Jim Carrey – 20 years ago when he was top of the world

  June 1999 By Philip Berk

Jim Carrey was destined to play Andy Kaufman — Andy who? you ask — and in his new movie, Man in the Moon, he does.

Kaufman was a “legendary” comedian who played Latke on TV’s Taxi, but he is best remembered as a performance artist, who did things crazy things like wrestle women in a ring! 

He died of cancer at the age 35.

No less than Milos Forman, who directed the film, was a fan. 

Kaufman created an alter-ego, a crude, insulting Las Vegas comedian by the name of Tony Clifton.

At his press conference for the film, Carrey not only wants us to believe that Andy Kaufman was there while they making the film, but that Tony Clifton too was on the set every day.

When I suggest that an incident that made headlines during the shooting  (a wrestler on the film got too physical with Carrey and he ended up in the hospital) was a publicity stunt, Carrey got quite indignant.

But then he also claims Tony Clifton is alive and well.

If you believe that, then Elvis too is alive.

Incidentally Kaufman, as part of his act, used to do an uncanny imitation of Presley.

Carrey does it in the movie.

A year ago when I asked Jim why he wanted to play Kaufman, he replied, “I’ve known of Andy Kaufman’s stuff for years. I’ve followed him from the beginning and used to imitate him. He was the finest performance artist that ever came along. When he came into a room he didn’t see a bunch of people who wanted to see him. He saw people who were actors in his play. He was Gepetto, and we were his puppets. He put on a show we couldn’t help but get involved in.”

Despite the fact that he’s Hollywood’s most bankable star, Carrey had to audition for the part (actually submit an audition tape.)

Forman, who’s made such classics as Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,  considered a number of actors including Gary Oldman, Nicolas Cage, and Kevin Spacey for the part.

Eventually it came down to two: Edward Norton and Jim Carrey. 

“Both were equally impressive,” Forman said, but for obvious reasons the studio preferred Carrey.

To no one’s surprise Carrey is quite brilliant in the film and will again be up (as he was last year for Truman Show) for best actor honors at the end of the year.

Wasn’t it demeaning to have to audition for the role?

“Well it was funny because when it happened a lot of people in my camp and others told me, ‘Don’t do it. You’re putting yourself in a position to be rejected, and it will be known by everyone.’ But I found myself saying, ‘If I don’t, I’m out of the running completely.’ So I started thinking about it. I got some congas and started messing around with congas. I’m a horrible conga player, but I did the best I could to put a little piece together. Then I added a piece of Andy doing his gibberish routine and me attacking Jerry Lawler (the wrestler who put Carrey in the hospital) which Milos later told me was the thing that got me the job. 

“The Tony Clifton piece I did in my basement. I had a video of his doing the ‘I Will Survive’ bit. Then I got a couple of friends to bring over a video camera. A make-up friend of mine put some pieces together, and then Andy’s friend Bob Zmuda (a character in the film) sent me Andy’s real costume including prosthetics that Andy had actually worn, so it was thrilling for me. 

“But I believe some things are worth humbling yourself for. And if it had turned out crummy I would have said it was beneath me.”

What made Andy Kaufman such an icon? 

“I admire him because he wasn’t attached to a result. I’m much more desperate than he is (was) for acceptance. He is (was) somebody who came at it from a whole different angle. And during the making of the film I realized why. It was because growing up he was never part of the club. I was part of the club. I did things in my room, I performed for my family, for the neighbors. For me it was about reaching out to people. For him it was about creating. When you’re not part of the club, you go off and create a club of your own, and no one’s allowed in. ‘You don’t accept me, so you can’t be part of my club.’ And that fascinates me. His motivation was to do it for himself.”

But wasn’t he occasionally nasty?

“He was nasty, but the thing is what’s nasty? He enjoyed getting people’s goat, but he never hurt anybody. The only thing he did was make people uncomfortable with themselves. He did things or said things that pushed your buttons, but it made you feel you were alive.”

At his press conference, Forman joked that Carrey was on the set maybe two or three days. The rest of the time Andy Kaufman was there.

“In my mind, I was not there. Jim Carrey left the planet for three months. And there is so much freedom in that, so much healing, not to obsess on yourself, so it was  cathartic. You realize that sometimes the only thing that frees you, that makes you happy, is to think about other people, about what other people need, what else is going on in the world. I get so sick of hearing people say, ‘If I could get this, that’ll happen,’ or ‘I am really working on myself.’

“When it was over, I spent a good three weeks trying to remember what I believed in, what I liked, what I didn’t like, because I had forgotten. And it was freeing.”

Is that why appeared almost unrecognizable at the MTV Awards?

“It was directly related to that feeling, and it made you realize how safe everybody is, how kind of stuck they are in their way, and anything outside becomes a problem for them. I mean this was MTV! It’s supposed to be rebellious. Yet people were asking me to put the cigarette out, and ‘You can’t drink in here’ and all that, and I’m laying back having a Grand Marniere and chain smoking, and they were completely befuddled. I mean I had Marilyn Manson looking over at me from across the aisle. So you completely give yourself up for a little while, and it’s just like meditation. You forget about yourself, and you’re free.”

A year ago when I asked him about taking Prozac, he answered, “There’s a ying and yang to everything. I live in extremes. I’m going to feel elated, I’m going to have wonderful moments of absolute joy, but I’m also going to have lows that you will not believe; it’s just the way I’ve always been.”

So has things changed?

“It would be better for all of us not to desire anything in this world, to stay in the centre of the wheel instead of on the outside trying to hang on, but that’s not what we do. We try to live a more exciting life because we’re told it’s cool. It’s impossible to have this many highs and not have the lows. 

“Honest to God, when great things happen to me, I’m knocking on wood knowing that there’s some kind of thing I have to go through, so please don’t let it be something disastrous, like my kid being arrested.”

Is she the joy of his life?

“It’s an incredible experience. She’s so grounding to me, she makes me realize that this is what life’s about, and what really matters is, have I made anybody happy? Really truly happy. Did I really love? That’s one of the things I have to stay connected to, and it’s just so fulfilling.”

Does her mother (his ex-wife) share in that experience?

“Oh yeah, she’s great as far as raising my daughter is concerned. I really appreciate her. She’s done a great job.”

(They were married for seven years before their divorced in l996.)

What positive values does he teach his daughter? 

“She learns by example. If I’m out there doing things that are nasty or weird, I could talk all I want, but my kid’s going to do whatever she wants. They see the hypocrisy and they react to it. “

(After the divorce, he married actress Lauren Holly, but after a year they separated and divorced.)

Is he happy being single?

“I love where I am now. I don’t think I want to do anything different. I’ve been out there. I’ve had horrible experiences. I’ve had much loneliness and also great love. Through all of it I certainly know what matters now. I’ve jumped in a few places I wasn’t ready to jump, but the key is to learn from the person who has all the scars yet somehow it didn’t beat him. Were all just scarred.”

Given the choice, which does he prefer?

“Of course I’d like having somebody special, absolutely. There’s no comparison. I’m not a playboy.”

Andy died prematurely. Does he ever think about death?

“Honestly, my feeling about death is that it’s the beginning of something beautiful. When I go to a funeral, I don’t feel sad. I’ve always felt that now they know all the secrets, and they’re completely peaced out. But I’m feeling so good about things these days, I find myself saying little prayers like, ‘God, don’t take me anytime soon because I want to enjoy it.”

Is he a religious person?

“Not in the sense that I go to church, but I pray all the time. Constantly. I’m incredibly connected to things from the universe that tell you which direction you should go. I could be sitting in a restaurant thinking about a question in my head, and I hear a person at the next table giving me the answer. It will be the exact answer I’m looking for. Not that I’m psychic about running my life, but it happens all the time. You look for answers, sometimes in the wrong places, but then you get to a point where you open up to the possibility that God’s talking to you all the time.”

With the success of Truman Show and now Man in the Moon, will he continue to look for more serious roles?

“I’ve always considered myself an actor. The characters I’ve done have always been in keeping with the tone of their movies. It’s not a trend. I intend to go back and do the other thing too. It’s just other colors of the rainbow. There’s a rainbow in all of us, and if we’re lucky, we get to show three colors. Right now I’m up to five, so I’m very lucky. But it’s always been about peeling away layers, and that’s what I’ll do. Next year you’ll see me in Me, Myself and Irene, and  that will prove once and for that I will not be predictable.” 

When he was dead broke, he wrote a check to himself for $10,000. 

Does he still have it?

“I gave it to someone special.”

Anyone we know?

He wouldn’t say.

Could it be Andy Kaufman?

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