On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon on the Universal Studios back lot, several journalists are preparing to interview the cast of Evan Almighty, many with one question on their minds:
Most everyone here is impressed by the performance of Morgan Freeman, who is back playing God four years after he, um, created the role in Bruce Almighty. But Freeman himself is nowhere to be found. This is not too surprising, as Freeman is a busy actor whose talents are constantly in demand; but it does mean the most authoritative voice in the movie won't be here to chat it up.
Not to worry, at least his prophet is here. Steve Carell returns as Evan Baxter, the anchorman—now congressman—who gave Jim Carrey so much grief in Bruce, and got so much grief in return. Evan was a relatively minor character in the earlier movie, but now he takes center stage, as God tells him to build an ark—and, for good measure, compels him to wear the beard and robes of a biblical patriarch.
Carell, whose star rose between the Almighty pictures thanks to The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, says he loved working with Freeman. "He has a way of performing that is so natural and so heartfelt that I really just liked being around him," he says. And he adds that he wasn't worried at all about his co-stars stealing the movie from him, the way he arguably stole Bruce from Carrey.
"The movie is only as good as the sum of its parts, and the funnier it is, the better it is for everybody," he says. "And I have felt the same way about anything I've been in. I don't need to be the person who's being funny. … To me, it's just a sort of joyous experience to have other people make me laugh. I frankly enjoy that more than anything, when others make me laugh really hard."
Carell says he also enjoyed working with the animals—many of which were actually on the set, though some were later added digitally. The giraffes and elephants were especially "interesting," he says. "These are animals you always see at a distance at a zoo, and then when you're up close, like within feet of an animal like that, it gives you a completely different perspective on them.
"There's one scene where the giraffe comes up with a bucket in its mouth and comes right up to me, and I was looking two feet away, and you look into a giraffe's eyes, and it sounds funny or kind of weird, but there's, like, this soulful quality to their face that you would never see from a distance like that. So I was happy to do it. It was an experience I don't think I will ever have again, so it was great."
Was Carell nervous about starring in a film with such obvious religious connotations? "No, I don't think so, because I saw it as a fable," he says. "I think the movie is what you want to take away from it, and it just depends on who you are and where you come from. But I think it speaks to most everybody. It's about caring about one another. It's about caring for our planet. And it's about making choices and leaps of faith, and I think those are universal themes. So no, I wasn't fearful of it at all."
Carell's co-stars are similarly unfazed about appearing in a film of such biblical proportions. Lauren Graham, who plays Evan's longsuffering wife Joan—Joan of Ark, get it?—says she "never think[s] of things like that" when she takes a role.
"When I was up for Gilmore Girls, somebody said, 'Don't you worry that you're playing a mom? Because you're kind of young to do that.' And I didn't even think about it like that. I just connected to the character, and I didn't think about the network or the message. To me, when you're the actor, you're just thinking about the person and not the results. And Bruce Almighty had similar themes in it, but it came out in a really different way. To me this is a movie that is for everybody."
That said, Graham says she was especially interested in the script when she came across a scene where God appears to Joan and spells out one of the film's key themes—that the story of Noah's Ark is mainly about God's love, not his wrath. "I just got to that scene that I have with Morgan, and that speech that he gives," she recalls, "and I thought, That's beautiful. So I think it turned out good."
Wanda Sykes, a stand-up comedian and Emmy-winning former writer for The Chris Rock Show, plays one of Evan's congressional aides in the film, and she says she was impressed by the sheer scope of the movie—rumored to be the most expensive comedy ever made. "Everybody seemed to get along, it was nice, and you had to leave any attitude outside because it's such a huge project," she says. "You see this huge ark, and it's pretty humbling. Obviously, we are not the stars of this movie. They spent a lot of money on this ark, so we'd better quit complaining!"
In the film, Sykes has a funny line, which she improvised, about going to church—so what about Sykes herself? Does she go? "I was raised in a church, when I was growing up. As an adult, I do most of my worshipping at home," she says.
Finally, Freeman might not have been on hand to discuss his take on God, but Tom Shadyac, who directed both Almighty films, is eager to discuss the beliefs that animate his films. "The voice you [hear] in the movie, the God voice, is very personal to me," he says. "I'm very exacting with it—how he delivers it, the way he says it. … It's very personal to me, the way God is presented in these movies."
Could the warm, humorous, compassionate God depicted in his films really be the same God who sent the original Flood all those years ago? "Of course!" says Shadyac. "There are no contradictions in this movie to the original Flood story. However, [God] is saying, 'I once destroyed the world because there was so much corruption. We're here today. I no longer have to destroy the world. Look at what you're doing, to each other. I'm not doing it, you're doing it for me.'"
Someone asks what God would warn us about now, if we could speak to him. "What do I think he would warn us?" Shadyac replies. "Well, I think he would say, 'I've already warned you.' I always had a dream about Jesus, looking me dead in the eye, when I was very young, and he said, 'I never knew you.' Right into the gut and the soul. It's already out there, it's been said. I don't think he needs to say much more. We need to listen to what's been said, we need to incorporate and act on what's been shown us through the lives of others and the written word."
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