New Again: Ben Stiller

By
Photography Paul Jasmin

Published March 11, 2015

At the end of Valentino’s Fall/Winter 2015 runway show yesterday, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson stole the spotlight with a Zoolander-eque walkoff. Stiller and Owen recreated the famous scene to announce the release of Zoolander 2, which we can now officially expect in February 2016. Stiller stole someone’s cell phone while strutting his stuff, and began mimicing those ridiculous faces we see all too often on social media. Backstage, the two comedians first posed for a selfie with Anna Wintour and then again with Cara Delevingne, both of which went viral with the common caption “Squad.” In honor of the classic comedy’s return, we dug through our archives and found a 1996 interview with Stiller, before he became a household name. 

Ben StillerBy Manohla Dargis

For a while there, it looked like Ben Stiller was one of the showbiz meteorites who was moving so fast he would soon have no worlds left to conquer. The reality is that the multi-talented, darkly funny actor/director has had a year of personal and professional setbacks, and only now is he back on track and burning.

Ben Stiller isn’t funny—honest. Ben Stiller is very funny, and smart, and cute, too, in a neurotic, New York kind of way. The only son of famed comedy duo Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, the actor/director/writer grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his sister, Amy, and rarely ventured far beyond his family’s home unless it was to go to school—or to Vegas, or to Hollywood, or The Merv Griffin Show, where he’d watch his parents work their well-tuned shtick. Now 30, the younger Stiller has been cultivating his own seriously funny chops since childhood, along with an estimable talent for turning bad luck into good.

To the floodlights born, Stiller briefly landed on Broadway and Saturday Night Live and knocked around in movies like Fresh Horses (1988) before embarking on his very own adventure in television. Created for MTV in 1990, the sharply observed, pop-conscious Ben Stiller Show—featuring its star’s lacerating impersonations of Bono, Tom Cruise, and Eddie Munster, among others—subsequently moved to Fox TV and copped an Emmy for writing. Stiller then bounced into the big time as a director with Reality Bites (1994), a fast-and-funny Gen X anatomy lesson that got him into the Sundance Film Festival.

So far in 1996, he’s enjoyed scene-stealing roles as a fiendish nursing-home operator in the Adam Sandler vehicle Happy Gilmore, and as terminally hop SoHo artist in Eric Shaeffer’s If Lucy Fell. For his big turn, he plays a nervy entomologist on the trail of his birth parents in David O. Russell’s nimble comedy Flirting with Disaster, which opens wide this month.

Stiller arrived for our interview in Los Angeles after being up for 18 hours directing Jim Carrey in the upcoming Cable Guy. It is only his second feature as a director, but the strain isn’t showing. Two years ago, nearly every article about Reality Bites mentioned that its young auteur was dressed in worn flannel tops and torn blue jeans. For the record, Ben Stiller currently favors a black leather jacket, a dark shirt, dark pants, dark shoes, and a barely there goatee. He smiles a lot, but only when he wants to.

MANHOLA DARGIS: It’s been a while since Reality Bites came out—

BEN STILLER: I guess it’s been two years.

DARGIS: Almost to the day, actually.

STILLER: Wow, that’s bizarre. Jesus Christ, what the hell have I been doing with myself?

DARGIS: I didn’t want to be rude.

STILLER: I guess I hit the skids for a while. After Reality Bites my name was dirt in this town. Nobody wanted to arrest me.

DARGIS: I don’t think that’s true, but were you disappointed by the way Reality Bits was received?

STILLER: I don’t know. I started with zero assumptions: I hate myself. I suck. I should be run out of town. I can’t believe I got this far.

DARGIS: Shhh. You’re not Catholic—self-flagellation is not an option.

STILLER: No, I’m Jewish, but my mom’s Catholic, so the guilt area is covered. I have the highest expectations, along with the lowest. I tried to put as much of myself as possible in Reality Bites, but in terms of my humor, I’m still trying to figure out what my sensibility is. It’s a process, really. I don’t feel like I have a very clear idea of what I’m supposed to be, or even of how people perceive me, except that I got put into this Generation X file. Last year, I had two projects that fell apart during preproduction. The first one was this movie that Judd Apatow and I had written about two guys following the Rolling Stones. It was going to be half concert film, half pseudo-documentary. It was Mick Jagger’s idea.

DARGIS: He’s old enough to be your father.

STILLER: Yeah, strange. I saved his voice on my computer. So now when I screw up, there’s Mick going, “All right, Ben,” or, “I think it’s very funny.”

DARGIS: Do you do this to amuse or torment yourself?

STILLER: To amuse myself. It was a good experience. He’s a nice guy.

DARGIS: So how come it fell apart?

STILLER: A last-minute casting thing. The other one was Simple Plan, based on a novel by Scott Smith. It’s a great book—really stark, not a comedy—about a guy who finds $4 million in a plane crash and decides to keep it. I had a disagreement with the studio I was working with about the lead part; I got a little Hollywood education on that one. It was frustrating. Then I was in relationship hell and feeling depressed. I was at one of those points in my life where everything imploded and I had to do a little soul-searching.

DARGIS: I’m sorry—I have to stop laughing. It’s the way you list disaster after disaster.

STILLER: No, no, it’s funny. I was able to see how all these things happen for a reason.

DARGIS: And you say, “Yes, I have learned from this.”

STILLER: In fact, I did. It was good. I was staying on [writer/director/actor] Eric Schaeffer’s couch in New York, and he said, “I’ve got this movie [If Lucy Fell]. Can you do five days on it?” And I was like, “Yeah, anything. Twenty-four hours times five is 120 hours. Oh, great, I’ll fill 120 hours of my life with something.” So I did that and it was fun, and then I did Flirting with Disaster.

DARGIS: Do you ever see the movies you’re in?

STILLER: I’ll go see them, but I’m not in any rush, especially because I’m in a director’s mentality right now. I don’t even want to think of myself as an actor because it’s such an insecure place to go.

DARGIS: Were you attached to Cable Guy before or after Jim Carrey committed to it?

STILLER: I’d turned it down when Chris Farley was going to do it because I didn’t think the script was very good. But Judd and Jim have been friends for seven or eight years, and Judd and I have been close for the last three. Judd said, “I’m going to rewrite Cable Guy and Jim’s going to do it. Do you want to direct it?” Again I said no, because it was this buddy comedy about an obnoxious guy who won’t leave this other guy alone, and it was kind of light and airy. I told Judd that I would want to go much darker with it, so it becomes more like a satiric Fatal Attraction or Cape Fear. Judd said, “Yeah? Well, that’s what Jim wants to do with it, too, so we should all talk.”

DARGIS: So you signed on as director—don’t you think it’s weird that you’re doing it though?

STILLER: You mean because I’m Generation X boy?

DARGIS: Your comedy just strikes me as being more cerebral than Jim Carrey’s.

STILLER: I think Jim feels he’s kind of maxed out with what he’s being doing, esepecially in the Ace Ventura movies. I guess Cable Guy is a chance for me to take what I did with my television show and meld it with what Jim does. I have a definite visceral sense of which people and situations make me laugh. When I was growing up, This is Spinal Tap [1984] was the ultimate comedy, and it was the kind of thing I wanted to do. But you get to a point with parody where you can’t go much further because ultimately it’s feeding off of somebody else’s creativity.

DARGIS: You’re much more serious than I expected.

STILLER: It’s weird that people expect me to be funny. I find it a real burden when I’m expected to be humorous on talk shows.

DARGIS: Do you find it easy to be funny?

STILLER: I don’t think it’s ever easy to be funny. I find it easy to amuse myself with a certain sort of cynical dark humor that tends toward the meaner side, like my character in Happy Gilmore. Those kinds of characters come easily to me. I’m just not a naturally cheery person. I’m naturally moody. I know that from people who spend a lot of time with me. People who spend a lot of time with me may not wish to spend a lot more time with me. [laughs]

DARGIS: Did your family sit around making jokes all the time?

STILLER: I don’t know what that weid fantasy is that makes people go, “Oh, you must have had a great childhood.”

DARGIS: I didn’t say that. I suspect the worst thing you can have are parents who are psychiatrists, the second worst being comics.

STILLER: If you’re looking for pure parenting, that’s probably true, because entertainers are naturally self-obsessed. I recently watched that Lucie Arnaz-produced documentary [Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie, 1992] about her parents [Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz], and I saw so much of my own childhood there. But I was also able to see that my own parents escaped some of that. They have this great marriage. They’ve dealt with stuff; we’ve all dealt with it. We went to family therapy. I think I’m really lucky.

DARGIS: It must be weird for you to have had such a public life.

STILLER: It is weird, and it is the reality I grew up in. I think this whole celebrity world is weird anyway. Weird and funny and kind of pathetic and yet so right for parody. There’s a sense here in L.A. that everybody’s aware of everybody all the time. It’s funny but we choose it. People who are here want to be here, including me.

DARGIS: I guess no one put a gun to your head and said, “You must got to Hollywood and direct the next Jim Carrey movie.”

STILLER: It’s what I wanted to do with my life. Not necessarily just direct Jim Carrey movies, but to direct and act and write and create and along the way discover what it is that I’m about. The celebrity stuff can be fun, but vacuous and insulated. I think that for a lot of people, myself included, there are reasons why we’re here besides the enjoyment, the urge to create, to be accepted, to be famous. On my end of it, there’s also a fear of dealing with real life, a fear that I think can be dealt with in the work.

DARGIS: What is real life?

STILLER: You know, wars, poverty.

DARGIS: Oh, those things.

STILLER: All those things people in Beverly Hills hold benefits for. [laughs]

THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE APRIL 1996 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.