Why Is Funnyman Ben Stiller Not Laughing?
Behind the actor's comic persona is an astute, driven filmmaker who cites Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro as his idols, fights for aid to Haiti and struggles to find balance in the midst of his empire-building: "It's very easy not to stop and feel things."
Spend time with Ben Stiller, and his seriousness is striking. The actor who played the moronic model of 2001's Zoolander; the neurotic nerd of Meet the Parents and its sequels; the hapless suitor who famously gets his private parts trapped in his fly in the picture that propelled him to stardom, 1998's There's Something About Mary, is in real life unnervingly different.
Highly intelligent, deeply driven, he will tell you about the vaunted tomes he is reading but hardly ever cracks a joke.
"I never thought I'd go into comedy," he admits. "I wanted to be a serious filmmaker. My heroes were Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese." He adds, "I don't think of myself as funny."
In front of the camera, though, Stiller has perfected a comic brilliance as Hollywood's awkward straight man.
On the Atlanta set of Fox's upcoming Neighborhood Watch -- about a group of suburban dads who discover that aliens have infiltrated the world -- he plays the same scene over and over one afternoon on Oct. 13, his fourth day into the shoot, allowing fellow actor Will Forte as a cartoonlike cop to get all the laughs. He never loses his intense focus.
"You know those kids who egged you?" Forte barks, poking his nose right in Stiller's face as they stand outside a modern McMansion. "One of them got killed and skinned alive! Every time someone gets killed and skinned alive, you're around! Maybe you're a homicidal maniac?"
"I -- I'm not," Stiller protests feebly.
The lines seem straightforward, but Stiller, 45, underplays them in just the right way, the perfect contrast to the cop's outrageousness, making the technicians struggle not to laugh.
Stiller does the segment again and again, only occasionally making small talk with the crew, unfazed by the horde of locals gaping at him. He waves to them just once, sending a teenage girl into a paroxysm of joy. "Did you see that?" she shrieks. "He looked at me. He looked at me!"
If Stiller did, he's barely aware of it, so intent is he on his work. While the girl goes into hysterics, he does the scene once more, without any attempt to tell others how to do their job -- not even the relatively untested director Akiva Schaffer -- though the star is himself a far more experienced helmer, who leans toward that more than acting.
So where is the famously controlling Stiller in all this, the man whose endless quest for perfection has led him to keep a tight rein on many of the projects he's involved with?
"He drives me f--ing crazy," laughs one colleague, referring to Stiller's desire for control. "But he's brilliant with artists, with why a script works and why it doesn't."
Stiller shrugs off his perfectionist reputation. "As you get older, you realize you can't control anything, and giving up control can be freeing," he says. Then he grins and admits, "It's something I'm still working at."
Sitting in his custom-built silver trailer at the end of the day, under a framed poster of Sweet Smell of Success, Stiller has all the trappings of any A-list comic mogul -- but without his peers' compulsion to make you laugh.
Like Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler, he belongs to that rarefied clan whose name alone can get a project greenlighted. He writes (Tropic Thunder, Zoolander), directs (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy), produces (through his Fox-based Red Hour Films) and, of course, acts -- often receiving a salary in the $15 million to $20 million range -- as he did in Universal's Tower Heist, which opens Nov. 4.
Director Brett Ratner developed the project for two and a half years, initially running with co-star Eddie Murphy's idea, centered on a cast of all African-American comedians, before taking it in a different direction because the script was too much like Ocean's Eleven.
The action-comedy tells the story of a group of apartment building employees who turn the tables on the multimillionaire who's fleeced them, robbing him themselves. Ratner approached Stiller while he was shooting Little Fockers, when the screenplay had changed and the cast had become more diverse.
He loved the concept, read the script and immediately said, "I'm in!" But he had little control over Heist, which he didn't produce; indeed, Ratner says that when he showed Stiller the finished film, he didn't even ask for any changes -- one of several things about Stiller that surprised him.
"Going toe-to-toe with Eddie Murphy got my attention," Ratner says. "I thought, 'Wow, this guy is really up there. He's one of the best in the world.' "
The shoot started in November 2010 and went through mid-February. It included staging an elaborate re-creation of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade over six blocks of New York. All this Stiller handled with characteristic commitment.
"He never walks through anything," Ratner says, noting the star even spent time in Astoria, Queens, where his character lived, going there over and over to figure out what his character would wear, how he might speak -- everything to make him real. "I like that," says Ratner. "I like someone who wants to win."
"It was freezing cold a lot of the time," Stiller remembers, eating carrots in his scrupulously tidy trailer, brown diamond tiles lining the walls and a stark black-and-white photo hanging nearby. Indeed, the shoot took place during the coldest winter in New York in years. It also meant spending several days hanging vertically in a car dangled four stories above the ground -- a lot less fun than his hobbies, playing the drums and plunging into the ocean in Hawaii, where he keeps a home. "Try doing that for hours on end," he quips.
Ratner's decision to produce the Oscars and have Murphy host came well after shooting wrapped. Stiller approves. "He'll be great," he says of his co-star. "You need someone who knows how to be a stand-up comic. I don't." That may explain why he says he's turned down hosting the awards show in the past.
He rarely feels a comedian's almost pathological need to joke around, except for dark flashes of humor that can get him in trouble -- as in 1999, when he told GQ magazine he was bipolar. He can now be found all over the web as one of the famous people who suffers from that illness.
"I said it flippantly," he insists. "I definitely regret saying it because it's not true. The context it was said in was joking and the writer intentionally put it out there as a real thing."
He's clearly irritated by that account, an unusual moment when his self-control is ruffled. He much prefers to talk about less personal things, such as the books he's been reading recently, among them David Yallop's account of the year in which Pope John Paul I died, In God's Name; and James L. Swanson's Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase to Catch Lincoln's Killer.
But the actor's thoughtfulness shouldn't mask his appreciation for comedy or the sheer, unflagging will power that has led him to create an enormous body of work -- with a total global box office of $5.1 billion.
He's also been a key force behind art house pictures like the Noah Baumbach drama Greenberg and stage plays including John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, which he performed on Broadway this year, returning him to the vehicle in which he first made his mark 25 years ago.
"He is a maniacal worker with an incredible ethic and is very, very serious about wanting to be great," says producer Scott Rudin, a frequent collaborator. "And he wants everybody to be at the same level as him."
Noting that Stiller exerted his leverage with Universal to get Greenberg financed in exchange for starring in Little Fockers, Rudin adds: "Who else has used his stardom to get better stuff done than him? He puts himself at risk in every other job. He has no fear."
Where this fearlessness comes from remains a mystery, perhaps to Stiller himself. "That I don't know," he says. "I couldn't tell you. I never thought, 'Oh, I have a drive.' I just looked at it as doing what I wanted to be doing."
Two decades after moving to Los Angeles, the actor uprooted his family in December and left L.A. for New York, buying a $10 million duplex in the very Upper West Side building where he grew up and where his parents, comics Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, still live.
"For years, Christine [his wife, actress Christine Taylor] and I were talking about going back east and letting the kids have that experience," he explains. "I'm a New Yorker at heart and I wanted to change it up a little bit. We're not making any rules; we're taking it one day at a time."
It's in New York, on Sept. 22, that the real Stiller -- the alter ego to his comic persona -- is most clearly on display during a private dinner party at Almond restaurant, following an art auction he's just organized at Christie's that raised $13.7 million for Haitian aid groups, including his own Stiller Foundation.
There's a restlessness to him this evening, an almost nervous energy that marks his every move as he wanders through the celebrity-studded crowd. Even in the nonprofit zone, his drive to achieve is notable.
"On a cellular basis, he understands that this is his one trip around," says his producing partner, Stuart Cornfeld, "and he is just not wasting it on any level."
Stiller introduces Dr. Paul Farmer, the physician whose work in the Third World -- outlined in Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains -- has profoundly influenced him. He also presents former President Bill Clinton, then stands to the side of a small podium and lets Clinton dominate the evening, never showing any desire to outshine the famously charismatic politician.
Wrapped in a dark suit, he appears slightly tense -- not surprising, given how important this event is to him. Earlier, he barely hobnobbed with the stars who line the room, including Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Aniston, there with her boyfriend, Justin Theroux, Stiller's co-writer on Tropic Thunder.
As Clinton speaks, recounting the story of how he drove along a Haitian street where local artists hawked their wares, then engaged with an artist who tragically lost his family during the 2010 earthquake, he moves some of his audience to tears. But Stiller, ever on the alert, doesn't let any emotion seep out.
Later, he confides with a glint of humor that he's heard Clinton (his neighbor in the New York suburb of Chappaqua where Stiller has a getaway place) tell this story publicly before; but even in two long visits with the actor -- here as well as on his set -- self-control rather than self-revelation is his preferred style.
That's just as true when he's speaking of his wife, his parents or his struggle with Lyme disease.
"I got it in Nantucket, Mass., a couple of years ago," he says. "My knee became inflamed and they couldn't figure out what it was, then they found out it was Lyme. I'm symptom-free now, but Lyme doesn't ever leave your system. It's a really tough thing."
As to his spouse, whom he met in 1999 while directing a pilot, Heat Vision and Jack, and with whom he has two children, Ella, 9, and Quinlin, 6, he's equally calibrated.
"Like any marriage, we've been through a lot," he notes. "But you have to accept that people change. It's very easy for a relationship not to work if both people aren't committed to it. We've gone through ups and downs, but it's all been leading toward us becoming more and more connected. We're very, very happy together."
One of the few moments when he's unguardedly emotional is when he remembers his Jamaican housekeeper, Hazel Hugh, who looked after him and his older sister, Amy (now an actress), in the long stretches when their parents were away performing.
"She had seven kids of her own, but she'd take care of us, sometimes for five days at a time," Stiller says, beaming. "She was amazing."
And a rarely expressed joy floods over him.
Born in 1965, Stiller was plunged into the world of show business from birth, often accompanying his parents to shoots and even appearing with them on The Mike Douglas Show.
"He grew up in a show business household," says Cornfeld, "and so he's aware of the ups and downs and doesn't take any of it for granted. He knows you don't completely control your own fate, so you'd better work as hard as you possibly can."
Both parents impacted him deeply. "My mom was a bigger influence on my sense of humor; my dad, the work ethic -- he's a real hard worker," Stiller notes, adding that their influence extended to every aspect of his life. "In the '70s, they were very much into self-exploration and they took us to EST and TM. We had all that going on. My dad now is more into the Kabbalah and has always been very spiritual, but I've never been a religious person."
Despite their closeness -- they were so close, in fact, that when Stiller experienced an acid trip in his teens, the first person he called was his father -- their world was hardly as idyllic as it might appear, especially during the years when his mother wrestled with alcoholism.
"Of course that has an influence on you," he says. "But everybody has to deal with their own thing, and it's up to you how you then move forward. I'm thankful that they were very loving parents. And the second you have kids, you become much more empathetic toward your parents, because you realize how difficult it is."
Stiller broke away to study at UCLA when he was 18, only to return nine months later without graduating. He stumbled through acting classes and auditions before getting his first big break in the acclaimed 1986 revival of Blue Leaves on Broadway. He wasn't even 21.
While appearing onstage, Stiller used his own money to make a mock documentary spoofing Scorsese's The Color of Money, with himself as Tom Cruise and Leaves co-star John Mahoney as Paul Newman. He showed it to everyone who'd see it -- even Cruise, years later, when he met him on the set of The Firm. (Cruise found it hysterically funny.) That parody led to a job as a writer-performer on Saturday Night Live.
It's indicative of Stiller's single-mindedness that, even at this early stage of his career, when he was struggling to make a living, he chose to leave SNL after five episodes because it wouldn't allow him to make the short films he dreamed of. Soon after, he was given his own comedy series by MTV, then another by Fox -- each killed after one season, though the second won him an Emmy for writing.
This was all the more surprising given that comedy wasn't his goal. And yet those who know him best say he has a razor-sharp eye for comedic talent.
"He told me what I had when he saw 10 minutes of [the Owen Wilson starrer] Bottle Rocket; he told me when he first saw Vince Vaughn," says his agent, WME's Nick Stevens. "He's all about that community of voices he loves."
In addition to developing material for this community, he has been relentless in sticking with the projects he believes in -- like Zoolander.
"There were maybe 20, 30 drafts," Stiller remembers, "and at one time I walked away from it and they had somebody else rewrite it and they were going to do it without me, which was kind of ironic. Then it came back around."
He went through the same development hell with Tropic Thunder, the 2008 comedy about a group of actors in a faux boot camp who are forced to become real soldiers. "We had about eight, nine years when the script was around," he recalls, before DreamWorks greenlighted the movie, which made $110 million at the domestic box office.
Among his current projects are a Zoolander sequel and a third in the Night at the Museum series, for which he says "an idea" is already in place. But don't look for another Fockers movie; Stiller says there are no plans for a fourth.
Two of his favorite future films have show business at their heart, each centered on a larger-than-life character whose moral ambivalence intrigues Stiller and whose drive is perhaps something he relates to. One is about David O. Selznick, the obsessive and tyrannical producer of Gone With the Wind.
The other is What Makes Sammy Run?, based on Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel about the merciless Sammy Glick, a copy boy-turned-screenwriter whose relentless ambition fascinates Stiller, even though he has yet to get the picture greenlighted.
"It's a great novel, a prototypical Hollywood story," he says. "He wrote a very true account of Hollywood -- and more than Hollywood, the American experience and what it takes to get to the top."
At this point in Stiller's life, getting to the top may be taking a backseat to other concerns.
"When you're 45, you're different from 25," his friend Theroux reflects. "He's carved out enough real estate [in entertainment] that he can now tend to new farms."
Hence the Haitian art auction. His interest in Haiti "started with going to Africa [in 2009]," he says. "I went on this trip to Uganda for Save the Children. Then I went to Nigeria and Mozambique, and they asked if I wanted to go to Haiti. Just seeing that level of poverty, when you experience it firsthand and sit in a classroom which is basically like a twig fence outside in the dirt -- this parallel reality that we as Westerners don't think about, it can't not affect you."
Stiller set up an organization to help with education in Haiti, months before the earthquake. Using his unrivaled Rolodex, he got the auction under way with an out-of-the-blue call to artist Jeff Koons, who donated an original work that the actor himself then bought. By the end of the auction, he'd raised more money than any celebrity helping Haiti.
He pauses as he recounts his experiences in that country, perhaps thinking about the contrast between what he saw there and the lightweight comedy he's filming, with its over-the-top cop and unexpected aliens. It's the oddest of juxtapositions, one he is struggling to make sense of.
Today, fighting poverty and spending time with his family are his priorities, which he's seeking to combine in a healthy way with work. But doing so has eluded him so far, and it gnaws at him.
"To balance it all is hard," he says. "But it's very important to me. You reach this point in your life where you go, 'I have to take stock.' If you're just going, going, going, it's very easy not to stop and feel things."
STILLER'S 5 FAVORITE FILMS
- Sullivan's Travels 1941
- The Poseidon Adventure 1972
- The Godfather, The Godfather Part II 1972, 1974
- Dog Day Afternoon 1975
- Caddyshack 1980
STILLER ON STILLER: The actor recalls some of its favorite moviemaking moments.
Reality Bites (1994): When Winona Ryder said yes, that's what made it happen. It was my first movie [as a director] -- that experience you can never have again -- and I remember loving the process. But being my first movie, everything was new -- and that's a blessing, because you don't realize how challenging it all is.
Meet the Parents (2000): One of my favorite parts of the experience was getting to know Robert De Niro. The first movie, I could use that feeling of being intimidated by his greatness. I remember the first day, I cracked up laughing because I was so nervous. Then he laughed, and I thought, "Oh my God! He's laughing." It broke the ice totally.
Zoolander (2001): It was a long, long process getting that movie made, and the studio never quite got it. It was painful, going upstream, with budget battles -- and then it came out after 9/11. The whole thing was weird karma. I watched it again when we were writing the sequel; we wrote the sequel last year. I'm very proud of it.
Tropic Thunder (2008): I've known Tom Cruise since 1992. I met him on the set of The Firm. I originally offered him the role of an agent and he said, "It would be great if there was a studio executive," because he wanted to do that, and that's how his role as an executive came about. He's a very warm person with a great sense of humor. I love him.