Jim Carrey: Bare Facts and Shocking Revelations

Funny-man and new face of Batman villian 'The Riddler', Jim Carrey pieces together thoughts on his life so far

July 13, 1995
Jim Carrey on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Jim Carrey on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Herb Ritts

Oh, please, don't do that Jim Carrey puts his face just inches from a hole in a tall, wooden post and mutters into it. The live bat Carrey is trying to flush out pokes its hideous little snout out of an opening that looks too small for its busy, mottled-brown wings and stares back at the morphing human who now displays his own toothy grimace. Above and behind Carrey, fluttering shapes wheel and plummet.

"A Bat Colony right outside the place I'm staying – what are the chances of that?" asks Carrey. Indeed, he duels with the title character in the just-opened Batman Forever, playing the red-haired, green-suited Riddler, a human question mark who torments the brand-new Batman, Val Kilmer.

Hollywood seems far away from this clearing out in the Texas hill country west of San Antonio, where Carrey is filming Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. It's the sequel to the surprise comedy smash that turned him from the quite-impossible-to-miss white guy on TV's In Living Color to the star of three 1994 films (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber) that spotlighted his sprawling demographic pull, raked in a combined $550 million in global box office and raised his salary to a whopping $10 million a film. That was the sum the near-broke Carrey wrote on a 1990 check to himself "for acting services rendered" that he dated Thanksgiving 1995. By the time of his father's death in 1994, he'd eclipsed that mark in yearly income, and he laid the check in his father's casket. "One thing I hope I'll never be is drunk with my own power," says Carrey with his practiced deadpan when talking about his fresh mushroom cloud of clout. "And anybody who says I am will never work in this town again."

The note of edginess in that joke is one the 33-year-old Canadian clown sounds often. Insincere Guy is the man Carrey most dreads becoming. After a long day on the set of the Ace sequel, Carrey is standing outside his borrowed ranch house, drinking a fine red wine at sunset. His demons are at bay for the moment, although he's working on an untidy divorce, which may go to court in late summer, and on the replacement of Ace director Tom DeCerchio with longtime pal Steve Oedekerk (author of the script, which features a missing . . . bat). Carrey's also awaiting reaction to his first megabudget epic – Batman Forever cost a reported $100 million. The movie audience is legendarily prone to the kind of spasms that vaulted Carrey to the top but is just as legendarily able to turn, as it did to comic phenom Eddie Murphy, and say, "What was your name again?"

Right now, Carrey is talking about the origins of his humor, obsessive energy and rage. The pain in Carrey's past leads his estranged wife, Melissa, to say: "I'm nervous for him. I think creative people need to be aware of the dark side that accompanies those gifts they have. I've learned that the smile he wears is the biggest mask of all." Carrey's affection for his deceased parents alternates with unburied anger that comes out in virtual torrents, and his art (it is that, pratfalls, geek faces and all) proceeds from both wellsprings. "People think that I'm this weird guy," Carrey says. "But I'm up there spewing out all my crap, you know. I guess the audience does it through me – they get that kick, seeing somebody else do it. I've always thought it was a really healthy thing."

Carrey's Riddler character begins as Ed Nygma, a brilliant if socially inept techie who's hoping the employer he idolizes (Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne) will help him bring his crackpot invention to the world. When Bruce rejects him, Ed seeks revenge as he begins a series of transformations into an overamped villain in the scene-stealing tradition of Jack Nicholson's Joker, Danny DeVito's Penguin and Michelle Pfeifier's Catwoman.

The Carrey who would spend eight hours before a set of mirrors perfecting faces, the Carrey who can't stop himself from working all day and well into the night for weeks on end, is no stranger to darkness and compulsion. The Riddler is "like any sycophant," says Carrey. "The type of guy who's basically saying he loves you more than life itself but deep down he hates you more than death – because he's grown to resent you." The object of much hero worship lately (fawned over by studio chiefs and schoolkids alike), Carrey walked on the star-laden Batman set as the guy who turned up when the first choice Robin Williams wouldn't. "I'd never seen his work," Kilmer says. "So I got Ace Ventura, and all I had to do was watch the opening deliveryman sequence. I called up the studio and said, 'Well, this'll be fun.' "

Carrey felt likewise, even playing against hard case Tommy Lee Jones, cast as Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, a disgruntled former district attorney who shares the Riddler's hatred for Batman. "They're not as odd a couple as you would think," says Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher. "The truth is, Tommy can also be brilliantly funny. And Jim can also be a great actor." Although Carrey's raffish cane-twirling went awry one day – "Cracked me right in the family jewels," says Jones – the veteran actor found Carrey "just a down-to-earth good guy and rather inspiring in his boldness in that character." Says Schumacher: "Tommy is used to stealing the show. He definitely met his match here and many times was surprised by it. It kept everybody on their toes. Jim is such an athlete, and athletes know their personal best."

Carrey agrees. "I got in my innings," he says. "Don't worry about me."

Dinner is waiting inside as Carrey's Little bat pal finally hops out of his hole, flares wings and membranes and darts into the darkening sky. But Carrey lingers, drinking a second glass of red in disciplined if savoring doses and sharing a reminiscence. He's talking about his need for concentrating on the task at hand, whether he's about to enter a frame, rewrite a joke or work at the drawings and sculptures he's done since childhood.

"I drew, and it's kind of still the same way – not quite as intense – but I used to draw in my room," Carrey says. "And when my mother asked me to take the garbage out, I would just go insane and break everything and knock shit off the shelves, just lose it. I was concentrating, I was so lost in it, it was like being in the womb, like meditation or something – you don't care about anything.

"I did pencil sketches and stuff like that," Carrey continues. "I won a couple of art exhibitions, actually. I was pretty good at it right from the start." The drawings were naturalistic, as opposed to his Daliesque later efforts. "I didn't get weird till I was older," he says. "My parents would come into the room and ask, 'What are you drawing?' It would be my dad looking at his watch with a gun in his hand. 'It's a portrait of you,' I said. 'It's called Waiting to Die.'" Although the pond in front of Carrey gathers enough light to show the odd ripple, his face can barely be seen now.

"I started making figurines, and I did a few of these paintings that just were really weird concepts – animals and stuff," Carrey says. "And I remember my sister coming down to visit me in L.A. and looking at the paintings on the wall and going, 'Are you OK?' "

Carrey leads the way up the grassy rise to the house, where, as we walk into a lamp-lit room, he acknowledges with a swirl of one hand the slightly disturbing wall decorations – about 30 stuffed and mounted animal heads, all tusk, tooth and fur. "And I'd say, 'Yeah, I'm OK – I have an outlet What do you do?' "

This is the carrey one gets used to over a couple of days – an unexpectedly studious sort with a sense of mission that never quite turns grandiose. He's very seldom "sssmokin' " like his masked creation but, rather, solicitous, unhurried (until he hits the dirt path leading to the film set) and often wistful as he reflects on his life. While Pauletta, his hair person since In Living Color, shellacs his topknot into its Ace wavy form, he listens to alternative rock – Live, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Green Day – very loud, dutifully shouting answers over the blaster and the hair dryer. He makes eye contact, infallibly, and he regards people who come his way with an attentiveness some find almost daunting. "He's one of the few comedians who you can invite to a dinner with friends," says Mask director Chuck Russell, "who is just as interested in everyone at the table as they seem to be in him."

"My performing started out as a mixture of things," Carrey says. "It's really not all angst and I-gotta-go-onstage-or-I'm-gonna-kill-somebody kind of thing. Some of it is the anger, but it was born from really, truly just wanting to be special and to be noticed and wanting to make people laugh. It really was born from that, so it comes from a good place. It's just – the tools are your anger, the took are your sadness, the tools are your joy, the tools are voices, faces – the tools are all those things."

Jim finishes first and then disrupts the class," is one teacher's evaluation that sticks in Carrey's memory.

"I'd whip through my work and then go on a rampage," Carrey says. "But I had a great teacher in grade seven, and she was clued in." If he would leave the less extraterrestrial children in peace all day, the teacher promised, Carrey could have 15 minutes in front of the class at day's end. So he would spend his spare moments making notes on that day's bits, from dinosaur imitations to an impression of a faculty member who he says would eye the boys in the locker room. "Even then I was ruffling feathers," he says.

For Carrey and his family in the Toronto suburb of Burlington, these were the relatively good rimes, but they were not to last. Carrey is the youngest of four children. After the birth of his sister Pat, his mother, Kathleen, suffered four miscarriages over several years before the arrival (in quick succession) of brother John, sister Rita and Jim. "Immediately from the time I hit earth [on Jan. 17,1962], I was weird as hell – this kid is weird," Carrey says. "They tell me that to get out of eating, I would go into, like, a convulsive shake in my highchair, until it was impossible for them not to completely break down laughing." His father, Percy, was of French descent (the family name was originally spelled Carré), a frustrated sax and clarinet player who'd scrapped his big-band dreams for the reality of an accounting job. Then, abruptly, he was laid off.

"It makes you mad at the world, you know?" says Carrey. "When you're a kid – 'How can the world do this to my dad?' " Both parents had been subject to spates of depression – "Sometimes you could feel it in the air, just a sense of doom" – and his dad's mood darkened. "To first of all give up a dream, to settle for something safe, and then have that not pan out is a real double whammy," Carrey says. "My dad was a great guy, too – you'd meet him for five minutes and thought you knew him for 50 years."

In what Carrey calls the nothingland of Scarborough, Ontario, Percy Carrey found work in the massive Titan Wheels factory, where the Carrey kids reported after school to labor as janitors and security men, living feudal style in a big stone house next to the factory. Jim was 14 and entered "a horrendous time in my life. I hated everything and everyone." He began 10th grade in "a new big-city school," and each night after classes, "we had to clean the whole, gigantic factory – huge. I can't tell you how many times I walked down to the plant and saw my brother beating the piss out of a sweeping machine, you know, with a fucking sledgehammer, just going, 'Fuck you and your mother's sister's cousin's friend.' "

Such outbursts recalled earlier days when Jim and his brother, John, would get hosed on beer and go on vandalism sprees. Soon, Jim went from straight-A grades to falling behind in class, exhausted from his nights of rage. "I was 15," he says, "pushing this sweeper down the damn hallway of executive offices of people I don't respect in any way because they're, you know, oppressing my father. I'd bury my arm in the wall, then I'd go through hours of elaborate conniving to come up with an alibi of how the sweeper went insane."

The family worked shifts amid Jamaican and Indian co-workers engaged in what Carrey saw as "a race war. I got totally caught up in the middle of it," he says. "We were all so angry, I lived my life just waiting for somebody to look at me the wrong way. I wanted it. I wanted to fucking do somebody in." His dad, once a model of colorblind piety, temporarily became a bigot – and the rest of the family along with him. Carrey, though he did chuck a bench at a co-worker who braced him, avoided the bloodshed. Convinced that his only future would be in the factory ("maybe make foreman one day"), he quit school.

"I remember telling my father," Carrey says. "He was sitting in the security office pulling a shift – this brilliantly funny guy – and I tell him I'm quitting school. 'I'm going to quit school because I can't handle it anymore. I don't understand anything they're saying.' All I wanted was to sleep after pulling eight hours in the factory.

"He never showed a lot of emotion," Carrey says. "That wasn't Dad. There was just one tear. That was it. It was done. He said, 'You're a man. You're 16. You've had to be a man. You have to make your own decision at this point.' "

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