LAS VEGAS - For Steve Carell, dedication to a comedic role can be skin-deep. A bright orange skin-deep to be exact.
Playing a flamboyant Vegas magician in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (opening Friday) required the 50-year-old actor to undergo regular spray-tanning sessions, and he took them very seriously.
"Sometimes I had it done daily, depending on if it faded," Carell says, adding a dignified pause. "I would have it applied while wearing a small bikini."
It was only during his final days of filming that Carell realized he didn't need the full bikini monte of spray tans, since his clothes never came off in front of the cameras.
"There were gallons - gallons - of this tanning fluid applied to me that just didn't need to be. It could have gone to better use."
But as director Don Scardino sees it, it's worth the spray-tan budget to bring Carell back to broad comedy.
"If that's the price for getting a wilder character, that's fine," says Scardino.
Since leaving The Office in 2011 after seven seasons, Carell has been playing the emotional spectrum of movie roles, ranging from the romantic lead in Crazy Stupid Loveto straight man in Hope Springs to the dramatic lead in the sci-fi tale Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. But Wonderstone has Carell back engaging in The 40-Year-Old Virgin-style zaniness with a cast that includes Steve Buscemi as his sidekick and Jim Carrey as a rival muscling in on the magician's crumbling empire.
"I thought it would be fun to mix it up," says Carell. "This is a very silly world here."
Besides the orange look, Carell shows off a number of out-there hairstyles as his character moves through various eras of Vegas entertainment, from the mullet to a lion's mane to a more moderate wig for everyday life. Carell's ego-maniacal character even resorts to face decoration: "There's some eye-liner going on.''
But the ultimate step might have been telling Scardino, who wanted Wonderstone to have a Vegas Elvis paunch, that it would be more effective to have him be lean - and proud to show it off with plunging necklines and gold chains.
"I thought this guy was this preening tanned peacock," says Carell. "And he should look like it. You know how they say sometimes the city is a character in a movie? Well that's my chest here."
Besides working his upper body into shape - "I got fairly fit for the role. God, that sounds stupid to say" - the normally hirsute Carell did some serious manscaping with regular chest-shaving sessions.
"That's devotion,'' says Scardino.
The real Carell is the polar opposite from Vegas flashy as he steps unassumingly into a grand suite at the Paris hotel with no sign of a tan and making no attempt to disguise the gray that is taking over his black mane.
"I think if you've ever seen a picture of me anywhere you know I am not much of a peacock," says Carell. "I don't preen so much. But I haven't gotten the chance to play this kind of guy often. It's great when you get to act like you don't in real life. That's why (his character) Michael Scott in The Office was fun. He was a man lacking an enormous filter who was so uncensored that it was cathartic to play.''
A big part of the humor comes from how far Wonderstone is from Carell, whose reputation as a genuinely decent guy prevails in Hollywood and beyond.
"To see him act like a diva is hilarious," says Olivia Wilde, whose character assists the magician. "People know he's just a good guy. And they can see it in his eyes.''
Then she adds jokingly: "Though he did throw a chair at my head on the set one day. It was 45 stitches. But he did pay for them."
While Burt Wonderstone lives in a mansion filled with mirrors and oversized portraits of himself, the man who plays him lives a low-key Los Angeles lifestyle with his wife of 17 years, actress Nancy Walls, and their two children (Elisabeth Anne, 11, and John, 8) .
But the flamboyance flourished on set. Carell and Buscemi (who plays his stage partner Anton) agreed to shoot scenes in a giant plexiglass box which was hoisted high above the Vegas strip as part of a pivotal stunt.
"That was more unnerving than I expected. Buscemi was at least as scared as I was," says Carell. "It was disconcerting to be able to look straight down to the street below."
And when the shooting wasn't physically challenging, it could be emotionally daunting. In another long scene, with Wilde looking on, Wonderstone wallows in bubble-bath pity.
"He was lying there in his bikini bottoms in that bathtub for hours," says Wilde. "And the scene was getting funnier and funnier."
Carell has different memories of modesty going out the window. "There just were not enough bubbles in the tub."
Famed illusionist David Copperfield consulted on the film and gives Carell high marks for his portrayal. "He's not trying to be a magician in real life. That takes years. But if he really wanted to be one, actors make great magicians," Copperfield says. "But Steve loves the dreaming part of magic, and to be amazed. He doesn't want to know the secrets."
Copperfield was also impressed with Carell's willingness to do more than 13 takes of an illusion called The Hangman for a key scene: "Putting that noose around your neck over and over again can (make one) fearful."
There was also real fear on Copperfield's part when he had to improvise his cameo appearance alongside Carell.
"Behind those eyes is all that training and he's throwing lines at you," says Copperfield. "You have to forget the scary part and jump right in the pool."
Conversely, Carell says he's jumping out of the safe confines of the TV world and sticking with movies for awhile. He says he won't return as a guest on The Office, which ends its final season May 16. While it was a hard decision to make, Carell believes Michael Scott "has evolved past that. But I understand what everyone is going through on the show. I went through it two years ago. It's difficult to say goodbye."
Carell will continue to mix it up on the big screen, next appearing in director Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, where he plays the late multimillionaire John du Pont, who was convicted of killing an Olympic wrestler.
"It's dark," says Carell. "Very different. It's good to switch things up."
There is also the Sundance hit The Way, Way Back(out July 5), where he stars with AnnaSophia Robb and Amada Peet. And then Carell will go back to being goofy, reprising his Brick character in Anchorman: The Legend Continues. The film just started shooting with Will Ferrell in Atlanta and is scheduled to open Dec. 20.
As his interview concludes, there is the briefest of signs that some real-life craziness might actually slip in to his life as well. When Carell steps onto the hotel elevator and hears the music piped in, he breaks into a big grin.
"I always just feel like dancing, every time I get in this elevator," he says, causing starstruck strangers to break into laughter.
But Carell doesn't bust a move. Instead, the doors open and he heads for the pool.
"I'm going to rage right now," he says. "With my kids. Out by the kiddie pool."