Not only is Steve Carell genuinely nice, thoughtful and soft-spoken in real life, but he possesses a vast amount of acting talent that has been on full display in his recent work. Known for his comedic stints on The Daily Show, films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman and, of course, the now legendary series The Office, Carell’s body of work over the last few years has included a range of complex and fascinating roles, mostly as figures from real life: his Golden Globe-winning portrayal of John du Pont in Foxcatcher (2014), investment banker Steve Eisman/Mark Baum in The Big Short (2015), tennis star Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes (2017) and, earlier this fall, journalist David Sheff in Beautiful Boy.
He’s now appearing in two films opening within days of each other: in Welcome to Marwen, he plays artist Mark Hogancamp, whose brutal beating outside a bar left him badly injured and with almost no memories from his previous life. That led him to create his own miniature World War II village, peopled with dolls, through which he dealt with his own trauma from the incident.
Hogancamp’s recovery, his creation of the village and celebrated photos of the dolls within were the focus of a 2010 documentary called Marwencol (the name of the village), which in turn inspired director Robert Zemeckis — of Back to the Future, Forrest Gump and Beowulf fame, among others — to chronicle Hogancamp’s story in Welcome to Marwen.
Zemeckis, a pioneer in the use of CG, animation and motion capture, wanted to bring Hogancamp’s village and fantasy life to the screen in a way that a documentary couldn’t, and found the right partner in Carell to play Hogancamp. The film also stars Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monae, Gwendoline Christie, Eiza Gonzalez and Zemeckis’ wife Leslie as the women who inhabit Hogancamp’s world both in real life and in Marwen.
Carell also stars in Adam Mckay’s Vice as Donald Rumsfeld, initially mentor and then longtime partner in policy and subterfuge to Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale), with the two men serving in two of the most infamous presidential administrations in history: those of Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush. With both films about to arrive in theaters, Den of Geek sat down with Carell for an extended talk about Welcome to Marwen, Vice, the legacy of The Office and Carell’s own current evolution as an actor.
Den of Geek: Tell me about just your first encounter with the amazing story of Mark Hogancamp and everything that he went through.
Steve Carell: I saw the documentary and loved it. It just stayed with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I started considering the idea of it being a feature film. I was of two minds because I wasn’t sure. I was hesitant to think of it as a feature because I loved the documentary so much I thought, “How could this be improved?” It couldn’t because nobody’s going to play Mark Hogancamp better than himself and it was such an honest depiction of this guy’s life.
Then I learned that Robert Zemeckis had the rights and had written a script. I was curious and I wanted to see where he was headed with it. He told me what he was hoping for the film and what his vision was of developing it into a feature film. I liked it. The idea that he had, which is what the movie turned out to be, was to take the fantasy component and to expand it and to bring all of those characters to life.
I thought, “That’s really interesting. That makes sense in terms of expanding the world, in terms of stitching together Mark Hogancamp’s photographs and allowing us to see a larger context of what is going on in the story of his fantasy world.”
What was it about him that spoke to you the most as a character?
His sense of goodness. His resiliency. The fact that he endured a really horrible hate crime, but never became bitter and never became cynical. I just found his whole story to be inspirational. He’s the epitome of kindness and generosity and grace. Yeah, I guess those things are what struck me initially.
What was it like to meet with him and how did that impact you in terms of playing him on screen?
He was exactly who you hoped he’d be. He’s all of that kindness and all of that warmth and honesty. He’s very shy. He’s a very private person, so even to be invited to visit and to enter his world, was a real honor. There was just a sense of grace and warmth to him. The part that I guess I wasn’t expecting to the degree that it exists, was his sense of humor and his self-awareness.
He knows his world is quirky. He understands that from an outsider’s perspective it’s got to seem odd. He has a great sense of humor about it and acknowledges it and still invites people to be a part of it. I guess my takeaway was that he’s so thoughtful and for someone to go through something so traumatic and turn something so ugly into a thing of beauty was inspirational to me.
At the same time, he’s very private. He doesn’t want anything from his art. It’s a very personal expression for him. He was never looking for any sort of fame. He certainly wasn’t looking for money, notoriety of any sort. I think his artwork is the most pure form. It’s art for the sake of art and art for the sake of healing. I guess the word I keep coming back to when I describe him is authentic. He’s a very earnest, authentic person and there are no pretenses to him. He is exactly how he appears to be in the documentary. He’s so humble and thankful.
Talk about working with Robert Zemeckis, who has certainly got a few well-known films under his belt.
Yeah, he’s got a few greats. He’s incredible.
He’s also such a pioneer in so many ways.
In so many ways. When we were filming this, I don’t know how far in, but during a break in the shooting, he said that this film encapsulates a lot of the different things he’s worked on throughout his career and things that — he wouldn’t say this, but things that he’s innovated like the motion-capture and themes that have been relevant to him as a filmmaker. He said, “This story, this film, and the production is a perfect storm of all these different components of things that he’s worked upon as a filmmaker up until this point,” which I found interesting.
I think he’s a master technician. He treats everyone with the same degree of respect whether you’re a dolly grip or the script supervisor or the camera operator or makeup, anybody. Anybody associated with the film received the same degree of respect from him. I think that translated into a sense of community and ensemble. There was spirit to shooting it because everyone felt that they were in this together and that they were equal partners. I think was really important.
You’ve had quite a run the last three, four years where you’ve taken on all different and demanding roles. Yet here’s always going to be people, I think, who know you as Michael Scott and they’re always going to recognize you from that.
Oh, I’m totally okay with The Office. I’m really proud of that show. I think it turned out great. I’m so happy that others have found it all these years later. It was never as popular when it was on the air as it is now. It’s being seen by far more people now, I think, than it ever has been. That’s very rewarding. I love it.
It was just a great experience. I have incredible friendships from that time. I’m proud of the show itself and the arc of all the characters and thought the writing was terrific. Even at the time, it felt special to us. I don’t think it necessarily felt special to an audience at large while we were doing it, but to us, it felt like something important. I think everyone really invested themselves in that show and loved it. Loved each other. It was a very tight ensemble.
I can’t fight against what someone’s perception of me would be. I think you waste a lot of time thinking about those sorts of things. It’s not that important and for if someone decides that they will only see me as Michael Scott, that’s okay. It’s not up to me to change people’s perceptions of who I am or what I’m capable of doing. I just feel like that’s wasted energy. I’m very lucky to have been able to do something like The Office, so that’s the way I look at it.
I guess what I was saying — very poorly — was that, at the same time, you’ve also done a bunch of work in the last few years that’s challenging. It’s got to be creatively satisfying to move the ball forward for yourself too as an actor.
Yeah. If I feel like I’m getting too comfortable, I tend to move on from whatever that is I’m working on. I was working on The Daily Show for many years and my wife and I were correspondents and loved it and had great friendships. It started to feel comfortable and that’s when I felt like it was time to move away and try something else.
I felt the same way about The Office. After seven years, I was really comfortable and loved everybody and there was really no reason to leave, but sometimes I take a leap of faith and just try to go into a bit of uncharted territory just ’cause I think it helps you grow. It’s always fun to find new things to do and new challenges.
You’re also in Vice as Donald Rumsfeld and I doubt you got to meet with him the way you met with Mark Hogancamp. How did you prep for that role?
A lot of reading. A lot of watching his videos, press conferences. There’s a lot of tape on him from earlier eras through Bush. It’s interesting because there’s his autobiography, which is the way he is presenting himself. You read what you can read into that in terms of that as source material. There are things that other people have written about him and you see how he presents himself at a press conference, which I’m sure is different than what he is like in a cabinet meeting.
Some of it’s uncharted. Some of it is just from your imagination and your best guess at who he is and what he’s acting like, how he would handle himself. It would have been interesting to meet him but who knows? You never know how forthcoming someone will be when you meet them in person, especially in terms of a fella like that. I was doubtful that any of us were going to meet our real-life counterparts.
From working on Vice and really delving into these figures and what they did, where do you think history will put these guys?
Wow, that’s a really good question. It depends on who’s telling the history, I think. I was a history major in college and mostly what I learned is that the history itself is in the hands of historians and is in the hands of the people telling the story. You can read two different texts on the same subject and draw vastly different conclusions about what actually happened.
Sometimes the truth gets muddied over the years. Sometimes it becomes much more focused, but you always have to look to your source. Who’s writing the history book? Who’s telling the story? Do they have an ax to grind? All sort of things. How will these guys go down in history? It’s interesting.
I think with a movie like Vice, some of the things that might have been swept under the rug might, at least for these generations coming up, come into a little bit sharper focus. It’s not a right or a left wing impetus. It’s factual information being conveyed certainly in an interesting narrative, but I don’t know. I guess the answer is that time will tell, but I think the movie does a great job in illuminating some things that many people either have forgotten about or weren’t aware of in the first place.
Welcome to Marwen is out in theaters Friday (December 21), while Vice arrives on Christmas Day (December 25).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye