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Do Not Adjust Your Set


“With Truman, there were infinite parallels to my life,” Carrey says. “He’s a guy who, for some reason, deep down, has this melancholy. He’s a wonderful human being. He wants everybody to be happy, and no one to be burdened by his sadness. Truman is the guy who puts on the face that he leaves in the jar by the door. Because he doesn’t want anybody to feel bad, or to think that he’s broken. When Truman goes out the door in the morning, saying hello to the neighbors isn’t good enough for a person like that. That’s why I came up with the line where he says, ‘Oh, and by the way, good afternoon, good evening, and good night, in case I don’t see ya!’ That’s my family -- the Carrey family. It’s not good enough just to do something for somebody; you’re still thinking about their life down the line, and the pain they might go through. It’s like, I couldn’t get through Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, you know? That book completely messed with me.”

Here are two observations about the real Jim Carrey: First, he is tall. Unlike most actors, he appears far taller in person than he does in movies. “Six feet two,” Carrey says proudly.

The second becomes clear when he peels off his shirt, changing outfits for the photographer. Clearly, the real Jim Carrey is secure enough to resist the Hollywood mania for physical perfection. Or maybe he just has a serious gut.

Carrey speaks in rambling, free-associative gusts, as if he’s afraid of silence. When I make a reference that stumps him, Carrey’s eyes go wide with panic. Even the most insecure major stars have perfected a veneer of coolness; Carrey, for all the success, money, and babes he has accumulated, remains an undiluted, endearing geek.

He’s always felt a bit alien. “Even when I was a little kid, I would try to figure out the universe,” Carrey says. “At one point, I’d cleaned out a closet in my house that was four by four inside. It had a bare lightbulb, and I’d sit in there with my books and my pads of paper, and I would write songs and poetry and things like that. There’s always been more to me than just the wanting to make people laugh.”

Family circumstances only amplified his weirdness. His father, a musician, sold his saxophone to pay the hospital bills when Carrey’s sister was born, then settled into a life of quiet bitterness as an accountant. His mother spent most of her time in bed, popping prescription pills and staring at the TV. No one was ever quite sure if her illnesses were real or imagined. But Jim, the youngest of four children, invented a comedy act to try to jolly his mother.

When Carrey was 14, life went from strange to grim. His father was laid off, and for a time the Carreys lived in a van. At 16, Jim quit school and quickly became the family’s hope, for both a decent income and the salvation of his father’s showbiz fantasies. Dad pushed Jim into playing comedy clubs, where he honed a repertoire of 150 impressions.

Next stop, Los Angeles. Carrey did well in the clubs but felt increasingly hollow. He threw away his entire act, including the impression of a fasting Gandhi sneaking potato salad. “People would come up to me and say, ‘What are you doing? You’re the king of impressions!’” Carrey recalls. “And I would say, ‘Yeah, but I think there’s something more that people like about me. It’s not the impressions. I think there’s something they like about me. And I want to find out who the hell I am, so that I can express that.’”

In 1981, Carrey landed a starring role in a sitcom called The Duck Factory and moved his parents to California. The show bombed, and home life rapidly deteriorated. Carrey says his parents did nothing but sit around his living room, chain-smoking and watching TV. He shipped them back to Toronto. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Carrey says. His mother died in 1991, before Carrey scored with In Living Color; his father died in 1994, as Carrey’s movie career was exploding.

Amateur psychiatric insight into the real Jim Carrey: What did he dream about last night? “Man, you are probing right into the thing here,” Carrey says. “I have beautiful dreams all the time, but the one I remember last night was that I got a threatening phone call. I’m sure there’s a meaning for it. The threatening phone call is probably my psychiatrist saying, ‘A lot of these problems are yours. There’s things that go way back you’re gonna have to deal with. You’re not perfect. By a long shot.’”

Peter Weir, the 53-year-old director of Truman, lives in Australia and used to feel removed from the instantaneous news-gossip hum. “But we’re now plugged into the global event that seems to occur every couple of months,” Weir says. “The Gulf War was one of the first live shows we all watched. It was pretty obvious how that came to be, with the very controlled coverage, a sanitized video game.”

The TV war also stimulated his thinking about Truman. “The real interest for me is the blurring of the line between reality and unreality,” Weir says. “The ‘audience’ in the film watches the Truman television show having forgotten that it is a gross exploitation of a child. The show becomes neither real nor unreal, but just on. We’re not far from that in reality, are we?”

The subtleties of Carrey’s performance will be much discussed, as will the movie’s visual lyricism. Yet perhaps the most audacious thing about the film is that it’s a piece of pop-culture entertainment that dares to say that pop-culture entertainment is bad for us. Weir was in Los Angeles immediately after the televised suicide. “It was interesting in the reaction,” he says. “People rang up or wrote in saying, ‘They shouldn’t put that on -- I watched it in horror.’ You couldn’t help but think, why do ‘they’ control you? ‘They’ are not controlling the TV switch.” So what message is Truman sending? Weir laughs. “What I think the movie says to people watching it is, Get out!

Screenwriter Andrew Niccol, 34, originally set The Truman Show in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan, but Weir shifted the action to a more sinister backdrop, a squeaky-clean planned community on the Florida panhandle called Seaside. For the film, Seaside is rechristened Seahaven, and the gorgeous cinematography of Peter Biziou buffs the town to a creepy sheen. Seahaven looks like a museum of an idealized Middle American town, where everyone is on a first-name basis, apple-cheeked children play in the front yard, and the skies are not cloudy all day. The town is Truman Burbank’s pretty prison.

The frightening niceness of Seahaven is related to Weir’s distaste for the lifestyle engineering of the Disney company -- which recently manufactured its own perfect small town, Celebration, just down the road. “Disney is moving into an area of far greater influence in the lives of people than just Disneyland,” Weir says, then pauses for a long beat. “It is called Disneyland -- well, there you are. And now they’re in Times Square. They’ve changed the image and feel of the place to one of childhood, essentially, before there were serious questions to be dealt with in life.”

The stagey emoting of Truman’s wife (an outstanding Laura Linney) and everyone else around him doesn’t seem odd to him; the godlike creator and director of the TV show, Christof (Ed Harris), makes sure Truman never strays beyond his idyllic little community. Until, at age 30, Truman acts on his years of yearning for Lauren Garland, the high-school crush who abruptly left Seahaven for Fiji.

Occasionally, Weir turns his camera on the audience for Truman, the TV show. The fans are a doltish, slack-jawed bunch. To underline the complicity of the audience, Weir toyed with the idea of installing cameras in the theaters where Truman will play. “We would cut to the audience,” Weir says. “You’d see yourself the way you see people on The Tonight Show, with people nudging one another -- ‘It’s us!’”

One reason Carrey is so good as Truman Burbank is that, at 36, and in considerable pain, he’s still trying to figure out just who Jim Carrey is.

Carrey could fill a public-library wing with all the self-help tracts he’s read, from Chopra to Peck to the mysticism of his current reading, The Infinite Way Letters, by Joel Goldsmith. But after years of detailing his neuroses in interviews -- how he’d spend hours on his living-room floor howling at the ceiling in rage, how he’s tried every mood stabilizer from Prozac to colonic irrigation -- Carrey is attempting to build a zone of privacy. Ask him what time he woke up this morning, and he launches into an anguished little speech. “Something has to be left to me,” Carrey says. “If I give you everything, there’s no me left. And there are private moments of pain that I don’t want to deal with. There’s people, other people involved in my life, that I don’t want to talk about. I don’t know how to describe my day without basically telling you things that go on in my house; I’d be giving you pictures of things in my house, which is my last sanctuary. That’s my sanctuary. Immediately outside those walls, I become a person who is watched.”

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