It’s the rare Hollywood star that doesn’t want to talk much about his new movie. But that’s what you get with Ben Stiller, who first made a splash directing and acting in the 1994 film “Reality Bites,” and has since gone on to secure spots acting in offbeat comedies including “Flirting With Disaster,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Zoolander,” and “Tropic Thunder.” He also directed and co-wrote the last two.
It’s the rare Hollywood star that doesn’t want to talk much about his new movie. But that’s what you get with Ben Stiller, who first made a splash directing and acting in the 1994 film “Reality Bites,” and has since gone on to secure spots acting in offbeat comedies including “Flirting With Disaster,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder.” He also directed and co-wrote the last two.
He’s only acting in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s wry and dry comic-drama “Greenberg,” which opens Friday. But in playing the title character, he’s at the center of everything that happens.
Greenberg is a 40-something fellow who’s just bouncing back from a nervous breakdown. He once had a chance at fame in a promising rock band but instead become a carpenter. Now, kind of a lost soul who’s seeking to “do nothing” for a while, he’s traveled from New York to L.A., where he’ll housesit for his vacationing brother. Watch out, he bumps into a young woman who’s equally lost. The story plays out from there.
Asked to introduce the character of Greenberg, Stiller offered up a blank look.
Asked how Baumbach initially described Greenberg to him, Stiller said, “He just gave me the script.” A long pause.
Did you and Noah talk much about it? “There were discussions afterwards, but it speaks for itself on the page,” he said, opening up a bit. “Noah wrote this very specific character, and when I read it I was like, ‘Ah, this guy has a lot of issues.’ There are some things I could connect with, other things that I didn’t connect with as much. We got together, and I told him I thought the original draft was written as a guy who was a few years younger than me, that the issues he was dealing with were a little different than for a guy my age. We talked about that and about what it meant to be in your 40s. Then he went off and wrote a different draft that was more relevant to my age, and I felt more comfortable playing that.”
Another long pause. But it needs to be clear that Stiller wasn’t being rude or uncooperative. He just seems genuinely uncomfortable being interviewed.
Asked if he’s ever felt as lost or adrift as Greenberg, he pondered the question for a few moments.
“Yeah, sure. I think a lot of people could identify with what he’s going through,” he said. “But I’ve been very fortunate to have some measure of success that by whatever luck ... ”
He stopped, thought about what he was saying, then said, “There’s so many people who are deserving of it but just don’t ever get it.” Oops. He left himself wide open. The question had to be asked.
Are you where you want to be in your career? This time the answer is immediate, and vague.
“I don’t think you can do that to yourself and be a happy person,” he said. “You just have to have a sense of where you’re at. To me the biggest thing I’m trying to get to is to be OK in the moment, to be OK where I am right now.”
But, arrgh!, he doesn’t really want to talk about what he’s doing right now.
“I’m working on a couple of things,” he said. “But these things take time.”
He mentions that directing is looking a little better to him than acting these days.
“Directing has always been something that I’ve seen myself ending up doing,” he explained, finally relaxing. “The acting is much more ephemeral as far as being able to control what that is, and parts keep changing as you get older. I think there’s much more freedom as a director to make lots more kinds of movies.
“‘Tropic Thunder’ took about nine years to come together, from when we first wrote it,” he added. “We had the best experience doing that. I don’t want to be that long between directing projects again.”
One more try. Maybe he’ll go with the flow.
What are you doing next? “I’m trying to figure it out,” he said. “It’s a personal decision where you just have to figure out what’s right for you, in the moment. So right now I don’t know.”
Another side of Stiller
In between acting gigs, Ben Stiller has been very involved in helping out the people of Haiti. Last year he funded a rural community school there, and in January he launched the Haitian School Initiative, a group that last week merged with director Paul Haggis’ Artists for Peace and Justice.
“We’re trying to build temporary schools over the next two years in the Port-au-Prince area,” said Stiller. “It’s a long-term rebuilding process, and it’s hard to keep the public’s attention on these things. Our job – people who can get some attention – is to keep the attention there – probably in increments. So in six months we’ll say we’re building these schools, or in a year we’ll be having this fundraiser, and we’ll keep working at it.”
The Patriot Ledger