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What Makes Him Run?

Ben Stiller seems to be showing up just about everywhere, with 'Mary' his biggest hit so far. But don't write him off as just another comic actor.

September 13, 1998|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Ben Stiller, who has had to live with the distinction not only of being the son of comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara but also being "one of the 50 funniest people alive," as determined by the list-makers at one of those list-making magazines, is not really in a funny mood this morning. One suspects he is often not in a funny mood in the morning. Nothing sullen or unpleasant about him, it's just that he's kind of serious, not your "Did you hear the one about Madonna and Newt Gingrich?" type of guy. Maybe if he weren't serious he would not be so funny in "There's Something About Mary," trying to get his zipper unstuck during that ill-fated bathroom accident. We feel his pain.

But it was that other scene in the summer hit that was the hard one, he acknowledges, the one where he had to perform an autoerotic exercise on camera in preparation for the big date with Mary, his long-lost love. Even allowing that it was strictly simulated, this does not fall in the ho-hum range of an actor's scene assignments.

"I know it sounds ridiculous, but to re-create that is the same thing as working on being high or getting shot," Stiller says. "But you don't want to be off-putting to people. It was a challenge. And lonely. It was one of those days when you're thinking, 'What is my life about? What do I do for a living?' "

And yet in the area of off-putting, that was nothing compared to the scene in the coming independent film "Permanent Midnight," in which, playing heroin-addicted TV writer Jerry Stahl, Stiller drives into the barrio with his infant daughter to make his daily score. As she wails beside him in the car seat, he struggles desperately to find a usable vein in his arm, then finally shoots up in the neck. Some moviegoers may find this as hard to watch as the beach landing in "Saving Private Ryan."

But let Stiller himself briefly reconstruct the Year of Ben Stiller, which actually began in the summer of 1996, he says, after the memorable media and market crash of "The Cable Guy," directed by him. He neglects to mention "Flirting With Disaster," the David O. Russell art-house comedy that in the same year brought him sterling notices as a young husband who set out on a cross-country odyssey to find his real parents.

This season, Stiller is also a member of the sexually unsatisfied circle of young moderns in Neil LaBute's current nasty piece of work, "Your Friends and Neighbors." And, wait, can this be? He also was tapped to host the MTV Video Music Awards and was in another film, "Zero Effect" (directed by Jake Kasdan), just out on video. Before 1,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild shout, "Hey, how about spreading it around a little, Ben?" Stiller can explain that this sudden confluence of prominent performances is mainly an accident of timing and occurred in a year in which he thought he was going to be busy instead directing and starring in the long-delayed adaptation of Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run?" at Warner Bros.

"Didn't John Goodman have five movies out one time?" he says, seated in a booth at Red on Beverly Boulevard, looking down at a late-breakfast bowl of oatmeal while he reckons with the current elevation of his visibility. "Somebody told me he did."

Though he denies being part of any comedy corps of Generation X hipsters, as he was once described ("Can I take this opportunity to say that there is no hip fraternity?"), Stiller, 34, admits he likes dark clothes and today is wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt. He is sitting in a black booth. He also has black hair and drove to the cafe in a black Jaguar.

But he has emerged from the creature-of-the-night persona he attained through weight loss and morbid concentration to achieve the maximum Jerry Stahl resemblance. The bowl of oatmeal only adds to the picture of health he presents now, his eyes bright and torso toned, in striking contrast to the haunted junkie we see in "Permanent Midnight," which opens Friday.

The film, written and directed by first-timer David Veloz, is adapted from Stahl's febrile memoir, a cautionary tale of Hollywood excess and decadence that strives to hit notes of black comedy.

The role was to have gone to David Duchovny. But, says Veloz, "I was so happy that Ben would do it because I always thought he had the dramatic chops. I think he's been overlooked as an actor. Everybody likes him, but his performances in these three movies are showing he's an actor equal to anybody in town."

"Yeah, it's definitely not a comedy," Stiller says about his latest. "But there are elements of humor. The book is really funny. He wrote these really dark situations in a really funny way. So I knew there was an opportunity for some humor in the movie."

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