Jim Carrey Details His "Awakening" While Reliving Andy Kaufman Role

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Netflix

"I suddenly saw after I came back to myself that there really isn't a self to come back to," the actor said of returning to being "Jim" after letting go of the 'Man on the Moon' character — something that is explored in the documentary 'Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.'

During Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Jim Carrey speaks about a time when he stood in front of the paparazzi-flocked Los Angeles restaurant The Ivy, paused and said nothing. The photogs, unaccustomed to a celebrity acting so nonchalantly in front of their flashing bulbs, didn't know how to react, Carrey recalled. So when the actor walked onto the stage after a New York screening of the Chris Smith documentary and stood still, staring out into the crowd somewhat awkwardly after they took their seats from a standing ovation, it seemed like the actor was once again testing his audience.

The doc, which has the full title, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, explores how Carrey lost himself during a two-yearlong method acting process to play late comedian Andy Kaufman for the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. During filming, Carrey embodied Kaufman, and his alter ego Clifton, with such dedication that the cast (including co-stars Danny DeVito, Courtney Love and Paul Giamatti), crew and even Kaufman's family only referred to the actor as Andy or Tony, depending on the day. Jim & Andy explores Carrey's acting process through interviews with the actor now and never-before-seen video footage from the set, filmed nearly 20 years ago.

The on-set footage, shot by Kaufman's girlfriend Lynn Margulies and comedy partner Bob Zmuda, was an idea of Carrey's, as he wanted to use the documentary-like footage as the press kit for the movie. As Carrey explains in the film, however, Universal Studios told director Milos Forman the footage was unusable because they didn't want people to think Carrey was an "asshole."

When Carrey did finally take his seat at the post-screening panel, held Tuesday at the Museum of Modern Art, the actor was joined by Smith and producers Spike Jonze and former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, who was in the audience and called to the stage by the group. Carrey explained that he had initially wanted the footage out there right away, but instead had been "resigned to watching it over and over again, naked in a chair," while it sat in his personal archives. "I wanted people to see the movie and wanted people to see what was happening during the making of the film. But Universal was really nervous about that, and my persona," he said with a laugh. But many years later, Jonze eventually told Carrey, "I could do something about it, maybe," and asked for him to send over the videos.

The panel spoke of their love for the original movie's subject, Kaufman, who died of lung cancer at 35, and credited that mutual admiration for uniting them all together to make this project. Jonze had been introduced to Carrey many years ago, when he was only a budding filmmaker, and took a meeting with the megastar about directing the sequel Ace Venture: When Nature Calls (the job went to Steve Oedekerk). But he said it was their "mutual affection and obsession" with Kaufman that got them and Stipe talking about making this documentary.

"R.E.M. did two songs about one guy, and both of them are classics," said Carrey about the group's hit singles "Man on the Moon" and "The Great Beyond," which were both about Kaufman. "That says something about who he was, when artists of that stature will actually pay tribute." Stipe also produced both Smith and Jonze's 1999 films, American Movie and Being John Malkovich, respectively. Both Jonze and Stipe, Carrey said, had even called him recently after he made headlines over questionable public behavior to check on him — "which happens a lot, people calling to make sure I'm okay," he said. Added Carrey, "All of these loves, all of these passions, all these things that happen to us and people we admire in life, when you stick with what you love, they end up coming around. They almost end up bookending and becoming a part of your tapestry. I feel so honored to be in the same breath or the same experience of anything having to do with Andy Kaufman."

To make the documentary, Smith sifted through 100 hours of film taken during four months on set and spent one day interviewing Carrey on camera: "I called my editor and was like, 'Oh, we got the whole movie. It's done.'"

The Carrey who was recently interviewed by Smith is much different than the actor who stepped into the Kaufman role many years ago. During the panel, Carrey extrapolated on a revelation he explains during the film, of losing himself in playing Kaufman and not knowing how to find his old self once he put the character to bed. "I wondered at times myself whether Andy's possession of me was going to be something I could endure for the length of time it takes to make a movie," he admitted. When the doc premiered recently at the Venice Film Festival, Carrey had called his method process "psychotic" at times.

"They caught me during what I call the rapture, the dissolving of a certain belief in my persona," Carrey explained Tuesday. "There's a moment in experience, if you're lucky, that you realize you haven't been a person inside a space, you've been a space with a person inside of it, an enormous, infinite space. And that's what I was kind of going through. The thing that always leads to that seems extremely destructive and challenging and just as it is on a macro, micro level, it's kind of tearing you up. And he caught me at that moment when I didn't give a shit anymore and I was willing to let someone see what was going on."

Carrey said that in revisiting Man on the Moon through Jim & Andy, he realized how pivotal the experience was in his life, calling that an awakening.

"I suddenly saw after I came back to myself that there really isn't a self to come back to," the actor said of returning to "Jim" after letting go of Andy. "At least not one that's worth coming back to, once you step outside of it. That was the incredible thing about this film. It is a really important moment of realization, of awakening, that I didn't realize at the moment, but as time went on afterwards, I realized that the awakening had begun to the idea of there not being a self." Carrey explained that in life, one is taught a collection of ideas, such as your nationality or family name, that you "hold onto as an anchor, but there is no boat for the anchor. That's the hard part, if you're kind of running around looking for an anchor your whole life when the boat never existed."

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is set for release globally on Nov. 17 on Netflix.