Jim Carrey loves scaring kids. He's played the Grinch in "Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the Riddler in "Batman Forever," the maniacal superhero...

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LOS ANGELES — Jim Carrey loves scaring kids. He’s played the Grinch in “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the Riddler in “Batman Forever,” the maniacal superhero in “The Mask” — and now he’s the sinister Count Olaf in “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

“I remember when I was a kid just loving creepy movies that scared me and at the same time were funny,” says Carrey. “I remember ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ with that … Children Catcher, who was trying to entice kids out with candy and kidnap them. There were crazy characters that were really scary. Bill Sykes in ‘Oliver!’ — that’s not a funny movie, but I love those characters.”

Now he’s recreating the nemesis of three orphaned children from a series of books that rivals “Harry Potter” in popularity. In the “Lemony Snicket” series, Olaf takes custody of the children and then tries to kill them in order to inherit their parents’ fortune. Carrey says in a press conference that he modeled the character after a little bit of Orson Welles, a bit of the cartoon cereal box character Count Chocula, and bit like a bird of prey. Physically, however, he turned out a bit more familiar.

“I turned out looking like my dad, actually, which is really freaky,” he says, pointing out that his family also noticed the resemblance of the older bald sharp-nosed Olaf. “He’s kind of like the funny uncle who gets a little drunk at Christmastime and then turns in the middle of the night. I wanted the danger to be real.”

For Carrey, playing dress-up is like Christmas every day. “I love transforming — it’s like Christmas morning to me,” he says, wearing an uncharacteristic black suit with a blue striped shirt. (He says he’s going somewhere important after the interview.)

“You get into the make-up trailer and you start playing around with things and throwing pieces together. At one point we had a Don King wig on backwards strapped to the back of my head and I look like a … hood ornament from a Chevy, it was weird. But we experimented, we came up with 30 different characters that didn’t get into the movie. The whole process is exciting. It’s such a fun thing to masquerade, period.”

Joining his masquerade in the film are Jude Law, Meryl Streep, Timothy Spall, Jennifer Coolidge, Cedric the Entertainer and British comedian Billy Connolly, who plays another distant relative who’s a snake expert and always has a big huge python around his neck.

“Jim would always try to improvise something,” Connolly recalls, remembering how in one scene Carrey picked up a snake wrangling stick and putted around a piece of paper using live turtles as obstacles, as if on a miniature golf course. “It was just lovely to see his mind work that way and we all would collapse into laughter.”

The children were played by “Road to Perdition’s” Liam Aiken, “Ned Kelly’s” Emily Browning and 2-year-old twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman, who alternated as the youngest child, Sunny. Browning says Carrey ate sardines and made his breath disgusting on purpose before shooting scenes with them.

“He always tried to crack us up, and scare us too,” Browning says. “Gosh, if they put all the outtakes together on the DVD there’d be seven more hours of the movie.”

Carrey says he’s sad that so many extra characters he created never were used in the film, and hopes for that reason he may be asked to reprise his role in a sequel.

“There was a lot of improvisation, there’s a ton of stuff that’s not in the movie that is really funny, I have to kill babies,” he pauses, thinking that someone may think his character does that in the film. He deadpans, “They call it killing babies in Hollywood, where the baby’s got to die. I didn’t really, actually kill a baby, let’s get that straight, it’s a figurative baby, a funny joke baby.”

This year, his other baby in theaters was the romantic drama “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which he says forced him into his deepest emotional moments on film. “The feeling of loss that the character was going through allowed me to be less accessible as a person on film,” he says. “Generally, I play fairly colorful characters who come out of the screen and this one was inviting you to come in.”

Happy with his eclectic career, he says, “From ‘Truman Show’ to ‘Ace Ventura’ to ‘Eternal Sunshine’ to this, it’s just more than anybody could ever ask for as far as diversity. I shaved my head like I did for ‘Man on the Moon,’ but I added big, long and curly fingernails.”

Coming up, he’s signed to do a big-screen version of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” a remake of “Fun With Dick and Jane” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” His wide variety of character ranges represent two sides of himself.

“I think the two me’s are definitely meeting in the middle in some respects. I seem to have tripped into a time in my career where I have such a diversity of roles, so I feel incredibly lucky.”

He doesn’t watch his movies much, but recently caught “The Mask” when flipping through the TV late one night. “I watched it for a few minutes and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is pretty cute. It’s fun.’ But what I really want to do is destroy show business,” he laughs.

He certainly has shaken things up in show business from the days when he was doing stand-up comedy. He recalls parking along Mulholland Drive to look over Hollywood years ago and writing himself a $10 million check in order to put that energy out to the world.

“I wrote that check and I stuck it in my pocket and it stayed there for years, it was check made out to ‘Jim Carrey for acting services rendered,’ for $10 million,” he says. Now, he commands double that per film. His dad still has the check and hasn’t cashed it.

“I don’t think of myself as changing the world with this stuff, but I know that people can enjoy themselves for a couple of hours,” Carrey says. “I think kids get that I’m playing a part, and that it’s for the movie, and that I’m not a dastardly guy who murders children.”

His most important young audience member these days is his 17-year-old daughter Jane.

“My daughter is so hip, and also so perceptive that you really can’t get away with anything but being yourself around her,” Carrey says. “Jane is so quick, I just go, ‘Whoa, you just cut right through it, didn’t you?’ That’s what’s great about these books. It gives kids the credit they deserve.”

With that, Carrey reveals why he is so dressed up. It’s not for the press. It’s not for his film, which is opening nationally Friday.

“I have a recital at my daughter’s school to get to,” Carrey says, getting up to dash out the door. “That’s my big day today.”

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