Carell gets under the skin of troubled outsider

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The creepy control freak of Foxcatcher may snare Steve Carell an Oscar, but does the film drift too far from the truth, asks Tony Earnshaw.

Earlier this week the American wrestler Mark Schultz tweeted: “I’ve decided to support my interpretation and ignore the rest.”

Short and sweet. But in those dozen words are concealed heartache, anger, frustration and humiliation at the way his life has been interpreted in a new hit movie.

Foxcatcher focuses on a peculiarly tragic triumvirate: wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, and multi-millionaire coach and mentor John du Pont. It’s a strange story of ambition, control, vicarious thrills and, ultimately, murder and incarceration.

Du Pont was the millionaire’s son and wrestling obsessive who decided to use his inheritance to stake a claim on the sport. He transformed his late mother’s sprawling estate into Foxcatcher, a training base. And among the athletes he tempted there were world and Olympic champions the Schultz brothers.

They needed no one to train them but du Pont was their self-styled chief coach. It was a strange, twisted relationship, and one that was clouded further by du Pont’s descent into drink, drugs and overwhelming paranoia.

The simple and tragic end to a complex tale was the death of Dave Schultz, who was shot dead by du Pont in the driveway of his home in 1997. The act has never been explained in any meaningful way and certainly not by du Pont, who was jailed for third degree murder and who died in 2010.

But the route from real life – and via Mark Schultz’s memoir – to the movie screen has not been without its travails. Latterly the surviving Schultz sibling has gone on record to lambast a film he claims has misrepresented his relationship with the man who murdered his brother.

The tipping point appears to have been director Bennett Miller’s insinuation that there was some form of homoerotic connection – conscious or otherwise – between du Pont and Schultz. It prompted a flurry of tweets and Facebook comments, now deleted.

What many agree on is that Foxcatcher is a remarkable film packed with remarkable performances. The central trio is made up of Channing Tatum as Mark, Mark Ruffalo as Dave and Steve Carell as John du Pont. And it’s Carell who has picked up most of the comments as yet another genuinely funny man who has delved deep to portray a troubled, flawed and damaged outsider.

Carell dismisses suggestions that someone like him, ostensibly a comedian, shouldn’t play someone like du Pont. But with the aid of discreet prosthetics and a specific haircut he morphed into du Pont in a way that is unnerving. And to assist in his transformation Carell looked into documentaries about the man who, he says, is not just a one-dimensional villain.

“Du Pont did have a very specific way of talking, a specific demeanor, and a specific look as well. Just his physicality was very off-putting to many people,” reveals Carell. “He had commissioned a documentary on himself and the raw footage that he didn’t want people to see showed a sharper edge, a less tolerant, more abrasive and more volatile person. It was a persona that he didn’t want to project at all.”

That enigmatic aspect, and du Pont’s descent into paranoia, combined to provide Carell with the ingredients to present one of cinema’s greatest oddballs.

He wasn’t able to meet the real man so instead he met those who had been in his orbit: Mark Schultz, his brother’s wife, her children. He also had limited contact with Du Pont’s family, who were “curious and helpful” and his lawyer, who “wasn’t about to cooperate”.

“I met with a lot of people who had worked with him, people who had been ‘coached’ by him. They all had various ideas as to who he was but they all said essentially the same thing about his demeanor” how unnerving he was to be around. [The prosthetics] influenced the performance more than I anticipated. Once all of that make-up went on, people reacted and responded to me differently on set. I was off-putting. They naturally wanted to be separate from me and so organically I just stayed in character. I didn’t really have any choice because no one wanted to talk to me.”

Thus Carell embodies Du Pont’s legacy, that of a peculiar man possessed of a fragile mental state, lost in a bubble of his own creation and delusional in the extreme.

Some are calling Carell’s performance a shoo-in for the Oscar. His response: “You can’t really put any stock in it. It’s nice that people are talking about the film in that way but you can’t really give it too much credence. I can’t.”

* Foxcatcher (15) is on general release.