LOS ANGELES — Steve Carell has a virginal sense of awe over all that's happened to him in the last year — appropriate, considering his first big-screen lead is the title character of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."
Carell, who stars on television in the U.S. adaptation of the British workplace comedy "The Office," said he was perfectly happy — elated, even — to play third or fourth banana to Will Ferrell in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and "Bewitched" or Jim Carrey in "Bruce Almighty."
So catching promos for his TV show or seeing his mug on billboards has proven unsettling for the comedy veteran, who has been in the business almost 20 years and was always content simply to have another job, any job, around the corner.
"Talking to my wife, we stare at each other, saying, `How is this happening? Why is this happening? Why now?' It's nothing I ever aspired to," said Carell, who turns 42 on Aug. 16. "I realize this could very well be my one and only lead acting assignment in a movie, but it was great. It was incredibly exciting to do. ...
"Honestly, every step along the way, I've been amazed that I've gotten to that point," Carell told The Associated Press. "To be in a Jim Carrey movie, I couldn't believe my luck to be opposite him even for a couple little scenes. Or to be one of the news team in Will Ferrell's movie. I thought, `This is it. I've reached the pinnacle. Nothing could make me happier than this.'"
Playing the weather guy in "Anchorman," Carell got chummy with producer Judd Apatow, who felt the actor had comedic chops to carry a film of his own.
"It was obvious while shooting `Anchorman' that Steve was stealing many a scene. So being a wily producer, I asked him if he had any ideas for movies that he could star in," Apatow said.
Carell had the seed of an idea about a middle-aged man who had missed the boat on sex and given up trying. The premise immediately clicked with Apatow, who made his directing debut with "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and co-wrote the script with Carell.
"The idea makes you laugh, and you're instantly sympathetic. We've all lived through that moment where we had sex for the first time," Apatow said. "You're terrified, so the idea of a guy so scared he let it get past him is relatable to us."
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Carell plays Andy Stitzer, a clerk at an electronics store who harbors a shameful little secret — he's still a virgin at 40. When his co-workers discover it, they set out to find Andy an easy woman, only to see their schemes derailed when he begins dating a single mom (Catherine Keener) under a mutual no-sex policy.
The story's genesis was Carell's idea of a virgin being found out by disbelieving acquaintances, a nugget that became an early scene in the film when Andy blusters through fictitious bedroom tales at a poker game with his work pals, who are sharing outrageous stories of their sexual conquests.
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Andy hems and haws when his turn comes around, tossing out crude, macho sex cliches and finally tipping off the others about his virginal status when he describes a woman's breast as feeling like a "bag of sand."
"I just liked the notion of a guy trying desperately to tell a sex story but having no knowledge of sex or no handle on the vernacular of sex talk, and trying to invent it with very adept guys who have told the sex story many, many times," Carell said.
Growing up in Concord, Mass., Carell did plays and settled on an acting career, but he was not necessarily intent on playing the funnyman. He was open to dramatic roles, but his first professional gig came with Chicago's comedy troupe Second City, where he met his wife, comedic actress Nancy Walls, who has a small part as a health clinic counselor in "40-Year-Old Virgin."
After that, the roles he was offered tended toward comedy. Carell had some small parts in movies, was a writer and regular performer on the short-lived "The Dana Carvey Show" and became best known as a news correspondent on "The Daily Show."
Earlier this year, Carell did a memorable impersonation of Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur in Ferrell's big-screen "Bewitched" and also appeared with Ferrell in Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda."
Carell just finished shooting the ensemble road-trip comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," playing a gay, suicidal Proust scholar, co-starring with Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear. He also has been cast as agent Maxwell Smart in a big-screen version of the TV spy spoof "Get Smart," and joins Bruce Willis and Garry Shandling among the talking-animal voice cast in the upcoming animated tale "Over the Hedge."
The inevitable questions
The actor has been pondering the inevitable questions about when and how he lost his own virginity. Carell's wife advised him to say nothing. He's also considered making up a different story whenever someone asks, so he ends up with "about a hundred different stories as to my personal loss of virginity," Carell said.
Without naming names or revealing details, Carell ultimately admits to this: "It was probably like 95 percent of everyone's loss of virginity stories. It was fast, it was unromantic, it was uncomfortable and awkward and lacked passion and any sort of emotional connection. It was two people just kind of doing it in order to see what it was like and sort of get it out of the way."
Hitting it big in Hollywood now, Carell figures he appreciates it more than if it had happened early in his career, when he may not had the poise to handle the trappings of success.
Likewise, as a latecomer to the mysteries of sex, his character Andy probably appreciates it more than he would have if he had lost his virginity in his teens.
"People generally have sex fairly young, and probably younger than they should be having it," Carell said. "Most people aren't prepared emotionally _ I certainly wasn't _ to be having sex.
"Once you have all those emotional aspects in line and you're in sync with the other person, then you find out what it really is and how great it can be," Carell said. But sex before reaching that emotional level is "putting the cart before the horse, and you can probably make a pun out of that, as well."
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