Before Jim Carrey was famous, he’d transform himself into someone famous. In the new documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, about the making of Milos Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, director Chris Smith found old footage of Carrey in the ’80s during his decade-long stretch of small-time stand-up gigs. Onstage at a comedy club, Carrey would yell, “James Dean!” He’d turn his back to the crowd for an anticipation-building beat. Then Carrey would look over his left shoulder and he’d be James Dean: a rearrangement of eyebrows and cheekbones and lips that’d make a plastic surgeon applaud.
“He looks exactly like James Dean,” says Smith. “It’s unbelievable.” But Carrey willed James Dean into existence every week for years. And then he willed himself. The broke comic wrote himself post-dated check for $10 million dollars, tucked it in his wallet, and kept on grinding. Then in 1994, he starred in three films — Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask — and in one year, became the biggest comedy star in the world. “That was way before The Secret,” notes Smith. “It seemed like it worked for him.”
Everything that happened next happened fast. A Batman movie, an Ace Ventura sequel, his first flops. Carrey the chameleon was suddenly a celebrity in his own skin. And he didn’t always like it. By 1998, he’d channel his anxiety into The Truman Show as a naive man-child who couldn’t escape a dome of cameras.
“He could have stayed making these broad, slapstick movies, but he was always pushing himself to make different things,” says Smith. The question was: Would anyone let him? Mr. Rubberface was making studios millions, and serious people didn’t take Carrey seriously. When Milos Forman, the two-time Oscar-winning director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, began casting the role of Andy Kaufman, he didn’t want Jim Carrey. The blockbuster idiot? No way. Like Truman, Carrey would have to break out of confinement.
So Carrey did what he did best. He became Andy Kaufman, all the Andy Kaufmans, from the cartoon-voiced Foreign Man who lip-synced Mighty Mouse, to the misogynist wrestler who wound up in a neck brace, to lounge singer Tony Clifton who pushed people till they loathed him. He shot his own audition tape to prove that he knew Kaufman “as well as I can know him.” On the day Forman gave him the part, Carrey was practicing Kaufman’s mental telepathy on a Malibu beach. Thirty dolphins leapt into the air, and he felt Kaufman’s ghost tap him on the shoulder. As Carrey tells Smith, “What happened next was out of my control.”
Carrey became Kaufman full-time, like the ghost had possessed his body. For four months, Carrey disappeared—just like he’d quietly wanted to. “It was a full immersion from morning till night,” says Smith. “There was definitely some madness there.” Carrey would be Kaufman in the make-up trailer, Kaufman alone at home, Kaufman when the real-life Kaufman’s daughter came to visit the set to meet the father she’d never known. And he let Kaufman’s closest friends, writing partner Bob Zmuda and girlfriend Lynne Margulies, shoot 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage, which made its way to Spike Jonze, who handed it to Smith.