Dr. Benjamin Carson is a world-famous Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, author and motivational speaker of considerable renown. This month, he adds Hollywood actor to that resume, but in what is surely a surprising role: playing himself, essentially, in the latest movie by the Farrelly Brothers, those purveyors of such outlandish comic mayhem as Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary.
Come Friday, when Stuck on You opens in Baltimore, audiences will see Carson playing a doctor to conjoined twins (Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear) who, after a lifetime spent a little too close to one another, decide it's time to live their lives separately.
This might be seen as a strange career move for a pediatric neurosurgeon who's basically the world's go-to guy when it comes to separating conjoined twins - hardly the most laugh-inducing of professions.
But Carson, who will attend a sold-out gala premiere of the movie tomorrow at Baltimore's Senator Theatre, describes the new comedy as a "sensitive" one that will help open people's eyes to the difficulties conjoined twins face.
"If it was going to be raunchy or offensive, or degrading or demeaning to anybody, I wasn't going to do it," he said during a brief discussion in his Hopkins office. He'd seen Mary, seen Dumb and Dumber, knew the kinds of movies Peter and Bobby Farrelly make. "This was actually a little different. I think people will be quite touched by it, it's actually quite a sensitive movie."
Baltimore native Bradley Thomas, producer of Stuck on You, was the one who sought Carson for the role. "It didn't completely surprise me, at least it didn't surprise me that he would support the movie. Maybe I was surprised that he would agree to do the movie."
Now that Carson is in it, Thomas expects the surgeon's casting to reap all sorts of benefits - not the least of which is sending a clear signal that the film is not the standard Farrelly Brothers film, filled with humor that could charitably be called moronic.
"I needed a doctor in the movie, so why not get him?" Thomas says over the phone from a film shoot in Austin, Texas. "When I mentioned it, people were laughing at me, they were like, 'I've seen your movies, and there's no way you're going to get Dr. Carson to be in them.' But this is just clearly a different film ... and getting him gives us a sort of validation, if you will, that he saw the same things we saw.
Carson insists Thomas shouldn't have been shocked he agreed to take part. The movie, he says, is not the usual brand of Farrelly Brothers outrage, comedy in which no cow is sacred. Instead, he says, this movie is rather sweet and sympathetic, offering insights into the lives conjoined twins are forced to live.
Rather than being paid for his role, Carson got the filmmakers to agree to premiere the film in Baltimore, with proceeds going to his two charities, the Carson Scholars Fund, which provides scholarships for children in grades 4 to 12, and the BEN Fund, which provides grants to those in need of specialized medical care. Not only did the filmmakers agree, but Damon, Kinnear and the Farrellys are scheduled to be at the Senator tomorrow.
Carson, 53, flew to Miami in April to film his scenes. Shooting took just one day, and he ended up appearing in about three scenes (the movie was not available to be previewed for this story).
In a twist of fate, events just months later thrust Carson into more of an international spotlight than even he'd been used to, and threatened to call into question the wisdom of appearing in a comedy about conjoined twins.
In July, Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins Hospital, assisted a group of doctors in Singapore attempting to separate two 29-year-old Iranian women joined at the head - the first time such surgery had been attempted on adults. The 52-hour operation, which made headlines throughout the world, was unsuccessful; Ladan and Laleh Bijani died within 90 minutes of each other.
"If I had known that was going to happen, I might not" have done the film, Carson says.
Still, he might have gone through with it anyway, he says; to decide otherwise would have been an overreaction. And Stuck on You, Carson believes, might even help people understand why people like the Bijanis, successful, intelligent women with plenty to live for, would be willing to risk everything to be separated.
"Considering what happened with the Bijanis, a lot of people couldn't understand, 'Why would they want to be separated? Why couldn't they live their lives together?' " he said.
What the twins in the movie have to deal with "is not as bad," Carson allows, "but you do get a sense of, 'Wow, life is really different when you have to take into consideration someone else for everything - going to the bathroom, what time to set the alarm clock for, what laundry to wash, where you want to go.' You can never have a moment alone. If you really sat down and thought about that, it's like torture, it really is."
It remains to be seen if Carson's take on Stuck on You is shared by audiences. But Hopkins spokesman Gary Stephenson said officials there trust Carson's judgment when it comes to his participation in the film.
"It's up to each individual to make that decision," he said. "We would hope that they would take into account that [the project] would reflect well on themselves and their position."
Beginning Friday, audiences will get to see Carson playing what he is, a highly skilled neurosurgeon with the ability to make dreams come true for his patients. Only this time, the surgery and its aftermath should involve more laughs than usual.
"Most people who know me, or who have ever heard me speak, know that I do have quite a sense of humor," he says. "I do believe in humor. If people can't stop and laugh sometimes, it's a pretty sad world."