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When actors go ‘off-message’

About the author

Tom Brook is a New York-based journalist who has reported on film and the movie industry for BBC News since 1985. He has presented Talking Movies on BBC World News since 1999.

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HIDE CAPTION

When a film star like Jim Carrey refuses to promote the movie he appears in – who is to blame? Tom Brook takes a look at both sides of the story.

You can usually count on Hollywood’s well-oiled marketing machine to bring its a stars together to sell a picture. So it can be quite a spectacle when a big player refuses to go by the rules and throws a spanner in the works. That happened when Jim Carrey, star of the superhero action comedy Kick-Ass 2, declared he wouldn’t promote the film that opens in cinemas this week.

Carrey, long an advocate of gun control legislation, was concerned by the fatal Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut last December. The actor told his 11 million Twitter followers: “I did Kick-Ass a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence.”

His announcement caused shock waves in Hollywood because big name stars who are unhappy with their films normally keep their mouths shut – although they sometimes open up afterwards. Christopher Plummer loathed The Sound of Music and subsequently referred to it as “The Sound of Mucus”. Alec Guinness, not a fan of Star Wars in which he appeared as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, described the dialogue as “mumbo jumbo”. 

But a big star like Carrey distancing himself from a picture before its release is highly unusual – and it certainly got people talking. “I don’t remember any actor doing something like this ever before,” says Tim Gray, International Editor at Variety – Hollywood’s oldest industry trade publication. “Jim Carrey said ‘Look, I made this before Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut and now I’m having second thoughts about it.’ So the fact that he did it on principle – I like him for that.”

Carrey’s decision hasn’t pleased Universal Pictures, the studio backing the film. Kick-Ass 2 creator Mark Miller gave his own response online stating: “As you may know Jim is a passionate advocate of gun-control and I respect both his politics and his opinion but I’m baffled by this sudden announcement as nothing seen in this picture wasn’t in the screenplay 18 months ago – yes the body count is very high – but a movie called Kick-Ass 2 really has to do what it says on the tin.”

Among film critics the response to Carrey’s action has in some instances been sympathetic. Screen International reviewer David D’Arcy believes the star’s decision suggests he had come to his senses. D’Arcy argues that unstable gun users often fail to differentiate fiction from everyday life and imitate characters in fiction. “Carrey’s concerns are well-founded,” he says.

While not necessarily supporting his decision to renege on his Kick-Ass 2 promotional commitments, Carrey has support from some of the biggest names in American entertainment who share his distaste for screen violence. When I asked Oprah Winfrey, who’s been promoting her new film The Butler, how she viewed Carrey’s decision she said: “I can only speak for myself, I don’t watch violent films, I certainly could not participate in one, I don’t want to create that kind of energy for myself.”

Breaking the rules

For individuals involved in promoting movies Carrey enjoys less support. New York publicist Ronn Torossian views the stars decision to disassociate himself from the film as “tremendously unorthodox”.

“I think when you take a paycheck,” he says, “you have responsibility to do promotions. I think when you take a paycheck you have a certain responsibility to the business of entertainment.”

Most movie stars do adhere to the rules. Doing publicity is a contractual agreement and whether or not they support Carrey’s actions, most actors see it as their duty. “I feel I have total responsibility to promote a film – I think it’s part of my job,” says the actor Peter Sarsgaard. “I try to be honest when promoting it on whatever level that you can be. There are certainly movies that you like less well than other ones you try to concentrate on the positive.”

The precise details of Carrey’s contract for Kick-Ass 2 aren’t known but it’s almost certain it stated he had an obligation to participate in the film’s promotional activities – but it’s thought unlikely that Universal Pictures will take legal action.

Tim Gray says: “I think it would make them look very bad if they sued him for not doing publicity – they don’t want bad publicity on this film - so I think they’ll let it go – but it’s either contractual – or at least an unspoken law that if they want you to do publicity you’ll do it.”

Show me the money

Some of Carrey’s critics see an element of hypocrisy in his actions – arguing that if he feels so strongly on the issue he shouldn’t hang on to the money he’s made from the film.  “I wonder if he’s donating his salary to charity to show his tremendous dissatisfaction with the movie?” says Torossian. “If he wants to speak out against it then frankly he should give back his salary.”

It’s hard to know what the fallout of Carrey’s disassociation from Kick-Ass 2 will have on the film’s prospects. Kick-Ass creator Mark Miller has been arguing that it’s generated reams of helpful publicity because TV programmes have been discussing the picture and bringing attention to the Kick-Ass franchise.

But some think the film’s box office prospects have been damaged by Carrey’s action. “I don’t think it’s a game-changer I think that it could hurt the movie and I think it could hurt his career as well,” says Torossian.

That’s the big question: Will Carrey now find that producers are less likely to employ him in the future, fearful he’s too much of a wild card and might renege on publicity commitments?

David D’Arcy predicts it “will be hard for his agent to guarantee good behaviour from Carrey, whose career and persona have been based on a character that can’t be controlled. My sense is that Carrey will self-regulate, choosing roles more carefully and self producing.”

Carrey certainly hasn’t lost his ability to engage his followers – and he is a very talented actor. Carrey’s fate in the wake of his Kick-Ass 2 remarks will to some extent be determined by what happens at the box office. As Tim Gray at Variety puts it: “I think in Hollywood the bottom line is, ‘Do you make money?’ So I think for Jim Carrey the more important question for Hollywood is, ‘Is Kick-Ass 2 gonna make money?' And if it is all is forgiven.”

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