Reminiscent of his first big movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Jim Carrey is once again acting with animals, and loving it.
In his new movie Mr Popper’s Penguins, he portrays Tommy Popper, a highly successful real estate developer in Manhattan. Everything is going well for him, as he lives the life of luxury in his Park Avenue apartment – that is, until his late father, who had been living in the Antarctica, sends him his parting gift – six live penguins.
Popper’s life quickly begins to unravel, with his swanky New York apartment turning into a winter wonderland, as he attempts to deal with his inheritance. But thanks to these new charges, he comes to learn the meaning of family – both human and otherwise.
You’ve done visual effects where nothing is there before. How much of this was CGI and how much real penguins?
I really didn’t have any idea how we were going to go about it on a day-to-day basis. I loved working with the real penguins. Animatronic penguins were a little bit of an issue because everybody has a cell phone or some kind of plate in their head; some kind of electronic gizmo; IPads coming out of everywhere so you get guys on joysticks going, ‘Is that you? It’s not me.’ (he laughs).
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 on the set and they wouldn’t be there and we’d be ready to work with the little “X’s” on the floor or the little tennis balls and you’d hear them off in the distance in their habitat going (he makes loud penguin noises) so they’d be interrupting the dialogue anyway. I’d go, ‘They might as well be here. Bring them on in’. A lot of times we did that at the last minute.
It had to be very cold on set for the penguins. Was that uncomfortable?
The set was so cold that I was fighting pneumonia the entire time. I was taking Oscillococcinum the whole time. It wasn’t even about the health of the penguins. It’s because they’re method (actors). That’s what I found out.
It was good for the scenes in the movie where we had transformed the apartment and you would open the windows and it turned into a winter wonderland and we’re wearing winter coats in the scenes. It was in the scenes before he decided to do that that it was difficult.
Do you have any special memories of working with the penguins?
I got bit a lot. I think I love the dinner scene where they’re supposed to be sitting in their chairs picking fish off the plates. It was funny. They had the camera in my face and then they would dolly back. They didn’t know what they were going to do with it.
They had the wranglers there with broom poles separating and holding back the penguins like a horse race or something and they’re trying to get at the fish. ‘Okay, Jim? Ready. Go!’ When stuff like that happens, inside I’m going, ‘Yes! Go wild.’ That was a good memory.
If someone gave you penguins like in the film, what would you do?
Eat them, probably (he laughs). No. Buy their merchandising rights and sign them up!
You do a lot of crazy expressions with your face. Are you still finding new things you can do with your face?
My face kind of operates on its own nowadays. It 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. We’ll want to take that out. Eyebrows aren’t supposed to be able to do that.’
But I find that I’m still doing things, little tricks 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.
I was glad to see you could still work in some of your stand-up experiences like your Jimmy Stewart impression. To what extent does stand-up help in a performance like this?
Well, it certainly makes you more comfortable with yourself and comfortable with being creative in the moment. Working with the penguins, you can have a plan but they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do so you have to be on your feet, so it’s all great training. I used to think of it as training, going up (on stage) every 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 part of it.
What would you be doing now if you hadn’t gotten into acting?
I wanted to be a veterinarian for about a week when I was a kid, but then I found out about the whole euthanasia thing and said, ‘Sorry, can’t commit to that.’ But, since the very beginning, I looked at my father and he was commanding the room. Every time we’d have people over, he’d stand in the middle of the room and people were just astounded at his creativity and his animation when he told a story, and after that there was no choice for me. I was just like, ’I wanna be that guy.’