In his first extensive profile in years, the one-time $20 million-a-movie star and current political cartoonist opens up about his disappearance, his personal pain, his outrage and why he's returning to the spotlight with Showtime's 'Kidding': "My plan was not to join Hollywood. It was to destroy it."
Jim Carrey is exhausted. Eyelids-drooping, bone-tired, hasn't-worked-this-hard-in-years exhausted.
It's just after 10 p.m. at the Santa Anita Arboretum, way out past Pasadena, and Carrey's deep in character. He tucks his shaggy hair behind his ears, wipes the beads of sweat from his forehead and takes another crack at a four-and-a-half-minute monologue that there wasn't time to memorize. If everything goes smoothly, he'll be wrapped and home by midnight. But in TV terms, four and a half minutes is an eternity and things aren't going smoothly. Under blazing hot lights, Carrey can barely see the teleprompter and he keeps tripping over his lines.
"Fuck," he mutters, halfway through his fourth take, or maybe it's his fifth.
He stumbles again.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck."
He's desperate to keep rolling, but now the camera guy needs to reload. Everybody waits. The extras are quiet as mice, and so is the crew. A few more tense minutes pass, and then something happens. Carrey does another take. Then another. His fist bangs. His eyes swell. He's channeling his frustration, and it's working. His old pal Michel Gondry, with whom he first collaborated on 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, relaxes into his director's chair. This is the Jim Carrey he remembers.
The Jim Carrey that everyone else in Hollywood remembers is the guy who was first to command $20 million a picture — the one who shot like a meteor from his weekly TV showcase on Fox's In Living Color to box office stardom with a string of hits (Ace Ventura, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber) in quick succession. The industry never tired of writing that guy huge checks; it was Carrey who got tired of cashing them. There wasn't a breaking point or a meltdown. He simply started working less and less until he wasn't really working at all. Then, just as he was feeling ready to be seen again, the Showtime dramedy Kidding came along — and with it, the opportunity to play Jeff Pickles, a Mister Rogers-style kids' TV icon who's struggling to maintain his gentle, wholesome public persona while his private life goes to hell. When the show has its premiere Sept. 9, it will raise questions about, among other things, the burden of public life, which hits close to home for an actor who had effectively renounced his own celebrity.
"I just didn't want to be in the business anymore," Carrey says the next day, when I join him in the living room of his ranch-style home in Brentwood, where he lives by himself. He bought the place 23 years ago, with his Dumb and Dumber money, and now it's a shrine to his second career as a visual artist, overflowing with paintings, drawings and sculpture. "I didn't like what was happening, the corporations taking over and all that. And maybe it's because I felt pulled toward a different type of creative outlet and I really liked the control of painting — of not having a committee in the way telling me what the idea must be to appeal to a four-quadrant whatever."
Ever since the 2016 election, Carrey's been developing his skills as a political cartoonist, too, delighting his nearly 18 million Twitter followers with devastating lampoons of all things Donald Trump. Sitting at home with a sketch pad and a bucket of acrylic markers turned out to be the perfect antidote to show business; and though his work has yet to yield a response from the president or the "sociopaths" in his White House, it has thrust Carrey back into the public eye in a way that's rejuvenated him. After some requisite wooing from Kidding creator Dave Holstein, who'd conceived Mr. Pickles with the actor in mind, and the heads of Showtime, Carrey signed on to star in his first major project in years.
But sitting now, surrounded by the art that has consumed his creative energies, the 56-year-old cautions against the obligatory comeback narrative he senses me weaving. He speaks softly, but with intent. "I'm not back in the same way," he says. "I don't feel I'm little Jim trying to hang on to a place in the stratosphere anymore — I don't feel like I'm trying to hold on to anything."
Carrey is putting the finishing touches on his latest Trump-skewering sketch when I arrive on this late-July afternoon. As we both settle into armchairs in his living room, he's dictating instructions to his assistant, Brogan, about how he'd like it captioned when it's blasted out to his large and growing Twitter following.
"Don't forget, Vote.gov," Carrey calls after him.
Within a couple of hours, the sketch — of Trump's ex-lawyer Michael Cohen, presented as a GIF — has already racked up close to 800 retweets. "I knew sooner or later I'd find a worthy way to use Twitter," Carrey says, delighted. "My manager used to be like, 'Don't do stuff on there. You're fucking insane.'"
Over the years, Carrey's sanity has been questioned more than a few times. He famously turned up with a full, luxuriant beard on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in the spring of 2017, doling out lines like "Jim Carrey is a great character and I was lucky to get the part." A few months later, at a party during New York Fashion Week, he told a red carpet reporter, "I wanted to come to the most meaningless thing I could come to." And: "I believe we're a field of energy dancing for itself. And I don't care. There is no me." The bizarre behavior came amid the media's lurid fixation on the sad saga of his makeup artist ex, Cathriona White, whose relatives tried to engulf Carrey in an ugly legal battle in the wake of her suicide in 2015. It's the only subject deemed off-limits in Carrey's life, though he seems to make plenty of veiled references to the pain it caused.
His social media output now is almost exclusively made up of his political art, though he doesn't have access to his own account and he has at least three people ("just pals," he says) sign off on every post. "When you're in my position, I think it's a really smart thing to have a buffer," he tells me. His buddy Dana Vachon, with whom he's collaborating on a top-secret book, describes Carrey's pieces as protest art, but the actor says he can't just watch the nightmare unfold: "I have to turn the uncomfortable things that I see in this world into art." He often finds himself drawing late into the night, after he's worked himself up bingeing on cable news. (MSNBC is his preferred channel, Rachel Maddow his preferred host.)
Going forward, Carrey intends to get more engaged offline, too, though he doesn't know exactly how. He gets calls to do things for candidates or to attach his name to causes the way any major star would, and he says he makes his decisions judiciously. "I try to avoid Hillary's fundraising parties up in the hills around me. Every once in a while, I'd hear one of them. She pretty much covered the clock. It was like, 'Oh, Hillary's over there now? Yeah, standing by the pool, making the pitch?' That kind of world doesn't appeal to me," he says. "But I'm gonna be supporting the local guys here and making sure that [House Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy doesn't get back in. I'd like to get [Congressman] Devin Nunes out of there forever. Trey Gowdy and Jim Jordan? I mean, what a fucking collection of ne'er-do-wells, man. It's just the worst of us encouraging the worst in us."
He's on a tear now, the most animated I'll see him.
"To watch half the country ignore what is quite obviously right in front of them, I liken it to standing on the railroad tracks cheering for the locomotive that's about to run you down. 'Look at it, look how beautiful it is. Man, it's really fast. It's getting here quickly …'" He's laughing through his fury. "When it's all said and done and the Feds finally close in and he hands over the keys to Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago and whatever else he has, there's going to be a celebration in this country such as has never been seen before. I guarantee it."
So, it’s not a matter of if, but when, I ask? “When, for sure,” he says. “It's when or we're done.”
He could talk politics for hours, but Carrey's also eager to show off his art, so I follow along with a recorder as he weaves through the halls of his house.
Vachon had half-jokingly described the place to me as a "Buddhist monastery," but I have to assume his last visit came before Carrey lined every wall with his own brightly colored work. There are at least two dozen paintings on my tour: a Jesus of every race hanging in the entryway ("I wanted to capture Christ's consciousness coming through the ether"); one of Lindsay Lohan from her 2011 legal trial in his breakfast nook ("The image of her dressed up to the nines going to court all the time was very indelible to me") and, down by his bedroom, a piece he calls "Bonnie and Clyde played by Barbie and Ken," which reenacts the infamous death scene.
From there I follow Carrey out a side door where he's assembled a sculpture garden as impressive as anything he's done inside. It's back here, he tells me, where he's been hosting his salons. "There's no better way to spend a night than to invite over a bunch of friends," he says, "and then throw in some brilliant Ph.D. or somebody like Eckhart Tolle, who's carved his own path in the spiritual world, and just pepper them with questions." Not everyone on Carrey's guest lists, much less in his inner circle, is on the same spiritual journey he is. "I love it but I'm certainly not on it," says Michael Aguilar, his producing partner. "When I hear, 'There is no me,' I'm like, 'Yeah, that's great for you. There is a me, and American Express is calling, and I need to deal with how I'm gonna pay for that bill, so let's just do this.'"
A moon goddess in the center of the yard catches my eye. Her name is Ayla, I'm told, and Carrey spent two years at his foundry in downtown L.A. sculpting her. When a full moon reflects off her eyelids, he swears to me they open. "It's like she wakes up," he says, excitedly, before moving me over to what looks at first to be a religious symbol. Instead, it's a giant "T," with the letter "I" carved within, and this is where he loses me.
"I didn't know why I was doing it initially and, as usual, a year or two later, I wake up and realize that I've been given a spiritual answer through it," he says. "I've been on the journey of identity, of who am I, and that's it. That's the question. If there's an 'it' in this world, it's 'Who am I?' There is no 'I,' and yet it has a shape. See what I mean?" In this moment, I genuinely wish that I did.
Carrey's existential journey began in his childhood bedroom in the suburbs of Toronto, where he'd lose himself writing poetry and what he deemed philosophy at that age. "Just trying to figure out what we are and why we're here," he shrugs. "The classic stuff."
If he wasn't philosophizing, he was readying a routine for the next time the family had company over. By 9 or 10, Carrey had 120 impersonations in his rotation. And to get a bigger laugh, he'd often do something hyperbolic like heave himself down a staircase. "My parents held my comedy up as something special — I was what was special about them in a way," he says. His three siblings, all older, were supportive, too. "I was always from another planet but one that they enjoyed and encouraged. They'd all be like, 'Yeah, drag Jim out here.'"
Initially, Carrey just liked the attention. But as time went on, it became as much about trying to make his parents feel better.
"My mother wasn't feeling well most of the time," he says the first time we broach the subject. He returns to it later, without any prodding. "My mom was addicted to pain medication. She was very sick in a lot of ways. She was lovely, too, but she was a child of alcoholics and she had issues. And that's not intentional abandonment — she was always there for me, she was always there in the house — but if you're high on painkillers, that's abandonment. I guess we're all abandoned to a certain extent, all of us in some way or another by something or someone, and that forms in us our belief about ourselves."
It was different between Carrey and his father. Young Jim wanted to be just like Percy Carrey, who lived long enough to see his son's career take off. "My dad was the guy who could just stand in the middle of a room and everybody would be wrapped around his finger," he says. "He was just this incredible human being." Before kids came along, he'd been a sax player; but he scrapped his big- band dreams for a more sensible career in accounting. Then, when Jim was 12 or so, Percy lost his job, and things got hairy for a while.
Carrey fell in with the delinquents. "I was angry," he says. "My father was hurting, so I blamed the world. It doesn't occur to you when you're a kid, 'Hey, maybe my dad was a drag at work. Maybe he hated his job so much that he was just an emotional skunk.'" When Percy later found work at a tire factory, Jim and his brothers joined him, pulling eight-hour shifts after school as security guards and janitors. At 14, Carrey would lug a baseball bat to work. "Everybody had daggers and knives, and I was in the middle of the madness. And I wasn't shrinking from it at all. I wanted to fight."
His grades suffered, as did his relationships. By the 10th grade, the former straight-A student was counting down the days until he could legally drop out. On his 16th birthday, he did. His dad cried, but he didn't fight his son. "Sometimes," says Carrey, "I wish he had." On occasion, he thinks about what life could have been — "how dangerous I would be," he smiles — if he had remained in school. But he did have one salvation: His dad had started taking him to Toronto's comedy clubs, where he glimpsed a different future for himself. Biding his time at the factory during the day, a young Carrey hit the open mics at night.
There was, ultimately, a breaking point, when the Carreys quit the factory and took off in a VW van. "I know it sounds sad," he says now. "We lived in campgrounds or we lived on my sister's lawn way out in the country and, sure, it got cold in the tent, but in a weird way it was a much happier time." The Carrey family was together, and able to laugh again. Though Jim didn't yet know it, comedy would be his way out.
Carrey was still cycling through impressions of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart in Toronto when he got his first break: opening for Rodney Dangerfield at Caesars.
The nights in Vegas led to years on the road, and then, just as Carrey had made a name for himself in the States, he did the most Jim Carrey thing he could do: He dumped all the impressions that had gained him his following and began experimenting with whatever struck him as funny that night.
"Think about it: Most stand-ups have been polishing the same act for years, and then along comes Jim, who goes onstage and just opens up his mind," says his pal Judd Apatow, who met the comic in the late '80s and later collaborated with him on 1996's The Cable Guy. "Sometimes he'd kill, then a moment later he'd bomb worse than you'd ever seen anyone bomb, and then somehow he'd find a way to win the audience back, and it was spontaneous and brave and dangerous. Jim's one of those people who comedians talk about like he's in a different business than the rest of us. It's like a normal rock band talking about what David Bowie is doing."
Though Carrey had flirted with TV when he first moved to L.A. in the early '80s, with a role on the short-lived NBC sitcom The Duck Factory, it was on In Living Color that a true star emerged. In a cast that also included Jamie Foxx and several Wayanses, Carrey established himself as a fan favorite with a stable of outlandish characters like Fire Marshall Bill, who'd regularly blow himself up. Back home at night, he'd get to work on Ace Ventura. Carrey's goal with the 1994 film was simple: to make fun of the leading man. "My plan was not to join Hollywood, it was to destroy it," he says. "Like, take a gigantic sledgehammer to the leading man and to all the seriousness." He took some ribbing from his In Living Color co-stars. "David Alan Grier would go out in the audience and say (as Grier), 'Jim, in his hiatus, is gonna be doing a movie called Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Let's wish him luck with that.' And everybody would scoff at me — they'd fake applaud and laugh at me."
A few days before Ace Ventura came out, Carrey was in Chicago doing a stand-up set. His managers took him to dinner and broke the news: Siskel and Ebert, then the two most influential film critics, hated the movie. "I mean, they violently hated it," he says. Then it opened, and raked in more than $100 million. Overnight, Carrey was a sensation. His $450,000 fee for The Mask, which had been negotiated pre-Ace, became $7 million for Dumb and Dumber. By the time he made The Cable Guy, Carrey was the highest paid movie star around — and easily one of the most recognizable.
His new life had its perks: the famous love interests (Renee Zellweger, Jenny McCarthy), the fancy cars and the helicopters that studios still charter to get him to and from out-of-the-way locations (yes, including Santa Anita). But fame also had its unexpected emotional effects. "There's a weightlessness to it," he says. "You can dream about it all you want, but until you get it, you don't realize that it's really not a place that's very comfortable for very long."
It impacted those close to him, too: friends, a couple of ex-wives, his daughter, Jane. Though he and Jane, who's now 30, remain fiercely close — as Carrey is with her 8-year-old son, Jackson, whose Little League games can consume his weekends — growing up in Jim Carrey's shadow was not without challenge. "She wrote in her diary when she was in, like, first grade, 'I know that the big kids want to hang out with me because of my dad,'" he reveals. "And when I used to go pick her up at school, the whole schoolyard would empty out around me because I was all of their favorite characters. I think about that and how it must have been a terribly difficult thing for her to find her own self in that — to be defined by her dad like that."
We linger on the subject a little longer. He tells me he doesn't have a big world because "outside of these gates I'm known." There's a heaviness in Carrey's voice now. "They've done experiments where they've documented how when you look at a project it changes the result. So, how can people, knowing who I am and looking at me and giving me their attention, not affect the result? Not affect what's going to happen in that store or that restaurant? It changes everything. I change the dynamic of a room when I walk into it."
For a long while, Carrey kept going, making movie after movie. Each one, he reasoned, would need to either stretch him as an actor (The Truman Show) or be a gas to do (Liar Liar).
None were as all-consuming as 1999's Man on the Moon, for which Carrey practically transformed himself into the late entertainer Andy Kaufman and Kaufman's vulgar alter ego, Tony Clifton, for the duration of the months-long shoot. Last year, behind-the-scenes footage from the celebrated film became the subject of a Netflix documentary, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, that's earned Carrey an Emmy nomination. At one point in the documentary, Carrey suggests that the executives at Man on the Moon's studio, Universal, had tried to bury the footage at the time in order to preserve his image. Speaking in the third person, Carrey says, "So that people wouldn't think Jim is an asshole."
The "asshole" behavior culled from hundreds of hours of 20-year-old footage includes Carrey, in character as Clifton, passing out, eviscerating a crew and storming Steven Spielberg's offices at Amblin to offer his critique of the director's work. Carrey's producing partner Aguilar has found the responses to his friend's Method performance revealing. "All these actors I've worked with came up to me [after watching Jim & Andy] and said, 'Hey, when you see Jim, tell him thank you for his truth,'" he says. "And the producers I know are like, 'Dude.' Like, 'Whoa, how 'bout that?'"
Carrey met Gondry a few years after Man on the Moon, when the actor was nursing a broken heart (the timeline suggests Zellweger, but Carrey won't cough up a name). Gondry saw an opportunity to put that pain to creative use. "Oh, he thought it was beautiful," Carrey laughs now. "We weren't gonna shoot Eternal Sunshine for another year, and he said (in Gondry's thick French accent), 'Please stay in pain.'" During that period, the director went to visit his star on the set of Bruce Almighty. Carrey was filming a high-octane scene on a staircase, but Gondry was more interested in what was happening between takes. "Jim would be out of character, and I noticed a loneliness in him," he says. "And I told myself, I have to shoot this loneliness." Though Gondry has never copped to it, Carrey remains convinced that he cast people around the actor at the beginning of the movie who looked like his ex "just to mess with my head."
Eternal Sunshine turned out to offer one of Carrey's most awe- inspiring performances, showcasing his chops as a dramatic actor. Over time, his choices would become decidedly darker and weirder, culminating with Ana Lily Amirpour's tiny dystopian Western The Bad Batch, in which Carrey never utters a word. The 2016 role was born out of a series of filmmaker meetings that Aguilar had arranged a few years before, when Carrey was at the height of his disillusionment. "It was really about introducing him to these young filmmakers, like the Duplass brothers, who sit and go, 'We're in the film business because of you, but here are some ideas for you that are different, some ways that we haven't seen you,'" he says. "That's where Jim gets really excited."
When Aguilar read Holstein's pilot for Kidding, he suspected that it, too, might grab and hold Carrey's attention. "It's a story about a character who has a larger- than-life public persona that he doesn't feel connected to," he says, "someone who wants to go off-brand but people keep telling him, 'No, you absolutely can't.' And, I mean, that's Jim." Showtime's CEO, David Nevins, saw the potential in Carrey's casting immediately. "I loved this idea that Jeff Pickles could capture both the big, silly Jim Carrey you love from Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber," he says, "but also the heavy, weighty Jim Carrey of Eternal Sunshine."
Though Catherine Keener, Judy Greer and Frank Langella would all join later, Gondry was the hire that made Carrey comfortable enough to sign a standard five-year deal. Not so standard was his high-six-figure fee — but it wasn't about the money. Carrey doesn't need more money.
"You're always waiting for that thing that you recognize as some part of yourself," he says. "And the life experience here matched up. I've gone through great loss, and somehow I ended up on the other side in a place where I can look anybody in the eye and feel like I'm on the same page. I understand how the river of grief can grab you at some point in your life and just throttle you."
A few days later, he'll wrap his first season of Kidding, then chop off that shaggy hair and head to Vancouver, where he'll play an archvillain in Sonic the Hedgehog, his first major studio movie in years. I wonder aloud if Carrey felt obligated to return to the kind of broad fare that delighted so many millions of fans. He insists the answer is no, that he's not driven by the wishes of the marketplace.
"But I hear the voices," he tells me. "I hear people say, 'Why doesn't he just be funny?' That stuff has just never mattered to me. To me, it's like, this is the experiment tonight. If you enjoy it, great, if you don't, that's cool, too. There'll be another one tomorrow."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.