Ben Stiller has been hovering on the brink of stardom for much of the '90s. The son of comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he first gained fame with his acclaimed TV sketch-comedy series, The Ben Stiller Show, which launched such performers as Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and Bob Odenkirk. Stiller made his directorial debut with Reality Bites, a sweet romantic comedy that had the misfortune of being marketed as the defining film of Generation X. Stiller's next film as a director, The Cable Guy, was an ambitious black comedy that was overshadowed by the hype surrounding Jim Carrey's then-unprecedented $20 million payday and dark role. In the past several years, Stiller has established himself as a likable comic leading man, first in David O. Russell's brilliant Flirting With Disaster, and most recently in the Farrelly Brothers' hilarious There's Something About Mary. Stiller's latest is Your Friends And Neighbors, the second film from In The Company Of Men director Neil LaBute. It's an unnerving look at infidelity and sexual treachery in which Stiller plays an uncharacteristically dark role. Stiller recently spoke to The Onion about Your Friends And Neighbors, his fans, and his future projects.
The Onion: Do you think Your Friends And Neighbors paints an overly cynical view of contemporary American society?
Ben Stiller: I don't know. I think it's Neil's point of view. He's showing his vision. I guess you could categorize it as cynical. I don't like to say that, though. I think that would be judging it too much. I think everybody will be able to take away something from the film. What's good about it is that everyone can make their own choice about how they feel about these people. You can say, "Oh, I have nothing to do with these people, and they're pathetic," or you can say, "I see something of myself in that guy, but I'm not that bad."
O: Do you think playing such a relatively unsympathetic character will change the way people perceive you?
BS: I don't know. Maybe. People tend to like to categorize things. I mean, everybody's talking about how sympathetic my character in Something About Mary was, so it's kind of good to play a character where people say, "What's up with that?" It's other people's point of view anyway. One of the good things about playing a part is that you don't have to worry about how people will perceive you; you can concentrate on just doing your job.
O: You were recently on the MTV show FANatic [a show in which young people get to meet and interview their idols]. What was that experience like?
BS: It was weird. It was strange, because I didn't know what it was going to be like. I haven't seen it, but it was about this guy who really, genuinely was a fan, and he was telling me some pretty heavy stuff about how my work had affected his life. My first instinct was to think he was just making it all up, but he seemed pretty genuine. It actually really affected me. I guess I didn't realize that there was anybody out there who would be so affected by what I was doing. It was strange.
O: Do you think there aren't a lot of people out there who are big Ben Stiller fans?
BS: Yeah, that's me. I don't think that. But that's just because… I know that there are some, but I guess I didn't think there would be one particular guy who would think enough about it to get online and e-mail MTV and be excited to see me.
O: What sort of preparation did you do for your role in Your Friends And Neighbors?
BS: We rehearsed for three weeks, and I think for me, it was all about being that guy, and by that I mean getting in touch with a certain aspect of my personality—letting go of some of what I've learned over the years about what I want to do in relationships, as far as being honest with myself. I think the character I play is a little more dishonest with himself. It was pretty much about getting in touch with that, which was not that hard to do, really.
O: You also play a heroin addict in an upcoming film, Permanent Midnight. How did you prepare for that role?
BS: That was a whole different thing. I spent nine months with the guy I played in the movie, [screenwriter] Jerry Stahl, and I learned how to shoot heroin. I learned how to do all that needle stuff. I talked to a lot of junkies who were practicing, and a lot of ex-junkies. I lost a considerable amount of weight, which was important, because my character was sick. I had to do a lot of physical stuff in order to play someone who was heroin-sick. And then I tried to understand Jerry and the world he was in. That was a really long, much more involved process for me. And I did that role before I did Your Friends And Neighbors.
O: Didn't you become friends with Jerry Stahl?
BS: Yes. Jerry and I became friends, and we wrote a screenplay together for What Makes Sammy Run? which is the next thing I want to direct.
O: You played a character on last year's VH1 Fashion Awards. How did you become involved with that?
BS: I've had MTV connections for a long time. I did The Ben Stiller Show on MTV in '90 and '91, and I've always been connected with those guys. I hosted the MTV Movie Awards a few years back with Janeane [Garofalo], and we played a bunch of characters and did some different things. I did a character on The Ben Stiller Show on Fox that was a takeoff on Luke Perry on 90210, and my friend Drake Sather—who writes for NewsRadio and writes the MTV Movie Awards and VH1 Fashion Awards—asked me if I wanted to do this male-model character. So we worked on it, and some people liked it, and it went over well, so we did it the next year, as well.
O: Is it true that you're developing a movie based on the character?
BS: Yes. We're writing a movie right now. As we speak, the script is in my backpack, being rewritten.
O: Are you going to direct it?
BS: Probably not. But I'm kind of finding it difficult to expand it into a 90-minute feature film.
O: Perhaps he could have some sort of adventures.
BS: Yeah, he'll have some sort of adventures. That's good. I'll have to write that down.
O: You're writing a book now with Janeane Garofalo. Do you think the book will help people?
BS: Yeah, yeah. It's designed to help people. There are different chapters about relationships and having spiritual peace and creating money, and just all sorts of ridiculous stuff. It's really just a lot of really stupid, stupid advice. But it was fun to write.