How Jim Carrey became a 'Grinch'

Comedian almost didn't get to work in live-action Dr. Seuss movie

Friday, November 17, 2000

— No, it's not like he had to apologize because his bodyguards roughed up a few photographers or that the star himself snubbed his legion of fans. It's just that, well, Jim Carrey's entourage is not much of an entourage.

"It's pretty pathetic, isn't it?" he said with an ironic grin as he left his trailer on the Universal lot to promote his new movie, the first live-action version of the Dr. Seuss classic "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which opens Friday.

The entourage this day was composed of four people, a smaller contingent than usually accompanies a minor sitcom actor with a UPN television series. For a major Hollywood star like Carrey, it's downright embarrassing.

"I really need to work on it," Carrey whispered.

It is a rare Hollywood superstar who can stay grounded enough while making $20 million a movie to make fun of his own entourage. But Carrey has always had a different take on this fame game.

"So much about this business is so hard and unacceptable as a lifestyle that you can't take it too seriously," he said earlier in his trailer. "If I allow myself to get too caught up in the power lists, the box office and the rest of it, I'll go nuts.

"What I cling to is the chance to work on projects like this. People think I take my job for granted, but I don't. I still can't believe that someone like Jack Nicholson didn't get this part. I still can't believe I got the part."

He almost didn't get the part. Theodor Seuss Geisel, who wrote the 1957 book "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," died in 1991, and didn't feel a film version of his book was necessary, particularly after the successful 1966 animated TV version.

His widow, Audrey, spurned all attempts to change that decision until recently when she acknowledged that computer technology had progressed to the point that a film could do justice to the holiday fantasy about the good citizens of Whoville and the green curmudgeon who lives up the mountain.

A string of Hollywood producers paraded through her La Jolla, Calif., home to plead their case. Imagine partners Brian Grazer and Ron Howard were two of them. Geisel's widow rejected them at first, but began to warm to the notion of Howard directing the film and Carrey starring in it. But first, she insisted on meeting the actor.

Carrey was filming "Man on the Moon" at the time and was, how shall we say it, deep into character. In fact, he met Audrey Geisel as Andy Kaufman and would not get out of character, except to do an impression of Kaufman doing an impression of Carrey doing an impression of the Grinch.

"Yes, I know it sounds crazy," Carrey said with a straight face. "And yes, I was well aware of how important this meeting with Audrey was. Getting this part was literally a dream come true for me. But, she was told in advance that she would not be able to talk to Jim. She would have to talk to Andy."

Howard was not at that meeting, but he was told what happened by Geisel herself.

"She didn't know what to make of it," the director said. "He stayed as Andy Kaufman all day, but at some point he told her: "Jim wanted me to show you an impression, and it goes something like this." Jim then turned away from her, and then turned back slowly, making the face of the Grinch without makeup, a mask or anything.

"She told me that it was the most impossible smile any human being could generate, and she was completely blown away. She gave us the rights to the book after the meeting."

Howard, whose company produced the Carrey comedy "Liar Liar," said the rubber-faced actor was his only choice for the role of the Grinch.

"If Audrey had rejected Jim for the role," he said, "I would have done everything I could to secure the rights for the studio, but then I would have stepped aside as director. I was that convinced that he was the only person for the part."

The director said he knew he wanted to work with Carrey when he was directing the Mel Gibson movie "Ransom" in New York.

"That was a very dark, bleak film, and there were nights when I left the set feeling very down. To lift my spirits, I'd have someone slip the dailies (footage from that day's filming) from "Liar Liar" into the VCR. I just marveled at Jim's inventiveness and creative energy. Later, when I was considering the Grinch movie, I knew it was an ideal fit.

"It also became obvious once we started shooting that Jim felt comfortable in the role. There were many times when I felt we had gotten the perfect take, but Jim would insist on doing a few more. I didn't want to act negatively toward my star so I would go along with his requests. And you know what? Those later takes would be better."