Things can go wrong. Dana Carvey knows this as surely as he feels the permanent ache in his shoulder, the never-healed separation from that time on Saturday Night Live when he was pretending to be Rob Petrie, tripped over the ottoman, and landed more painfully than he’d planned. And then, in 1990, there was that other crash landing, the one that dented his ego so badly he wondered if he could ever again present himself to the public without a wig, an accent, or a cute little signature phrase. Opportunity Knocks was the name of the film. ”Doors slamming shut” was the result.
”I’ve learned a lot about the movie business in the last few years,” says Carvey, now reinstated as potential box office hot stuff by the success of the Wayne’s World franchise. ”For one thing, I’ve learned how easy it is to get into a really bad movie. I also know that I’m better than I was in Opportunity Knocks, but I guess that wouldn’t be too hard. And I’m certainly more cautious about the things that I do.”
So Carvey, older (39), wiser, and in the midst of production on four films with various studios, is being especially careful today, on the set of his new film Clean Slate, wondering aloud about the possible dangers of having a souped-up Chevy truck chase him down a Venice Beach alleyway. The pickup is supposed to career into a row of trash cans, narrowly missing him as he ducks around a corner.
”When do I start running?” Carvey is asking director Mick Jackson, who staged all manner of chase scenes in The Bodyguard and should know about these things. ”Should I go when he’s 15 feet away from me? Ten feet? I mean, he’s just gonna come blasting through, right? What if I don’t make it to the corner in time? I’m dead.”
”At these speeds,” Jackson says dryly, ”yeah.”
”I tell you what,” says Carvey. ”How about if I start running when I get afraid?”
”That should work.”
Carvey leans over to a visitor on the set. ”What you’re about to see isn’t really acting,” he says, speaking softly, the way he almost always does when he isn’t pretending to be a President or a Church Lady. ”What you’re about to see is fear.”
As if, for Carvey, there’s any discernible difference. Despite seven seasons on Saturday Night Live (he left the show in 1993), the sleep-overs at the Bush White House, the big-money talk-show offers, and the parade of upcoming high-profile pictures (including The Road to Wellville with Anthony Hopkins, It Happened in Paradise with Nicolas Cage, and Tucson with old SNL bud Jon Lovitz), he still acts like a guy who isn’t quite sure how he got invited to this great party.
”I tell my brother (Brad, a software designer whose abashed demeanor provided Carvey with some inspiration for Garth) sometimes that it feels like I jumped on a tiger and I don’t know how to get off without being bitten,” says Carvey, obviously delighted to have emerged unscathed from his recent truck chase. ”You start in the clubs and then things happen, the dominos start falling and now I’m here. It all seems kind of surreal.”
In that way, at least, Carvey has something in common with the character he plays in Clean Slate, a detective with a rare disease called Korsakoff’s syndrome that causes him to lose his memory every night when he falls asleep. He doesn’t know who his friends are or who he is supposed to be. He changes his mannerisms to fit the moment. He bluffs, trying to be what he thinks people want him to be.
“This is a character,” Mick Jackson explains, “who’s really adrift, who has to reinvent himself every day. There’s something of that in Dana, something chameleonlike.”
This is not about Carvey putting on airs. In fact, he admits his conversational quick changes mostly stem from his belief that left to his own voice and face, he’s not really that interesting. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife, Paula Swaggerman, and sons Dex, 2, and Tom, 9 months. He stays home and watches TV. He views even his Clean Slate character, who looks and sounds pretty much like the real Dana Carvey, as a separate entity he calls “The Normal Guy.” But why?
“Because,” he says, ” ‘The Normal Guy’ is funnier than me.”
There has already been talk, some of it from Mick Jackson, about how Clean Slate, which opens May 6, will go a long way toward establishing Carvey as a % leading man. That this part, originally developed in 1990 for Robert Redford- yes, Robert Redford-will put him on a path to becoming Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart or even Tom Hanks. This, to Carvey, is a horrifying notion.
“Oh, no, please, I don’t want that,” he says, a look of genuine terror in his eyes. “I don’t want to do anything that makes me look even quasi- glamorous. I think it’s absolute death for a comedian. I don’t see myself as a romantic leading man at all. I just want to be funny.”
What he’d rather be is Peter Sellers, an actor who was as likely to turn up playing a weird character part in someone else’s movie as he was to star in his own. “Not that I’m ready to compare myself to someone like that,” he says. “I’m still learning.”
When he talks about his crowded movie schedule, Dana Carvey sounds almost embarrassed. “It was a long, painful period deciding that I would try films instead of doing a talk show,” Carvey says about NBC’s offer last year to take over Letterman’s old 12:30 time slot. “But I decided that there would probably be another chance to do a talk show later on. There’ll be 300 channels, so we can all have one eventually.”
“I’m not gonna flail in the movie business,” Carvey adds. “It’s not my obsession. If things don’t work out, I’ll go right to a TV show. I just didn’t want to have any regrets because I didn’t give this a try.”