Steve Carell on creating the 'surprisingly patriotic' Netflix comedy Space Force
Steve Carell sets course to revisit the TV comedy universe in the new military comedy Space Force, starring as Air Force general Mark R. Naird, who's tapped to run a new branch of the armed services with its sights on the moon. The Office alum and Oscar-nominated actor — who returned to TV last year in the Apple TV+ drama The Morning Show — reteamed with former Office showrunner Greg Daniels to create this Netflix comedy (premiering Friday), which boasts a constellation of stars, including John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow, Ben Schwartz, Jimmy O. Yang, and Jane Lynch. EW takes you inside the series here, and below, Carell explains how it all began with two simple words, what he learned from working with John Malkovich, and how Space Force is "surprisingly patriotic."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How soon after Donald Trump announced his plans for Space Force did you think, “I can have some fun with that!”?
STEVE CARELL: It was not my idea. It was all Netflix. They called and said, “Would you be interested in pursuing a show?” They had no premise; it was just the name. The notion of this new military entity was funny to me, so I called Greg Daniels and said, “How would you feel about doing a show on Space Force with me?” And he jumped in immediately. It was just a very, very simple notion.
What did the actual Space Force represent to you and why was it perfect comedic fodder?
It just seemed like a new avenue. It seemed like something that had never been explored before. Obviously, because it hadn't existed. So I think just given that, it could be really anything. Because we’d be developing our show simultaneously as the actual Space Force was being created, there were no parameters, there were no rules. It was a blank sheet of paper for us, and that was intriguing.
The producers of another high-tech comedy, Silicon Valley, had access to industry experts, including an official from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and visits to tech companies. What kind of access did you seek? And how did you go about researching this?
We have lots of different advisors, both military and scientific. We had contacts through NASA, and as a group of writers and producers, we went and took a tour of Space X to get a sense of what they're up to and glean some information from them. We tried to absorb as much as we could from different aspects of what would constitute a Space Force because it's both military and scientific. It's a hybrid of those things. So to try to meld what their capabilities would be, what the thrust of their activities would be — all of those things were really left up to the imagination.
You mentioned that it felt like a blank page. What was the biggest challenge in filling it?
The challenge was also the joy of it. In a way, it's sort of the antithesis of what we did on The Office because there was a roadmap to that show. There were characters or character-like types in place [from the British version] and a structure as to the way the show is shot. But this didn't have any of those aspects. From day one, when Greg and I first met to discuss it, we had to decide what the show would feel like tonally and where would the comedy lie and how much of it would be serious or more heartfelt or more genuine, more human.
How did you get into the mindset of Mark R. Naird, a family man and military loyalist who doesn’t quite trust science, though he desperately needs it for this ambition?
Greg and I talked a lot about who this character would be. We didn't want him to be a buffoon at any time, but if there are flaws, they're mostly based in the fact that he doesn't change very easily. He's a creature of habit and a creature of discipline, and he's been in the military most of his life. That's what he knows, that's what he abides by — and it could be considered a weakness as well. I thought that was an interesting thing. He's very loyal. He's a good soldier, he’s incredibly committed. And he's smart and he's savvy and he's a good person. But there are some things that he needs to overcome — especially when given the command of this brand new military entity.
How would you describe the dynamic between Naird and Mallory?
They're oil and water. Mallory is the chief scientist at Space Force. He's the person who is driven by science, whereas Naird is driven by his military background. He's very pragmatic. And, as you said, he doesn't necessarily trust everything scientific. He sometimes thinks that butts up against what human beings might need or want. I think one of the interesting things, especially in the first season, is that he softens on that and starts to understand the importance of the two living together. Especially in a situation like a Space Force, [where] they have to coexist in order for it to work.
The cast you’ve assembled is bananas. Kudrow. Malkovich. Schwartz. Lynch. Emmerich. Warburton. Yang. Did you just put out feelers to every funny or intriguing actor you knew and then somehow find yourself with an embarrassment of riches?
Yeah! We'd be writing a part and we’d think, “Oh, Jane Lynch would be perfect for this! Do you think she'd do it?” and then she just said yes. Everybody we asked said yes. We were really lucky. Some people who aren't necessarily known for doing a lot of comedy, like Noah Emmerich and John Malkovich, they're hilarious. John Malkovich just makes me laugh. I feel like I always have to say his full name when I say his name. John Malkovich. It's the respectful thing to do.
What's one surprising thing you pulled away from working with John Malkovich?
I think there was an expectation of this super serious thespian — and there was that aspect of him because he is a technician and he wants it to be right — but at the same time, he understands just the play of it and the ability to have fun and goof around and be silly. And he is all of those things as well. Right before we started, I watched one of his old SNL episodes where he does a reading for little kids [of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"] in the opening monologue and it's the funniest thing, and it's so dry. He's playing that character he plays a lot — sort of the curmudgeon, a little bit intimidating, scary guy — but he's telling this bedtime story and it's hilarious. And he understands. That's the other thing: He really understands comedy as he does drama, as he does opera, as he does fashion, he’s such a Renaissance man. He can do so many different things. He’s just an incredibly interesting person to sit and talk to. And he just hung out and talked with everybody, he's just a guy who's full of joy — and really fun to be with. That, I think, was the surprise. Because I thought he'd be pretty intense and he’s just fun. And funny.
You don’t show the unnamed president in Space Force, but you have your versions of people like Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. How did you decide how closely to wink at our current political landscape?
It wasn't the thrust of the show. It wasn't the reason for us doing the show. I hope what people understand about the show is that it's surprisingly patriotic. The object of the show is not to denigrate either party. I don't see it as a partisan show. The depiction of the president really is more of a parallel universe than necessarily a depiction of our current president. There are things that are lifted from the current social and political world, but it's done with a very light touch. It doesn't really lean too hard either way. It's an equal opportunity show.
A chimp astronaut factors into the show. How would you brace viewers for what they're about to see there?
And the dogstronaut.
When you hear chimpstronaut, you might have preconceived notions as to what that would mean. There's an episode fairly early on involving, [laughs] as you would guess, an astronaut chimp. I don't know if the term chimpstronaut has ever been coined before. But a fun fact — the co-creator of this show actually did some of the acting for the chimpstronaut that you see on screen. If you look very closely within that chimpstronaut performance, you will see some of Greg Daniels. He's not only a writer, creator, producer, director, but he also does some excellent animal acting.
Mark performs “Kokomo” in a stressful moment in the first episode. Where in the recesses of your brain did that come from?
I just figured: Here's a guy who has a lot of pent-up frustration and angst and tension in his world. And one of the things that Greg and I agreed about the character was that he should have odd and awkward ways of dealing with his tension. And one way he does it is to calm himself down by singing or imagining himself singing songs. I was listening to "Kokomo" in the car one day, and I thought that's such a soothing song. And once it gets into your head, it doesn't easily leave your head. [Laughs] So I feel like it could be one of the character’s go-to stress relievers and you get to see a little bit behind the scenes. Being a military man, he's not going to go to a psychiatrist. He feels that he can self-evaluate. And so there's a bit of a blind spot to the type of person he is. Rather than reach out to others for help, it's very internalized, and it's just an odd, odd way of dealing with stress.
When you started writing this show, did you think that the real Space Force would happen? And do you feel any differently now, given the global pandemic?
We knew for sure that the real Space Force would be happening. We just didn't know exactly what it would look like, or how soon it would be happening. And it's interesting, too, because as the real Space Force releases the design of their uniforms, we've been able to release the design of ours. They release their logo and we release our logo. [Laughs] And it's kind of funny to see [the] similarities and differences, and obviously one is fictional creation and the other is a real thing, but how closely some of the things are paralleling each other. But no, we knew for sure. And I don't think that necessarily changes. If we do come back for another season, we're thinking about plot lines and where we'd go from there. And determining whether it would take into account anything that's happening right now, I don't know — it's a parallel universe.
This is your first project together with Greg since The Office. Which is more likely: You next cross paths with Greg by guest-starring in some sort of Office revival, or the two of you create a third series?
I would work with Greg at any time. I trust him implicitly, so I’d definitely do another show. I would continue on this show with him. I would develop something new with him in a heartbeat. And I think everybody from The Office feels that way about Greg. He's such a good guy and he's so smart and he took such great pains with that show. And with this one, too. In terms of casting, and not just casting the right actor for the part, but with good people. It's something we found on The Office that we all got along, everyone was nice and ended up really caring about one another. And I think he has a knack for that. He likes to hire decent human beings who become friends and have strong relationships because that's such a big part of anything being successful — the strength of those relationships.
If space truly is the final frontier, do you have a dream scene that you’d like to do in season 2?
I have to look for the next big stress-relief song scene. For General Naird, I always want to look for some new opportunities for him — and the odder and more surreal, the better to see how he might deal with some of the stresses and strains of his job. That's something that I'm kicking around at this point. What other odd, quirky ways of dealing with his life are we going to see? And whether it's a song or something else, I find stuff like that really funny, when something comes out of the blue in a surreal and an odd way. I'd like to see some more of that.