Playing against type (some would call it image management) will be the unofficial theme at the Public, onstage and off. LaBute has often been typed as the angry white contrarian; the play’s director, outgoing Public Theater producer Wolfe, has been unfairly chastised for promoting so-called politically correct theater. Stiller is hoping some of this strange alchemy will rub off on the production. He speaks soberly about “growing up on the Upper West Side in a liberal family, and just feeling very connected to the civil-rights movement and all of that when I was a kid.” Working on this play on the heels of such personal criticism, he says, has had him thinking about the way critics “define you through race and religion and stereotype.”
Still, going toe to toe with one of the stage’s most commanding actors, Jeffrey Wright, Stiller says he’s more than prepared to deliver some lines so offensive, “we talk about whether or not we should put up hockey glass before I say them.”
Last week, before an early preview on one of the Public Theater’s smaller stages, the audience is buzzing. “I don’t recognize anyone here tonight,” a regular theatergoer whispers to his wife. “It’s because of Ben Stiller.” “Yeah,” his wife says. “How do you think these people heard about it?” Needle-nosed actor Justin Theroux, who’s working with Stiller on an adventure screenplay called Tropic Thunder, sits silently in an aisle seat, wearing dark sunglasses, as the lights go down.
And as soon as the lights go up, Stiller is talking before anyone can give him that irritating round of applause that has become customary when stars grace the stage. “Okay. This is how it goes. I mean, went. This is the way it all played out. Or, is going to.” A staccato barrage delivered from a stiff tan suit. In the narrow spotlight, he looks like he could be doing stand-up. Then he delivers the first LaButian whopper—an unfunny joke about how the black husband should “go back to Africa.”
“Oh, no,” whispers the woman to her husband, aghast. There’s a gasp, and a few muffled chuckles. It’s hard to tell if it’s the half-certain laughter that accompanies LaBute’s plays, the pregnant expectation that Stiller will be funny—or both.
The critics—and reviews—will come another day. But tonight, with that spotlight isolating him in this intimate little space, this Hollywood player is crouching, primed and alert, maybe four feet away from me, speaking directly to the audience—“almost as a scene partner,” he said earlier. It’s obvious why Stiller called the process “a little intimidating.” But it’s less obvious why anyone with a $15 million–per–picture payday would put himself through this.
Apparently, once you’ve zippered your scrotum, dangled sperm off your ear, and been Tasered, some studios just won’t trust you with serious material.
Then again, Stiller’s always been unafraid to debase himself—and it wouldn’t be the first time a comedian has veered wildly at his moment of greatest acceptance. There’s something about the overall arc of a comic actor’s career—which rarely involves awards and is, by turns, humbling and self-aggrandizing—that seems designed to implode just as it enters the commercial stratosphere. It happened to Jerry Lewis, to Woody Allen, to Steve Martin (not to mention Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams). It nearly wrecked Bill Murray, whose career died when he produced a super-serious adaptation of The Razor’s Edge, only to revive, years later, under the gentle ministrations of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola.
Tom Hanks is one of the few to have made the transformation intact—achieving the ultimate prize: unfettered range and nearly limitless options. And he mostly gave up comedy in the process.
“You can think of Hollywood as high school,” says Owen Wilson. “TV actors are freshmen, comedy actors are maybe juniors, and dramatic actors—they’re the cool seniors.” Everyone wants to skip a grade.
Worse yet, the greatest artistic hazards are often the ones that guarantee the greatest popularity: mawkish sentimentality, or trotting out a profitable series of obvious jokes (see the diminishing returns of the pet jokes in Meet the Parents, Duplex, Envy, Along Came Polly, and Meet the Fockers). But the odd and ugly truth of this particular Hollywood moment is that bottom-line pandering may in fact be the easiest way for a smart comic actor to buy into artier opportunities. Jim Carrey got his shot in Eternal Sunshine after taking a pay cut—but only because he’d proved, beyond a doubt, his bankability. “It’s at the point where you need a star to get an independent film made,” John Waters recently told me. According to this curious, circuitous logic, doing a bad blockbuster like The Grinch will not only pad your bank statement—it may actually help you get a tough role in a Michel Gondry film. “It started in the past decade that even the smallest parts are being taken by celebrities,” says Philip Seymour Hoffman. The shift, he says, “will make it even easier for Ben to get good roles.”
Or at least Stiller is hoping it works that way. His production company, Red Hour Films, which developed DodgeBall, recently renewed a three-year first-look deal with DreamWorks—and the studio is sending him scripts in a wide range of genres. After the success of DodgeBall (the one genuinely, ecstatically funny film he released last year), he’s had no trouble picking up Blades of Glory, a DodgeBall-like spoof of men’s figure skating, scripted by two newcomers (Stiller will only produce). And Stiller, who first directed spoofs of Jaws with the Super 8 camera his father gave him, is developing the pilot episode of a new HBO series, Super 8, informed by his teen years in the city. Still, he’s struggled unsuccessfully for nearly twelve years to adapt Budd Schulberg’s Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run?, and he’s been unable to find funding for the film he’d most like to direct: Civilwarland in Bad Decline, a theme-park fantasy from short-fiction master George Saunders. “It’s not a mainstream movie, but it’s funny and moving,” he says. “That’s really where I want to spend [my capital]. “You have to balance things, and sometimes it’s gotten out of balance a little bit,” admits Stiller, in another one of his accurate clichés. “You get known for what people see—not what you do.”
A little later, Stiller flops his beat-up wallet on the table; a wrinkled $10 bill pokes out from the fold. “I’ve got to make rehearsal,” he says, then, finally, billion-dollar Ben cracks a little joke: “Oh—you’ve got it? I knew that—I was just trying to impress you with my $10.”