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Steve Carell welcomes the challenge of ‘Welcome to Marwen’

Steve Carell plays an artist who creates a World War II scenario in his yard with dolls in "Welcome to Marwen." | Universal Pictures

The talk is all Chicago when I greet and chat with Robert Zemeckis and Steve Carell “backstage” at the AMC River East Theaters, where two packed houses are watching preview screenings of their upcoming movie “Welcome to Marwen.”

As I walked in, Zemeckis was saying, “[Columnist Mike] Royko would hang there. …Roger [Ebert] too, way back in the day. In Old Town. What was the name of that place?”

Ah. Of course, they frequented the Billy Goat, I say, but I think you’re talking about Old Town Ale House.

Carell nods in recognition. “That was the late-late place,” he says.

Zemeckis, the groundbreaking, Academy Award-winning director of “Forrest Gump,” the “Back to the Future” movies, “Castaway,” “The Polar Express” and so many other touchstones, was born in Lakemoor, Illinois, raised on the South Side of Chicago and is an alum of Fenger High.

Carell was born and raised in Massachusetts, but Chicago holds a special place in his heart, as he was with Second City in the early 1990s (Stephen Colbert was his understudy for a time). Even more impactful, it was Second City where he met his wife Nancy (nee Walls), the talented actress, writer and producer.

Zemeckis and Carell were in town to talk about “Welcome to Marwen” (opening Friday), a wondrous and eccentric and unique live action/animation hybrid based on the true story of the artist Mark Hogancamp.

After suffering serious brain trauma in a beating from five men, Mark lost nearly all memory and had to re-learn basic motor skills. He eventually found escape and a form of self-therapy by creating an elaborate, intricate miniature (and completely fiction-based) World War II-era Belgium village called “Marwen,” featuring the heroic American soldier “Hogie.” In the film, Carell portrays Mark — and his motion-capture alter ego.

What follows are excerpts of the conversation I had with Zemeckis and Carell at one of the theaters immediately after a screening of the film.

Q: There’s a moment in the film when Hogie has to build a time machine — and it looks awfully familiar to “Back to the Future” fans.”

Zemeckis: The script called for Mark to build a time machine, and I figured if I went out to the street and asked a dozen people what a time machine would look like, they would say “A flying car.”

Steve Carell works with director Robert Zemeckis on the set of “Welcome to Marwen.” | Universal Pictures
Steve Carell works with director Robert Zemeckis on the set of “Welcome to Marwen.” | Universal Pictures

Q: Steve, this year you have three films in which you portray characters based on real-life individuals. You’re the journalist David Sheff in “Beautiful Boy,” you play Donald Rumsfeld in “Vice,” and you’re Mark and his alter ego in “Marwen.” Did you talk to Mark? I know you don’t want to fall into a trap of trying to imitate someone.

Carell: We both went up and talked to him. Mark and I have since become friends. We exchange emails, we talk on the phone with one another. He’s a great, great guy.

And it’s exactly what you’re saying — you meet someone and you want to glean something of who they are, without turning them into a science experiment.

I wanted to do the story, and do the kind of person he is, justice. He’s kind. … He’s not a bitter person, he’s not cynical, which I think is astounding.

Q: If you pull back, this could be looked at on the surface, “There’s a guy across the street who likes to wear heels and he created this World War II village with Nazis …”

Carell: Red flag! Yeah, try to promote THAT movie.

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Q: It’s almost as if Steve is playing two different characters — Mark in the real world, and Hogie the WWII hero.

Carell: The Hogie character is much more like me in real life. The stud guy with the opposable arms and the kung-fu grip, that’s me. …

Seriously, I think we all have the hero version of ourselves, the best expression of ourselves: more confident, more powerful, more handsome, all of those things. Mark effectively processes a lot of his pain through this guy. I tried to approach it — God, I sound so pretentious, “I’m an actor” — but the two weren’t completely separate entities.

Q: Robert has always been at the forefront of technological advances in special effects, with movies such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Forrest Gump” and “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express.” How has the technology progressed since “The Polar Express,” which was nearly 15 years ago?

Zemeckis: It has progressed a LOT since the days of “The Polar Express.” In this film, it’s an enhanced version of performance capture.

The actual actors performed every moment of those dolls; there’s no animation at all. They wear leotards with markers on them, and we capture their performances in three dimensions, and then we use the technology to wrap that performance inside the doll or the puppet — the avatar, if you will.”

Q: But with all the technology, sometimes there’s still a tennis ball on the end of a stick.

Zemeckis: Always, always. Even in a movie where there not one single visual effect, you’re making a movie with cameras and lenses, and for a closeup you’re telling an actor, “Look at this piece of tape.”

Cap’n Hogie (played with motion capture by Steve Carell) is one of the alter-ego dolls in “Welcome to Marwen.” | Universal Pictures
Cap’n Hogie (played with motion capture by Steve Carell) is one of the alter-ego dolls in “Welcome to Marwen.” | Universal Pictures

(An audience member asks Carell about making the shift from comedies to drama.)

Carell: It’s all based on me trying to be more pretentious. Because I deserve and require respect!

Honestly, a lot of it is based on the material you’re sent. Something like ‘Foxcatcher,’ I wasn’t soliciting anything like that, that story wasn’t on my radar at all. I never thought I’d be playing a character like that. This one I actually pursued because I saw the documentary and it really moved me.

But yes, I would also love to do another comedy.

(As for how Carell believes his comedy has evolved…)

Carell: A lot of it is based on the type of thing you’re in. The writing on “The Office” was just fantastic. We would improvise a lot, it was very loose, but the conceit of that show allowed for a lot of different ways to go, a lot of different interactions.

I guess I — again, this is going to sound REALLY pretentious — but it’s something I’ve said before: a character in a comedy doesn’t know they’re in a comedy. A character in a drama doesn’t know they’re in a drama. They’re just living their lives. I’m not always successful, but I approach both types of roles the same way. I’m always taken out of a movie when it feels as if the actor is winking at the camera.

A lot depends on the ensemble. Sometimes the funniest thing is to do nothing. There’s a scene in “40 Year-Old Virgin,” the chest-waxing scene. I suggested that really happen, that they really wax my chest, because I thought the funniest part of that scene was the three guys watching. Their reactions to me actually getting my chest waxed — you can’t really act that, because they were TRULY grossed out. To me, the rip of the tape isn’t the funny part. It’s their reaction to that.