Paul Giamatti doesn’t think much about it these days, but nearly 15 years and 55 screen credits later, a mention of the movie Man on the Moon instantly triggers a bewildered laugh and comically exaggerated head shake.
During a conversation with BuzzFeed earlier this week pegged to his new movie All Is Bright, he was happy to divert to that bizarre moment in time.
“It was a very strange experience. It was one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had making a movie, to be honest with you,” he said of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic, which starred Jim Carrey as the late performance artist/comedian. “It was just wacky. Jim was wacky during it. He did this whole thing where he was Andy Kaufman all the time when he was on set and when he was in the costume, and was Tony Clifton all the time when he was Tony Clifton.”
Clifton was one of Kaufman’s alter egos, a boisterous third-rate Vegas lounge singer with a purposely repulsive personality. Kaufman would appear in heavy makeup and prosthetics to play the bloated, chain-smoking Clifton at various shows, sometimes as his own opening act. When the public began to catch on, Kaufman’s creative partner Bob Zmuda — the man who Giamatti played in the film — took over the part so that Kaufman could appear alongside Clifton on stage, further tripping up the audience.
Carrey’s method acting as Kaufman, an early SNL cast member who was known for his work on Taxi and public provocations like wrestling women, was well documented. The time he spent pretending to be Clifton, however, is a lesser-known and perhaps more intriguing detail about the film’s production.
“When he was Tony Clifton, he had cheese — Limburger cheese — in his pockets so he smelled horrible,” Giamatti explained. “And he’d constantly be hugging people, and he had it all over his hands and stuff. It was disgusting. He was touching people and making them shake his hands all the time. He smelled horrible. Like, really bad. It was just weird. And that’s the least of it.”
Giamatti got to play Clifton as well, so that they could re-create the onstage bait-and-switch, though his pockets were without cheese lining.
The real Zmuda, whom Giamatti called “an amazing guy and real weird character,” was on set throughout the production of director Milos Forman’s movie, as were several other more unexpected guests.
“Jim was bringing weird people; there was a day that he brought like 20 or 30 Hell’s Angels to the set,” Giamatti recalled. “They hung around for a couple days. Nice guys, but it was like, I don’t know, just a bunch of Hell’s Angels hanging around.”
The company must have inspired him, as Carrey won a Golden Globe for his all-in performance in Man on the Moon.
Kaufman’s mystique and penchant for pranking the public in a pre-internet era was such that when he was said to have died in 1984 of lung cancer at just 35 years of age, many fans and conspiracy theorists believed it was all a joke, and that he’d come back to reveal as much months or years later. In fact, Kaufman once allegedly discussed pulling off such a feat, and to this day, some people think he will return, even more than 30 years later.
And Giamatti doesn’t think those people are all that crazy.
“For the longest time, I thought, It seems too weird, and I don’t think he’s actually dead,” Giamatti said. “At this point he’d be pretty old — well, not that old — but chances are he could have actually died now. But I remember when it first happened with him, I was like, No, he’s not actually dead. And for a long time, even when we were doing this movie, I was like, Yeahhh, he’s gonna pop up during this movie.”