It’s seems like it has been a natural transition for actor Steve Carell to jump around genres—from comedy to drama and back—over the last few years. Best known in his early career for his role on the hit TV comedy series “The Office” and movies like “Anchorman” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Carell has also shown audiences his serious side in projects like “Beautiful Boy” and “Foxcatcher,” the latter of which earned him an Academy Award nomination in 2014.
Combining comedy and drama, too, has been something Carell has been successful doing in films like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Dan in Real Life” and “Vice” where he portrays former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in writer/director Adam McKay’s political satire on former VP Dick Cheney.
In his newest film, “Welcome to Marwen,” by Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”), Carell is once again given the opportunity to mix comedy and drama (and some action sequences, too) with the true story of Mark Hogancamp, a New York man who, after a vicious attack leaves him brain damaged, finds comfort in interacting with a doll-sized, WWII-era town (and its action-figure residents) he builds in his backyard. Through this recreation, Mark is able to create a whole new world where he is the hero of his own story and uses the hobby as a way to heal.
During a sit-down interview with me, Carell and Zemeckis talked about what makes a film like “Welcome to Marwen” special and why Carell was the perfect actor for this touching story.
Steve, when you heard about Mark’s story, what resonated with you the most about what he had gone through and what he was doing with his life?
Steve Carell: What resonated with me the most was his sense of decency—the fact that he endured so much suffering and pain and that he was able to keep a sense of human kindness and generosity to his spirit. That, to me, was the sign of an exemplary human being. He’s like that in person. We went up and met him and I’ve stayed in touch with him since. He’s just a good, decent guy.
I know you had the chance to meet Mark. What was it like going into that backyard and seeing the town for yourself?
SC: Well, his whole house is very similar to the house that is depicted in the film. It’s a magical place. I won’t lie. He has such a fertile imagination. It’s all there. It’s surrounding him. It’s a world that he lives in and that he uses as a way of healing himself. At the same time, he is also very aware of how other people perceive it. It’s not like he’s just in this world and has no context for how odd it may seem to other people. He has a really good sense of humor about it.
Robert, what was it about Mark’s story did you feel lend itself to create this sort of hybrid live-action/animated film?
Robert Zemeckis: First of all, it was a heartwarming and heartfelt story about this guy who suffered this tragic incident and healed himself. That’s what appealed to me the most. There’s this whole story that goes on inside our hero’s mind where he’s got this adventure going on in this “doll world.” I thought it lent itself to being able to expand his story into something that could be a pretty interesting and compelling feature movie.
You hadn’t done an animation since “A Christmas Carol,” so did it feel good to go back to that?
RZ: Well, animation isn’t really the right word. Animation is where a bunch of artists create a character. We used performance capture. That means the actors who are playing the live-action characters and have a doll in the movie, their performance is what drives the doll. It’s a more sophisticated performance capture than what I did in the Polar Express days.
Has technology since “The Polar Express” blown you away?
RZ: Digital cinema is all based on computer power—horse power. So, it’s getting more and more sophisticated every moment.
SC: The two of us, actually, right now are performance captured.
RZ: We’re not really here.
SC: No, we’re not here. We’re still back in Los Angeles, but that’s how real this seems. It’s really good.
So, what was it like seeing your rendered character for the first time?
SC: How could you not love to see yourself depicted as a really studly doll? It was fantastic.
Robert, can you brag on Steve a little?
SC: Yeah, can you? Come on!
Why did you choose him for this role? What did he bring to the table?
RZ: Well, he brought a few things to the table.
RZ: He’s a magnificent comedy actor and a fantastic dramatic actor.
SC: Humanitarian. Kindness. I love animals.
RZ: And he’s got this kind of everyman quality. He fit the bill perfectly. I knew he could do both—the swagger and the fun of the doll and the empathy and bring the emotional power to the human character.
SC: It’s mostly about my swagger. I walk into a room and you just see the swagger.
Steve, everyone knew you for your comedic roles when you started off. Then, you came into drama and got an Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher. Has that been a seamless transition? How did that work for you as an actor?
SC: I didn’t really have an agenda behind it. I just wanted to do good things and be a part of movies and TV shows that illicit a response—whether it’s making people laugh or making people feel something. It’s been fun. Seamless? I don’t know. I just roll with it. I’m just thankful every day that I get to do this stuff.
You’ve been an action figure before. You can go out and buy Gru (his character in the “Despicable Me” franchise). You can buy a Brick toy (his character in “Anchorman”).
SC: Yeah, I’m sure there is a bobble head out there.
Which of your other characters in your career would you like to see become an action figure? Do you think it would be fun to play with a Donald Rumsfeld doll?
SC: (Laughs) Yeah, or maybe my character from “Foxcatcher.” the “Foxcatcher” action figure. I doubt that’s going to be a big Christmas seller.
Or “Little Miss Sunshine.”
SC: Sure, you could do the whole cast and have the VW bus. [Mark] was definitely my favorite because I get to play this alter ego. From Mark’s perspective, it’s the idealized version of who he would be in the world, and that’s kind of exciting. I think a lot of people would love to see that—to visualize that. It’s something that everybody does—imagine themselves in this kind of heightened state. So, [Mark], by far, is my favorite.