Steve Carell did not necessarily see the Maxwell Smart in himself. Everyone else did, including co-star Anne Hathaway and the studio behind the big-screen “Get Smart,” which simply called Carell in and offered him the job, no questions asked.
Carell takes on the title role created by Don Adams in the 1960s TV show about a brainy but bungling spy, with Hathaway playing his supremely capable partner, Agent 99, a part originated by Barbara Feldon.
Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as a comic response to James Bond and other espionage adventures, “Get Smart” has endured in syndication, in follow-up movies and a short-lived second TV series in the 1990s.
Directed by Peter Segal, the new “Get Smart” chronicles Max’s rise from crackerjack analyst to field agent for U.S. spy outfit Control, paired with dubious 99 as they try to foil a plot to distribute nukes to unstable governments.
The cast includes Dwayne Johnson as a star Control agent, Alan Arkin as the Chief and bad guy Terence Stamp, who played Kryptonian supervillain Zod and made Christopher Reeve kneel before him in “Superman II.”
Carell and Hathaway chatted with The Associated Press, fondly recalling Feldon and the late Adams, discussing the show’s longevity and sharing a funny Zod tale.
AP: People tend to be skeptical about TV adaptations, but when Steve was cast as Max, they kind of nodded and said, “Good choice.” What do you and Don Adams have in common?
Carell: There’s a bit of a physical resemblance that would be part of the equation. But aside from that, it’s hard talking about him in the same breath as myself, because I don’t aspire to be as good as he was. He’s iconic and the way he did the character is iconic, and I don’t have any pretense of trying to live up to that. If anything, I’m just trying to get an essence of what he did as opposed to any sort of imitation or channeling.
Hathaway: I thought it was perfect casting. He pays me to say this, but Steve’s being very, very humble, because his take on Max is just spectacular. I think the reason Steve Carell seems to fit (glances at Carell and laughs) — I can’t look at you while I’m saying this …
Carell: I love it when you use my whole name.
Hathaway: The thing about Steve stepping into Don’s shoes that makes sense is Steve’s take on comedy. He can do the big, over-the-top, slightly absurd stuff really well, but he also does the real subtle moments really well. And the thing about Don Adams, he never played Maxwell Smart as a fumbling goon. He played him as a very serious man who didn’t know he was in a comedy. And Steve’s really good at doing that. A lot of his characters don’t know that they’re funny, and that’s what makes him hilarious.
AP: Now the same question for Anne. What do you and Barbara Feldon have in common?
Hathaway: I appreciate this question now. It’s a tough one. I’m so very different from Agent 99, and the bar that Barbara Feldon set and what Barbara Feldon’s 99 meant to people, I’m never going to be able to touch that. The world was in a very different place then. We needed Agent 99. When Barbara Feldon played her, we needed to see a girl who could keep up with the boys, who was smart and who was sexy while being smart. She inspired so many women. When you look at the kind of women we aspire to be today, a lot of them are very similar to Barbara Feldon’s 99. There’s no way I’m going to be able to touch that kind of legacy, but I do think I have good chemistry with my co-star, so that’s probably what I have in common with her.
Carell: Anne was the first person to come in and do a screen test. It was actually the first time I’d said any of the lines. And after she walked out of the room, we all looked at each other and knew it. It was almost as if everyone else could have gone home atthat point, frankly. I’d seen a lot of Anne’s work, but there was a sophistication to her and a slyness and sort of a coolness and a deadpan. And she is a greatimproviser, too. I tend to play around, especially during an audition, just to find different moments and beats, and she was not only there, following, but leading and sharing it.
Hathaway: I always tell people regarding improvising, Steve’s an abstract expressionist and I finger paint. I’m a very good finger painter, but it’s on a different level.
AP: Why has “Get Smart” endured so well?
Hathaway: It’s sophisticated family humor. That’s what the show had going for it. My parents watched it when they were kids, and then when it was on Nick at Nite in reruns, I would watch it with them when I was a kid. In addition to it just being so funny was the chemistry that Don Adams and Barbara Feldon had. You couldn’t take your eyes off them. It was fun to watch them play. … Don Adams, people don’t remember that he was a fantastic actor. There’s this one episode where he has to pretend he’s gone bad and he has to convince 99 that he’s gone bad, and he plays it so straight. It’s a different Max. It’s colder and harder and harsher. Don Adams was a really, really good straight actor.
Carell: Also, look at who created it. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.
In terms of having longevity, “Young Frankenstein” is still one of my favorite movies. “The Producers,” obviously. His stuff just holds up. For the most part, it really does. That’s a huge element, the writing staff, if you look at the people involved.
Hathaway: Steve, you’re such a nice person. I’m like, “It was the actors. The actors are what endured.”
AP: The movie’s more an action comedy than a spy spoof. Were you trying to avoid parodying spy flicks?
Carell: When I first started talking to Pete (Segal the director) about just tonally what the movie could potentially look like, I said, “What about a comedic `Bourne Identity?”’ You take the action in that and you make it a legitimate spy movie that’s funny, as opposed to taking the cliches of spy movies and turning them on their heads. If the villains are like Terence Stamp, these guys are scary and actually have some threat to them. There’s some sense of jeopardy. The comedy laid on top of that might resonate more.
Hathaway: There’s a great story about Terence. He was switching hotels when we were shooting in Montreal. He just went downstairs and he couldn’t find a taxi. He was standing around looking for a taxi and some guy just drove up and went, “Zod?” And he goes, “Yes.” And the guy goes, “What are you doing in Montreal?” “I’m making a movie. Can you give me a ride?” And the guy goes, “Absolutely.” So the guy drove him to his hotel.
AP: I hope the guy didn’t make him say, “Kneel before Zod.”
Carell: I’m sure he’s had to say it to like, cash a check.