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Mr. Happy

His picture may be grim, but Jim Carrey's having fun. Really.

February 23, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

TWO lessons learned during the filming of the new Jim Carrey movie: 1) Elaborate faux tattoos are a big turn-on for women; just ask co-star Virginia Madsen. 2) Carrey's fixation with the number 23 has led him to believe that "the universe is tapping me on the shoulder and saying, 'There's some kind of intelligence or something beyond coincidence in the world.' "

Oh, and he's also figured out the meaning of happiness. "I wanted to find out what makes people happy," says Carrey, seated on a cushioned bench on a brick balcony that juts off the sixth floor of his Brentwood production office, wearing a black leather jacket, blue-and-black Where's Waldo striped shirt and black jeans. "I thought it was just making them laugh. And that's a fantastic thing, because that does give them temporary freedom from themselves.

"But it's not the answer. The cure is people realizing who they are and that there's nothing they can do on the earth or nothing that can happen here that will add to them or take away from them at all. You need to just relax."

Which sounds like just the kind of mantra that would be impossible to reconcile with a career in Hollywood. "Maybe I haven't," Carrey says and laughs, rocking back a bit. "Just hang out for another year until I become America's joke. You risk that when you tell the truth about yourself."

The truth, coming to the surface, is how Carrey summarizes the thematic force of his new movie, "The Number 23," a paranoid thriller with dark echoes of "Memento" and "The Omen."

But he also knows now, in a way that he's been striving to understand for most of his 45 years, that facing his own truths, however scary or ugly, has been the essential struggle of his life.

"Nothing I do in this world will be who I am. I believe we're something entirely different," Carrey says with the rushing conviction of someone who on some level is also trying to convince himself. "We're here to witness it and to play with form. What can I make out of the Lego set of life? Can I make something fun out of this? It's all about being happy, man."

He's just returned from the Super Bowl in Miami with girlfriend Jenny McCarthy (a severely disappointed Chicago native), and he's recently grown his hair out. The cool wind wisps it across the etched contours of his face, an intriguing map of vulnerability and ambition. Rather than retreating inward or dissolving into a character, as he has done so memorably onscreen, in person Carrey is living right up against the very edge of his skin. Despite his stillness, he almost seems as if he's vibrating.

The actor's latest movie, "Number 23," unfolds as a mystery pursued by Walter Sparrow (Carrey), who is given a novel by his wife, Agatha, (Virginia Madsen) and begins to see himself in its tortured protagonist, an obsessive and self-destructive detective named Fingerling (also Carrey). As the novel begins to read more like a confession, Sparrow's mental moorings unravel in the murk of his past and the bizarre recurrence of the number 23 in his life.

The 23 Enigma, as it's sometimes called, is a form of apophenia, or the seeing of patterns or connections in random information (a phenomenon that some have suggested is a link between psychosis and creativity). A Canadian friend introduced Carrey to the 23 enigma a dozen years ago, by pointing out license plates, historical facts and sports statistics that played into its numerical "mind virus."

The movie, of course, comes out today, Feb. 23.

"To me, it's some little game you play with the universe," says Carrey, who years ago changed the name of his production company from Pit Bull Productions to JC 23 Entertainment because of his 23 fixation and a personal connection to Psalm 23 ("It would symbolize for me making fearless choices," he says). "Maybe there is something magical about it."

Everyone got involved in the game during filming, including Madsen's son Jack and Carrey's 19-year-old daughter, Jane, who told her father at one point that she had gotten a "23" tattooed on her arm. "I reacted really badly to it," Carrey says and laughs at himself, shaking his head. "Totally the dad thing."

Carrey sports his own disturbing body ink in the film.

The night before his first day filming as Fingerling, Carrey stayed up all night with Oscar-winning make-up artist Billy Corso ("Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events") digitally designing a complex tattoo that Corso painted onto Carrey's back.

Carrey took off his shirt in front of director Joel Schumacher the next morning to reveal a skeletal tattoo that clung to the back of his shoulders and snaked down his spine.

According to Carrey, this did not go unnoticed by the female members of the cast and crew.

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