Billion-Dollar Ben

Photo: Roman Palacios-Pelletier

Sometime earlier this month, perhaps in some Eastern European multiplex, Ben Stiller became a billion-dollar man. As Meet the Fockers towered over the Ukrainian and Hungarian box office, the worldwide tally for Stiller’s five 2004 features—Along Came Polly, Envy, Starsky & Hutch, DodgeBall, and Fockers—somehow surpassed the billion-dollar mark.

For Stiller, it’s been a year of surprising successes—and vicious attacks. For every thousand moviegoers who swarmed to see DodgeBall, there was one critic calling that same movie “a vendetta against his fans.” Recently, a David Denby review in The New Yorker was so harshly worded—“Stiller is the latest, and crudest, version of the urban Jewish male on the make”—that Stiller’s buddy Owen Wilson rallied to his defense with a wry letter dubbing Denby a “bully.” Stiller, who began his career tweaking the pomposity of stars like Tom Cruise and Bono, has traveled from the cult confines of The Ben Stiller Show, through a thicket of independent-film roles and Hollywood directing gigs, and out into the middlebrow mainstream, where he’s now outgrossing Cruise at the box office. It’s a journey that was bound to generate a backlash. In fact, last year, the only other man to get slammed so hard by New York critics and achieve so much popular success is now living in the White House.

So, sitting across from Stiller and his puffy North Face jacket at a Soho café, I ask him: “Like Bush, you earned a lot of capital last year. How are you going to spend it?”

“That’s horrible!” Stiller says, rocking back against his chair. “How am I going to spend my creative capital?”

But, gradually, he warms to the question. Onscreen, he often plays jittery slapstick dorks, but in person, he’s practically affectless. (“Intense bloke,” a glum Aussie journalist recently noted.) A showbiz baby who grew up on the Upper West Side with comedian parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Ben Stiller is notorious for disappointing interviewers who come craving punch lines, and he doesn’t so much as make an ironic observation in our time together. Instead, the 39-year-old father—he and his wife, the actress Christine Taylor, have a second child on the way—ambles in and out of earnest self-critique, spelling out an all-too-familiar scenario: The Funny Guy’s Mid-Career Crisis.

“I don’t really get into the whole meta- aspect of the thing,” he starts, declining to be the next in a long list of people who have tried to make some sense of his confounding popularity. Analyzing his own image, he says, is “all just so abstract.”

He notes that he had no control over those five movies’ being released in one year, and tosses out standard lines about getting out of his “comfort zone” and how he’ll make future decisions “based on what’s right in my life at the moment”—earnest explanations that wouldn’t be out of place in his self-help spoof Feel This Book, but aren’t necessarily dishonest, either.

Still—while he clarifies, obliquely, that “nobody’s complaining about anything”— he is straightforward about the reasons for his year of living cautiously: The “cold, hard bottom line of moviemaking” is that studios still don’t consider him bankable as anything but a comedic actor. And from the beginning, Stiller’s thought of himself as a more serious artist, branching into his own projects from the moment he quit Saturday Night Live after a five-week stint, claiming that the show wasn’t “the voice for the young generation anymore.”

“My real connection with filmmaking has been directing,” he says, in another phrase that often echoes through the Actors Studio. (Among the films he’s directed: the morbid cult classic The Cable Guy.) Now Stiller’s developing dramatic projects, but despite his commercial clout, “it’s still like pushing a boulder up a hill to get them made.” Apparently, once you’ve zippered your scrotum, dangled sperm off your ear, been Tasered, faked explosive diarrhea, and filmed yourself in an orgy involving a donkey and a Maori tribesman, some studios just won’t trust you with serious material.

So in the break before the next Fockers—and before the summer release of DreamWorks’ animated feature Madagascar, in which he voices a lion in the Central Park Zoo—Stiller is playing a bit of celebrity poker with his creative capital, placing his bet on the New York stage. Performing live, Stiller will be returning to roots he hasn’t tended in eighteen years, when he played Ronnie Shaughnessy in John Guare’s Tony-winning The House of Blue Leaves. Now he’s starring opposite Jeffrey Wright in This Is How It Goes, a new drama by Neil LaBute, Off Broadway’s most Hollywood-friendly playwright and a convenient reminder that Stiller’s not just another funny face.

“I got back from L.A. and found this wonderful, compassionate note,” recalls George C. Wolfe, who is directing the play. “It said, ‘I’m an actor, and I’m excited by this role. I feel like I’ve been away from the stage, and I love this material.’ He said that when he went to L.A., he didn’t imagine it would be for so long.”

It’s not Stiller’s first outing with LaBute: The same year There’s Something About Mary made him a marquee name, he points out, he also appeared in LaBute’s cynical Your Friends and Neighbors as a lecherous playwright. (LaBute admits that Stiller’s Mamet-like costume was a cheeky “nod to the master.”) The idea of taking on another dramatic role appealed to him, particularly since this new character, he says, “starts out on the surface to be one person and then he’s revealed to be something else.” Despite the star billing, Neil LaBute swears he didn’t write or revise This Is How It Goes with Stiller in mind. But the first scene practically reads like There’s Something About Mary Revisited: In front of a small-town department store, Stiller plays an affable guy—once a dork in high school—who bumps into the sweet blonde woman (Amanda Peet) he once loved as a teen.

WOMAN: “Oh yeah … everybody thought you were funny.”

MAN: “Yep … that’s me. Mr. Comedy.”

The audience response during that beat will say a lot about whether Stiller can pull off the part—and whether his celebrity will overwhelm it. But Wolfe protests that Stiller’s star-size “persona” is not a distraction: “He’s a monstrously talented actor,” he says. “There’s nothing even slightly remedial about his craft. He is a stage actor, and it’s a sin he’s been gone so long.”

Still, Wolfe does admit that dialogue referring to the character’s predilection for playing dodgeball was cut shortly before previews as “part of the evolution.”

“Ben comes in with a great deal of goodwill,” says LaBute, who’s excited about filtering Stiller’s fame into the role of a racist in a nasty love triangle. “The way we regard celebrity, you see Ben and think, What a swell guy. So to put Ben in a situation where he says ‘Maybe you don’t completely know me’ is really unsettling.”

It can be unsettling just to see Stiller—quiet-voiced and clean-shaven—in person. He’s always been a spastic dervish onscreen, with that chameleonic comedian’s gift—an ability to contort his face and body to embody the most insufferable geek or the most overpumped jock. Like some angry, Looney Tunes version of Jerry Lewis, he can stretch and spin into freakish caricature, so it’s odd to see him sitting here serenely sipping tea and munching on a bagel, that high-strung body at rest, that face, so often stretched into some pained expression of rage or embarrassment, confident and placid. And though I know he’s 39, it still surprises me to see strands of gray salting his hair.

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 zipperedyour scrotum, dangled sperm off your ear, andbeen Tasered, some studios justwon’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.”

Billion-Dollar Ben