This week, anyone invested in the entertainment industry should be following recent developments surrounding a major Hollywood actor whose three decades of success might be coming to an end.
That actor, of course, is… Jim Carrey.
As Will Smith’s slap continues to reverberate across popular culture, “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” has made its way to theaters, with Carrey’s return as the gonzo mustache-twirling villain Dr. Robotnik quite possibly serving as his swan song. In an Access Hollywood interview promoting the release, Carrey said he was “fairly serious” about retirement, chalking up the decision to his “quiet life” as a painter. That would be a loss to many filmmakers whose work could benefit from his involvement, and raises questions about why he hasn’t been associated with the kind of opportunities that might keep him engaged — i.e., work from young directors and original ideas.
Carrey tried. Showtime canceled his most ambitious undertaking over the past decade, “Kidding,” and his feeble stab at dramatic material in the 2018 murder mystery “Dark Crimes” fell flat. “Sonic” and its sequel deliver the financial goods but almost certainly lack a certain creative sustenance. If the projects don’t deliver and the paychecks can sustain a modest existence without the hassle of staying relevant, who’s to judge?
The loss of Carrey would also mean one less major actor who could help emerging filmmakers. In theory, there’s a reciprocal relationship between veteran talent that needs liberating material and nascent directors whose financing needs an A-list name. That’s Adam Sandler realizing, at a turning point in his career, that he needed the Safdie brothers and “Uncut Gems” as much as they and the project needed him. He still does, between his parade of lowbrow Netflix efforts: Sources tell me Sandler and the Safdies are already cooking up another project.
Who is Carrey’s Benny and Josh Safdie? Rather than throwing in the towel, he should be searching for someone new to drape it around him.
However, I have been told that Carrey did consider opportunities with a range of emerging filmmakers in recent years, including Ari Aster, Bong Joon Ho, and Taika Waititi. For a variety of reasons, those did not pan out.
Regardless, most major Hollywood agents aren’t in the business of seeking low-budget opportunities for their clients. One of them who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said at least one of the big three agencies has a policy prohibiting consideration for any projects under $2 million. (Of note: The budget for Best Picture winner “Moonlight” was $1.5 million.)
Carrey took a wild swing with his wordless performance as a desert-dwelling nomad in Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Bad Batch.” That signaled the inclinations of an actor willing to get weird with edgy filmmakers on the same wavelength. Carrey brought his unique brand of kookiness to more adventurous material previously with a rather impressive range that includes “The Truman Show,” “Man on the Moon,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless of the Mind,” and “I Love You Phillip Morris,” but it was “The Bad Batch” that hinted at more audacious experimental proclivities: In that movie, he doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before. If only he could tap into that potential more.
For now, anyone who appreciates Carrey’s penchant for slapstick tinged with sorrow has to make do with “Sonic 2.” Even in a disposable cash grab, his unique screen presence stands out. Yes, I endured it: In the midst of a sophomoric script and CGI that panders to children who would rather be playing the game, Carrey channels some oddball blend of Jacques Tati and German Expressionism. He’s a dynamic blur of energy begging for better filmmakers to mold him with fresh material.
Several agents complained to me that as they face a higher volume of film and TV projects, actors pay minimal attention to new work. Instead, they trust those agents to serve as filters and often don’t even bother to research filmmakers once new jobs are sent their way. Viggo Mortensen allegedly reads every offer, while younger stars like Riz Ahmed and Alicia Vikander track new work that generates buzz, but many would rather outsource that grueling process.
This frequently leads to big names in mediocre projects for baffling reasons — often a hodgepodge of financiers and well-connected figures who got their work in front of the right people. Most actors want to be paid well, but they also want to be taken seriously. That requires looking beyond paydays and middlebrow dramas to riskier options.
Actors — not just their reps — would benefit from experiencing the most exciting new cinema at its earliest gestation phase, aka the festival circuit. It was a screening at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival where Frances McDormand saw Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider,” reportedly said “Who the hell is Chloé Zhao?” as the credits rolled, and sought her out for“Nomadland.” Even Smith’s “King Richard” director Reinaldo Marcus Green emerged from a festival encounter, when Jada Pinkett Smith saw Green’s “Monsters and Men” at Sundance and recommended him for the gig.
As for the Safdies, the enthusiasm of actors who hound them for opportunities — Timothee Chalamet and Pete Davidson among them — reflects more than just an appreciation for “Good Time.” So few auteurist visions reach actors on that level. For that to happen more often, actors need to see more movies.
Nicolas Cage’s upcoming “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” led him to do another round of press about how he justified a hodgepodge of forgettable VOD titles because the money dug him out of a financial hole. In the midst of his very peculiar swings, he worked with Panos Cosmatos on “Mandy” and Paul Schrader on “Dog Eat Dog.” That led to the critically acclaimed “Pig” and now, his first lead role in studio movie in over a decade. A true cinephile, Cage realized he could leverage his visibility to get challenging movies made and that decision won him a new generation of fans.
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
However, actors are often not the best arbiters for which projects suit their strengths. A well-known thespian once told me that he was most inclined to take roles that provided a challenge that could keep him engaged — say, an accent or a tonal shift — rather than the director’s pedigree. Who had time to watch all those new movies, anyway?
While actors don’t always care about the opportunities best suited for them, there’s a lot of finger-pointing about how to get them involved with better material. Agents say filmmakers early in their careers must consider how to accelerate that process with a manger or producer who can get in front of a major agency, or a respected casting director (often cited: Francine Maisler).
The responsibility also lies with established directors. If, say, David Fincher tells his agent he’s willing to serve as an executive producer on a newcomer’s project, that involvement could also help attract name stars.
But there aren’t a lot of those. Agencies continue to be dominated by establishment figures, and no one cares about a career more than the person it belongs to — not even someone who takes 10 percent. There’s no substitute for an actor willing to scour festivals for future collaborators, but the next generation of agents (among them, people who begged me not to put their names in this story) are eager to probe next week’s Cannes lineup for the possibilities. Empowering these voices is good business; filmmaking talent that creates singular work could save name actors from turning into punchlines.
Could festivals curate their lineups to offer satellite VIP screenings at top agencies for the most promising debuts? Perhaps the big three should assemble an ultra-exclusive “actor’s festival” only attended by their peers. These pie-in-the-sky possibilities may hold the key for actors investing serious equity into substantial projects. Everyone stands to benefit from addressing the shortcoming here: filmmakers hustling for their next chapter, projects in need of bankable stars, and the actors themselves.
And on that note, I guess we should address Will Smith. As he settles into a decade-long ban from Academy events and seeing higher-profile projects placed on the backburner, he might consider the nascent filmmakers who would love to take advantage of his talent. His name holds more than enough value to get certain projects made. I know a few filmmakers who might be willing to look past the drama and put him back to work when he could use the vote of confidence, and do some good for the community in the process.
Or maybe the real challenge is that the industry doesn’t ask enough of agencies and actors to pursue better projects. I encourage readers in the know to challenge my assumptions and share their own solutions to the gap between A-list actors and emerging talent: firstname.lastname@example.org
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