From director Robert Zemeckis, the biographical dramedy Welcome to Marwen tells the real life story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), who turns to his own artistic imagination when a devastating attack wipes away all of his memories. His creation of the mythical town of Marwen, where World War II fighter pilot Captain Hogie (the suave hero action figure version of Hogancamp) fights his enemies to protect his friends (embodied by life-like dolls inspired by the women he knows), becomes as much of a healing tool as it is a beautiful art installation.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with Steve Carell for this 1-on-1 chat about why he felt so compelled to pursue this project, how deeply he responded to the documentary about Mark Hogancamp, playing the heroic alter ego action figure version of the character, and the doll wranglers that were needed on set. He also talked about his upcoming Apple series, an inside look at morning shows that’s executive produced by co-stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, and why he doesn’t think a reboot of The Office is a good idea.
Collider: With a movie like this, it seems like you can rest assured that you’ll never do anything else like it.
STEVE CARELL: No, and that’s what I loved about it. What was exciting to me about it is that it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen or even imagined. I love the documentary. What interested me, in the first place, was the story itself. And then, when I talked to Robert Zemeckis about what his idea would be for the feature version, it seemed like a great way in. My initial hesitation was that the documentary, Marwencol, was really so complete and so beautiful, that it didn’t seem like it needed to be retold, and certainly not to just do a version of the documentary as a feature. But I thought Robert Zemeckis’ idea to expand the fantasy world and bring that to life, made a good case for turning it into a feature and expanding the world scope of it all.
You saw this documentary, and then decided to look into it who had the rights for it. When you found out that it was Robert Zemeckis, what was the reaction to that?
CARELL: Wow! I was a little overwhelmed. I just decided to take a chance, and I’ve never done that before. I’ve never felt compelled to go after something the way that I did this. The themes of the story touched me because it’s about love and hate. I’m not telling anyone how to feel about the film, but what I thought, going in, was that here’s a guy who experienced a very traumatic episode in his life, and the way he was able to come out the other side and find a path of healing through his art, was so beautiful and so inspiring. And the fact that from something so ugly came something so beautiful, just really touched me.
And it has such an interesting childlike quality to it, as well.
CARELL: Yeah, I thought so, too. And he has that quality, in person. He’s very earnest, very kind, self-deprecating, and modest. Whenever you tell him how great or talented he is, he always demures. He doesn’t want adoration, and he doesn’t want fame. He’s certainly not interested in fortune, either. He just wanted to do the art for the art’s sake, and I think that there’s something beautiful about that, as well.
There are plenty of actors who have done dual roles, but could you ever have imagined that you’d do a dual role that included the action figure version of yourself?
CARELL: Definitely not, no, and it was fun. When I talked to Bob and he told me what his idea would be, in terms of expanding the world, and that I would be playing both of these guys – the real Mark and this alter ego, heightened heroic version of him – that excited me, and I thought it would be an interesting thing to explore. It’s a different character, but it’s based out of the same person, so it has to be connected to Mark. It’s interesting creating a character that’s based on a real person’s imagination while you’re playing that real person, and to try to understand what the heroic version of that real person would be, in that character’s mind. I like Mark so much, and since we met, we’ve kept in touch. I actually got an email from him a couple of days ago, and he was saying that he started to draw again because he’s getting some more dexterity in his fingers, so he’s starting to do a bit of illustration again. Everything he’s been doing, all of these years, has been paying off, too, and he has been healing. It’s been very helpful to him. And when we went to visit him, the town of Marwencol is in boxes. He took it down because he said, “I don’t need to process that anymore, like I used to.” He’s moved on to other things.
What was it like to see the doll version of yourself?
CARELL: Pretty great. It’s fun to see the much more handsome version of who you are. It’s like nothing you’d ever expect, in a lifetime or a career, that they would make this heroic version of yourself for a doll. It’s wild.
Does that doll version exist somewhere now?
CARELL: Somewhere, yeah. I’m sure it’s over in the Universal archives, stashed away in some box somewhere. They made a few. I was astounded by all of the dolls. They’re beautifully done. And the dolls that the real Mark uses are very photo realistic. They’re not your average, every day, plastic-injected, mass-produced dolls. These are very, very, very nice figures that are very lifelike. The dolls took a lot of priority on the set. There was a doll wrangler, or a few doll wranglers, who would clean the dolls, do the dolls’ hair, and do the dolls’ dressing. And there was someone who was on set specifically to show us how to articulate the dolls and pose them in certain realistic poses. A year or two ago, I did not think that I would be talking to the doll supervisor on a film. I’m finding that it’s a really difficult film to try to promote because how do you even begin? It’s a hard one to describe because it’s so such a strange story. It sounds dour to hear, “Oh, it’s based on this guy who suffers a hate crime,” but it isn’t about that. It’s about so much more. There are so many more themes, and ultimately there’s a sense of joy to it.
You’re also returning to TV, alongside Jennifer Aniston returning to TV. This new world of programming for Apple seems so interesting because they’re lining up some great content, even though we haven’t gotten to see any of it yet. So, what was it about that TV series that reeled you back in.