Why bother? It’s a question occasionally worth levelling at the ‘Method’ – an immersive, all-consuming kind of acting created by the filmmaker and actor Konstantin Stanislavski. At its best, method acting brings us searing, self-searching performances like Robert De Niro’s famous turns in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.
On the other hand, method acting can sometimes come across as needy and attention-seeking or, perhaps worst of all, a bit of a waste of time. For David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, actor Jared Leto reportedly got so embroiled in his character, The Joker, that he started sending the cast and crew a long list of weird gifts, including dead animals and used contraceptives.
“He constantly has to give birth to himself,” Ayer said of Leto’s methods in an interview with Yahoo. “He goes away, he comes back […] The Joker is something you have to be, and you can see how exhausting and painful it is for him to be this character.”
Does something as potentially ephemeral as a comic book movie really need such fierce commitment? As the Leto rumours began to pop up in 2016, there were suggestions that all the physical and psychological bouts of self-torture were attempts to gain Oscar attention, or put out by the studio to gain a bit of valuable press coverage. Leto himself later downplayed the reports, and in any event his performance as a faintly James Cagney-esque supervillain barely figured in the finished movie. Which again begs the question: why bother?
Back in the late 90s, comic actor Jim Carrey – then one of the biggest stars on the planet – was making his own descent into the method abyss. He’d signed up to play the late entertainer Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon, a biopic by Oscar-winning director Milos Forman, of Amadeus and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest fame. Carrey had fought hard for the role, even auditioning as Kaufman and his surly club singing alter-ego, Tony Clifton. When he finally got the part, he did something rather strange: for the entirety of the shoot, Carrey remained in character as Kaufman or Clifton, refusing to answer to his own name and channelling Kaufman’s eccentricities.
Incredibly, Carrey’s on-set behavior was captured in detail by a documentary film crew. That footage, largely captured by the real Andy Kaufman’s former girlfriend Lynne Margulies, was initially intended for use as part of Man On The Moon‘s publicity campaign, before Universal insisted it be locked away – apparently because, per Carrey himself, the studio feared it made their bankable star “look like an asshole.”
Almost 20 years later, that footage is back, in heavily edited form, in director Chris Smith’s documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, in which Carrey describes his memories of the shoot and the chaos caused by his performance. We see the initial bemusement and fascination shared by his co-stars, among them Danny DeVito and Paul Giamatti. We get an idea of how exhausting it must have been for director Milos Forman – then well into his 60s – to try to wrangle this mercurial force of nature.
Early in the shoot, Carrey – in full Kaufman mode – showed up in a cherry red convertible and promptly drove straight into a Winnebago. Later, Kaufman so enraged professional wrestler Jerry Lawler that the two almost come to blows. Tony Clifton, the obnoxious lounge singer in shades and moustache, screamed in the middle of sound checks, passed out drunk in his trailer, and at one point, turned up at Steven Spielberg’s offices demanding to see ‘the real shark’ from Jaws.
Two weeks into the shoot, Carrey relates a moment where Forman called him one evening and began expressing how difficult it was to rein in the twin-headed monster that was Kaufman and Clifton. Was there any way of getting the old Carrey back? “I don’t know what to do,” Forman reportedly said. “I’ve never dealt with anyone like Andy.”
Carrey archly suggested that they could fire Kaufman and Clifton, and Carrey could do an impersonation of them instead.
“No,” Forman said glumly, breaking a long pause. “I don’t want to stop it. I just wanted to talk to Jim.”
For the first half, it’s a wonder whether Carrey’s really channelling the spirit of Kaufman – an entertainer who was infamous for blurring the lines between fiction or reality – or whether it’s an example of a huge Hollywood star testing the boundaries. Were all these moments of eccentricity an extended joke at the expense of Man On The Moon’s cast and crew? Is Carrey being entirely serious when he talks in zen terms about the universe, telepathy and dolphins?
Gradually, however, the documentary begins to suggest that there’s more to Carrey’s method acting than mere eccentricity. Kaufman’s family and friends begin to talk to Carrey as though he’s the real Kaufman – an apparently spontaneous act of therapy. When Man On The Moon gets to the subject of Kaufman’s terminal illness – he died of cancer at the tragically young age of 35 – Carrey continued on down the rabbit hole, turning up to set each day in a wheelchair, his head shaved, his face pallid. As he did so, we see a change in his co-stars’ reactions to Carrey – from grudging acceptance or plain annoyance to genuine sadness.
It’s here, in the latter stages of Chris Smith’s documentary, that Carrey touches on something more universal than the eccentric processes of a Hollywood actor. By abandoning his own persona entirely, and taking on that of Kaufman (or Clifton) experienced a curious sort of freedom. Part of Kaufman’s appeal as an entertainer was his unpredictability, the unfettered, childlike nature of his performances – performances that often felt as though they were conjured up on the spur of the moment. Now, Carrey himself had made himself into a star with his own live-wire, borderline maniacal comic performances in film and television, but by the late 90s, he appeared to feel somewhat trapped by his own persona.
It’s a sensation illustrated in the documentary with excerpts from The Truman Show – Peter Weir’s terrific film about an ordinary guy who’s unaware that his reality is televised fiction.
“This isn’t real – this is a story,” Carrey says to the camera. “There’s the avatar you create; the cadence you make that’s pleasing to people, takes them away from your issues and makes you popular. And at some point, you have to peel it away. It’s not who you are.”
Obviously, we can’t all be millionaire actors, but Carrey’s point still stands: as adults, we all create a persona based on our experiences, where we grew up and how we want to be perceived. We learn from a young age to talk and act in a certain way based on the company we keep and the jobs we strive for. There are times, however, when the personas we create for ourselves can begin to feel less like armour and more like handcuffs – we behave and react a particular way because it’s what’s expected of us rather than because we want to. By transforming himself into Kaufman, Carrey realised how mutable his star persona was. In playing Kaufman, he essentially eliminated Carrey and got to experience the world through somebody else’s eyes.
Jim & Andy therefore offers an insight not just into an actor’s process, but also into what makes us so fascinated by actors or comedians like Carrey and Kaufman. They get to do something most of us can never do: try on different masks, new personas. A character like Tony Clifton gets to try things that are outside the bounds of polite society: stumbling into Steven Spielberg’s office; shouting at Danny DeVito about the brilliance of Jaws; causing mayhem on a talk show. There’s a wonderful liberation, it seems, in stepping out of an ingrained mindset and into the Great Beyond – the portal into another psyche, another way of thinking.