Who is Jim Carrey? Seeing the actor—one of the most indelible, singular performers of his generation—mobbed by fans as he exits Deadline’s Toronto Studio, this seems an absurd question. Beloved for his signature, almost athletic gifts before the screen, Carrey has carried such comedic classics as Ace Ventura, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Liar Liar, The Truman Show and Man On The Moon.
If you were to ask Carrey himself who he is, his answer would likely surprise you. Much like shadow assassin Arya Stark in HBO’s Game Of Thrones, Carrey insists that he is no one. The reason the individual known as Jim Carrey is out and about here at the Toronto Film Festival is his tour in support of Chris Smith’s Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story Of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring A Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention Of Tony Clifton.
The documentary is cut from hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes archival footage from the production of 1999’s Man On The Moon—where Carrey went as deep and unendingly into character as he ever has in portraying performance artist Andy Kaufman and his belligerent alter egos. The result gives in-depth insight into the craft and sheer spirit of one of the generation’s greatest performers, demonstrating the costs and consequences that come with his art.
Hours after the announcement of an acquisition by Netflix, Carrey and Smith reflected on this unique portrait of a legendary performer, and the performer who became him.
How did Jim & Andy come together?
Jim Carrey: I started talking to Spike [Jonze, producer]. I was going through all kinds of crazy sufferings and awakenings, and he’d check in on me every once in a while, and we’d have existential conversations for long periods of time. He’d go, “How does this point of view of yours feel in the world?” I said, “Well, it doesn’t feel. I feel like the world is feeling me.”
We’d have all these crazy discussions, and then we started talking about Man On The Moon, and I told him about this incredible wealth of material that we had that we had shot, because most people behind the project feel like the movie was great, but the real movie was what happened behind the scenes. The real thing that affected people was behind the scenes.
He said, “God, you’ve got to send this stuff over to me. I want to see it.” He looked at it and went, “F*ck, this has to be seen by somebody.” I was like, “Yeah, I’d love people to experience it.” Then, he brought Chris on board, and: Go.
Chris Smith: I got a call from Spike and [producer] Danny Gabai and they just said that there’s this footage that exists that I didn’t know was around, that documented this bizarre happening that took place 18 years ago for four months while they were making Man On The Moon. They sent the footage over. They asked if I would be interested. Of course, immediately—without hesitation—I said yes, and shortly thereafter, they sent the footage over. We spent months digging through the material.
Carrey: There were hundreds of hours [of unseen footage].
Given that the film came out in 1999, what format was this material on?
Smith: We went through that and then once we had a handle on the material, we set up a time to sit down with Jim and talk through everything, without any preconceived notions as to exactly what it would be, just hopes of different directions it could go in.
Carrey: I was ready at that time in my life to go, “OK, I don’t care what happens now, so I’m going to just share whatever is real.” When we sat down to talk, I was at a point in my life where I don’t care what the result is. It’s not about the result, it’s about being authentic, and he talked to me for seven hours, or something like that. It was a beautiful, relaxed atmosphere where I was going to share where I’m coming from.
Have you ever recorded similar materials for another production, or was this the once-in-a-lifetime experience?
Carrey: Never. So much of what happened with this project was because of Andy Kaufman being so special. Lynne Margulies, who’s here with us—his girlfriend and videographer—she’s a documentarian too, and she told me, “Andy didn’t wait until ‘Action,’ ” you know what I mean? As soon as opened his eyes in the morning, the circus began, and you were just a part of the circus. You could relax into it and let it happen, in which case you’d come out with some life stories and some amazing memories, or you could resist it and be in hell. So much of what happened in this whole experience—the movie, and even this—is still being informed by that soul. By that person’s freedom and courage.
Chris, you’re well known for your documentary American Movie, which is an entirely different portrait of the artist. What is it that draws you to projects of this nature?
Smith: I think that there’s a natural attraction to enigmatic characters, people that have decided to make a decision in their lives to live differently than everyone else. That’s a very attractive quality that also happens to be good for filmmaking, people that have their own point of view and aren’t looking at things the same way as everyone else. I think whether it’s a guy that’s living in his parents’ basement in Milwaukee, Wisconsin or a guy living in…Where is it? Brentwood?
Carrey: [laughs] I’m non-localized at this point.
Smith: Exactly, sorry—Los Angeles, California…That that’s irrelevant, and it’s not limited to certain demographics, or spaces, or places, or types of people. It’s having your own way that you look at the world, I think.
Carrey: Everybody’s interested in invisible men, and invisible women. Artists are invisible people. They make avatars of themselves to be seen, and then at a certain point, you start realizing all the avatars you’ve made are not you, and even the first one that you are supposed to be is not you. You’re truly invisible, and it’s terrifying. It’s a death of sorts. That’s what has happened through this whole experience. Not only Andy, but the doc and several other things that have happened in my life—just this feeling of letting go, of whether that’s OK or not.
The tabula rasa notion of the actor makes complete sense. What I don’t understand is how someone like you can lose himself so completely in a character. But of course, there isn’t really a “someone like you” when it comes to Jim Carrey.
Carrey: There’s not a “me,” so [you’re] really f*cked [laughs]. There’s no self to lose.
Can you expand on this philosophy, as it pertains to your craft and your life?
Carrey: I think that you have a conundrum as long as you’re trying to establish a character in the world. The character is what trips you up—the thing of, “I’m going to get so dark in this character that I’m going to get lost in a character.” You can’t get lost in a character. You can only think you’re lost in a character.
I always describe it like this feeling of: You’re searching your whole life for some definition, or anchor, or something like that, and then you realize there’s no boat. There never has been a boat to anchor, but you’ve been looking for a f*cking anchor. What are we doing?
Statements made in the doc suggest that at one time, you did believe there was a self to lose. The process of making this film seems like it was disorienting.
Carrey: Yeah, at that time, it was like, “I don’t know.” I lost touch with what Jim Carrey’s supposed to believe in and know, and his politics and everything, and it took me a while to adopt that back, but then you go, “Well, why am I doing that? Why would I want to adopt all that?”
Has there been an evolution in your thinking since the making of Man On The Moon?
Carrey: Evolution, devolution, erosion, destruction. A deconstruction.
It’s clear that you don’t enjoy labels, and Andy Kaufman always defied those who tried to put him in such a box, but…
Carrey: “You’re the rubber-face guy!” [laughs]
Many people classified Andy Kaufman as a “performance artist.”
Carrey: He’s a song-and-dance man.
How do you view performance art, particularly as it’s seen today with actors like Shia LaBeouf? In the most generous scenario, it seems that people just don’t know how to understand it.
Carrey: I just think people react to energy, and sometimes the art is coming from a place of wanting to stop the concern, or is coming from a place of pure expression, but the expression is dark.
Sometimes, the expression is light, and sometimes it’s in between, and sometimes— with somebody like Shia—he was going through some emotional stuff, so the expression was aggressive. People pick up on that, like dogs. We’re like dogs. We sniff it and we go, “OK, I’ve got to be on my guard with this because it’s aggressive.” There’s nothing wrong with it.
The greatest art, if you can say that—I don’t even know if you’re supposed to label things that way—but to me, art is really wonderful when it stops you from judging completely. It’s like James Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man—beautiful art causes a stasis in your mind. There’s nothing to say. That has to come from a different place. There’s emotion involved, but I don’t know—it’s not a reactive thing. It’s an acceptance of life, or the beauty of something. It’s an artist that gets to that place where they’re actually creating something from appreciation of the beauty of something.
When Suicide Squad came out last year, there was a dialogue in the press on the corruption of method acting, which has potentially turned—in some cases—into a simple expression of male ego. What’s your take on that?
Carrey: I think ego is always unattractive if it’s the one in control, if it’s the reason for doing it. I think there’s always going to be a certain part of an artist that wants to be admired for a nice creation. We’re all children. Still to this day, when I do my paintings, I’ll start off with a sketch and I feel no different than I did when I was 8 years old, in my room making cartoons. It is absolute freedom, and I know it’s going to turn into a painting.
So far, it seems that a lot of people like it, and the ones that don’t like it…I read a horrible review of my painting the other night by a very important art critic, and I went to bed smiling because not only does he not understand that I don’t exist, but it tickled me. There was part of me that was like, “It’s just funny because he’s done this his whole life. He’s protecting the fortress of ‘art-ness’ and artistic integrity, and I got over the wall.” The video got me into a space he doesn’t think I belong, and so he has to deal with me, which is funny. “Sorry, dude. Now you’ve got to deal with me.”
Is there a cost to method acting? Making Man On The Moon, some people were alienated and there was a certain element of it that was pure provocation—for example, coaxing a professional wrestler into slapping you across the face.
Carrey: It was my fault. Not my fault, but Andy’s fault. Those are things where you make a choice in the moment: Are you going to pull back, or are you going to risk dislocating your jaw? Which was pretty much the case. He’s got a meat hook on him, and he took my jaw pretty much off. I was like, “Ugh,” having trouble closing my jaw afterwards, but you only live once.
Smith: [Wrestler Jerry Lawler] had that “You-only-live-once moment right then, didn’t he?
Carrey: He did [laughs]. “Now is my chance! Now is my chance. He gave me the license.”
Your documentary was just picked up by Netflix, a distributor that does great justice to docs by bringing attention to them. How does that feel?
Smith: We’re thrilled, just in the sense that it seems like it’s the best vehicle to get the most amount of people see it, and I think that’s the hope with this movie, just getting it in front of people.
Carrey: Maybe another generation has an appreciation for Andy and gets to look back at how he affected me, and at the same time, there’s some stuff in there that might just cause a little shift. Who knows? I’ve got to tell you, for me it’s also weird how the universe works because this is a combination of looking back at stuff that I’ve done, and it’s talented, amazing people recognizing and seeing that The Mask wasn’t just a goofy movie, that there was a point to it, and there was a point to Eternal Sunshine, and Truman Show.
It’s good that that’s appreciated, and at the same time, as an artist, you just want to be included with cool people who do cool sh*t. Spike’s cool and he does amazing [work].
That approach to your work would explain your much-discussed collaboration with a talented up-and-coming filmmaker, Ana Lily Amirpour, on The Bad Batch.
Carrey: Yes, exactly. They all grew up with me. Not all of them, but some of them. Spike was pretty young on the scene when I was making it. [People] like that grew up with me, and at the same time, now I’m relying on them. It’s great.
Smith: I didn’t know until today that Spike was up to direct…
Carrey: Ace Ventura 2.
Smith: That’s bananas.
Carrey: Spike came and interviewed with me to direct Ace Ventura 2. I didn’t know Spike—he was just starting out and I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know. He’s a little inexperienced and whatever.”
Smith: Good call [laughs].
Carrey: I ended up going with somebody else. I kicked myself afterwards when I understood his talent. But I’ve done that a billion times.
Over the years, have you stayed in touch with director Milos Forman, or others involved with the making of Man On The Moon?
Carrey: Yeah, sure. Milos, during the experiment, was really tired at the beginning, and he was like, “I don’t know if I can get through this.” He was calling me on the weekend and trying to talk to me, and whatever. Then, he accepted it and he learned how to direct those characters. He learned their politics. Within a week, he figured out an angle of how to speak to Andy and how to speak Tony [Clifton, Kaufman’s alter ego played by Carrey], and he did what great directors do. He learned how to massage it and figure you out, and appeal to your best side.
Do you believe, like many people, that Andy Kaufman is still out there kicking around, and his “death” was the greatest prank of all?
Carrey: I believe that Andy never was here. There was an energy that happened, all the circumstances that conspired to create that engine. But I just think those things happened. Those things happened from special circumstance.
People also believe Kaufman’s comedy partner, Bob Zmuda, is still out there performing as lounge singer Tony Clifton, even at the age of 67.
Smith: I don’t know who Bob is, but Tony Clifton showed up today.
Carrey: I think he’s all over. Tony’s all over. Bit of a publicity whore. By the way, the girl that is with him is from the Mustang Ranch [Brothel].
Smith: Not with him, with Bob [laughs].
Jim, what drove you as a performer at the beginning of your career, and how is that different from what drives you today? What has shifted?
Carrey: I was more a dog wanting a bone at the beginning, and now I don’t feel like I’m anything. I think things are just happening, and I feel like I’m the space in which they’re all happening. I don’t care about the bone, but I’ll eat the bone. Bones are delicious, but I’m not driven by the bone.
Smith: That could be misquoted [laughs].