Every kid has a collection of heroes and role models. For me, it was Carl Yastrzemski, Teddy Roosevelt and Steve McQueen. For my 15-year-old son, Nick, Ben Stiller is at or near the top of his list. So when the opportunity came to interview Ben for MovieMaker as he was finishing the edit of Tropic Thunder, I grabbed the assignment on the condition that Nick would be allowed to join us. After some loud protests from the publicist and even MovieMaker’s editor for what was admittedly an unusual (okay, “unprofessional” was the word I heard more than once) request, Ben stepped in and said it would be fine by him.
And that was my introduction to Ben Stiller, easy-going regular guy.
When Nick and I went to visit him at his trailer on the Warner Bros. lot (Red Hour Films, Stiller’s company with producing partner Stuart Cornfeld, has a first-look deal with DreamWorks through 2010) Stiller had just been named one of the three most powerful actors in the world by Newsweek, and by all accounts he didn’t get there because he’s the shy, bumbling doormat he often plays in his films. I knew of his reputation as a perfectionist who’s unafraid to challenge his colleagues and whose self-described mood swings have often caused him to lose his temper on the set. But I went in thinking only happy thoughts about the guy who invited the kid to come along for the cover story interview.
Ben Stiller is the kind of guy you can’t help but like. He might be a little more earnest, a bit more “East Coast” than most Hollywood actors at the top of their game, complete with what seems like a touch of guilt about the coddled lifestyle of the movie star (and a straight line can be drawn from there to the concept behind Tropic Thunder), but I found that refreshing. He’s witty, self-deprecating and respectful. He has a way of letting you know that he never forgets where he came from, and he has that particular disarming quality of being sure of himself and unsure of himself at the same time. He’s direct but cautious, self-assured but wary. You can take the boy out of New York, but…
Ben’s office looks more like a preschool than the nerve center of one of Hollywood’s true heavyweights. Toys are scattered everywhere, as are photos of his children, daughter Ella, six, and son, Quinlin, three (by his wife and sometimes co-star, Christine Taylor). Despite the fact that his movies have at times included some shockingly raunchy bits, Stiller is a conservative family guy who worries about things like obscene billboards, the fact that L.A. is a “company town” and the effect that could have on his kids. His speech is peppered with references to his family, including his sister, his dad and his mom, who are all very much a part of his life.
That life is a very nice one and nobody knows that better than Ben. He takes nothing for granted, has both feet bolted to the ground and knows he’s almost as lucky as he is talented. He approaches his career with joy, but also with the faint resignation of a day laborer. He’s driven to achieve, he hopes he’s creating art, but at the end of the day he knows he’s doing a job. It may be the best one in the world, but it’s a job and he may not always be doing it. Which is okay by him. The job doesn’t define the man. Not to the man, it doesn’t.
Stiller is a warm, lively interview. And especially for a guy with the initials “BS,” he’s remarkably open and candid.
Tim Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I read comments on several sites that after the first preview people seemed to love Tropic Thunder.
Ben Stiller (BS): Oh, yeah? You did? See, I think the friggin’ internet is horrible for that…
MM: For moviemakers it’s good and bad though, right?
BS: You know what? I think it’s just bad for the moviemaking process. I honestly do. Because the whole preview process, especially for a comedy, that’s where you’re learning and creating the movie. So much of that involves putting it in front of an audience, then going back and changing it. Now, with the Internet, with your first preview it’s literally out in the world. It hurts the process because everybody is afraid to put their movies out there to test them in any way because they’re going to be reviewed. I just got to the point where I’m like, alright, whatever, and I accept it because to me it’s still important to go through that early screening process.
MM: You’ve done this so many times now—is it still tough to trust your own instincts about what an audience wants?
BS: Well, you have to trust yourself, too. I mean, you want to be informed but you also have to go with what you thought was funny in the beginning, during the writing process. Otherwise there’s no reason to do it.
MM: I’m not sure if I’ve ever laughed so hard just reading about a movie as I did with this one.
MM: Yeah. Isn’t it your character who wants to adopt an Asian baby but wonders if all the good ones are taken?
BS: Yes, that was me. (laughs)
MM: How did you get the idea for this movie?
BS: Well, I got the idea way back in 1987. At that time all these Vietnam movies were being made and I had a small part in Empire of the Sun, a war movie. I auditioned for Platoon, too. It seemed like everybody I knew was in one of these movies—all my actor friends were going to fake boot camps. And there was a time when everybody was going, “Wow, I had the most incredible, life-changing experience by going off and doing this war movie.” So at that point I was doing a sketch show and I thought this could be a funny little short about actors who go off and do Vietnam War movies and come back and think they’re going to be famous and they’re not. Sort of like vets who went off to war and then were forgotten. We’d call it “Post-Platoon Syndrome.” It was twisted.
Stuart and I would always throw the idea around, but it was such a big movie and such a big deal to get it off the ground… The one-liner is something like, “Real actors go out into the jungle with their fake guns and get caught up with real drug runners.” We sort of had to figure out what the second and third acts were. It was hard to make that work.
MM: It’s of course politically incorrect in many ways.
BS: Yeah, definitely.
MM: Was that part of the appeal for you?
BS: No, not at all. I obviously didn’t want to make a movie that was making fun of war. Or soldiers. The idea was to make fun of actors who go off to make war movies and think they’ve had some kind of real experience based on that. Basically the idea is how we [actors] take ourselves a little too seriously… some more than others. And that’s just the nature of being an actor—you’re just this self-involved thing. I think even the best of actors have to be that way because that’s what it’s about.
So we took some of these archetypes (Jack Black’s character, for instance—you look at [Chris] Farley and [John] Belushi and some of these funny guys who had drug problems and some made it and some didn’t), and they’re not obvious places for humor, but in this satirical idea of the movie we could do it. We could take the action guy who’s not doing great and the hip-hop guy who wants to be an actor because it seems like if you’re a rapper you can be an actor, too… For the Robert Downey Jr. character, Kirk, the idea is that he’s the most respected actor of his generation, he’s one of these incredible actors like Daniel Day-Lewis or Sean Penn, these guys who we all look at and understand that the commitment level is so unimaginable… So what if a guy like that decides to play an African-American?
Read Tim Rhys’ full interview with Ben Stiller, in MovieMaker Magazine’s Summer 2008 issue, on newsstands now. If you’re not already a subscriber, sign up today at the discounted rate of $9.95 for one year—available to MovieMaker.com readers only at https://www.moviemaker.com/subscribe/online_only.