In 1999 Jim Carrey portrayed the comedian and actor Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. Now, a new documentary based on behind-the-scenes footage shows how far Carrey disappeared into his character both on and off the set. It was an experience that changed his life, he tells Stephen Applebaum
Robin Williams once told me Billy Connolly was like “walking pot”.
“If you’re around Billy for more than five minutes,” he said, in one of his last interviews, “you’ll start to feel giddy.” The same could be said of Jim Carrey, when I meet the rubber-faced comedian at the Venice Film Festival, although he’s more like human acid: a walking head-trip who blows your mind as he wrestles with language in an attempt to explain where he is spiritually and philosophically in his life. “I still have trouble with the semantics of this concept,” he apologises at one point.
Our heady encounter follows a screening of Chris Smith’s (American Movie) compelling documentary, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, which utilises gob-smacking making-of footage from the filming of Milos Forman’s 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon, to reveal Carrey’s “psychotic” – his word – commitment to playing Kaufman and his egregious alter ego, boorish lounge singer Tony Clifton.
Carrey has often claimed that he never broke character for four months, and it turns out to be true – as Ron Howard discovered when he needed to discuss the comic’s notes for The Grinch. Instead of Carrey he received a call from “Andy Kaufman” telling him Jim was unavailable, and he would relay the notes. “So for two-and-a-half hours on the phone, Ron Howard, who’s a wonderful mensch, discussed the notes with Andy,” says Carrey, laughing. “So Andy actually affected The Grinch as well.”
The documentary, which also features a revealing new interview with the then heavily-bearded Canadian, explores the effect this theatrical deep dive had on him and the people around him, and how he’s still experiencing it today.
Carrey had hoped that the candid behind-the-scenes footage filmed by Kaufman’s last girlfriend Lynn Margulies and his partner in crime Bob Zmuda would see the light of day sooner. He envisioned a documentary that would be released before the movie and approached Rob Reiner (Spinal Tap), who told him the material should be cut into the film. However, Universal thought releasing the footage would make the actor look like an “asshole”, says Carrey, and quashed it. “They had a star’s persona to protect... so I can understand their viewpoint. At the time they were worried about it making me look bad. But, you know, they also allowed us to do this.”
By the time the 100 hours of film reached Smith, years later, Carrey was at a different point in his life and career, and gave the filmmaker the “interview you always want but never get”.
“He’d just come back from a period of being off the map, and I think he had a lot to say,” says Smith. “I think we hit a very special window of time where he was ready to talk about that experience and how it affected his life, and where he was now.”
Sitting down with Smith was a revelatory experience for Carrey. “It made me understand a different level of value that the film had for me,” he says. Before making Man on the Moon, he’d already begun to feel that it wasn’t only the characters he was playing that weren’t real, but also the person known as Jim Carrey. This was confirmed, in his mind, when he emerged from playing Kaufman/Clifton and it took him a month to return to himself. He thought if he could lose himself to the point where he no longer knew what his politics were, or his likes and dislikes, then “what the hell is that self to begin with? If first of all it’s so hard to reconnect with, and second of all is so easy to let go of, really what is it?”
So who is Jim Carrey, I ask? “A character that’s been playing me.” But behind that is a human being, right? “No... You’re a collection of tetrahedrons that are programmed with ideas of yourself. That’s what I believe. There is no ‘you’.”
I wonder whether he is playing a character at this moment, but he is utterly sincere. So let’s rewind. If Jim Carrey was a character, how did he come into being?
“I think very early on ego took over and realised, ‘Oh my gosh, in the living room, if I’m funny like my dad, people call me special. And if I draw really well in art class, people call me special.’ You know, it’s like a dog who needs a bone and I need to lay on my back and have somebody rub my belly and tell me I’m a special thing. But I don’t need that now. I’ve risked that enough to know I don’t need it.”
Carrey got everything he wanted – wealth, fame, acclaim – but as the interview in the documentary shows, it wasn’t what he needed. For Smith, this was one of the most troubling and provocative parts of the story.
“We think if we could achieve these few things we’re going to get to this point where we’ll be happy and you see someone who’s achieved so much and gotten to the other side and has everything you could want, and is still struggling with happiness. That’s a very harrowing idea when you’re still on that journey, and it just makes you question all these things, and sort of think about what is going to give you satisfaction? What is going to make you feel content?”
These days, Carrey seems to be spending more time in his artist’s studio, painting and sculpting, than on film sets. He seems liberated, because now there is no “green-light committee” to deal with.
“An idea comes from the ether and it goes on to the canvas, and there’s no one in between. It’s pure, more so than anything else I do, because it’s pure consciousness happening without me. There’s ideas that are happening, and I’m executing those ideas.”
It wasn’t just playing Andy Kaufman that got Carrey here, but it was a pivotal “part of the evolution of letting go”, he says. Previously he’d spent his whole life looking for anchors, things to believe in. And then he realised: “There’s no f***ing boat! So what good is an anchor going to do when there’s no boat? Once I knew that, once I had that feeling, holy man!” He looks around him. “All of this is rising out of nothing and happening for no one,” he says. “There’s no f***ing meaning to it, except that which we ascribe to it, and there’s no purpose except that which you choose, and there’s no you choosing it.”
I can’t decide whether Carrey, who has a history of depression, is deluding himself or is really onto something. Either way, he’s a fascinating character – real or made up.
*Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton premieres on Netflix on 17 November.