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God's Funniest Mammals
The filmmakers set out to bring together a well-rounded ensemble of equally funny standout performers to complement their principal human and animal cast. Actress Lauren Graham, known for her role on the popular television series Gilmore Girls, joined the cast as Evan's patient wife on the ark, Joan (yes, pun intended). The filmmakers were thrilled when the performer, whom Shadyac considers "one of the most gifted comediennes on television today,” agreed to be the better half of the Baxter couple.

Graham was interested in taking on the part, despite the hectic schedule of her shoot with her CW series. "I thought Joan shouldn't be a traditional kind of congressman's wife,” she notes. "This is all new to them. The Baxters are just moving, leaving their lives to go follow Evan as he pursues this new career. I wanted her to be softer, not stereotypical.”

Graham, who played opposite Carell for the majority of her scenes in the shoot, enjoyed watching the funnyman work his magic. "I'm the straight man to Steve's imagination, and that's been fun. He's smart and spontaneous, which keeps you engaged and on your game.”

Known for his ability to elicit unforgettable comic performances from his cast, Shadyac encouraged his actors, particularly Carell, John Michael Higgins, Wanda Sykes and Jonah Hill—all who have strong improvisational backgrounds—to attempt new approaches to the material.

John Michael Higgins, cast as Marty, Evan's harried congressional chief of staff, looked forward to working with a story that crossed several genres—biblical epic, family comedy and special effects extravaganza. "Evan Almighty is a wonderful mix of genres, but with any good comedy, you need a good story,” the actor notes. "The biblical telling of Noah's story is a fantastic one. It's got everything you want—it's human, it's epic and it has a moral. We're only using a tiny piece of it and have obviously contemporized it. But it retains the heart of it all.”

Though optimistic about the project, native Virginian Wanda Sykes was not thrilled about the upcoming weather battle. The actor knew that summers in her home state would be hot and humid. No matter how much she cared for the character of Rita, Evan's no-nonsense assistant, she needed further convincing.

Sykes met with the director and was immediately taken by his enthusiasm for the project. "He's just a cool dude,” she says. "You can just see it in his eyes, that crazy passion for what he does. He was so excited about the film. I walked out of the meeting thinking ‘Yeah! Let's get on the ark; this is going to be fun.'”

The process and the end result were just that. Adding Sykes to the mix of gifted actors provided a backdrop ripe for good comedy. Shadyac comments, "I love these moments of creativity and spontaneity. I've watched Wanda get into her head for a second, and then come back with this gem.”

Another Shadyac alumnus, Jonah Hill, worked with the filmmaker on the last film Shadyac produced, the comedy Accepted. Hill had stolen scenes in both that and The 40- Year-Old Virgin, and he reunited with Carell for Evan, this time as the eager-to-please intern Eugene. Like the rest of the cast, Hill was overwhelmed when he saw the ark, noting, "It's the biggest thing I've ever seen, complete with elephants and giraffes and so many animals. I've never seen anything that massive before. It's crazy big.”

The addition of Academy Award®-nominated actor John Goodman to the cast as veteran Congressman Long added a layer to the story that further illustrates Evan's comic downward spiral. For Goodman, keeping his stoic demeanor in place during filming was a lesson in self-control. "It's hard to keep from laughing all the time; Steve's so damn funny,” recalls the seasoned character actor. "It has been a lot of fun to see him in action.” <

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