Jim Carrey has played a lot of transcendentally strange characters in his career, always bringing a dark side to the light and mapping a complex landscape of pathos, pleasure, risk, and fiendish discontent. Now this same winter of his discontent is being brought to bear on the current administration in his viciously perceptive drawings of Trump & Co., which he posts on Twitter.
Carrey draws every day, and unlike much of Hollywood, which pats itself on the back at award shows or dons a button on the red carpet for photo ops, he puts his pencil where his passions are — and puts it out there despite dire warnings that being this honest would be “bad” for his career. This hasn’t stopped him at all. Carrey paints as well, but his drawings are much more original and germane. So much so that he may be one of the best public political cartoonists of our moment: an optically aggressive (bordering on bellicose) combination of Robert Crumb, Mad magazine, Jules Feiffer, and Philip Guston, fueled by outrage and his own indignant imagination.
On the occasion of his large solo show of drawings at Maccarone Gallery in Los Angeles, I spoke to Carrey before a packed audience about his work, our current political crisis, and how he is an artist in his own right, not just a “celebrity artist.”
Jump to Jim Carrey’s Works:
Jerry Saltz: I don’t want to talk to you about movies, acting, TV, or Hollywood. I want to talk about how we all play our own instrument, how we’re all just trying to write our own “letter to the world.” It strikes me as silly and confining to have gatekeepers, for example, to call one just an actor or only a comedian. I want to ask you about your drawings and texts on Twitter. I love them. As twisted, bleak, gaudy, inflicted, indignant, and furious as they are.
Jim Carrey: Pain bodies that have to point themselves at something.
Let’s talk about what I call radical vulnerability. You’re known as an actor-comedian. Now you’re making art in another medium, really putting yourself out there in another way. What’s that like?
I don’t work toward the encouragement of the crowd as much as I do myself. If I feel like I’ve accomplished something interesting, I know it’s going to find somebody because me as actor-comedian and someone who draws is not that different. Art is a very vulnerable, open soft spot, and you lay yourself open to be criticized, ripped apart, told you should stay in your lane, and I’ve never believed in lanes.
Can I get an amen!
I believe that passion wins out, that there’s a driving force behind artists, a force in need of expressing, a feeling or sense of what’s beautiful, pressing, or what’s terrible, and we are driven to distraction. Those are forces that I feel compel an audience. And artists. Things you can’t avoid saying.
Jasper Johns said we must do what we “can’t avoid.”
It’s like James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. He says the greatest of art, the masterpieces, are the ones that stop you. It causes a stasis in your brain. Stops time and makes it last longer. There’s no judgment to be made. That’s what I’m looking forward to one day, stumbling into something because my heart, my soul, and my talent for the craft is in a place where they all come together and capture something that can’t be described.
You just showed around 80 of your drawings at the Los Angeles gallery of Michele Maccarone. What was it like at the opening with you standing there with your art on the wall. Exposed?
I couldn’t believe it. I stood in the middle of the show and I looked around, and the sheer volume of it freaked me out. I said, “I couldn’t have done this!” That’s because the passion and the need and the desire behind it was bigger than me.
I think that you mean that even though all the demons inside of you were speaking to you the whole time, driving you on and trying to stop you with attacks of “This is bad; this doesn’t matter; no one is going to like this” — and, like all artists, you started working.
I live with those demons. They’re my palette. They’re a part of my cavalcade of characters. They’re everything. To me, this separation of arts is funny, because there’s definitely something to somebody who’s grown up in the art world and been schooled and knows how to mix paint and knows the history. You are with what you do. You do it with words now whereas you used to do it with art.
But I failed.
Well, [gesturing to Saltz] he wrote a Pulitzer-winning article that was so self-effacing and open and honest and incredible that he bridged a gap. You’re a bridge because you’re an artist and you understand an artist. All you really want is to allow people over that same bridge, to help people to the next level.
I like some of your stuff.
Really? I like some of your stuff.
Yeah. That’s all we can ever hope for, man.
What’s your daily practice like in drawing and painting?
I thought it would go away when I went back to work as an actor. Like, Okay, well this energy is now gonna go into the other thing. But I can’t stop drawing. If I wanted to stop, I couldn’t.
All artists say that. They can’t not do what they’re doing.
The hard part for me is stopping long enough to take care of the business of my life because once I get started, all plans go away. I’m free and that’s what art is for me. It’s presence and freedom in presence. I think the greatest works of art in the world are examples of an artist’s absolute presence touching the canvas. When the brush hits the canvas or you’re sculpting clay, in that moment you’re hitting the pond with a rock and the wave goes outward and doesn’t stop.
On Twitter, you combine text and images. How does that work?
When I first started playing on Twitter like everybody else, I just got myself in trouble all the time because I was honest, which is a terrible thing to be on Twitter. I became kind of an activist when it comes to a lot of things that I was seeing. There was a lot of pressure from my management: “Don’t mess this up. You’ve got goodwill in the world. People love you. You start talking about politics or whatever issues, you’re gonna lose half your audience.” I say: lose them.
Wow! That’s great! I’ve read so many actors saying they can’t express what they really think because their careers will crash. I understand that, but I hate it too.
If 30 percent or 37 percent of this country isn’t willing to open their mind to what’s going on and see what’s right in front of them, this political demon that’s controlling us at this moment and his minions, then there’s no helping them. You just have to go your way and say your piece and your truth and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
So you draw and tweet. Boom! Like that?
There was a pressure to stop, and the first thing I did, which I think was really smart, was give my Twitter to one of my assistants, so I wouldn’t make that rash choice in the middle of the night like our president.
Did you draw today?
I did. If you’d want to indulge me, I could send one out right now while we’re all here. [Sends Tweet.] Okay, if you want to look at your phones, something’s going to show up. I think one of the greatest enemies of our democracy is the subject of this tweet.
Let’s see — okay, it’s here! Oh my God. It’s Mitch McConnell. And what is the text on this one?
There’s no text on this tweet because I didn’t think it was necessary. Here he’s in front of a blue wave and is depicted as a turtle. The nerve of a man who’s been trying to destroy everything with compassion, everything that we’ve tried to do that’s good for this country. He made us hate each other. He’s a poison in our system and we have to purge. And he has the nerve after all of it, after trying to destroy everything Barack Obama did that was good, after trying to take the health care and give tax breaks to the rich, to come out a couple days ago and ask for bipartisanship.
These are not people you can deal with. You cannot be bipartisan with a criminal. A rapist needs to be removed, not negotiated with. And these people are raping our system. They’re destroying it blatantly in front of us and they have to go. Trump is a melanoma and anybody who covers for him, including Sarah Sanders, is putting makeup on it. The de-emphasizing education, all of it, they’re trying to take our conscientiousness. Whatever you’re told by Fox News and the National Enquirer at the cashier in the supermarket — it’s misinformation. It’s Goebbels, man.
When I write all day, I actually have far-right-wing radio on in the background. I use it as adrenaline. Do you?
They’re always angry. When Bush was president, they were pissed off for eight years, then when Obama was president, they were pissed off. Now they control all the branches of government, the Supreme Court, and their Murdoch-owned media network is massive and in the tank for Republicans!
They did everything but hang Obama on the freaking White House lawn and it’s sickening to me. After watching the far-right-wing yellers and Fox News I burn my clothes and take a hot shower.
Do you follow the president’s Twitter account? I do. But I got blocked by Donald Trump Jr.!
That’s great! But fuck no, I don’t follow Trump. It’s sickening.
Back to the drawings. They’re done in heat, with real passion. They’re fast, but I have to say, your line is very controlled. I see that you go back over things, use Wite-Out very well. Is that what you’re doing? No one uses that stuff anymore. You draw and then rip them out of the notebook. A lot of artists get very precious and keep the notebook. So you draw every day.
I do what I used to do when I was a little kid. From the age of 5 till 10, I spent most of my time in my room. I did go out and play, but my room was heaven to me and that feeling of “I’m gonna figure out the universe in here.” The fantasy was “I’m going to do some poetry and then try to get it published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson. I’m gonna get on The Carol Burnett Show,” so I’m doing impressions and coming up with stuff like that. If someone interrupted my drawing when I was a child, I would have a conniption and break things because I was in the metaphysical womb. As soon as I put a pencil on a page, I’m right back at 8 years old, only now I’m dealing with something really serious, but in a way that keeps me in my youth. I feel really gifted by it.
Was there art in your life, your father or your mother? Because it seems to me there had to be. I don’t know anything about your life.
The amazing gift of this whole thing as well is that — and pardon me if I get misty here — my father was an incredible clown and amazing human being whom if you talked to for five minutes, you knew him for 50 years. He’d do anything for you. Just lovely, incredible, funny. I watched him perform and I thought, That’s a good thing to do. He wrapped people in our home every time they visited. They would leave with pee stains. He handed me all that talent, that ability to perform. Then I realized one day, right in the middle of creating something, that Oh my gosh, I’m with my mother now.
What do you mean?
She used to get up in the middle of the night and take these pastels out and have her private world painting and drawing in the middle of the night without three kids screaming at her. She would get lost in her little paintings of tigers and giraffes and things she’d put up in our room the next day. It was her peaceful time and she had a great talent for it. Both of them gave me these incredible gifts.
[To the audience] You want to see some of the art right now? Okay:
The date on this one is August 10 of this year. What’s going on here?
Well, I was struck by the insincerity of Mike Pence. His face is the most insincere thing I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s squinting his eyes trying to look like he loves you. It’s a hospitality face. “What can I do to help you? Let me hold your wallet.” That’s him trying to sell us the idea of Space Force.
Not since Saturday morning cartoons, you know what I mean? Is Space Ghost gonna be there? My gosh, the Jetsons.
Next image please.
This is my Halloween photo. To me, the right wing is a gargoyle cyclops. It only sees in two dimensions. For the right wing it’s usually “What can I have? What can I get? How can I fuck-over these people and get it for myself? Who do I resent?” To me that’s a very narrow field of vision to live in, so I depicted Trump as a cyclops on Halloween. There’s no perception going on there.
The one-eyed certainty of the right wing. Any issue is either right or wrong. Absolute good or bad. They know for certain. The left believes in paradox, multitudes, contradictions that we all live with all day. That more than one thing can be true at once.
We’re dying to negotiate with someone reasonable. It’s like the left coming out instantly after the midterms saying, “Let’s be bipartisan.” Well, guess what? Nope. Not with these guys. They don’t roll that way. You gotta get rid of these guys. They’re criminals. They gotta go. And speaking of the midterms: It felt like a star was born, Beto O’Rourke, a smart, decent guy who very nearly turned Texas blue. There are great things in store for this budding Mr. Smith.
I’ve conducted my own straw polls, asking progressives which candidate they prefer. People are all over the map with no consensus at all. Which is fine, I guess, although I admit it makes me get ants in my pants.
I know there’s a chance that Hillary might want to run again and there’s conflict about that. I don’t think she would be a bad president. I have no problems. I believe that she knows what she’s doing, but the fact that people are so conflicted about her whether — right or wrong — is a problem and that will lose votes, will lose moderates and swing votes, and I’m sorry. I would love to see Beto and Kamala Harris. I think she’s fantastic. I think he’s a really incredible guy, and I would really love in this decade to be able to vote for somebody who isn’t the lesser of the evils.
Like most left-wing people, all I really know about O’Rourke is the few answers I saw him give at Texas town halls.
I need to hear what he has to say. I like his energy a lot. It’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. One of my favorite movies growing up. There’s Jimmy Stewart.
Speaking of which, here’s a drawing of yours of Jimmy Stewart right here!
That’s when Jimmy was fighting for the truth and that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re in that movie. Every day when Trump opens his mouth, it’s like they wheeled in a bunch of mail that’s been faked. Every time you get a little bit of fresh air, they fuck it up. They taint it with some other outrageous thing.
During the fires in California Trump blamed the state, basically Tweeting, It’s your fault you’re on fire because you jerks didn’t rake good enough.”
Yeah, that was sickening. A terrible, terrible way to do business. First of all, Trump bankrupted everything he’s ever done. Seven times. What makes anybody in this country think he’s not gonna do the same to us financially, eventually, and morally?
Since you mention corrupting morally and everything Trump touching dying, here’s an image of Mayor Giuliani:
Giuliani Doesn’t Bleach the Bottom Teeth
The guy that doesn’t have presence of mind enough to dye the bottom teeth. His mouth is the whole administration in a nutshell. [Audience applause and laughter.] It’s fake top teeth that shine like diamonds and just this rotten, diseased root-canal central down there. It’s just eating him from within. Tooth decay can cause heart attack and insanity. I think that explains everything.
Just outside the room we’re in is Stan Lee’s star on Hollywood Boulevard. Did you study his work or Mad magazine?
Of course. I used to go into this variety store, and I was the kid at the magazine rack trying to fold the secret back-cover page together to find out what the reveal was — and getting yelled at by the guy behind the counter. I lived for that.
Now here’s a great drawing of Trump as an escape artist:
The Great Spewdini
It feels so accurate!
Spewdini. Yes, the great Spewdini who spews lies. I mean thousands of documented lies in two years doesn’t lie. How does a human soul do that to themselves? I get sick of even the thought that this guy’s somehow untouchable. He is beatable. He will be beat. Because we’re better than him.
This next drawing is really interesting to me because it exists in three different times if you look very carefully at it:
Capitalism With a Conscience
The closest in the foreground is the present, Colin Kaepernick kneeling. Then the two figures in the middle ground giving the Black Power salute are the American Olympic athletes who of course were hated for this in the late 1960s. In the background is Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin. A great composition.
There was a big show-off moment for the Aryan race. Owens just kicked their ass, and that’s what they’re afraid of.
Hitler walked out.
Busted right through that swastika man. That was a beautiful moment in history. It sickens me that we still have to be here. How long have we even existed with such racial hatred? In America? We still can’t get over each others’ fucking skin color? African-American people gave me my career. They gave me my break. They encouraged me and welcomed me. The community has incredible grace in the face of this cancerous hate. I don’t know how they haven’t burned this country to the ground.
When I went to your show at the Michele Maccarone Gallery, I walked around and asked viewers two questions: “Do you usually go to galleries? What do you think of this work?”
Accosting people as they came in. Jim “Acosta-ing” them.
Bada boom. First person I asked said, “These give me incredible comfort. They show how angry I am.” That was really moving. The next person said, “These drawings are showing the other side, how we see them. I hope they can see our pain.” Another person said, “These are devastatingly on point about America.” I found Republicans and they too were touched by your drawings. They didn’t say you were some “libtard.” None of these people went to galleries regularly. All of them could access your work in fairly complex ways. Jim, I wish you would come on to Instagram. There’s more love there!
Instagram is owned by Facebook. I will not be on Instagram. We need to stop these billionaires from destroying our culture. They have no conscience whatsoever and what they did in the 2016 election is just unconscionable and should be punished. I don’t think it’s enough to go “Okay, let’s just regulate them.” We need to regulate them for sure. Billionaires. Shouldn’t you be putting your money into the country?
To people who need it. Flint, Michigan, rape kits, education, things like that. Why can’t we take care of ourselves? Elon Musk wants to make a rocket ship to Mars. He better make room for the billionaires, man, because if they stick around here much longer this way, their heads are gonna be on sticks.
One last question for you: Who is the hardest Trump administration character to draw, and why?
They’re all hard to draw, because if I’m drawing them, it means they’re still there. And when I say “there,” I mean standing in the way of progress.
*A version of this article appears in the January 21, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!