Directed by Ron Howard and featuring a delightfully manic turn by Jim Carrey, 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas was Hollywood’s first live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss‘ iconic children’s book. With his trademark rubber face and chameleon-like nature as a performer, Carrey was the perfect actor to play the titular curmudgeon. However, bringing such a character to the big screen proved to be one of the toughest challenges of his prolific and varied career. Enduring months under the legendary Rick Baker‘s ingenious yet unforgiving makeup, Carrey reached his physical and mental limits, leading producer Brian Grazer to devise an unorthodox strategy to help the ailing actor get through the film’s arduous production.

Jim Carrey is no stranger to acting with extensive makeup and prosthetics. For his performances in The Mask and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, he spent hours in the makeup chair to have his physical likeness altered and enhanced to the point that he was nearly unrecognizable. But nestled between those films was How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a notably more intense kind of experience that Carrey likened to “being buried alive every day.”

According to the actor, his first day of work in the Grinch makeup required eight and a half hours, proving so logistically difficult that he kicked a hole in the wall of his trailer and was on the verge of quitting the film. Several factors contributed to his extreme discomfort, not least of which was the Grinch suit’s yak hair that retreated inward and irritated his skin. Carrey also had to don facial prospects and large, green contact lenses, with the latter proving so painful that some shots required digital effects to change his eye color. “We basically mummified him with prosthetics and contact lenses in his eyes the size of Frisbees,” Brian Grazer remembers. “Then we made him breathe in synthetic snow all day long.”

Carrey wasn’t the only frustrated person on set. Renowned makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, who’d later win Oscars for his work on Darkest Hour and Bombshell, also nearly quit the film after finding himself in the cross-hairs of the actor’s volatile mood early in production. Tsuji remembers, “Once we were on set, he was really mean to everybody and at the beginning of the production they couldn’t finish. After two weeks we only could finish three days’ worth of shooting schedule, because suddenly he would just disappear and when he came back, everything was ripped apart. We couldn’t shoot anything.” But after some negotiation, Carrey committed to controlling his temper and he and Tsuji made amends. Meanwhile, thinking outside the box, Brian Grazer sought the assistance of a uniquely specialized advisor on Carrey’s behalf.

After resigning to the notion that bringing The Grinch to the screen would be no walk in the park, Jim Carrey worked with a man who was, according to the actor, “trained to teach C.I.A. operatives how to endure torture.” Discussing his experience on The Graham Norton Show, Carrey remembered receiving the following instructions: “Eat everything you see. And if you’re freaking out and you start to spiral downward, turn the television on, change a pattern, have someone you know come up and smack you in the head, punch yourself in the leg, or smoke. Smoke as much as you possibly can.” An actor has likely never received such direction before or since, but the unusual approach to coping with agonizing discomfort proved effective for Carrey. Though he was undoubtedly struggling at the time, the notion of him chain-smoking, punching himself in the leg, and being smacked in the head while in full Grinch makeup is hilarious in hindsight. And as he’d recall years later, he held onto an equally comical yet noble mantra through his performative woes: “It’s for the kids. It’s for the kids. It’s for the kids.”

The fact that Jim Carrey was struggling wasn’t lost on Ron Howard. “I felt like it was the Spanish Inquisition, and I was the Inquisitor,” he’d later confess. “I could tell that the costume and, you know, especially the contact lenses were just tormenting Jim.” Howard also remembered Carrey suffering panic attacks and calming himself by breathing into a paper bag between takes. Looking for an opportunity to prove his sense of sympathy for Carrey, Howard spent a day directing in full Grinch makeup. “It was terrible. It was itchy. And I didn’t even have to have the contact lenses, which made it worse,” he said of the experience.

Howard also enlisted the help of an old friend to lift Carrey’s spirits. Though they hadn’t seen each other in years, the director reached out to his former co-star on The Andy Griffith Show, Don Knotts, whom Carrey admired. “Would you come over and hang out on the set one day?” Howard asked Knotts. “Jim Carrey idolizes you, and he’s going through hell on this project.” In an act of generosity, Don Knotts visited the set on Universal’s backlot. Upon learning that one of his idols was present, Carrey immediately began impersonating Knotts, to the delight of the cast and crew. “I wish I’d had the camera rolling,” Howard said. “Jim is a genius impressionist, and he did a perfect Don Knotts in the Grinch costume.”

Though How the Grinch Stole Christmas is undeniably impressive on a technical level and has become a holiday staple for family viewing, the film received mixed reviews upon release, with detractors taking issue with its perceived tonal inconsistency, muddled storytelling, and reliance on more adult-oriented humor. But even among those who didn’t care for the film, there was no denying that Carrey’s turn as the titular character was a virtuoso piece of acting. In his largely unenthusiastic two-star review, Roger Ebert championed Carrey as a performer “who works as hard as an actor has ever worked in a movie,” while Paul Clinton of CNN praised him as a “capering genius” who was “born to play this role.” Having suffered for months under torturous yet top-notch makeup that would earn designers Rick Baker and Gail Rowell-Ryan an Oscar, Carrey’s commitment ultimately paid off with a Golden Globe nomination, some of the highest box office numbers of his career, and a solid performative foundation that an otherwise mediocre adaptation rested on. And what a strange thought, in hindsight, to wonder what may have been had the C.I.A. not come through in the clutch.

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