Ben Stiller Reveals 'Zoolander' Sequel Secrets; Future of the Fockers and What He Thinks of 'Tower Heist' Co-Star Eddie Murphy as Oscar Host

Issue 39 Cover Ben Stiller
Joe Pugliese

Executive editor, features Stephen Galloway gets up close and personal with Tower Heist star Ben Stiller. The actor discusses his unlikely comedic public persona ("I wanted to be a serious filmmaker," he says, citing Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese as role models), and the things that drive the entertainment powerhouse now that he’s in his 40s.

READ: Ben Stiller Reveals 'Zoolander' Sequel Secrets; Future of the Fockers and What He Thinks of 'Tower Heist' Co-Star Eddie Murphy as Oscar Host

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Despite creating a laugh-out-loud legacy with hit films like "Meet the Parents," "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder," the actor-director-writer-producer shows THR his very serious, private side in a far ranging discussion on acting, illness, family, a teenage acid trip and his commitment to Haiti.

In newest issue of The Hollywood Reporter, executive editor, features Stephen Galloway gets up close and personal with Tower Heist star Ben Stiller. In an exclusive interview conducted -- both on the set of his upcoming comedy Neighborhood Watch and during an art auction he organized to benefit Haiti -- the actor discusses his unlikely comedic public persona ("I wanted to be a serious filmmaker," he says, citing Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese as role models), and the things that drive the entertainment powerhouse now that he’s in his 40s.

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The actor has been relentless in sticking with the projects he believes in -- like Zoolander. Stiller opens up about the much-anticipated sequel to his 2001 hit, telling THR he's "very proud" of the script, which was written last year (with his Tropic Thunder co-writer Justin Theroux). The story will pick up 10 years after the first film left off and, Derek’s "School For Kids Who Can’t Read Good" has been destroyed, leaving him in charge of its pupil. "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. In addition to the Zoolander sequel there is also a Night at the Museum threequel in the works, 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.

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.

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.' "

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Stiller noted that he's turned down the offer to host the Academy Awards a few times. But friend and Tower Heist co-star Eddie Murphy has the fellow comedian's full support as the host of the 2011 Oscars telecast. "He’ll be great," Stiller tells THR. "You need someone who knows how to be a stand-up comic. I don’t."

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.

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Stiller 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." Stiller does actually suffer from Lyme disease, which he contracted a few years ago."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."

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. The actor, resides there along with wife, actress Christine Taylor and their two kids, Ella, 9, and Quinlin, 6. "I’m a New Yorker at heart I wanted to change it up a little bit,” he says. The family also owns a suburban Chappaqua, NY home neighboring the Clinton's (of Bill and Hillary fame).

Stiller was close to his family, so close in fact, that when he 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."

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The actor has raised $13.7 million for Haitian aid groups, including his own Stiller Foundation as well as others (including fellow actor Sean Penn’s). 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. 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."

Read the full cover story in the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter.