Funnyman stretches acting muscles with range of roles

It was 1990, and Jim Carrey got off early from rehearsals. He was featured in the television series "In Living Color," which starred the Wayans Brothers.

"I'd heard my idol, Jimmy Stewart, was going to read the Scriptures at the Presbyterian Church in Beverly Hills. It was my chance to meet him!"

After the Bible reading, most of the congregation headed for cookies and tea, but the brash young comic headed straight for Stewart. "I told him how wonderful he was, how I admired him. I gushed like an open fire hydrant.

"Instead of giving me some advice, he didn't say a word, he just turned and left. I was crushed. All the way home, I was mentally beating myself up - thinking I'd embarrassed him. Then, I thought of the Scriptural reading about having false gods."

It was a turning point. "I learned a lesson. I'd always admired Rich Little and his great imitations of Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Cary Grant. But from that 'non-meeting' with my idol, I realized I don't want to do impressions of a celebrity; I want to be a celebrity!"

That chasm between being a stand-up comic to being accepted as a dramatic actor hasn't come without stumbles.

"True," Carrey says, "but those stumbles can be leaps in learning."

Ironically, in his latest movie, "The Majestic," people are comparing its director, Frank Darabont, to Frank Capra, and Jim Carrey to Jimmy Stewart.

"I've arrived at the place," Carrey says, that "if I'm not taking a career risk, I'm not happy. If I'm scared, then I know I'm being challenged."

Although he's won two Golden Globes as "Best Actor" in both "The Truman Show" (1998) and "Man On The Moon" (1999) he's yet to get an Oscar nod. But Carrey keeps stretching his acting muscles. For "The Majestic," he worked with acting coach Larry Moss.

Originally, it was his off-the-wall comedy and his rubber-faced flexibility that made his films box-office gold.

"When I wanted to try different roles, I was told, 'Play it safe, kid, so it'll pay off.' That didn't satisfy. Each of us has a spark that identifies who you are as a person. Even if I'm not as popular as I might be playing the same character, I'll find a way to get into new and challenging areas."

Carrey settles into his easy chair and explains: "I look at what's happened so far, you know this arc that goes from my first movie success, 'Ace Ventura,' to my new movie 'The Majestic,' and whatever else I've done in between. So far, I'm proud of it.

"Originality is really important. In 'The Majestic,' my character is more about compromise. As the movie unfolds, my character begins to grow and change. When I first read the script, I liked the good-heartedness of it. I think we all try to stand up for things we believe in. Truth and honesty were ingrained in me by my parents."

Carrey grew up in Canada, in a family of four children. He knows plenty about sharing. He's passing these values along to his 14-year-old daughter, Jane.

Carrey says that Jane is his toughest judge.

"She is so bright," he says, glowing with fatherly pride. Her classmates adore his goofball roles in "Ace Ventura," "Batman," and "The Mask." His daughter just rolls her eyes at some of the things he does on film. "But, you know, you can't be a star at home," he says. "Sometimes, you just like to sit back and eat chips."

Now, when kids recognize her dad, Jane's become "savvy," like the other night when they were at an L.A. Lakers game. A young wannabe comic came up to Carrey, and began, "You're my idol." Carrey was very patient and helpful.

Jane's reaction? "You were really sweet and kind to him." Carrey's thoughts went back to another time and another place, and he just smiled.

His memories keep him "grounded." He was 15 and doing his first stand-up comedy act at Yuk-Yuk's in Toronto. There, he stood in his polyester suit in front of a hippie audience.

"I won't say I bombed, but the club owner started playing the music from 'Jesus Christ Superstar' while I was doing my act. He beefed up the volume where they sing, 'Crucify him, crucify him.' It took me two years to get back my confidence!"

Carrey has come a long way from his comedy club days. His movie "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" was last year's highest earning release. His next films include "Dog Ears," a romantic drama with Nicole Kidman, and the yet-unnamed movie about Howard Hughes, an aviation pioneer and movie producer.

Carrey summarizes: "It goes back to the Bible - it's 'Thy will be done.' If you'd just trust that, you'd be the happiest person on earth."

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