You see, Carrey has found spiritual enlightenment, and it's so awesomely awesome that he just has to tell you about it. For hours. Even if you didn't ask. In fact, he has to write a book about it. "It will be more representative of who I am than anything I've ever done," he says. "I feel like I know something. These thoughts make me feel like I'm wearing gold shoes." He's thinking of calling it Be Ready to Be O.K. If that weren't begging to be mocked on VH1's Best Week Ever on its own, he's also got a children's book in him. "It's called Cynthia's New Friend. It's about how we hate change. We hate people to change because we're afraid they'll fly away."
That's the thing you have to admire about Carrey even as you cringe at what he's saying: he's not afraid. He's not afraid of getting made fun of, he's not afraid of change, and he's not afraid of his audience flying away. In fact, every time he's become successful at something, he's stopped doing it. As soon as he became famous as an impressionist, he stopped doing characters. After he got traction as a stand-up, he retired his act, going onstage without any material, often being overtly hostile to his audience. When that got him a job on Fox's sketch show In Living Color and led quickly to a $20 million paycheck, he decided to ditch his devoted Adam Sandler-loving audience by making the disturbing, dark comedy The Cable Guy and dropped his price to make such dramas as The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And now he's made The Number 23, a cheapie $30 million horror film about a man consumed with numerology, in which he frequently appears shirtless, tattooed and with slicked-back hair. If he somehow manages to keep any of his original fans, he could still try to shake them with an Elizabethan costume drama.
"I don't want to pick scripts just to keep me in the status-phere," he says. "You have to take the plunge to expose your true self. If you're true to yourself, you'll turn someone on." Then he quotes Emerson's essay on self-reliance. And then the spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle, whom he's visited in Canada. Then he talks about his meditation practices. And the moment of his enlightenment. And how trying to fill a hole in yourself is pointless, since we don't have holes. And how time, man, time doesn't even exist. You don't need to bring many questions to a Jim Carrey interview.
The weirdest part is that, despite how it sounds, he wasn't at all annoying. Yes, he's a little too happy, but he seems very comfortable and mellow and unguarded and unpretentious. Joel Schumacher, the director of The Number 23, who has known Carrey for more than 20 years and worked with him on Batman Forever, says the actor didn't annoy anyone on the set with his inner being. "I'd rather hear someone spout to me about their spiritual journey than someone complaining that the studio didn't give them a trailer that's big enough," he says.
"Sometimes when people spill about their spirituality, it's because it's a new discovery: 'Oh, my God, I'm born again,'"> says Carrey's Number 23 co-star Virginia Madsen. "But this is something he really lives. Stand-up comics are usually kind of morose and dark people. But Jim is really funny. And he enjoys other people's sense of humor as well." Madsen said that between sets, he cracked people up with stories about when his family was homeless and living in a van. You have to be pretty funny to pull that off.
Schumacher figures that Carrey's happiness, particularly with girlfriend Playboy model cum gross-out comic Jenny McCarthy, allowed him to play a tortured obsessive-compulsive in The Number 23. "I've seen him really suffer in love. He wasn't ready to go to the places he goes in this movie back then," Schumacher says of the twice-divorced actor. "He was afraid that if he went to those dark places, his life would be misery the whole time he was making the movie. But now life is good for Jim. He could tear his heart down, then go home."
Carrey seems so happy (Painting! Ice-hockey lessons! Building a greenhouse so he can grow all his own food!) that he's pretty persuasive when he says his career's mini-meltdown last year was a blessing. After a couple of disappointing movies (although the widely panned Fun with Dick and Jane and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events each wound up slowly dragging in more than $100 million domestically), Carrey fired Nick Stevens of United Talent Agency, the agent who had guided him through his entire career. Then two movies Used Guys with Ben Stiller and a comedy with Cameron Diaz fell apart. And Ripley's Believe It or Not was also delayed. "I just can't put software out. I can't. I'll have a physical reaction," says Carrey. "I'll be three weeks away from a project, and the universe will take it away from me. That's what happened with Used Guys. My soul didn't want to be there." He says that he's not unwilling to do the sort of big comedy for which the studios will pay him tons, but he won't do it just for the paycheck, which is probably just as well, since it's clear he can no longer bring the crowd or command the fee he used to.
In fact, Carrey says if he doesn't work for a while, that's fine with him. "It used to be all show biz, and now it's just one flower in my flower bed," says the man who wrote himself a $10 million check as a show of confidence when he started his career. "I was very one-track-minded. I'd have to fake what I did for fun if someone asked. 'Well, I like to ride horses.' I said that to an interviewer once. I'll ride horses once or twice a year. If that." He assumes, in fact, that at some point he will retire from the entertainment business, so he can have a couple of decades outside of fame.
But amid all this Zen-whatever-man flow of it all, as he picks at his sashimi and salad (he's too enlightened for wheat, dairy, alcohol or sugar), little bits of the $10 million-check-writing Carrey show up. He's given lots of thought, for instance, about how to present himself for this interview, whether to hold off on the enlightenment stuff or share it with the world. (He went with the sharing, apparently.) And he's torn about whether to wear this damn blingy ring the stylist gave him for the photo shoot that is just so not him, but then why get all hung up on perceptions? (He wore it.) And he brings out a list of talking points all typed out that he is going to tell me about the number 23, in which he's been interested for years (his daughter has a '23' tattoo), whether I want to hear them or not. "Blood takes 23 seconds to circulate the body... Jim Carrey plus Virginia Madsen is 23 letters... Jim Carrey plus Joel Schumacher is 23 letters... I was born at 2:30 a.m..." I shall spare you the rest. Especially since I'm not sure how his observation that O.J. Simpson wore No. 32 fits in.
But for the most part, Carrey seems free of that guy who only cared about his career. It's hard to imagine him being so immersed in his work that he refused to admit he wasn't Andy Kaufman during the entire filming of Man on the Moon. Carrey says he has a documentary he's cut together of that period that he will release one day. "It is basically the story of an actor gone mad," he says, more distantly amused than proud. "It's amazing to see [director] Milos Forman begging Andy Kaufman to come out of his trailer."
Maybe this is the healthiest evolution of the jester, to go from safely wrapping your truths in comedy to bravely stating them unadorned. Maybe it's more advanced than just yanking heartstrings, like Robin Williams; or getting increasingly frustrated at the world for not listening to you, like George Carlin; or just making the same movies over and over, like Eddie Murphy (see box).
And maybe there's the slight possibility that he won't become a punch line. That there's something so truthful about him, it's plausible he can succeed at even this impossible task. If he can go from being famous for making his butt talk to being famous for being a Jimmy Stewart nice guy to perhaps getting people to believe him as a threatening sex symbol in The Number 23, then maybe he can be a guru. "It's not any of that that people have liked about me," he says of his humor and characters. "It's not what I do or what I say. I don't believe it was this genius routine. It's the light that gets through me. I just need to get out of the way." When you hear that, it's hard to bet against punch line, but I'm not sure I would.