WASHINGTON — Method actors are known to stay in character after the cameras stop rolling.
But watching the new Netflix documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” you’ll swear that Jim Carrey might actually be possessed by the spirit of Andy Kaufman and his alter-ego Tony Clifton during his Golden Globe-winning performance in the biopic “Man on the Moon” (1999).
Not only is the film fascinating as a mind meld between two artists (“Andy Kaufman came to turn reality on his head. He blew my mind”), it’s potentially life-altering if you really take it in.
The film features sit-down interviews between a bearded Carrey and filmmaker Chris Smith, interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage that’s been buried for the past two decades.
“Universal didn’t want the footage we took behind the scenes to surface, because they didn’t want people to think that I was an a**hole,” Carrey reveals with a most mischievous grin.
The entire exercise hinges on your open-minded ability to believe whether one man can be inhabited by the dead spirit of another artist. Watching the footage, it’s a compelling case.
“When I heard I got the part, I was sitting in Malibu looking out at the ocean thinking, ‘Where would Andy be? What would he be doing? I bet he would be doing something like trying to communicate telepathically.’ Immediately, 30 dolphins came to the surface! … That’s the moment Andy came back to make his movie. What happened after was out of my control.”
Out-of-control is the perfect description, as all hell breaks loose on set. The doc features on-set debates with “Amadeus” and “Cuckoo’s Nest” director Milos Foreman (“Andy, you’ve got to give me a chance to make a movie!”), as well as stunned reactions from bewildered co-stars Danny DeVito (“He’s exactly the way Andy was”) and Paul Giamatti (“It’s totally surreal”).
Things actually turn violent in Carrey’s interactions with WWF wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, who famously slapped Kaufman on “The Late Show with David Letterman” in 1982 in order to hype their in-ring battle. Recreating these moments on the set of “Man on the Moon,” Lawler grows increasingly frustrated by Carrey’s taunts, sparking several physical altercations.
Still, the most fascinating scenes come during Carrey’s conversations with Kaufman’s family members. In one scene, we see an argument in the makeup trailer between Carrey and his on-screen father that is so authentic that it makes the makeup artist cry. Later, Carrey recounts a meeting with Kaufman’s real-life daughter, giving her some fatherly closure.
Along the way, we get archival footage of Carrey’s own childhood, showing his rise through the stand-up comedy ranks, his breakthrough on “In Living Color” and his entry into movies. This includes inspiring anecdotes such as writing himself a $10 million check to visualize his success, echoing a psychic’s prediction that he was about to make three life-changing movies.
Sure enough, Carrey cranked out three big blockbusters in 1994 with the title role in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (“Alrighty then!”), Stanley Ipkiss in “The Mask” (“Somebody stop me!”) and Lloyd Christmas in “Dumb and Dumber” (Our pets’ heads are falling off!”). The trifecta made him the first actor to earn a $20 million paycheck for “The Cable Guy” (1996), followed by such hits as “Liar, Liar” (1997), “Me, Myself & Irene” (2000) and “Bruce Almighty” (2003).
It was around this time — during the dawn of a new millennium — that Carrey began noticing a change within himself, shifting from zany comedies to more serious roles like “The Truman Show” (1998), “Man on the Moon” (1999) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004).
“I was heartbroken,” Carrey said. “‘Eternal Sunshine’ [was] that feeling of, ‘Oh my god, I have to erase this from my mind,’ and feeling this person has erased you. I felt like I had been erased. When I met [director] Michel Gondry, he looked at me over lunch and said, ‘My god, you’re so beautiful right now, you’re so broken, please don’t get well.’ The movie wasn’t shooting for another year, so he asked me not to get well. That’s how f****d up this business is.”
Carrey says the pain stemmed from a public persona that was at odds with his true self.
“I didn’t know who I was anymore,” Carrey said. “I was so unhappy, I was back in my problems, back in my heartbreak. … There’s this avatar and cadence you create that’s pleasing to people, takes them away from their issues and makes you popular. Suddenly I thought, ‘It felt good being Andy because you were free from yourself. You were on vacation from Jim Carrey.'”
This realization fulfills a prescient prediction that a young Carrey made in 1983.
“You’re the crowd’s man after a while,” Carrey said. “It’s not Jim Carrey who can walk down the street doing anything he wants. … Hopefully it’ll be to the point where I can’t walk out in the street. Won’t that be fun? It’ll be impossible to walk anywhere without being recognized.”
Suddenly, the giddy excitement morphs into a look of concern — the film’s most powerful moment. It’s the same look that haunts Carrey’s adult face, lamenting the price of fame.
“At some point, when you create yourself to make it, you’re going to have to either let that creation go and take a chance on being [who] you really are, or you’re going to have to kill who you really are and fall into your grave, grasping onto a character that you never were.”
Today, Carrey has chosen the former. The old “Jim Carrey” no longer exists; rather, he has transcended his wacky persona to break free like the finale of “The Truman Show.”
“I’ve stepped through the door,” Carrey said. “This is the dome. This isn’t real. … At some point, you have to peel it away. It’s not who you are. You have to live your Tru-Man. ‘Truman Show’ became a prophecy for me. It’s constantly reaffirming itself [as] a representation of what I’ve gone through in my career. … I’ve found the hole in the psyche and I’m going through. … Just like the movie, they try to drown you and go, ‘No, be the other guy!’ … So you step through the door not knowing what’s on the other side — and what’s on the other side is everything.”
As the film fades to black, the reborn Carrey leaves us with some existential philosophy.
“We are born into a family, your parents choose a name [and say] you’re gonna go to Harvard, you’re gonna be a doctor, you’re a Catholic, you’re a Jew. Everything is abstract structures that’s supposed to hold you together. I’ve given them up. I don’t need to be held together. I’m fine floating through space like Andy, flying 6,000 miles an hour around the sun, balancing on tectonic plates that are floating on lava, ready for the End Times. … I wonder if I could do [Andy Kaufman] with other people. I wonder what would happen if I just decided to be Jesus?”
Don’t be surprised if you see the bearded Carrey roaming the streets barefoot preaching the gospel. He’s already broken through, a star man like David Bowie, like the Martian he paints on the mirror in “The Truman Show,” echoing his improvised line from the set of “Dumb and Dumber” upon seeing a framed article on a diner wall: “No way! We landed on the moon!”
Which brings us full circle to R.E.M.’s memorable lyrics: “If you believe, they put a man on the moon, man on the moon. If you believe there’s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool.”
Andy, did you hear about this one?