Four years ago, when he was a rising young comic actor thought by many to be on the verge of a career breakthrough, a determined Jim Carrey sat down and wrote himself a check for $10 million.
He scribbled on the bottom of the check, "For acting services rendered," then tucked the check in his wallet. It was one of those admirable but often useless attempts at self-inspiration.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, sitting in his Los Angeles hotel suite, Mr. Carrey twisted around his body to expose his back pocket, which he patted confidently.
"I still have that check today," he said with a sly smile.
The significance of his anecdote, of course, is that Mr. Carrey is now able to cash that check. And the reason he can cash it is that Mr. Carrey, 32, stood Hollywood on its collective ear this year with his surprise hit "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective." The comedy was panned by almost every critic in the country, but it opened big and went on to make $70 million.
Mr. Carrey, best known then as the white male cast member on the mostly black ensemble TV show "In Living Color," made only $350,000 as the star of the movie -- a paltry sum by Hollywood standards. And he already had signed for $450,000 to do his follow-up film, "The Mask," which opens Friday.
But on the strength of "Ace Ventura," Mr. Carrey's agents demanded -- and got -- $7 million for his next film, "Dumb and Dumber." There are rumors of a $10 million payday for an "Ace Ventura" sequel.
"When I wrote that check, it wasn't about the money," Mr. Carrey said. "It was a message to myself that if I was making that kind of money, I
knew I had to be one of the top guys.
"The only worry I have now, with everybody talking about my salary all the time, is that people will start thinking of me as a check and not as a character. I don't want people to be unable to lose themselves in my movies because all they're thinking about is the money I'm being paid.
"I don't want to get to the point where audiences are evaluating whether that last joke was worth what I'm making."
If the pressure of his salary was not enough burden, Mr. Carrey is faced now with the pressure caused by a serious buzz around the movie industry that "The Mask" could be one of the summer's biggest hits. Critics even seem to like this one.
In this case, the film might be worthy of the hype. Mr. Carrey plays the quintessential nice guy, a bank clerk named Stanley Ipkiss, the classic doormat when it comes to women and bosses and auto mechanics and . . . well . . . life.
Then he finds a mysterious, ancient mask that turns him into a superhuman, supercool, snappy-dressing man about town who, with the help of state-of-the-art computer animation, can go where only cartoon characters have gone before.
"Although it was sheer hell putting on the mask every day for four hours, it was so liberating as an actor," Mr. Carrey said. "As actors, we put on masks all the time by assuming our character's identity, but then to be able to put on a mask on top of that mask was exhilarating.
"But I also liked the metaphor inherent in the movie. There is a definite message in there about the masks we all put on every day.
"Everybody wants to be perceived as being so cool that they're untouched by life. Everybody wants to be perceived as Mr. Winner. I'm no different from anyone in that respect."