, and gaining these friendships, is just so rewarding to me. I love it.
Janney: I’m doing a new half-hour comedy for CBS called “Mom” with Anna Faris which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve never done before the multi-camera format, and I think I’m going to love it because it’s a mix of the in front of a live audience and the film and a reasonable schedule. It’s probably one of the most civilized schedules an actor can have. I’m excited about it.
Q: And it’s a different mom from this one?
Janney: Yes, different. There are many mothers out there. (laughs) So many different kinds and they’re fun to play.