Of late, Jim Carrey has been exploring a newfound passion for political cartooning, but for now he remains better known as one of the most popular comedic actors in Hollywood history.
His credits range from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to Dumb and Dumber, The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, the 1999 Milos Forman film in which he played the late comedian Andy Kaufman. A video crew followed Carrey around on the set of the latter project as he embodied Kaufman and Kaufman’s alter-ego, obnoxious entertainer Tony Clifton, but the footage never saw the light of day until it became the basis for an acclaimed Netflix documentary that is now in the running for Emmy consideration.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, directed by Chris Smith, reveals the almost disturbing degree to which the actor transformed into Kaufman and his various personas, refusing to drop character over months of filming. Smith recorded an interview with Carrey in which he describes feeling an eerie telepathic connection with Kaufman as he prepared for the role.
“Andy Kaufman showed up, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Sit down. I’ll be doing my movie,’” Carrey recalls. “What happened afterwards was out of my control.”
“I think he’s entirely serious” about channeling Kaufman, the director tells Deadline. “If nothing else he’s incredibly earnest… There’s a genuine quality [about Jim] that’s inescapable.”
Carrey’s Man on the Moon co-stars—not to mention Milos Forman—seemed baffled by the mind and body meld they beheld on set, which Carrey took far enough that he ended up referring to himself in the third person.
“That is really weird. It’s totally surreal,” Paul Giamatti comments in the behind-the-scenes archival footage, after witnessing an exchange in which Forman tried to give Carrey some instructions, but the actor responded as Kaufman.
Danny DeVito, who appeared in Man on the Moon and of course worked with Kaufman on Taxi, shares a similar reaction in the archival material.
“This is so bizarre,” he says. “It’s really great. He’s exactly the way Andy was. Exactly.”
“When you look back at the footage, it all makes perfect sense, in a way,” Smith observes, referring to Carrey’s decision to remain intensely in character. “To play Andy with that energy and that enthusiasm as an actor, it seems like there was really no choice but to do it the way that Jim did it. Having the context of the [present-day] interview you understand his thought process…Without that contextualization maybe you can understand a little more the reaction of everyone around him.”
Portraying Kaufman for months on end provided Carrey with something of a vacation from himself.
“I think he found it was quite liberating in the sense that he was able to leave Jim Carrey behind and really immerse himself and be Andy Kaufman, and I think that was the point,” Smith states. “But what he expressed in the interview was the difficulty coming back to your own life and sort of having a crisis, just based on the idea that if you go away from yourself for four months, when you come back, it’s like you’re faced with all [the issues of] identity at that point.”
What gives the documentary a profound dimension is Carrey’s willingness to explore these personal issues openly, and reflect philosophically on his own life—and humans, in general.
“All we really yearn for is our own absence, after all,” Carrey notes at one point in Jim & Andy. “We yearn for what happens at death. ‘Ah, I don’t have to worry about that anymore?’”
“I’ve done a number of interviews over my career and I’ve never talked to anyone that was as well-spoken, concise and articulate as Jim,” Smith marvels. “Going into the project I think I saw him in the way that most people would see him, which is from the body of work, and it wasn’t until sitting down with him that you understand his brilliance, in terms of the way he thinks about the world and his career and experiences, and the way that he can contextualize and articulate his journey.”
That journey has taken Carrey along a spiritual path to greater contentment, the actor says in the film.
“I don’t want anything. That’s the craziest thing…I have no ambition—I really, truly don’t,” he tells Smith, who then asks, “Where do you think that will take you?” Carrey replies, “Nowhere. I don’t have to go anywhere. That’s fascinating to me now, the disappearing.”
Jim & Andy has earned various nominations and awards, from the Venice Film Festival to the Cinema Eye Honors. And Smith says it’s been popular on the Netflix platform, from what he understands.
“I think it succeeded. With Netflix you don’t know exactly,” he chuckles. “But it’s visibility was very strong, in terms of its presence on the site, and just among the people I know, it was something that definitely was seen.”
It was seen and appreciated by Carrey too, he says.
“When we got to the end of the editing process we shared the film with him,” Smith tells Deadline. “I don’t think he remembered everything he had said, and I think he found it really insightful, in terms of a reflection on where he is in his life at the moment, and the journey that’s brought him here.”