Interview - Ben Stiller: Stiller: the hardest worker in Hollywood

He hasn't stood behind a camera since `The Cable Guy', but his career as a shrewd, funny actor is taking off. Dennis Lim met him
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I loved The Cable Guy," someone says to Ben Stiller midway through our meeting at a New York diner. "That's been happening more and more lately," the 33-year-old actor-writer-director tells me once the fan is out of earshot. He laughs. "People must be finally coming around to it." Two summers ago, while the press was working up a storm of pre-emptive Schadenfreude over Jim Carrey's $20m pay-cheque and the commercially risky "darkness" of Stiller's second directorial effort (his first was Reality Bites), he noted in an interview, "My ass is more on the line than Jim Carrey's." Carrey, as we know, rebounded with Liar Liar and The Truman Show. Stiller hasn't directed a movie since.

Not that he hasn't been working. In fact, Stiller may have, in a relatively short space of time, established himself as the shrewdest, funniest and riskiest young actor working today. After a short-lived comedy sketch TV series (which has since gained a loyal cult following), his breakthrough performance came in David O Russell's hilarious Flirting With Disaster, when he played a neurotic young father in search of his birth parents. Last year, in There's Something About Mary, he was the endearingly gormless and very game object of what might have been the most spectacular series of humiliations in film history. And now, in Your Friends and Neighbors, the latest squirm-fest by director Neil La Bute (In the Company of Men), he plays a wormy drama professor, one of six obnoxious, yuppie thirty- somethings caught up in a tangle of self-absorbed, manipulative head games.

Stiller's performance in Your Friends is bravely unsympathetic, for which he credits the director. "Neil encourages you not to shy away from the choices that you might make to look good or protect yourself as an actor," he says. "It's actually harder for me to watch myself in Your Friends and Neighbors than in There's Something About Mary."

His character in Mary is much more in line with the Stiller comic persona: he's the underdog you can't help rooting for. "I guess I am kind of self- deprecating in real life," he says, a little awkwardly. "I don't have a huge ego. It's kind of a defence. It comes out of insecurity or whatever." He insists he didn't mind being put through the Farrelly wringer. "I don't know how you can take real offence at a load of semen on the ear," he says of the notorious masturbation scene.

Mary, like The Cable Guy, is essentially a movie about stalking, which, as far as Stiller was concerned, immediately gave it a certain appeal. "I love that it's a mainstream movie dealing with all these incredibly obsessive guys," he says. "I definitely have obsessive qualities so I could identify on some level, and I have no problem copping to that. Obsession can be funny; when you're obsessed, you're in denial about your obsession and people in denial are very funny."

Following on from Your Friends and Neighbors, Stiller's second departure from comedy is in the forthcoming, true-life Permanent Midnight, in which he plays Hollywood screenwriter and one-time smack addict Jerry Stahl. Researching the role, Stiller spent months "hanging out with Jerry, learning how to shoot a needle and about the physical effects of the drug". (The two men are now close friends and collaborating on several projects.) Stiller says, "I think I have addictive tendencies, but they're not related to drugs necessarily. I could connect to the situation on another level - with the isolation, pain, or whatever it is that puts you there in the first place."

In person, Stiller is unassuming and good-natured, though noticeably guarded. "I've had experiences with magazine stories," he explains. Most recently, "this scummy guy came over to my house [to interview me] and when I went to get him a Coke I guess he snooped around, opened this book, and saw an inscription from my ex-girlfriend [actress Jeanne Tripplehorn]. And he writes about it in the story. `One can't help noticing ...' One `can't help'? That kind of thing is bullshit."

Stiller evidently reads his press. He finds it amusing that people seem to think he has a "dark side". When I ask him to describe his sense of humour, he settles on "humour that comes out of something other than comfortable situations". Spoken like the director of the most unnerving Hollywood comedy in recent memory. If Stiller suffered any psychological scars from the fallout over The Cable Guy, they aren't showing. "I think once people get far away enough from the movie, they'll see it for what it is." He'd like to release a special edition, with footage, mostly from the final act, that was left out in the rush edit. "Jim's character got scarier," he says, grinning.

The Cable Guy bears the imprint of a reformed television addict. "It used to be when I'd leave the country, I'd be freaked out because there was no TV," says Stiller. "But at a certain point, I realised that television is a one-way process, and I don't like randomly giving myself over to what someone else wants me to watch. As a kid, I probably watched too much TV. TV was definitely - like in The Cable Guy - the babysitter."

Suddenly, he gets excited. "I really want to make a movie about a studio trying to devise the ultimate blockbuster and trying to figure out what kids want to watch. There's something funny and creepy about adults trying to get into kids' heads." He envisions something low-budget and improvised, like the sketch he and Vince Vaughn came up with for the MTV awards show last year, in which they pitched Titanic sequels to James Cameron.

Irreverent and absurd, the segment recalled the best moments of The Ben Stiller Show, his sketch series, which - painfully accurate Tom Cruise and Bono impressions aside - showed off an ingeniously perverse, pop- culture-damaged sensibility, the kind that could cheerfully superimpose Eddie Munster onto Cape Fear and Charles Manson onto Lassie. The network, Fox, killed it after 13 episodes, which Stiller doesn't much regret in retrospect. "At a certain point, it feels like you're just waiting for the next Tom Cruise movie or the next U2 album to come out." He says most of the spoofs weren't meant to be vicious in any case. "When you parody something, you have to be interested enough to want to spend the time figuring out its nuances." Laughing, he quickly adds, "But I don't know how I'd feel if someone was making fun of me and saying that parody was a form of tribute. I was definitely the kid in high school who would dish it out and then freak out when somebody gave it back to me."

As a teenager, Stiller wanted to be "a serious actor and director", which, for the son of popular TV comedians Jerry Stiller (now best known as George's father on Seinfeld) and Anne Meara (most recently seen in the indie comedy Daytrippers), apparently constituted some form of youthful rebellion. Then he discovered his comic heroes: Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. "I've always thought of myself as having a really good sense of humour, as opposed to being a really funny person." As for his parents, Stiller says, "I have a lot of affection for their old stuff, but I don't see the connection between what they did and what I do. All I know is that there's a kind of second-generation showbiz cynicism that affects some of my work."

Not only is Stiller not living off his insider status, he doesn't seem especially comfortable with it. "If you're going to be making fun of all this in any way, or commenting on it, you have to be careful about how involved in it you get. It would be hard for me to act in a movie like Armageddon and still reconcile myself. It's, like, all of a sudden, you're saying, `OK, I'm part of this'. It just wouldn't seem right."

The phenomenal success of There's Something About Mary has undoubtedly made Stiller a Hollywood casting director's favourite - he's just finished shooting a role as Mr Furious in Mystery Man, based on the cult comic, and he has cameos in Black and White (James Toback's pretty-fly-for-white- guys, hip-hop satire) and The Suburbans (about "an Eighties one-hit-wonder band getting back together"). But he's determined to resume his directing career as soon as possible. His long-standing pet project, which he co- scripted with Jerry Stahl and which he hopes to direct and star in, is an adaptation of What Makes Sammy Run? a legendary portrait of a proto- Hollywood hustler based on a novel by Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront). "Obviously I relate to the Hollywood thing, but I think Schulberg also keyed into the fact that you can only go so far not being a white Anglo- Saxon Protestant [in America]." His one-year-old production company, Red Hour, also has a full slate of projects in various stages of production and development: a Stahl-scripted remake of The Magnificent Dope; a Liberace movie; The Hardy Men, which reteams the Hardy Boys 20 years on (one's alcoholic, the other's going through a divorce); and a movie featuring the male-model character he created in an uproarious mock-infomercial for the cable channel VH1 ("It somehow ends up with this JFK-type conspiracy - male models are behind all major assassinations.")

Is Ben Stiller the hardest-working man in Hollywood? He laughs. "You define yourself through the work you do. You can't figure it out too much, but I don't want to go around for the rest of my life with people coming up to me going, `Hey, you're that guy with the gob [semen] on his ear.' "