Carell and Knightley Balance Humor and Pathos at “End of the World”
Offbeat casting helps find the humor in doomsday film.
You’ve seen your share of movies built around the premise of an asteroid on the way to destroy all life on earth. But probably none with the funny and bittersweet tone of “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.”
Departing from the world-saving bombast of blockbusters like “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” writer-director Lorene Scafaria concocted an off-kilter, more intimate take on impending doom in which a emotionally repressed man (Steve Carell) sees his loveless marriage abruptly end once news of the planet’s unavoidable fate is revealed.
After bonding with his free-spirited neighbor (Keira Knightley), the pair set out on a cross-country road trip in a bid to reunite him with his high school sweetheart. The two grow closer as they contend with the sad but sometimes hilarious psychological fallout experienced by the people they meet along the way.
“I was lucky enough to get that kind of cast who balances comedy and tragedy so well,” Scafaria tells PopcornBiz of the delicate tonal blend she was aiming for. “Steve, especially, is one of those people who, in all of his characters, blends that together. And I've always been a person who tries to laugh during a darker time.”
“I think the whole concept is so absurd that actually the humor was in what was happening – the absurdities of the event itself,” Knightley explains. “So I think for both me and Steve, we were just playing the reality of the actual situation, in that it's sort of inherently, horrendously funny.”
“I think you approach each scene separately and as a whole.” Carell says of juggling the comedy and the pathos, determining which way to go from moment to moment. “You just go with your instincts and hope that it's the right move.”
The offbeat combination of himself and Knightley as an increasingly connected duo helped make the shifts in tone work even more seamlessly, suggests Carell. “I think an unlikely pairing for this movie was actually a benefit, because it's good in the sense that we're completely opposites,” he says. “No one would ever see these people having dinner together, let alone having any sort of relationship. So I think that works, because it would take something like the apocalypse, when you have this limited amount of time, your choice of partner, I think, changes."
To offset the poignancy, Scafaria surrounded Carell and Knightley with an ensemble of supporting players that carried the more comedic moments (including Adam Brody, Patton Oswalt, Rob Corddry, T.J. Miller, Gillian Jacobs and Melanie Lynskey). “I just thought that it would be fun to get a bunch of comedic actors, especially some stand-up comics that are in there and mix that up with some more dramatic actors,” says the director. “I thought the balance would work in creating a whole world that humanity is represented in.”
“Lorene was really open to riffing, which is important because I'm an improviser and that's sort of where my skill set lies,” says Miller (“Cloverfield,” “Rock of Ages”), who plays a waiter at a TGI Fridays with a unique approach to dealing with doomsday. “I'm not a great actor. I am good at seeming high all the time, and being awkward in orgies, which I think I was in the film – but yeah, my method was aligning myself with that type of thinking and then just pretending to be totally blitzed out of my mind for nearly 18 hours and touching a lot of Steve Carell's earlobes. I got to know those lobes.”
“I, luckily, have only had to deal with the funnier parts,” says Corddry (“Children’s Hospital”), whose character anesthetizes himself for the end with alcohol and drugs. “And the more poignant, in that they were just dark – but my character doesn't really get to go too deep. He's decided to stay in the shallow end for the end of the world. He's too drunk to swim. He can't handle the deep water.”
Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) enjoyed her brief but memorable tragicomic turn as a single woman who, desperate to end the world with a boyfriend at her side, makes a relentless play for Carall’s character. “She's so lonely!” Lynskey pouts sympathetically. “Instead of being like, 'Hey, look – my great friends and my family…' or whatever else, she was like, 'I need a boyfriend!.'”
Mining both the funny and sad moments certainly left the cast members ruminating on what the planet’s final curtain might actually be like, but for Knightley, at least, the reality seems almost impossible to imagine. “I just don't think it's going to happen!” she admits, remembering the ancient prediction calling for the end of the world in the current calendar year. “It's the Mayans, right? I just don't think that they had an imagination beyond 2012, and I have stuff to do in 2013. So it better not end!”