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Jim Carrey says he jumped at the chance to make Mr Popper’s Penguins, and found the best way to handle the animals was to have a constant supply of fish in his pockets.
Barry Wetcher HONS
Jim Carrey says he jumped at the chance to make Mr Popper’s Penguins, and found the best way to handle the animals was to have a constant supply of fish in his pockets.

Jim Carrey on the power of the penguin

We talk to Jim Carrey about the healing power of laughter and the best way to negotiate with penguins.

Meeting Jim Carrey for the first time is an experience akin to one of his hit comedies. Walking into the room, he mock recoils in horror at the voice recorder on the table, before breaking into the widest of grins and whispering: "I better watch what I say!"

Such antics come as standard from the man who has made a career from his physical comedy, and financially at least achieved more than most dramatic actors. The first star to command a US$20million (Dh73.4m) fee (for 1996's The Cable Guy), his career never seems to have dipped, with his name being one of the few in Hollywood that still guarantees a box-office hit. The latest project that could continue that trend is Mr Popper's Penguins, based on the much-loved children's book by Richard and Florence Atwater.

The feel-good comedy is about a serious, career-driven man (Carrey) who inherits several penguins from his adventurous (but absent) father. Turning his apartment into an Antarctic habitat, at first the newly acquired birds wreak havoc on his life. Soon, however, they unearth a softer side he never knew he had.

For some actors, the offer to make such a film would bring to mind WC Fields's famous quip "never work with children or animals" however, for Carrey, his feathered co-stars were the selling point of the role.

"This is going to sound fake and corny, but I really love penguins," he explains. "When I got the script I immediately called my agent and said 'get me the penguin movie!' They represent innocence to me, I love anything that tugs on your heart strings and that is kind of embodied in these animals. They make me happy!"

His love for the animals would be tested to the limit during filming, as Carrey adopted unusual methods in order to make the penguins cooperate. "I thought they would be special 'movie penguins', who just did stuff on command," he says, laughing, "but they are so hard to train. They only care about fish, so I ended up having fish stuffed in my pants, my pockets. The more I smelt like fish the more you can get them to do what you want."

While the actor revelled in the sentiment of the movie, his character Tom Popper is anything but innocent - a ruthless and ambitious man who views the inheritance of these new penguins as an interruption on his road to success.

"He's a good guy, but the absence of his father has made him cold," says the actor, with a sudden serious tone. "That's what the movie's about, the effect being abandoned will have on someone and the choices they make as a result of that abandonment. Thom in the movie structures his whole life, his whole personality, around that feeling, and I think a lot of stories in movies or on TV are about losing someone or something. I think abandonment, or fear of it, motivates a lot of our decisions in life, and this movie is about recapturing what's important, taking a risk in order to have something in our lives like family."

Carrey has been part of the Hollywood family for more than 20 years, coming from a stand-up comedy background to television in 1990 with the show In Living Colour, before having an unprecedented string of hits during the subsequent decade, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. Comedy has always been the genre where he has found most success, but there have been forays into drama, too, such as his critically acclaimed role in The Truman Show and Michel Gondry's surreal Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Despite achieving so much in his career at this point, Carrey insists he is still passionate about the business and has no intention of slowing down. "It's a new start with every movie I make, I feel like the new guy in the business even now," he says with a grin, before continuing, "I love it when people come up to me and say a movie I made meant a lot to them, or that they watched one of my movies like a thousand times when they were young. That's why we do this, to transport people to another place, to make people happy for a couple of hours. I could never get tired of that." A question that always follows Carrey around is will he ever make sequels to some of his biggest hits? He has steered clear of follow-up movies ever since the poorly received Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, with sequels to his other movies being made without him, Dumb and Dumberer and Evan Almighty being high-profile examples.

"We're always talking about bringing back some old characters," he reveals, "but I never wanted to do something like that 'just because', you know? A movie would do well in the past and they (the studio) would say 'OK, let's do a sequel!' and the movie would have only just come out. If there's a good story, if there's a place to go with these characters, that's not just bringing them back for the sake of it, then it's worth doing."

For many comedians there is a darker motivation behind why they first needed to make people laugh, and Carrey is no exception. "We're in the business of making people forget their problems, and I guess that's how I got into comedy when I was young," he explains. "My family was dysfunctional, there would be arguments and people getting upset, so my way of trying to heal that would be to be funny. I'd make people laugh by doing impressions of relatives, or pulling a crazy face, and the laughter would take people out of that sadness. I think a lot of comedians had that start, using their comedy as a way of healing something that was wrong."

He admits that through success he has developed an even greater need for the spotlight. "I think I want to be in front of that camera making people laugh as much as the people watching want to laugh - yes, I really am that needy," he jokes. This darker side also includes a history of depression, curbed of late but which the actor acknowledges is always a factor. "I can veer off occasionally," he says simply, "but I've learnt I can steer myself back on the right road again".

The 47-year-old appears to have reached a point in his career where, unusually for a 40-plus actor in Hollywood, anything seems possible. "You know, I'd just like to make movies families remember, and make an impression, like the movies I grew up with made an impression on me," he says. "You just hope that with the time people give to see this, they'll come away a little happier, or maybe having just laughed a lot."

• Mr Popper's Penguins opens in the UAE today.

Penguin facts

With their ready-made suits and funny waddle, it’s no wonder Jim Carrey loves penguins. These creatures make a lot of other people happy too.

Happy Feet (Film)

Mumble is a penguin who cannot sing, a pity since penguins find their mates through song. He compensates by tap dancing. Robin Williams, Elijah Wood and Brittany Murphy lend their voices to the film.

March of the Penguins (Documentary)

Two isolated cinematographers – Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison spent a year shooting footage of penguins around the French scientific base in Adelie Land, resulting in an Oscar-winning nature documentary.

Pittsburg Penguins (Sports Team)
The National Hockey League adopted the penguin as their mascot because their home ground, The Pittsburgh Civic Arena, was formerly referred to as The Igloo.

Penguin Books (Publisher)
Literature lovers know the penguin on the cover is synonymous with classic books at a good price.

The Penguins of Madagascar (Television Series)

The popular Nickelodeon animated series, a spin-off of the Madagascar film franchise, follows the heroics of four penguins trying to protect their home in Central Park Zoo.

* Saeed Saeed

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