Do Not Adjust Your Set

Jonathan Elsner, 11 years old, has seen both Ace Venturas; The Mask; Dumb & Dumber; Batman Forever; and Liar Liar. Loved them, in fact. Now Jonathan is flying from New York to Los Angeles for a bar mitzvah. The in-flight coming attractions show a trailer for Jim Carrey’s new movie, The Truman Show. Jonathan glances up from his Game Boy to watch. I tell Jonathan I will be interviewing Carrey tomorrow, and he says there’s one thing he’s curious about.

“What’s Jim Carrey really like?”

That question is why I’m on this airplane. In The Truman Show, Carrey plays Truman Burbank, the only “real” person in a 30-year live television soap opera (Tru-man – get it?). One-point-seven billion viewers “know” Truman – they’ve watched his every move, from birth to puberty to marriage to bathroom routine, courtesy of 5,000 hidden cameras. Truman is unaware that he’s being fed live to a satellite, and that everything in his life is a fake – his parents are actors, his hometown is a stage set. Famous around the world, Truman doesn’t know himself. Hey – kind of like Jim Carrey, prey of the paparazzi, seeker of spiritual connection.

The Truman Show is that rare mainstream movie, like Easy Rider, Network, or Thelma & Louise, that is perfectly timed with the Zeitgeist. O.J. and Princess Diana have elevated the all-consuming, invasive celebrity spectacle to a new and queasy level. Jerry Springer has stoked the debate about voyeurism and the packaging of human emotion. Technology is obliterating privacy: Today you were videotaped at the ATM, your e-mails were permanently stored in the corporate mainframe, and is sifting your reading tendencies and recommending more books for you to buy.

Scarier still is the rabid globalization of the media-industrial complex. We are becoming one world under Rupert Murdoch, with a single subject of pop-culture conversation beamed into homes from Beijing to Baton Rouge. Titanic – based on a true story! – washes into Monica, who exits for Seinfeld, who shuts down just in time for Sinatra. “Cool hunters” ferret out any hint of an underground for their retail sponsors, so that today’s rebellion is sold as next season’s smart-priced fashion trend. Every emotion is commodified.

The Truman Show, besides being fun to watch, deftly comments on this late-nineties blurring of life and entertainment. And Carrey – a wild exhibitionist onscreen, a star instantly recognizable to millions, a man with no privacy – seems seductively positioned to bring his real life to bear on the role.

“Truman Burbank is a kind of hothouse flower,” says the film’s producer, Scott Rudin. “He’s been raised under glass. And Jim has the quality of having been created. He doesn’t seem like a regular person who grows up in a regular house.”

Jonathan Elsner has another important question: “Did any of those animals in Ace ever take a bite out of him?”

The dead man is live on every channel. After landing in Los Angeles on a hazy-gray Thursday afternoon, I drive to my hotel on Sunset Boulevard and, out of habit, flip on the TV. There’s a view from a hovering news helicopter – actually, slightly different views of the same scene from multiple helicopters. Offscreen anchorpeople bring us up to date: A man stopped his pickup truck in a freeway car-pool lane. For more than an hour, this man has raged, by cell phone, to the police about his treatment by an HMO. He’s mentioned Molotov cocktails, his dog, and a shotgun.

Videotaped flashbacks show us the man emerging to unfurl a banner and lay it flat along the highway, the better to be read by the overhead cameras. Another replay shows the man leaping out of the pickup truck as it bursts into flames, peeling off his burning clothes, then reaching into the back of the truck for a shotgun. He carries the gun over to a low dividing wall, braces it against the concrete, and puts the barrel in his mouth.

“Is that the best angle you have?” says the guy on Channel 7. “He’s down, but we can’t see much at this distance.”

At this moment, Jim Carrey is riding in the back of a limousine. He had returned by private plane to Los Angeles after several days in Montana, where he’d been working on the screenplay for a remake of a Don Knotts movie and hiding from the paparazzi. Now Carrey is coming home to generate some carefully controlled hype for The Truman Show.

Carrey is listening to the limousine radio as callers chatter about L.A.’s first live televised suicide. “I was just amazed,” he says the next day, “at how many people were calling in and saying, ‘Man, I can’t wait to see it again!’ It’s very strange. I don’t understand it.”

The suicide couldn’t be better timed for Truman, however; Carrey and the movie’s other principals mention it so often you begin to wonder if the shooting was staged for their marketing campaign.

Carrey arrives at Smashbox, a gleamingly hip photo studio hidden among the scrubby warehouses of Culver City, looking like a mild-mannered guitarist for a rockabilly band. His brown hair, grown to nearly shoulder length, is slicked back, and long sideburns snake down his cheeks. A dark-green shirt flaps untucked over Carrey’s basic blue Levi’s. Carrey is more handsome than he’s ever appeared in a movie. The nasal honk of his Canadian accent is more pronounced, as well. There is an immediate naïveté and vulnerability about him.

Carrey is trying hard not to be funny. His eyes light up when he hears a big fat straight line, but instead of flapping his long arms or contorting his rubbery face or spewing out a twisted punch line from his random-access brain, he stuffs the joke genie, forcibly, back into the bottle.

Blame it on The Cable Guy. Carrey is obsessed with the idea that the 1996 movie, for which he was paid a record-setting $20 million, was perceived as a failure not because it was leaden and mean-spirited but because the marketing was all wrong. “The studio played up the sillier stuff, to get people in the first weekend,” he says. “And I’m not gonna make the same mistake twice.” Years ago, Carrey’s agent and co-managers mapped out a strategy to build Tom Hanks-like respect and longevity for their client, by alternating dramas and comedies. Truman is a key test of that agenda.

A cushy green couch is available, but Carrey coils atop a spindly straight-backed chair that’s too meager for his elongated frame. He looks like a giraffe trying to get comfortable on a barstool. Even as Carrey holds himself in, determinedly restrained and normal, he comes across as somewhat freakish, otherworldly.

“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.”

In fact, Carrey has good reason to be paranoid. His stormy courtship of, ten-month marriage to, and divorce from Dumb & Dumber co-star Lauren Holly was a veritable tabloid-journalist employment program. When the couple honeymooned on a Caribbean island, reporters posing as tourists rented an adjoining bungalow and videotaped Holly as she took an open-air shower. Holly blames Carrey’s disorienting fame and lack of privacy for their breakup.

“Jim is forced into a weird isolation, even if it’s only in his head, with shutting down barriers to people that he may meet,” Holly says. “I don’t know how to explain it, and it all sounds sort of strange. If Jim were to walk into Starbucks and get a coffee, he’d have to have a whole conversation. If he just ordered the coffee – ‘I want a grande latte’ – they would interpret that in all sorts of way. And you become very aware of it, very self-conscious.”

Holly and Carrey are currently attempting a reconciliation. Truman Burbank’s forbidden love, the one woman who makes him feel real, is named Lauren Garland. Garland … Holly. When I ask Carrey whether this is coincidental, he blushes. “Every once in a while, I stick people’s names in and use – that are in my life,” he stammers. “When you’re doing a scene, sometimes a real name will elicit something that you can’t get from a fake name.”

Carrey’s attempts to provoke and enjoy feelings not colored by his celebrity are poignant. “The most enjoyable things I’ve ever given to anybody in my life,” he says, “were when I used to go around writing ‘Have a good day’ on $20 bills or $5 bills and leaving them in places that people would find them, on park benches, or where I know there’s a lot of foot traffic. I’d stick it in the sidewalk, then I would go away. I didn’t want to see them find them. That person may be having a crappy day, and they’ll pick it up and go, ‘Oh, that was lucky!’ Put a little weirdness in their day. The key is not watching. Because I know somebody’s going to get a kick out of it. At that moment, money becomes okay. For a second.”

In his 30th year, Truman begins to suspect that all is not right with Seahaven. After a few technological breakdowns, the sham begins to crumble, and Truman has to choose between his Edenic island and the great unknown – himself. For Carrey, acting a role without the camouflage of wacky hair and spastic gestures was nearly as frightening. “Truman is a lot more naked than most of the things I’ve done,” he says. “When you do a character that’s kind of close to yourself, and you strip away the defense mechanisms and the little tricks, the sleight of hand that makes people just automatically go ohhh-oooooow!, that’s the scary part. Because then you’re giving them a glimpse at yourself. If they reject that, it becomes, ‘We don’t like your essence – you, at the core, we don’t like.’”

When Carrey finishes posing for the magazine photographer, his P.R. woman rushes up, thrilled, and throws a motherly arm around the star.

“Three hours and not one goofy face!” she says. “I knew you could do it! I’m so proud of you.”

After years of being vilified for churning out puerile junk, Hollywood is eager to be proud of Truman. The industry buzz is that Truman is an important film – “profound,” in the estimation of producer Brian (The Nutty Professor) Grazer.

“There’s been so much talk out here about the Peter Biskind book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about the golden age of the seventies directors, when big movies could still be art,” says Variety editor Peter Bart. “The Truman Show is being referred to in that context, as something that could have been made in those days.” There’s also an undercurrent of resentment. “We used to be able to treat Carrey as a dumb-comedy guy,” says one producer. “If this thing is a hit with him as an ‘actor,’ he’ll be impossible to deal with.”

The common marketing wisdom in late-nineties Hollywood is that it’s deadly to sell a movie as artistic or complex. So despite Carrey’s worries, TV ads for The Truman Show string together the upbeat, zany moments. Even Scott Rudin, the iconoclastic New York producer who nurtured The Truman Show from spec script to $60 million feature, emphasizes the plot’s simplicity. “At heart, it is a genre movie – a prison-break movie,” Rudin says. “One of the reasons I thought Peter Weir would be great for it was, you look at his movies like Witness and The Year of Living Dangerously, and they were, at heart, genre movies, but they were told with such lyricism and style that they didn’t feel like genre movies.” With Truman, Rudin says, “you get the satisfaction of a genre story, but you don’t feel like you’re getting something you’ve already seen.”

Actually, Carrey, Rudin, and Weir have created a work of bold singularity and – more amazing – done it for the kind of studio goliath, Paramount, that often produces cautious rehashes. But when it comes to selling Truman, a movie about media manipulation, Weir recognizes the ironies. The film’s release date was originally August 1997; then November; it will finally come out June 5 – thanks to Titanic and focus groups. “Our audience test results were showing good, but not through the roof,” Weir says. “However, there was one section of the audience where it was through the roof, one statistic. And that was young people between 18 and 25. They just got it – they’re a group that’s been sold to from their cradle. So that was part of the thinking – let’s go for the college kids on summer break.”

All of this subtext is interesting. But what’s Jim Carrey really like? “I wouldn’t presume to know,” Weir says.

Well, would you call him a happy person? “No,” Weir says, then mutes his reflexive reaction with a joke. “But I don’t know whether I am. So I could hardly comment on Jim. He’s complex, to be able to do what he does. He’s certainly fulfilled by the work, so I see him, no doubt, at his happiest. He lives in a fishbowl, and has to be careful of concealed cameras. But Jim can hardly complain. I mean, fame is what he wanted, you know? It’s the old fairy tale – be careful of what you wish for.”

Lately, Carrey has taken up motorcycle riding. “Yeah, I’ve got my helmet on, so no one knows who I am. It’s great,” he says. “I can look right at somebody in a car. I’m just normal. Just another carbon-based life-form that nobody needs anything from.” Suggest the Internet as a place to chat anonymously, and Carrey blanches. “For all I know, Bill Gates has got us all recorded,” he says. “There’s a chip in everybody’s computer that basically tells them everything we’ve done on it, every call you’ve made.”

Carrey thinks again about Truman, and how he has to choose between the safety of his TV-created town and the world outside the dome. “Where would Truman go if he gets out?” Carrey asks. “He’s the most famous person in the world. So he could very well end up going back into the TV show, just to get some peace.”

Then Carrey disappears behind tinted windows, into the inky-dark backseat of a black stretch limousine, alone, for the ride to his house, in Brentwood, a couple of blocks from where Monica grew up and where O.J. used to live. Back to Jim Carrey’s very own 11,000-square-foot bubble.

As the car pulls away, this is what I think: The real Jim Carrey is much like Truman Burbank. And then I think: That’s exactly the spin he wants me to buy.

Do Not Adjust Your Set