A new film, ‘Jim and Andy’, lays bare the chaos that ensued when the actor lived for four months in-character as the surrealist comic.
Jim Carrey’s painstaking metamorphosis into Andy Kaufman
Bedlam. Pandemonium. Mayhem. Roll all three together and you get maybe a whiff of the chaos Jim Carrey stirred up on the set of Man on the Moon in 1998 when his method acting nearly descended into madness.
To hear some tell it, filming became a nightmare for everyone, from hair and make-up stylists to the film’s director Milos Forman, as Carrey – who achieved a Golden Globe-winning performance as the late comic genius Andy Kaufman – let himself sink so deeply into the part of his idol that he lived 24/7 as Kaufman, and refused to break character, to the consternation of all.
Now a documentary, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring A Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton, arrives on Netflix this Friday to peer behind the Jim-Andy curtain of what really went on, and to ask “how far is too far” when it comes to performance art.
Variety lauds the film as “hilarious, provocative and inspiring” while The Hollywood Reporter hails it as “a fascinating meta-performance study”.
“Andy Kaufman came in to turn reality on its head – and did not stop when the cameras stopped,” says Carrey, now 55. “He blew my mind. When I heard I had the part, I was looking at the ocean – and that’s the moment when Andy came back to make his movie.
“What happened after was out of my control. Andy felt it was necessary to stay in the character. And this crazy melodrama started happening all over the place.”
During the four-month shoot, producers even feared the production might be sued over the mental stress Carrey inflicted on its crews, with antics that included crashing a car, trespassing into Steven Spielberg’s office, dumping drinks on people’s heads and refusing to answer to “Jim”. In the documentary, when Kaufman’s real-life nemesis wrestler Jerry Lawler arrives on set, Carrey’s “Andy” mouths off – and gets a beating. Carrey would also appear on set to torment his co-stars and crew as Tony Clifton, the loud-mouthed lounge singer – a fictitious character and an alter-ego of Kaufman who loves to holler and hurl insults and chairs at folks who cross him.
It’s hardly surprising that, for more than 20 years, this footage was kept under lock and key to prevent any harm to the film’s reputation
“Universal didn’t want the footage we took behind the scenes to surface so that people wouldn’t think I was a [jerk],” Carrey says bluntly.
For the uninitiated, self-described “song-and-dance man” Kaufman, who died from lung cancer at the age of 35 in 1984, loved to mess with people’s heads as he drove his performance art into a slipstream of Dadaism and surrealism, blurring the line between reality and imagination. Sometimes his stand-up act would see him simply do nothing more than read from The Great Gatsby to a confounded audience.
Best known for his role as the sweet-natured goofy mechanic Latka Gravas in the ’70s sitcom Taxi – as co-star of Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch – he also appeared in the inaugural Saturday Night Live broadcast in 1975, played Carnegie Hall and toured the United States as a pro-wrestler, grappling in the mud with female combatants.
“He’s exactly the way Andy was,” an amused DeVito says in the film, directed by Chris Smith, with an assist from Academy Award-winner Spike Jonze as executive director.
It is thanks to the 100 hours of footage shot on set by Kaufman’s former girlfriend Lynne Margulies and writing partner Bob Zmuda that Smith can take us on such a captivating deep dive into Carrey’s transformation into Kaufman.
“I think spending more time delving into Andy’s body of work is always a healthy place for all of us to revisit,” says Smith, “because he was so ahead of his time in the way he was pushing boundaries constantly.”
As he looks back at the footage 18 years later, Carrey waxes even deeper on how he and Kaufman came up in oddly parallel universes, on his experience channelling him, and on the spiritual journey of his career, which has swung from slapstick to the profound.
“I was thinking ... how far should I take this? How far would Andy take it? When the movie was over, I couldn’t remember who I was anymore. So you step through the door not knowing what’s on the other side. What’s on the other side is ... everything!”
What would Kaufman be doing if he was alive today? “The thing that was brilliant about Andy was that he was completely unpredictable,” says Smith. “There’s no real way to know where he would be, or what he would be doing.”
Carrey says: “I know him as well as you can know him – but who do you know, even when they’re right in front of you?”
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring A Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton will be streamed on Netflix from Friday