Inside the maddening world of Jim Carrey’s method acting
“If you’ve got a talent, protect it.” – Jim Carrey
Canadian-American actor and comedian Jim Carrey’s brand of acting is so idiosyncratic that it has become instantly recognisable, characterised by an unmistakable chaotic energy that dictates most of his performances. Known for his iconic stints as Ace Ventura as well as his roles in cult comedy films of the 1990s like Dumb and Dumber, Carrey dominated that period with his unique energy and became one of the top comic actors of his time. On his 59th birthday, we revisit his life and delve a little deeper into Jim Carrey’s onstage persona as a celebration of his undeniable talent.
Born in 1962 in the Toronto suburb of Newmarket, Ontario in Canada, Carrey displayed a remarkable penchant for the performing arts from a very early age. When he was just eight-years-old, he began practising impressions in front of a mirror and found out that he was actually pretty good at it. He was so confident in his talents that he wrote to a letter to Carol Burnett of the Carol Burnett Show, asking for a role on his show at the age of 10. Growing up, Carrey’s family struggled financially, and they even became homeless when they had to live in their Volkswagen van while Carrey and his brother stayed in a tent in a park. In order to support their family, Carrey and his brother would work odd jobs at a nearby tire factory, and it had a lasting impression on his work ethic. It was around this time that Carrey began to perform his comedy routines in downtown Toronto, dreaming a little bigger while continuing to work at the factory. He took to the stage at the age of 15 but found it difficult to impress the crowd with his attempts at conventional impressions. Carrey worked on his art for two years before returning to the comedy scene in 1979, after his family’s financial situation had become more stable. Slowly but surely, he built his reputation as a top talent and opened for comedy icons like Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield.
Determined to make it as a comic, Carrey moved to Hollywood in 1983 and focused on making it onto The Tonight Show and achieved the very same by the end of that year. He also managed to make his big screen debut in 1984 when he appeared in Finders Keepers and continued to make appearances in TV programs like The Duck Factory, Jim Carrey’s Unnatural Act and a regular role in the hit sitcom In Living Colour.
However, his rise to mainstream fame would come almost a decade after his debut when he was cast as the hilarious animal detective Ace Ventura in the 1994 film. He followed it up with one success after another, starring in Dumb and Dumber and The Mask in the same year and winning his first Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his stellar performance in the latter. The downside of putting in these fantastic comic performances was that Carrey was pigeonholed as only a comic and cast in very similar roles in subsequent films like The Cable Guy (1996) and Liar, Liar a year later in 1997 for which he earned his second Golden Globe nomination. Convinced of the need to show the world that he was a “serious” actor, he took up the fascinating role of Truman Burbank in Peter Weir’s brilliant 1998 psychological comedy-drama The Truman Show. A huge critical and commercial success, many believed that Carrey would go on to earn an Oscar bid for his fantastic work, but he was snubbed by the Academy and ended up winning a Golden Globe instead.
The culmination of his madness induced by method acting came in 1999 when he took on the ambitious project of portraying comedy legend Andy Kaufman in Miloš Forman’s biopic about Kaufman called Man on the Moon. While on set, he insisted that everyone refer to him as Andy, which is pretty standard for the method acting process. What’s not normal is filling your pockets with Limburger cheese. Co-star Paul Giamatti recalled:
“He’d constantly be hugging people, and he had it all over his hands and stuff. It was disgusting. He was touching people and making them shake his hands all the time. He smelled horrible. “
Losing himself in the fictitious character of lounge singer Tony Clifton which was created by Kaufman, Carrey forgot who he was or what he was meant to play. His colleagues initially thought that the method acting approach was surreal. However, it quickly became exasperating to communicate with him because he tried to communicate telepathically. At one point, Carrey was no longer playing Kaufman as Clifton but the other way round. When asked whether he dreams as himself, Kaufman or Clifton, Carrey even admitted that he saw all three wrestling each other in his dreams. The insanity of his method-acting had been internalised; psychological conflicts forced him to take up smoking during this period and indulge in extended bouts of self-loathing. The origins are unclear, but Carrey did suffer from depression and was on Prozac in order to manage his symptoms, eventually shunning the latter and other stimulants. He later clarified that the role was his way of confronting his unresolved issues, trying to process his father’s passing in 1994 and letting his anxieties manifest. Carrey did end up winning his second Golden Globe for the stellar performance, a journey so arduous that Chris Smith made a 2017 Netflix documentary called Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond on it.
Carrey continued this streak of successful projects by playing the Grinch in the second highest-grossing Christmas film of all time: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. More commercial hits followed as he starred alongside Jennifer Aniston in Bruce Almighty (2000). Still, the highlight of this period was probably his mesmerising work in Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, released in 2004 to critical acclaim. Charlie Kaufman’s surreal script facilitated Carrey’s most mature performance to date and eared him several high-profile nominations including Golden Globe and BAFTA bids. Unfortunately, this was the apotheosis of Carrey’s remarkable career, and he would never quite reach the same heights again. He appeared in comic parts in films like Fun with Dick and Jane (2005), A Christmas Carol (2009) and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011) as well as supporting parts in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013) and Kick Ass 2 (2013) but somewhere along the way, Carrey had lost the spark that made him stand out from his contemporaries. He started working as a producer for various projects including the 2015 documentary Rubble Kings and Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here. He made his return to the big screen as the primary antagonist of the 2020 film Sonic the Hedgehog, and even though the film was dismissed by critics, his performance was widely praised and many think it is his best role in recent years by a huge margin.
Despite his usual hesitation to appear in sequels, Carrey is excited to reprise the role of Dr. Robotnik in the 2022 sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog. Lately, Carrey has been focusing on other areas of his life like his paintings, but it is interesting to anticipate a Jim Carrey resurgence in his later years. The veteran actor is undoubtedly capable of such a comeback.