After spending years making audiences laugh, Steve Carell delivered one of the most chilling performances of the year in the true-crime thriller “Foxcatcher.” The role has already garnered him Golden Globe and SAG Award noms, and now the actor is being honored with the Variety Creative Impact in Acting Award on Jan. 4 at the Palm Springs Film Festival.

Carell has shown a dramatic side before; he won a SAG Award as a member of the ensemble of “Little Miss Sunshine,” in which he played a suicidal gay man. He also earned raves for his turn as a widower in “Dan in Real Life” and as an annoying boyfriend in “The Way, Way Back.” Still, it’s unlikely even his biggest fans were prepared for his complex, unsettling turn as billionaire John du Pont in “Foxcatcher.”

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After his breakout turn as a correspondent on “The Daily Show” led to TV stardom on NBC’s “The Office” and film fame with Judd Apatow’s sleeper hit “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Carell seemed to transition just as easily into dramas. “There was no master plan in terms of that stuff,” Carell says. “I’ve never thought about switching things up. Like most people, I just want to do something good.”

In “Foxcatcher,” du Pont develops an unhealthy relationship with two Olympic wrestlers (played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) whom he attempts to mentor. Carell says it was the most difficult role of his career, largely due to the isolation he felt on set by slipping into the skin of the lonely and troubled du Pont. He admits he didn’t engage much socially on the Pittsburgh set, and in particular kept his distance from co-star Tatum. At the same time, it was a fulfilling experience.

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“(Director) Bennett Miller is such a great collaborator and gave us all sorts of freedom to figure things out,” praises Carell. “I felt very supported by Bennett and I thought the story was incredibly nuanced and intriguing and sad. There were so many components to it all that I just felt rewarded to be a part of it all.”

Long regarded as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, Carell thinks that coming to fame after years in the showbiz trenches has helped him keep perspective. “By that point I knew what was important to me in life and the people that were important, namely my family,” he notes. “That’s what I had, it’s what I still have, and what I’ll always have.”