Leslie Mann talks tackling drama in Welcome to Marwen and reveals a ghostly experience in Bono's Hotel

Beyond the plush confines of London’s Corinthia Hotel, a storm is raging. High winds and driving rain batter the bay windows, and Leslie Mann, a displaced Californian, is sheltering under a blanket and nursing a cup of camomile tea. In keeping with the gothic atmosphere, she tells me a ghost story.

“We were in Dublin, and we were staying at the U2 hotel,” she tells me, “yeah, The Clarence, and it’s haunted. I woke up in the middle of the night and the whole bed was shaking and shaking, it was the strangest thing. I saw Bono a long time after, and I said to him, ‘we stayed in your hotel and it’s haunted’, and he totally ignored me. It was like he either didn’t want to hear, or I don’t know!” Were the shakings accompanied by any apparition, I wonder? “No. It was so crazy, but I suppose I could have been hallucinating, I was tired. Then again, maybe not…”

A strange tale, told with gusto, but not as strange as Mann’s new film, Welcome To Marwen, a collaboration with Steve Carell and Robert Zemeckis that’s based on a story so odd it has to be true. On April 8, 2000, artist and illustrator Mark Hogancamp was attacked outside a bar in upstate New York and beaten half to death by a group of young men he’d been drinking with. They set upon him after he casually mentioned that he liked to wear women’s shoes: when he emerged from an induced coma, he could remember little or nothing of his former life, had crippling injuries he would slowly recover from, and hands that shook so badly he could no longer draw.

Afterwards, he retreated from the world and began inventing his own, using dolls and scaled backdrops to create an alternate universe in which he played out his traumas and fantasies. These extraordinary tableaux had a wartime theme, and one of the dolls was an avatar for himself, a dashing US Army captain who always overcomes insuperable odds to defeat the Nazis. The exquisitely lit photos Hogancamp took of these creations formed an acclaimed series of exhibitions, and led to a 2010 documentary, Marwencol.

Steve Carell plays Hogancamp in Welcome To Marwen, while Leslie Mann plays Nicol, a kindly woman who moves in across the street from Mark and forms a tentative bond with him. And during the film, Zemeckis uses motion capture to bring Hogancamp’s doll world to life.

“I thought it was just such a beautiful story,” says Mann, “and I had so much faith in Bob. I mean Bob Zemeckis kind of invented motion capture, didn’t he, and I was just really interested to see how he was going to make the whole doll world work. It turned out really well, I think.”

Though cautious at first, the real Mark Hogancamp was helpful to the production. “Bob and Steve went up to see him, and Steve spent time with him, looking at his creations, watching him work. He’s pretty reclusive, but maybe he’ll come to the premiere — he might like that.”

Mann’s character in the film is loosely based on a real neighbour of Hogancamp’s, called Colleen. “If you watch the film Marwencol, which is really such a brilliant documentary, you see her briefly, but I think my character in the movie is much more interested in being friends with him than she was. Nicol is a kind soul, and Mark’s gentleness appeals to her, but she’s not interested in him sexually.”

That nuance eludes poor Hogancamp who, in the film’s most excruciating scene, attempts a clumsy proposal. It’s hard to watch. “I know,” she says laughing. “Poor Nicol doesn’t know where to look. You get so caught up in the whole doll world when you’re watching the film that we’re kind of living through his brain, and so we believe that story and then, bang, reality intervenes. Steve is so sad in that scene — I felt terrible!”

Mann says doing the motion capture scenes was fun, but weird.

“You wear these suits, they’re like a light grey, very thin polyester material that just kind of hangs on your body in a way that is so unflattering. Everybody looked so bad, especially the poor men! The women can kind of get away with it a little bit, but the men just look like they have guts, but no penises,” she laughs.

“Then they put like little sensors all over your body, and they hook you up to these monitors that will automatically animate you as you’re doing the sequences. So you can watch your character move around in front of you. I love the way it looks, it’s so weirdly realistic, but it’d be so nice if they could fix up those mo-cap suits!”

Like her co-star Carell, Mann was initially best known for comedy. After studying acting in her native Los Angeles, she worked with an improv comedy troupe called The Groundlings. Her earliest screen roles were in broad comedies like George Of The Jungle and The Cable Guy, and it was while auditioning for the latter film that she met her husband-to-be Judd Apatow.

He would go on to redefine Hollywood comedies with films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, Knocked Up and This Is 40. Mann had a key role in all those movies, which displayed her excellent comic timing, and flair for improvisation. “Improv is tricky, because it can go so wrong, like you really have to know how to stay in character and stay with the story, you can’t just wave your arms about and do whatever, you have to make some sense. But it’s really fun”

In Apatow’s 2013 film This Is 40, the lines between life and art were seriously blurred, with Mann playing a woman with two kids being played by her real kids in a script written by her husband. Did it draw heavily from their own lives? 

“Well, a little bit, sure,” she says, “we used a lot of stuff from Paul Rudd’s lives, from our friends’ lives, from Jason Segel’s life, from our own, stuff we thought was funny.” It must mean a lot to her. “It does. We watched the tail end of it the other day, I haven’t seen it in so long, and I loved it.”

Welcome To Marwen, meanwhile, is not Mann’s first awkward encounter with Carell — in fact, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, she threw up on him during a sex scene. Is it true she made that stage vomit herself?

“I did. They didn’t want to shoot that scene because we were running out of time, and they were just going to end it some other way. And I really fought for the vomit, I just really wanted to do it, and nobody was prepared with vomit stuff so I just ran to catering and got some strawberry kefir and granola and mixed it up, maybe there was cottage cheese as well. Didn’t it look good?”

Welcome To Marwen is released on January 1.

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