„You have to face your fears”

Ben Stiller



On screen, he is often nice, but awkward. Ben Stiller talks about envy, what his parents taught him and having fun with old friends

Mr. Stiller, You have the image of being a likable but hapless softie. Wouldn’t you like to be mean for a change?

Being mean is just not my thing; if feels too cheap. I remember letting a magazine quote a few rash comments I made about red carpet photos. When I saw them in print, I felt almost ashamed. What’s it got to do with me what some pop star is wearing?

Judging by the roles you’ve played over the past few years, and now also play in Brad’s Status, you seem to be a midlife crisis expert. Is that by chance or design?

I’ve never seen it that way. I don’t pigeonhole my characters, I see them as individuals. What was interesting about this film was that it really homes in, explores the heights and plumbs the depths of life. Brad, my character, has failed to face up to some life challenges. This has consequences for all his relationships. But hey, would you call that a real midlife crisis? I see it more as the beginning of a mild depression.

Three boys in track suits: Ben Stiller in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Three boys in track suits: Ben Stiller in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

© ddp

You’ve played this kind of role fairly frequently. Why this time?

I liked the script; it was smart, funny and intelligent. Also, Mike White is a very sought-after comedy writer. Knowing he was planning to direct the movie himself was a clear indication that the story was going to be special.

But Brad’s concerns are fairly harmless …

I know what you mean. You could say that this guy shouldn’t make such a fuss, of course. His problems are First World problems, he complains about “troubles” that others might see as a luxury. But they are still real concerns to him and easy to grasp.

Which ones?

The way he constantly compares his own life to that of other people. Most of us do that kind of thing every day, right?

Even a successful actor like yourself?

Of course, all the time. Why not someone like me? In the film busi­ness, particularly, it’s almost impossible to shut out these kinds of thoughts: Why didn’t I get that part? Why hasn’t my movie attracted such big audiences? It’s human nature to think these things, isn’t it? The question is how you cope with doubts and how badly you let them affect you.

It’s not so great when it turns into real envy, though, is it?

Of course not, especially if you keep it bottled up. I have a good friend who’s a sought-after director and film producer – and he constantly compares himself with colleagues. He rails against the Star Wars movies because they are such huge hits and he hasn’t made one yet – or he’s resentful when they win awards and his don’t. But he’s open about it, jokes, shows feelings that others only concede to themselves.

Here’s a simple question: What’s most important if you want to be happy?

Simple question? That’s the billion-dollar question! I wish I had the answer. I’d say everyone spends their whole life looking for it. It’s definitely important to try and live your life to the full and not let it pass you by.

 You should live your life to the full, not let it pass you by 

That’s easily said, but did you always know what you wanted and where you were headed?

No. I naturally recall feeling unsure at times. As a teenager, the idea of leaving home and striking out on my own made me uneasy. But I never tried to escape such experiences. That’s what becoming an adult is all about. If you face your fears, you mature as a person. Difficulties can teach you a lot – also about yourself.

But positive experiences like having a successful career or becoming a parent can also change a person …

Yes, obviously, it’s the sum of different influences that makes us who we are. But the most important experience is always that of receiving love and encouragement as a child. Nothing was as im­portant in my development as my family’s support. I am well aware that you should never take this for granted, especially if you choose to follow a career in the arts.

What did you learn from your parents?

Dedication and passion for my work. And primarily from my mother, how important it is not to take yourself too seriously. You didn’t stand a chance in our family if you did: My parents could smell self-important bullshit a mile off. Another piece of advice they gave me was never to change who you are just to please other people.

You worked as a director for a long time. Wouldn’t you like to go back to that?

I was ten years old when I first realized that I wanted to be a director. Acting wasn’t so important, but it suddenly took over. I wouldn’t mind directing again if the situation changed. But don’t worry, I won’t be giving up acting altogether. There’s noth­ing sillier than actors who say they’re retiring. They never stick to it!

Do you still keep up with the people you knew as a kid?

Five years ago, my high school class celebrated its 30th reunion and I went. I saw a bunch of old friends again and we’re now regularly in touch. The people I’m most interested in keeping up with are the members of my old band.

You played in a band?

Oh yes, it was a punk band called Capital Punishment. We even recorded an album, Roadkill, which was financed by our lead singer Chris’s mom. We weren’t particularly good, but since we all met up again, we’ve had a couple of jam sessions, and it’s been a lot of fun playing the drums again!