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Carrey believes he can be serious

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"The Majestic" is about what it means to be American and reinventing who you are.

No wonder Jim Carrey went for it.

On the surface, the superstar comic may look like he's once again striving for serious actor consideration with this role. He plays a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who loses his memory and is embraced by residents of a 1950s, northern California town as a lost local hero belatedly returned from World War II.

That role, coupled with Carrey's tireless fund-raising efforts (and generous personal donations) in behalf of the survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the Canadian comic's recent revelation that he is applying for U.S. citizenship, could be construed as an effort to become the Bob Hope of his generation.

But a conversation with the 39-year-old Carrey soon reveals a thoughtful sincerity that belies any hint of calculation—and a core seriousness that can make you forget you're talking to the loony Ace Ventura guy.

That's reflected in Carrey's portrayal of "Majestic's" Peter Appleton who, even though he comes with the built-in amnesia gimmick, represents the most naturalistic and restrained performance in Carrey's movie career. It's noticeably less stylized than either of his recent attempts at drama, "The Truman Show's" unsuspecting TV star and "Man on the Moon's" put-on artist, Andy Kaufman.

Carrey characterizes it a little differently, though.

"I'd say it's the least-controlled because, generally, the other things I've done have been 'doing' a lot of stuff to get attention and to effect something happening," Carrey says of the latest job. "This one, it was so important for me to trust that there was enough there. It was very confronting and I was very uncomfortable with it a lot of the time. I had Frank coming in saying 'No, it is enough. It is real.'

"I come from a world where, basically, you're not doing anything unless you're risking your life on the set. This was more about, how does this person make you feel? Don't tell us, just feel it and trust that it's going to be picked up somehow."

Frank is Frank Darabont, director of "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption" — and, therefore, a filmmaker accustomed to dealing with such proven dramatic talents as Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman.

He knew what Carrey needed to do for his movie, and was impressed by how well the actor understood that.

"He has put every trick he knows aside, and he showed up naked for this, ready to completely embrace a non-gimmicky approach to what he does. There are no masks, there are no layers.

"He's gained enormous success from using this incredibly inventive bag of tricks to entertain people," Darabont continues, addressing die-hard skepticism about Carrey's dramatic capabilities. "But what they haven't seen from Jim yet is complete honesty in a performance, which I think this movie provides. I believe they've been wondering if he's capable of just being Jim, this genuine onscreen." Although he feels confident about it, Carrey is clearly uncomfortable being thought of as primarily a funnyman.

"There will be many different types of movies," he insists. "Hopefully . . . So far, I haven't really dealt with pigeonholing. But I have heard people pick up on kind of like a hook every time. 'Can he do the dramatic? Can he do this and that?' I'm a creative guy and I'm an open guy, I can be directed and I'm an intelligent person . . . sometimes."

Another hook that gets tossed out whenever Carrey makes this kind of movie: Will he finally get the Academy Award nomination that's eluded him his whole career? And does he resent the prejudice Oscar voters historically display against comic performances?

He says it doesn't bother him, folks. Really.

"No, not at all," Carrey sincerely insists. "I have so much in my life and so many blessings, I could never even put myself in that place. I do what I love to do. I tell great stories. I get to work with the best people. And it's so diverse, this trip I've fallen into where I can go from 'The Grinch' to this and 'The Truman Show' to 'Me, Myself and Irene' to whatever else.

"It's like a gift that I don't know anybody else has, so I feel tremendously lucky. My life is not about awards or money or any of that, because I've examined those things, which was important to me. When the money and all that started happening, I started saying to myself: Is this why you do this? Do you want to be famous or do you want to (be good)? I mean, I have enough money to live forever, over and over again."

But Carrey, who grew up in a sometimes homeless family on the outskirts of Toronto, does want very much to become a bona fide American now. And although that decision was partially driven by recent events, it comes from a deeply personal place, too.

"I always felt, growing up, that America was a big brother protecting us in the schoolyard. Also, a lot of the things that I loved to watch and was influenced by were American. That was part of the reason why, when the disaster happened, I wanted to get so involved. You don't get opportunities very often in this world to let people know what they did for you.

"And to me, this country defined me. This country allowed my dreams to come true, and I've been treated like I'm one of the gang."

You're welcome. Now, if only we could do something about that love life of yours, we'll feel like mission accomplished.

Carrey has been notoriously unlucky in love since he hit it big. Divorced twice and dogged by short-term romances ever since, the last one with "Irene" co-star Renee Zellweger, Carrey sometimes seems like the living embodiment of the old adage "it's lonely at the top."

"It's not because of my career, necessarily," he reckons, then reconsiders. "Maybe it is. Maybe I focus a lot on that so that becomes the driving force. I don't know what the answer to relationships are. I have no idea. I just know that I am basically a very simple guy and I value a real relationship."

Claiming that he's having fun dating at the moment, Carrey says that he can't allow himself to believe that a potential partner would only be interested in him for his money or power.

"I don't spend a lot of my life trying to figure out what people's intentions are. I let them screw up. If I meet somebody and they come at me with a friendly face that is not a friendly face, ultimately, then that's their hell. I try to trust people right out of the gate, and that's just how I approach it. Otherwise, you get completely paranoid and end up in a room growing your fingernails."

Nice plug for Carrey's next planned dramatic project (following "Dog Years" with Nicole Kidman), a Howard Hughes biopic with the hottest new filmmaker around, "Memento's" Christopher Nolan.

Just one icon of American success—and its potential pitfalls—playing another.

"I like the ingenuity of this country," Carrey explains. "I like the terror of not knowing really what the hell's going to happen to you when you get old. You really have to create something for yourself in this country. And that's what makes it an ingenious place, and also a place full of dreams."