The 78-year-old Oscar winner plays the master magician who helps Carell's character find his life's calling in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone." And Carell, a producer of the film, had everything to do with that.
"When I read it, I immediately thought Alan Arkin has to play this part," he said. "If I could do every movie with him, I would."
The two actors lit up an empty suite at a hotel down the street from Warner Bros. studios with their warm rapport, reminiscing about working together on "Wonderstone" and their past projects, "Get Smart" and "Little Miss Sunshine" (for which Arkin won the supporting actor Oscar).
"The thing about working with Steve is I can't look at him anymore," Arkin said. "I could look at him in the first movie. The second movie I had a little bit of trouble. By the third movie I can't look at him. If I'm doing a scene with him, I have to focus over here (he looks just past Carell). It gets embarrassing."
It's easy for Arkin and Carell to make each other laugh. Carell cracked up when Arkin explained why he refused to learn any tricks for his role as elderly magician Rance Holloway, whose at-home magic kit inspires the young Wonderstone to learn the art of illusion.
"See, I don't give a damn anymore," Arkin said. "I'm going to die soon. It doesn't matter. I say anything that comes.
"The magician came over to me on the first day and said we have to work. I said get away from me. Don't get anywhere near me," Arkin recalled. "I said for me to learn what I'm supposed to do in this movie would have taken me four years. I said it's not going to happen. Just keep away from me. I said they'll do it in CGI and that's enough."
With a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey and James Gandolfini, it was hard not to laugh on set.
"Every day something fun happened," Carell said.
"It's crucial that the audience feels that sense that you did something together," Arkin said. "That's why, whenever I see a flash mob, I start sobbing. It's art that's just done for the sheer joy of it. There's nothing to gain from it. It's just to have fun. It's deeply healing."
That feeling permeated the set. Carell said Buscemi was "buoyant" in the days before shooting began.
"He already had that sense of joy," he said. "He was doing it for the fun of it. He has nothing to show, nothing to gain, nothing to prove as an actor. He did it for the fun and the joy of it. I love that as a producer."
Carell plays Burt Wonderstone, a stage magician with big hair, a chest-baring costume and an outsized ego that could fill a showroom on its own. With his partner, Anton Marvelton (Buscemi), Wonderstone rules the Las Vegas strip. But a guerrilla street magician (Carrey) touting a new brand of extreme magic threatens his reign, forcing Wonderstone to re-examine his approach.
Carell was drawn to the character because he wanted to play "an absolute jerk."
"I guess I always wanted to wear velour," he added.
Though magic and moviemaking are similar in some ways—both rely on performances and tricks—Arkin said they're actually opposites.
"(Magicians are) creating something that they want the audience to believe that they don't believe themselves," he said. "I'm trying to create an alternate reality, so I have to believe. If we (actors) are doing it well, we're tricking ourselves."
Sneaking away as Arkin posed for photos, Carell whispered to a reporter, "He's my favorite person."
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APSandy.