Jim Carrey is a man who has lived many lives—from a broke Canadian kid staring up at the houses in the Hollywood Hills to a millionaire actor staring down from them. His acting career has followed the same unusual path; he's constantly pushed the boundaries of what people expect, playing every type of role from the dramatic to the maniacal in everything form Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to The Mask.
The contrast in the characters he's played is just another reflection of a life lived from a constant need to do the opposite of what his circumstances would dictate. It's where his comedy skills came from in the first place, developed in response to the sad circumstances of his childhood. But at every point in his career, too, he's taken the unexpected path.
When the public knew what it wanted from Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey knew that he didn’t care.
When he got on The Tonight Show and became known for his skills as an impersonator, Carrey gave it up and went back to doing stand-up, enduring jeers from the audience as he bombed and tried to improv night after night. When he started raking in millions for movies like Dumb and Dumber, he responded by taking a pay cut and taking on a dramatic role in The Truman Show.
It’s a move the actor has repeated many times, driven by his incredible energy and commitment to his own vision. And it's earned him success—a BAFTA award nomination for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Golden Globes awards for The Truman Show and Man on the Moon.
His Own Never-Finished Project
In more recent years, Carrey has reinvented himself again. These days he seems less like an actor and more like an artist—a prolific painter and political cartoonist—sporting a huge grey beard while he spouts philosophical quotes on the red carpet. Courting controversy and filling his studio with canvases painted with the same desperate energy that's been with him since he was a child. And while he may be more apt these days to offer up deep thoughts than pull funny faces, maybe this will just be another phase in the life of a man always looking past what's in front of him.
Seeing the incredible energy that Carrey brings to his life, it's a testament to the size of the struggle that he's built it out of—a lifelong fight with depression and poverty and sickness in his family growing up.
But like every self-made great, Carrey found a way to use that struggle to gain the skills that have made his career so dynamic. He is comfortable being uncomfortable. Even after all this time, even with all the resources to never have to be uncomfortable again.
I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.-Jim Carrey
Comedy Born out of Tragedy
The antics that have made Jim Carrey one of the most famous celebrities in the world—the insane, silly-putty faces and slapstick physical comedy—are delivered with all the no-holds-barred passion of a kid trying to brighten up the entire world. For good reason. According to Carrey, that's exactly where his comedy came from, as a skill he developed as a child in order to try and cheer up his sick mother, who spent most of her time in bed struggling with chronic pain. In his earliest years, he started doing impressions and throwing his body around to try and get her to smile and brighten her spirit. And the habit stuck.
Carrey was the youngest of four kids, growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, outside of Toronto. As he developed the talent for impressions that would later kick-start his career, he was also learning an equally valuable lesson from his father—one that would be key to the path he would decide to pursue in life.
Carrey’s father was a saxophone player who worked as an accountant to pay the bills. It worked well enough until Carrey was in high school, but at the age of 51, Carrey’s father lost his accounting job and wasn’t able to get another one.
Dropping Out and Stepping Up
It was a crippling blow for the family. They struggled intensely to make ends meet—everyone in the family had to get a job in order to try and pay the bills. Carrey dropped out of high school at 16 and he and his brother worked jobs as security guards and janitors at the tire factory where their father managed to find employment. For a time, the family was completely homeless, living out of a van together and even pitching a tent in a relative’s yard for at time.
In Carrey’s words, “I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which, was that you can fail at what you don’t want so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
By the time he dropped out of high school, Carrey had already started to work as a comedian, following an interested in show business that came at an early age. He wrote The Mary Tyler Moore show a letter when he was 10 bragging about his impressions. By 15, he was performing at stand-up clubs in Toronto where his father drove him and trying to put his act together. After a few years, his act finally caught the eye of Rodney Dangerfield, who booked Carrey as an opener.
He was finally getting income and doing it at what he loved. But that's when Carrey's need to walk away—to stay out on the edge—would kick in at a time when the world would say it was crazy. He killed with his impressions on The Tonight Show, but suddenly didn't want to do them anymore, just as they were catching on. He realized if that's all he did, he'd never be famous for being himself. And Carrey had his sights set on something bigger.
Throwing Away Fame
He scrapped his set and started over. Began doing improv on stage every night. Most comedians work on refining their act for years, as he had with his impressions, but instead Carrey went up on stage and tried something different every night. Sometimes he killed. Sometimes the crowd wanted to kill him. But Carrey credits that experience with making him comfortable being out on a limb. It was a trait that would allow him to make all the other leaps he did later in his career.
The next big one came in 1983, when Carrey packed up his van and left Canada behind for Hollywood. There he also started to branch out from his standup dreams and pursue acting, pushing himself to do something new again. It was a decision he believed in so firmly that when he first arrived in LA, he wrote himself a $10 million check for “acting services rendered," to be cashed in the future.
But the journey for Carrey to make that success was not quick. He managed to land small roles early on—a made-for-TV movie, even a big screen performance in Finders Keepers in 1984—but it would be another 10 years before he would become the star the world knows today.
Proving the World Wrong Again
It was in 1990 when his first real taste of success came. He scored a recurring gig on In Living Color and became a hit. But there was a movie he wanted to work on. A role that his costars would rib him for pursuing. No one thought it would pay off—no one would have recommended that he take yet another left turn at a time when he finally had a successful, steady gig. But this time Carrey didn't just find a way to make his new path work—he found the break that he had been waiting for.
The movie he left In Living Color to make was Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. And it wasn't just his cast mates that thought it would be a flop—Siskel and Ebert absolutely hated the movie when it came out. But the world saw something different—what Jim Carrey had sen. It made $100 million and shot Carrey to superstar status. In that same year, he acted in two other movies that showed how his life changed overnight. He had signed on to make The Mask for $450,000 before Ace Ventura. When he signed on to make Dumb and Dumber afterward it? His fee jumped to $7 million.
With that, Carrey became part of Hollywood royalty. But as the years went on, he worked less and less, until he wasn't working at all for a while. A slow fade from the life he had built—an older man's version of the hyper-reactive left-turns he'd taken in his career for years.
But even now the beginnings of a classic Carrey reversal are showing themselves. In the last few years, he starred as the sad Mr. Pickles in Showtime's Kidding and took the 180-degree role of Dr. Robotnik in Sonic the Hedgehog. It's tempting to think that Carrey is back to his old self—returned to the groove of the expected and what people have wanted him to be his whole life. But if the lesson of Jim Carrey's life is anything, it's that whatever happens next, it will be the opposite of what anyone expects.