Eternal Sunshine Carrey poster

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Interview: Jim Carrey

by Carlo Cavagna


LEFT: Eternal Sunshine poster featuring Jim Carrey

M eet Joel, the protagonist of the new Charlie Kaufman-scripted film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He is quiet and introverted. He is needy and lovesick. He is Jim Carrey.

That doesn't sound like any Jim Carrey we know. Even in his more serious films like The Truman Show and The Majestic, there has always been a bit of Ace Ventura seeping out of the character—in Truman's overly exaggerated greetings, for example.

Jim Carrey talks on the phone in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

In Eternal Sunshine, however, Carrey plays a meek, responsible guy often shocked and frustrated by the wild behavior of his girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet). Certainly there are moments as Joel navigates through memories of his childhood that take advantage of Carrey's comedic talents, but his antics are mild by comparison to Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty. They never remind us that, hey, we're watching a big comic star, here! They never take us out of the story.

A special story it is, too. Joel discovers that ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had her memories of him erased through a medical procedure invented by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), founder of Lacuna, Inc. In pain and desperation Joel contacts the good doctor and his staff (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Kirsten Dunst), demanding to have his own memories of Clementine erased. However, as Joel lies trapped in a lucid dream with the procedure well underway, he has a change of heart. During the procedure itself, the movie explores Joel and Clementine's relationship and the link between memory, identity, and love. Would you be drawn to your lover if you met her for the first time today? Can you do away with an emotion by doing away with a memory? We suppress memories all the time, in the unconscious effort to rid ourselves of pain. It doesn't work, and even if we could rid ourselves of pain so easily, should we want to?

As Carrey jokes with reporters in Los Angeles prior to the film's opening, it's obvious that he is deeply intrigued by the questions posed by the film. Never has he had to expose himself emotionally to the extent required by Eternal Sunshine, and it shows both in his moving performance and his remarks about the film.

[Read the AboutFilm review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

Question: Everyone wanted the role of Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. How did you get it?

Carrey: I don't remember, honestly. Someone gave me the script, and I read it, and I thought it was incredible. I couldn't believe that I was being offered [it]. I had this guilty feeling of like, “How can I get this one and Truman Show ?” Two really interesting, original movies. So, I was really happy about it, yeah. It's great to be part of and the cast is amazing. It's unbelievable on many levels.

Question: This is such a poignant and romantic movie. Was there anything that inspired you—perhaps films of the past, or favorite romantic scenes?

Carrey: Just my life, you know? Movies are great, but the real romance happens right here [taps nose] somewhere—real close-up. I don't know. To me, I really couldn't have done this part if I hadn't been through a lot, one way or another. Either you're the one erasing or you're the one being erased, so... It's not a pleasant feeling!

Question: Everyone has a memory of a relationship gone sour. How have you dealt with that?

Carrey: How have I dealt with that? I've had a lot of conversations with myself—summations—“Okay, that is my final word on the subject!... And another thing!” That kind of thing goes on for awhile, and then I generally forgive and move on, and look at the world as a beautiful place again sooner or later. I think that's the real magic. The thing about this movie is you accept the flaws, you accept what was wrong, and you move on. You love the person for who they are, flaws and all. You can't help who you love, either. It comes from a different side of your brain than the logic part that tells you that this person is horrible for you—“You should walk away!” While you're walking away, the other part of your brain is trying to gain control of your bodily functions. “Turn around! She's the one!”

Question: Jim, based on my own relationships [stumbles over the word], the idea of erasing somebody—

Carrey: You have trouble saying that. [laughs] The other girl had trouble saying “romantic.” A comment on our society. “The thing about this movie is that it's about lo...lo...lo... It's really about looo—”


Carrey: —oove!”

Question: The idea of erasing someone is extremely appealing—

Carrey: Of course! In the moment, especially, when you're going through something. You think, “I don't need this! I don't need to live in a fight or flight response! Why can't I let this go?” But in retrospect it always seems to work out that you can look back on something that was a disaster and find some gems in there.

Question: What treasured memories of love would you never erase?

Carrey: I would never tell you. That would entail me opening up the most crucial intimacy of my life, and I can't do that.

Question: It's clear that comedy comes so easily to you. What's it like to play a humorless character?

Carrey: He's not a humorless character at all. I think Joel has immense and amazing things going on inside his brain that spill out on the page when he's doing his diaries and things like that. When Clementine comes by, she's like the outward manifestation of what he has inside himself, but can't express. I don't think he's humorless or uninteresting. I think he's really complex.

Question: You have unusually wonderful chemistry with Kate Winslet in this. Will you talk a little bit about what it's like to work with her?

Carrey: Well, I get excited when the people I work with scare me. She's just scary-talented and an amazing actress— actor— whatever you call them these days. Ack— ack— akk— just make up a new [word]. But, I get excited when I'm going to be surrounded by people who make me better, and make me stay on my game and challenge me. She's wonderful to watch—unbelievable—because you sometimes don't know what she's doing when you're in a scene with her. You look at it later, and she knows what's going to come off, how it's going to look. It's beautiful.

Question: If you could revisit your childhood like you do in the movie, what would you go to see?

Carrey: What was interesting was during the movie, psychic things were happening. Of course, I was pouring a lot of what I've gone through into it as much as I could, but things [kept happening]. When I was in the second grade, I had a teacher. She was an Irish lady who said [stuffy voice], “If I pray to the Virgin Mary and ask for anything I want, she gives me anything I want.” I'm sitting in the back of the class going, “Hmm. Sounds good.” So I went home, and I prayed to the Virgin for a bicycle, for a Mustang bike. Two weeks later, I won a green Mustang bike in a raffle I didn't enter. A friend of mine put my name into a sporting goods store, and I won the bike. That bike showed up in the movie, without me even trying, in the scene where the rain starts, and I try to bring [Clementine] back to when I grew up. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is a big thing for me, too. I have it in the cement at Graumann's Chinese Theater. I used to sing that on my aunt's porch when it rained and watched the squirrels scatter.

[But] let me finish this about the Mustang bike. The Mustang bike, when it showed up that day, I was so excited. “Wow! Okay, so I'm going back into my past and here's the magical Mustang bike!” Green, everything. The whole thing was exactly the bike I had—and I didn't do it! I had nothing to do with it. So, I got to speed off on my Mustang bike from memories past.

Jim Carrey discovers he has been erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Question: Did you keep the prop?

Carrey: No. No, I didn't. No. I have a Harley…that I prayed for.

Question: Looking at your recent dramatic roles—The Majestic, Truman Show, and this—they're about a loss of memory, about a false memory, an erasure of memory. Why have you chosen films about memory?

Carrey: You know, truth be told, that didn't even occur to me when I read this script. It wasn't about memory; it was about being erased. It was about how it would feel to be erased. That was the strongest pull for me. That's a heavy feeling. That's what hit me with the script. When he finds out that she's erased him, it's just a brutal thing to anybody's ego, but a male ego especially. And I loved the idea that the memories went in reverse. There were so many things that made it different than your normal losing-your-memory movie. I love the clunky, sci-fi aspect of this movie. It doesn't take over, it's just a function within it. It's interesting.

Question: Is there something within you that makes you choose these roles?

Carrey: I don't have any big black-out moments of my life or anything like that. I liked that this was by choice. Valentine's Day. I'd have worn the step down a couple years waiting outside in the morning. “Please, can you open up early? Lacuna, help me!”

Question: Some people have started making the distinction between the goofy Jim Carrey roles and the more serious Jim Carrey roles—

Carrey: It's a Jekyll and Hyde situation, let's face it.

Question: Do you make that sort of distinction when you consider projects?

Carrey: No. They come as they come, and when something like this comes by, you just jump on, and that's all there is to it. There's no question about it. Anybody would be lucky to be part of this.

Question: With this kind of love story, what are some of your influences? How hard is it getting to an open place to play this character?

Carrey: An aspect of doing this role was that you have to open up old wounds. I was ecstatic and happy and joyful when I went to New York, and then I had to sit there and peel the scabs off and go [pained voice] , “Oh, yeah—I remember that.” So it opened me up. I also wanted to express a lot of anger and resentment of old hurts past. What ended up happening—I'm really thankful it ended up happening—is that when it was all put together, it became a love letter. So, I was saved by myself.

Question: A love letter to whom?

Carrey: A love letter to everybody I've loved.

Question: In a sense, this movie is about the tension between wanting to forget the bad things that happened to us versus holding on to them because the willingness to fail again is what makes us human. Do you think that's an eternal tension between those two, or do you think there's more of a tendency to want to erase things nowadays?

Carrey: I think quick fixes are big for sure. We're all erasing stuff every morning when we go to Starbucks, you know what I mean? We're like [mimes shaking and drinking coffee] , “Arrr…Don't let it come up again! Don't let it come up again!” I think we suppress; we don't completely erase. I think we would in the moment—we would definitely choose that a lot of times, when we're on our knees screaming at God. I don't know if I answered the question.

Question: What do you lose by erasing?

Carrey: Oh, well, I think you make the same mistakes over and over again—not that you wouldn't anyway, if you knew. I think there are beautiful moments. People expect, these days—everybody expects this fairy tale—you're going to be together forever with somebody. I don't really subscribe to that. I'd love that to happen if that happened, but ten years is enough. Ten years is a good thing with somebody, I think. It's a nice thing. A lot of good love can happen in ten years.

Question: What is your relationship like with director Michel Gondry? Obviously, he's known as a visualist, but how is he working with actors?

Carrey: Well, you know, Michel is just a creative genius, but people really haven't discovered him on a mass level yet. He comes in every day with something that just spins you around and makes you go, “Wow, somebody's thinking, man! Thank you! This is great! Somebody's bringing something to the table!” He comes in and asks you to do things that are impossible. There's a scene where I come into Lacuna in my memory, and I'm screaming at the doctor, and I'm in two different places in the scene. It's not split screen—it's not any of that—it's Michel coming in and saying [French accent], “You're going to run around ze camera, and you're going to put the hat on and take it off and put it on and take it off!” So, that's me going back and forth behind the hand-held camera in the dark with a dresser going—[mimes quick changing]. I'm not kidding. That's what was happening in that scene. It was about how quickly can you run through the dark, get a jacket and a hat on, and completely change your attitude. I argued with him. I said, “This can't be done. I can't do this. It's impossible.” He said [French accent], “Euh, how do you know if you don't try?” I went back into historical times to the French explorers. I was like, “Yes, I'm on board, Mr. Cartier! We will call this lake, Champlain!”

Question: Since everybody else who worked on this film is going to be asked this question, I'll put it to you as well. What was it like working with Jim Carrey on this film?

Carrey: [laughs] Yeah, it was pretty interesting. It's a funny thing because I get to just do so many different things. It's an amazing life. I always feel so lucky. When I'm doing the big, broad comedy, I'm sitting somewhere going, “I can't believe I'm getting to do this. This is so silly. This is ridiculous.” The difference is, in those types of things I'm coming at the audience. On this, I get to sit back and let them come inside... You can maybe word that a little differently.

Question: What are the challenges and rewards of a Charlie Kaufman script?

Carrey: Oh, my gosh. It's like Moses coming down from the mountain with the tablets every time he has a script. All of Hollywood goes, “It's heeeere!” He's just so rock and roll, and at the same time, he's a complete intellectual. This movie has everything going, so when I read the script, I was just happy to be a small part of his legacy, because I know this is going to be one hell of a legacy at the end of all his creative madness. This script is everything. Most of the time, he stays in this wild, intellectual world [but] this one has such an anchor of heart—something we can all identify with on an emotional level. It's got everything going at the same time. I feel like I won the lottery.

The challenges—the major challenge is knowing where you are in this script. When you're going through the memories, I was constantly like, “Michel, please tell me—in my language— ” He was hard to understand, sometimes, Michel. During the whole Iraq thing he was calling himself “French toast” and stuff. [French accent] “Just call me French toast!” But, the challenges were, “Michel, where are we? Are we lucid in this memory? Is this memory the way it was, or has it been gilded in retrospect?” It was fascinating.

Jim Carrey with Kate Winslet
Jim Carrey with Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Question: Whenever you're on a talk show, you're hilarious, but I noticed that you're also a great audience for the host.

Carrey: I like people. They're entertaining.

Question: Are you a good mark for actors and comedians? Do you keep yourself open?

Carrey: Yeah. I just may laugh at different things than most people. I laugh at mistakes. I laugh at how you recover from mistakes. I see when people go off their material, and it's actually happening in front of you. That kind of stuff excites me. I've been doing Lemony Snicket recently and there's just so much opportunity in that. [Director] Brad [Siberling]'s been turning the camera on and letting me have fun. I play an actor, so I get to make fun of myself. I love spontaneity, so when I see spontaneity—and I know it's spontaneity—it makes me happy. I don't know why. I think it's like looking at a child or something. When you look at a kid, and they're completely involved in something, it's entertaining to watch. I think that's the Meisner technique I just laid out there.

Question: The films you're making now are certainly not the films you were making five or seven years ago. Is there a plan to your career, and are we witnessing a transition for you? Are you in, like, Picasso's blue period?

Carrey: No, no. I'm just expressing whatever comes around that I can. This script came and I went, “Oh, I know this guy. I can do this. And I want to do this because I've got a lot of things I've got to get out of my system or whatever.” So it was just perfect. The scripts find you. It's not really a plan. It'd be great if it laid out in a certain pattern that worked for the long term. Clint Eastwood had a great pattern in his life. He did commercial things that appealed to a wide audience, and then he did things that might challenge them.

Question: Is there a method to your madness? In the sense that, you say scripts just find you, but do you make conscious choices?

Carrey: Oh, I put it out in the universe. I say, “You know what? I want something that's really intelligent and beautiful in its heart.” A few years ago, I decided I do want to make things that uplift people in a real way. The wonderful thing about this movie is that it's about love, and it's romantic without being romanticized. It's real love. It's love where you go, “You are ugly to me sometimes, but I love you. But sometimes I might not like you.”

Question: Jack Nicholson recently said that because of the events of 9/11, he decided he only wanted to do things that entertained people. Is that similar to what precipitated your decision?

Carrey: I'm sure we're all part of some mass consciousness that moves in the same direction depending on what we need as a people, but that's a social study. I don't know.

Question: Your Blake Edwards tribute at the Oscars was hilarious—

Carrey: Oh, thank you.

Question: Is there one Peter Sellers moment that sticks out for you, and did your sister kill you for telling her sex story?

Carrey: [laughs] No, no, no. My family is okay with that stuff. Peter Sellers, my gosh. Literally, my whole childhood, anybody who came to my house was entertained first by a ten year-old child throwing himself down a long flight of stairs. That's how it began, and it just deteriorated from there. [Clouseau accent] “Be careful, Monsieur. I suspect everyone and I one.” I had so much fun with that. There are so many moments you can't really pinpoint. I really love the moment in A Shot in the Dark where he scrapes the pool table. [Clouseau accent] “I think I have grazed your billiard table.”

Question: You play opposite a lot of beautiful women in Hollywood. Do you have anybody left on your list you'd like to work with?

Carrey: There are so many talented women out there. It's incredible. There's a group of uber-chicks. I'd like to work with Nicole. Many, many people. Gosh. There's just too many. I can't focus. Notice how I worked the company name in there? [Focus Features, which produced Eternal Sunshine] They love me! They love me at the junkets! Bunch of executives out there going [pumps fist], “YEAH!!! Thank you! Michel, take note!”

Question: This film seems to have a melancholy take on romance. Can you describe your feelings towards romance?

Carrey: Well, I like the way it ended up. I like where it went and what it says. I don't know if it's possible to have—I mean, I've never had it—a love without that feeling of a little bit of compromise going on. I don't know if you can. I've never experienced that. I've experienced moments of it—“I'm sure, I'm sure, I'm sure.” But Mr. Doubt always comes and knocks on the door and goes, “Heh. Her head's kind of big, for her body.”

Question: Is your head shaved for Lemony Snicket?

Carrey: Yeah, Lemony Snicket. Lots of wigs. Tons of wigs.

Question: How far along are you?

Carrey: We're halfway through.

Question: Before you go, tell us more about Lemony Snicket.

Carrey: Oh, it's just so much fun. It's such a different way to tell a children's story. It's very original. It's an opportunity for me to show up as this crazed thespian...

Question: Oh, he's evil!

Carrey: He's an evil thespian, yeah. Which is redundant, really.

Question: Did you know the books before?

Carrey: No, I didn't. I wasn't aware of the books before. They asked me to read these books, and I did. I thought it was a really original voice. To me, it's just an opportunity to have fun throwing on disguises. [With] one of the characters—a character named Stefano—we were planning on doing a completely different character. I had an Italian accent, it was all worked out, and they put the wig on me in the makeup chair five minutes before they were going to test this character. The wig had changed. They put this mustache on and it was all the elements of the character before, but they had been altered in a way, and I said, “It's not that guy anymore.” Brad [Siberling] came into the trailer and said, “What do you mean? Who is it?” And I just started speaking like the guy that belonged to the hair. That's where the character came from, literally five minutes before we went out there. It just blossomed from there. [Brad] makes it feel very safe as far as improvising and things like that.

Question: Director Todd Phillips has said that you brought him the property of The Six Million Dollar Man. What is your affinity for that character and what are the comic possibilities there?

Carrey: I am bionic.

Question: Which part?

Carrey: Hey, hey—oh, that's—that's a sensitive organ. They're working on that one. [mimes being on phone] “Is it ready yet??” Uh...I forget what the question was.

Question: Your affinity for that character, and why you want to bring him to the screen?

Carrey: Oh, you probably shouldn't even report on this yet because I don't know if it's going to happen or not. It's not really that far down the line. We're developing that script, so I think it's just going to be a whole lot of fun. I love playing ego and insecurity combined—well, it's the same thing, I guess. Ego out of control. Six million dollars doesn't get you a lot in this world these days, so you can kind of imagine where the plot's going to go.

Question: I heard that you might be interested in taking on the role of Tiny Tim in a film biography—

Carrey: [laughs] Oh, really? Oh, my God, that's hilarious. That's too funny. I've never heard that one! But, you know, I am looking for celebrity autobiographical or biographical material—especially about people who are that deep.

Question: Is Walter Mitty on your calendar?

Carrey: It's definitely out there. I don't know how close we are to it, but we're working on it.

[Read the AboutFilm review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

[Read the AboutFilm profile and interview with Kate Winslet]

[Read the AboutFilm interview with Elijah Wood]

Feature and Interview © April 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

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  IMDB page for Eternal Sunshine
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