Jim Carrey just made a movie for kids and it got him talking about his own childhood. In Mr. Popper’s Penguins, he plays a New York executive who inherits a group of penguins from his explorer father. Families will enjoy watching Carrey play with the birds and choreograph a dance number together.
It turns out the film speaks to personal matters for the blockbuster comedian. He revealed some insights into the early development of his rubber faced persona when he spoke with press about the film. You may also be surprised to learn of Carrey’s humanitarian and artistic endeavors. Mr. Popper’s Penguins opens Friday.
I've always admired how expressive you can be with your face. I remember reading you used to practice in front of the mirror. Are you still finding new things you can do with your face?
JC: Well, my face kind of operates on its own nowadays. You know, it just kind of does what it wants to do. Sometimes it's appropriate and sometimes it's not. Sometimes in the editing room we'll go like, “That's not human. We'll wanna take that out. Wait a second. Eyebrows aren't supposed to be able to do that. That's going to distract people flat out.” But I find I'm still doing things, little tricks and fun things that I created when I was ten years old. All of it comes into play. And the play you do when you're a kid is so super important. I'm so lucky that my life didn't get turned upside down until I was eleven. Because I had a lot of great play and a lot of creativity that still comes into play for me.
Does that help you deal with visual effects, where you have to imagine the penguins are there?
JC: I didn't really have any idea how we were going to go about it on a day-to-day basis. What happened is I loved working with the real penguins. Animatronic penguins were a little issue because everybody has a cell phone or some kind of plate in their head or whatever these days, or some kind of electronic gizmo. You know, iPads and things coming out of everywhere, and so you get guys on joysticks going, “Is that you? It's not me. Is that you? Why is his arm moving?” Or his head is like Jacob's Ladder [shaking] like this and I'm trying to act with the penguin. So we opted for a lot of CG stuff, but most of it is real penguins because I love working with animals. I kind of like to join their energy. Oftentimes we'd come in on the set and they wouldn't be there. We'd be ready to work with the X's on the floor or the little tennis balls or whatever it is and you'd hear them off in the distance in their habitat going, “Ahhhh.” Like that. They'd be interrupting the dialogue anyway. I go, “They might as well all be here. Bring them on in.” And a lot of times we did that at the last minute.
You still worked in some of your standup comedy, like your Jimmy Stewart impression, into the movie. How much does stand up experience help in a performance like this?
JC: Well, it certainly makes you more comfortable with yourself and comfortable being creative in the moment. I mean, working with the penguins you can have a plan but they're going to do what they're going to do. You have to be kind of on your feet. So it's all great training. I used to go up and do standup. I used to do training. I used to think of it as training as going out night after night without a plan at The Comedy Store. 2/3 of the time people would throw chairs at me. 1/3 of the time it would be a flow that was really kind of God given. Kind of like you felt lucky to be part of. And that made me comfortable.
Honestly, if someone gave you these penguins at the point in your life that you are now, what would you do?
JC: Eat them. Probably.
Did you have to keep the set cold for the penguins?
JC: Basically the set was so cold that we- I was fighting pneumonia the entire time. I don't know about anybody else but I think it wasn't even about the health of the penguins. It was because they're method. That's what I found out. But then there was going outside when it was seventy-five and eighty degrees before the giant snowstorm in five layers of clothing and a parka. It was an odd kind of weird mix to act with, you know.
What were your favorite parts of New York to film in?
JC: They would have to mop me down at the rink because I'm Canadian. So I had the skates on. And goodbye, I'm not filming anymore. I'm now fantasizing about the Stanley Cup and shooting pucks against the boards. And I was drenched with sweat. The Guggenheim was odd because I felt like I was falling downhill the whole time. It's that downhill kind of thing going on. But, yeah, I definitely would say the rink because it has special memories for me, too. I've been there several times myself and I just love to skate. When I put a skate on the ice I'm free from the world and I have no problems at all. I am a bird.
What would you be doing if you weren’t acting?
JC: Well, I wanted to be a veterinarian for about a week of my life when I was a kid but then I found out about the whole euthanasia thing. I said, “Can't commit to that. Sorry. Can't do it.” But really since the very beginning I looked at my father and he was commanding the room. Every time we had people over he stood in the middle of the room and people were just astounded at his creativity and his animation when he told a story. There was no choice for me. I was just like, “That's how I'm going to get over in the world. I want to be that guy.”
Do you have other ways of expressing yourself that we don’t even know about?
JC: Well, I have a lot of things going on. At a certain point in my life, I was for a long time harnessing it in one direction and it seemed to be a few years ago things just started kind of spilling over the edges and I couldn't control it so much anymore. I kind of let it go wherever it goes. I do have philanthropic concerns and I try not to make it too loud. But I have something called SRI that I'm involved with promoting, which is called System of Rice Intensification, but it's not just for rice it's for other crops. I've been spreading that. I've been going around the world and kind of on a grass roots level directly to the farmers, teaching a method of growing rice that uses 50% less water and 90% less seed and yields four times as much rice. It's an incredible thing. If you want to check it out, if you want to see anything about it it's on the Better U website. BetterUFoundation.org, which is my foundation. And creatively there's Twitter. No, but I also paint. I paint a lot and this is a huge passion for me. So when I'm not acting I wake up every morning and I have my coffee and I pick up a paintbrush. It's not just something I do on the sun porch. I have a studio in New York and I haven't revealed it. I've leaked out a couple of little things here and there. There is one in the movie. One of my paintings is in the movie. It's in my den. In the TV den. In one of the scenes. It's one of my paintings. But they're all over the place.
Is it Impressionism?
JC: Conceptual, impressionistic. I have a painting I'm doing right now I'm doing in New York that I can't wait to get back because I have about five more days. I've spent 200 hours on. It's sixteen feet tall and twelve feet wide and it's a black light painting actually. So it's definitely viewable in the daylight. It's a normal painting, but when you turn the black lights on everything lights up and people come out of the dark and it's kind of interesting. So, yeah, there's a whole other realm for me that's happening that I haven't really revealed to the world yet, but I will.
Do you have a favorite penguin story or memory about working with them?
JC: I got bit a lot. That was a good thing. That was a good thing. I love that scene, the dinner scene, that we're supposed to meet them just sitting in their chairs just pecking fish off the plates. But it was funny because they had the camera in my face and then they would dolly back. They didn't really know what I was going to do with it. They'd dolly back and they had the wranglers, they had broom holes kind of separating and holding back the penguins like a horse race or something, and their heads trying to get at the fish. Then they go, “Okay, Jim. Ready? Go.” It should be called distr-acting, I swear, because it's mayhem basically. I just kind of had to stay in it and have fun with it. But when stuff like that happens inside I'm going, “Yes, yes, go wild.” So that was a good memory.
Was it your idea to have the penguins watch Charlie Chaplin?
JC: Well, it was [director] Mark [Waters]' idea to bring that to the film and of course I went along with it immediately. I don't think it was a conscious thing on his behalf, but it was a parallel, the way that he walks as the tramp and moves as the tramp and then the penguin, he somehow captured that same kind of waddling, something vulnerable that the penguins have. I think that's why we love penguins, because they don't belong just anywhere. They're wobbly and vulnerable. They're not really fish and they're not really birds. That's how I feel.