The actor rounds out his 2018 with two high profile films

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The greatest Christmas gift Steve Carell ever received was a set of hockey goalie pads. 

“That night, I put them on and slept in them,” says Carell, on the phone from Philadelphia earlier this week. “My parents actually took a picture of me lying in bed with my new goalie equipment on.”

Growing up in the Boston area, hockey was a huge part of Carell’s world. And those pads, which he tore open on Christmas morning, came as a surprise: he had hoped for them, “but I didn’t think I would get them,” he says, noting him and his siblings — he’s the youngest of four brothers — were “never presumptuous enough” to write out Christmas wish lists. “They were pretty pricey, and it’s not something I was expecting.” 

Carell’s love of hockey once brought him to Detroit, where his junior league hockey team won the national championship. But he gave up his hopes of having a career on the ice and studied acting instead, and now at 56, he’s Hollywood’s go-to deadpan A-list everyman.

“I think I got lucky,” says Carell, who has two high-profile films — “Welcome to Marwen” and “Vice” — opening this Christmas season. “I’m thankful that I’ve been able to achieve any degree of success. My goal was to just make a living as an actor. Once I achieved that, I felt like the success was in place.” 

He’s done more than simply earn a living.

After studying improv comedy at the Second City in Chicago, Carell acted in a few small roles in the ’90s, including as a cast member of the short-lived “The Dana Carvey Show,” before becoming a correspondent for “The Daily Show” in 1999. From there, he graduated to a role in “Anchorman” in 2004 before landing his breakthrough in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” in 2005. 

“The 40-Year-Old Virgin” hit theaters just before Carell’s 43rd birthday, making him a late bloomer in Hollywood. “I was married, I had kids, and my priorities were in place,” says Carell, who has two children, ages 17 and 14, with his wife of 23 years, Nancy. “My life didn’t really turn upside down at that point, because I knew what was important to me.” 

Carell cemented his status by playing bumbling boss Michael Scott for seven seasons on “The Office,” the NBC smash that continues to have a healthy life in reruns and on streaming services. 

While on “The Office,” Carell starred in the big-screen comedy hits “Get Smart,” “Evan Almighty” and “Date Night,” and he lent his voice to Gru in the “Despicable Me” films, which have grossed more than $1 billion at the North American box office. After leaving the show, he expanded into drama with 2014’s “Foxcatcher,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for his role as a predatory multimillionaire wrestling enthusiast. 

In “Welcome to Marwen,” Carell plays Mark Hogancamp, the victim of a violent assault who invents a world to express himself through his art. Based on a true story, Carell took the role in part because of its social message. 

“So much of the movie is about inclusion and tolerance and healing through art, and all of those themes really spoke to me,” he says of the film, which is directed by “Forrest Gump” and “Back to the Future” helmer Robert Zemeckis. “They’re incredibly relevant in this day and age.” 

Hogancamp’s world in the film is filled with dolls that represent his likeness and a synthesized version of Carell-as-action figure is on screen for much of the film. Carell says there was only one doll of himself used during filming, and he didn’t get to keep it when “Marwen” wrapped. 

“It was exorbitantly expensive, and I’m sure it’s locked away in a vault somewhere,” Carell says, adding he worked with a doll wrangler on set to learn how to pose the figures. “The only time I was posing that doll was when I was on camera, otherwise it was off limits.” 

Carell met with Hogancamp and got to know him before filming, a luxury he was not afforded with his role as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in director Adam McKay’s comedic farce “Vice.” 

Instead, Carell did a deep dive on Rumsfeld, whom he characterizes as an incredibly tough person with a lilting laugh and a smile.

“He’s someone whose outward appearance and demeanor belied the resolve and the scariness that lurks on the other side,” Carell says. “Even in my research. I found that Nixon and Kissinger had said about Rumsfeld, ‘you’ve gotta watch out for that guy.’ And for those two people to be leery of another, I think speaks volumes about that person.” 

Carell does not expect he will hear from Rumsfeld regarding his portrayal.

“I’m sure he will not get in touch,” Carell says. “That whole group is known for their secrecy, and I have no expectation that he will reach out in any way. I don’t know whether he’ll even see it, but I’m sure I will never find out.”

Following a busy year — Carell also starred in fall’s “Beautiful Boy,” in which he played the father of a troubled drug addict, played by Timothée Chalamet — Carell is looking forward to a quiet Christmas holiday with his family. 

“I love it. It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” says Carell, who spent two days decorating his house for the holidays. He and his family will host an assortment of family members at his house on Christmas; around 15 people are expected.

Carell’s advice for surviving the holidays is much like the path he's taken to navigate his career. 

“Be appreciative of it,” he says. “People get very bitter and cynical about things these days, and it’s easy to allow yourself to buy into that. But I don’t know. Just try to keep it simple, and try to remember the important stuff. 

“It drives you crazy if you let it,” Carell says. “If you just embrace the basic tenets of it, it can be a really nice thing.” 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

 

'Welcome to Marwen'

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language

Running time: 116 minutes

Opens Friday 

'Vice'

Rated R for language and some violent images

Running time: 132 minutes

Opens Christmas day    

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