In his new live-action family comedy, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” Jim Carrey plays a highly successful real estate developer in Manhattan whose life begins to unravel after he inherits six adorable, lovable and mischievous penguins. As he gets acquainted with and increasingly attached to his new winged roommates, he starts to recognize what’s important in life and his chilly relationship with his family heats up and transforms his swanky New York apartment into a snowy winter wonderland. Even though the deal he’s long been working on is derailed and he almost lands in jail, thanks to his new charges, Popper comes to understand the importance of family – human and otherwise.
MoviesOnline sat down recently with the charismatic actor and talented physical comedian to talk about his new film which was shot on location in New York City. Carrey, who turns in a crazy, edgy and funny performance in the title role of Mr. Popper, told us how much he enjoyed working with the legendary Angela Lansbury, what it was like acting alongside real and animatronic penguins, how he drew on some of his old school stand-up experience for his performance, and what inspired the filmmakers to use silent film star Charlie Chapin’s ‘little tramp’ slapstick routine in the film. He also revealed that when he’s not acting, he has a passion for expressing his creative side through painting, and shared with us his philanthropic activities dedicated to improving the lives of people around the world via his recently established Better U Foundation.
Q: What was it like working with the talented Angela Lansbury?
JC: Can I tell you something? She’s incredibly tough. 4 o’clock in the morning, she’s up running us all ragged. She’s unbelievable, enthusiastic, completely into it. I dream of being that enthusiastic at that point in my career. It’s fantastic to watch. It was amazing to work with her.
Q: You’ve done visual effects movies before. Does it get any easier in terms of working with effects? Did you know from looking at the script when you’d be dealing with little ‘x’s’ and when there’d be actual creatures 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 was I loved working with the real penguins. The animatronic penguins were a little bit of an issue because everybody has a cell phone or some kind of plate in their head or some kind of electronic gizmo or whatever these days – iPads and things coming out of everywhere – and so you get guys on joy sticks going “Is that you? It’s not me. Is that you?” His head is like Jacob’s ladder as I’m trying to act with the penguin. We opted for a lot of CG stuff but most of it is real penguins because I love working with animals. I like to join their energy and often times we’d come in on the set and they wouldn’t be there and we’d be ready to work with the ‘x’s’ on the floor or little tennis balls or whatever it is and you’d hear them off in the distance in their habitat going “Honk.” They’d be interrupting the dialogue anyway. We’d go “They might as well be here. Bring them on in.” A lot of times we did that at the last minute. And they made love. There was no hanky panky on the set but the penguins were going at it — I’m just sayin’ — which is always a good sign apparently.
Q: If you inherited penguins, like your character did, what would you do?
JC: Eat them, probably!
Q: I’ve always admired how expressive you can be with your face. I remember reading that you used to practice in front of the mirror, so I’m wondering, are you still finding new things you can do with your face?
JC: Well my face kind of operates on its own nowadays. It just does what it wants to do. Sometimes it’s appropriate and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes in the editing room we’ll go “That’s not human! I want to 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 10 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 11 because I had a lot of great play and a lot of creativity that still comes into play for me.
Q: I love the fact that you were able to work in some of your old school stand-up like your Jimmy Stewart impression. To what extent does your experience in stand-up help in a performance like this?
JC: 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 and you have to be kind of on your feet. It’s all great training. I used to think of it as training, going up night after night without a plan at the Comedy Store. Two-thirds of the time people would throw chairs at me and a third of the time it would be a flow that was really kind of God given and you felt lucky to be a part of and that made me comfortable.
Q: Can you talk about the inspiration behind using footage of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’ slapstick routine in the film?
JC: Well, you know, it was Mark [Water]’s idea to bring that to the film and of course I went along with it completely because I just felt like there’s a person who … I don’t think it’s a conscious thing on his behalf, but it was a great parallel — the way he walks as a tramp and moves as a tramp and that penguin thing. He has somehow captured that same kind of waddling, you know, something vulnerable that the penguins have. I think that’s why we love penguins because they don’t belong anywhere. They’re wobbly and vulnerable and they’re not really fish and they’re not really birds and that’s how I feel and probably a lot of people.
Q: During the shooting, the environment had to be really cold because of the penguins. How uncomfortable was it working like that?
JC: Basically, the set was so cold that I was fighting pneumonia the entire time. I don’t know about anybody else, but I was like OxyContin or whatever they call it. I’m Canadian so I have a little background with that [cold weather]. 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 75 and 80 degrees, before the giant snowstorm hit, in five layers of clothing and a parka. That was an odd, weird mix to act with.
Q: What was it like ice skating in Central Park in Wollman Rink? Was that one of your favorite locations?
JC: Definitely one of them for sure , [also] the Flat Iron and Guggenheim. The Guggenheim was odd because I felt like I was falling downhill the whole time. There was that downhill kind of thing going on. They would have to mop me down at the rink because I’m Canadian so I got the skates on and “Goodbye! I’m not filming anymore. I’m now fantasizing about the Stanley Cup.” I’m shooting pucks against the boards and I was drenched with sweat the whole night. I definitely 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’m a bird. A penguin, yes.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory or funny story about working with the penguins?
JC: I got bit a lot. I got nipped here and there. It was a good thing. I loved that dinner scene which was supposed to be them sitting in their chairs just pecking fish off the plates. It was funny because they had the camera in my face and then it would dolly back. We didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. And they had the wranglers with broom poles separating and holding back the penguins like a horse race or something while their heads were trying to get at the fish. And then they’d go, “Okay, Jim. Ready? Go!” It should be called distracting because it’s mayhem basically. I just had to stay in it and have fun with it. When stuff like that happens, inside I’m going “Yes, yes! Go wild!” So that was a good memory.
Q: You’re so talented, but what would you do if you were not an actor?
JC: What would I do? 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 and I said “I can’t commit to that. Sorry! I 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.”
Q: You talked earlier about new ways of expressing yourself and you’re such a creative guy, what are some of the ways you express yourself that we might not even know about, either through sports or charity or a favorite passion of yours?
JC: I have a lot of things going on. At a certain point in my life for a long time I was harnessing it in one direction. It seemed to be a few years ago, things just seemed to be 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. I try not to make it too loud. I have something called SRI that I’m involved with promoting. It’s called System of Rice Intensification, but it’s not just for rice. It’s also for other crops. I’ve been spreading that. I’ve been going around the world on a grassroots 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 and see what it’s about, it’s on the Better U Foundation website (betterufoundation.org) which is my foundation. And creatively, there’s Twitter (laughs). But I also paint a lot and this is a huge passion for me. So, when I’m not acting, I literally wake up every morning and I have my coffee and I pick up a paintbrush and it’s not just something I do on the sunporch. I have a studio in New York — and I haven’t revealed [although] 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 the TV den in one of the scenes. It’s one of my paintings, but they’re all over the place.
Q: Is it impressionistic?
JC: Conceptual, impressionistic. I have a painting right now that I’m doing in New York that I’ve spent 200 hours on. I can’t wait to get back because I have about 5 more days. It’s 16 feet tall and 12 feet wide. It’s a black light painting actually. 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.
Q: I know you’ve gotten very spiritual in the last few years. Did you see Tom Shadyac’s film “I Am” and is that compatible with your beliefs?
JC: Yes, I did. I think a lot of it is and some of it isn’t. I think he should look at what we’ve done in Hollywood as also a spiritual thing. I think that’s a very important thing – what we did together.
Q: Has becoming a granddad changed you at all? Are you excited about that?
JC: Of course. Jackson’s fantastic. I just hung out with him yesterday. He’s the best. The best! He’s so wonderful.
Q: What’s your guilty pleasure?
JC: Oh my gosh, hmmm… I like pretty girls. That’s not guilty. Why would that be guilty? I’ve got a lust for life.
“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” opens in theaters on June 17th.