Actors will often tell you how it’s a whole lot easier and much more fun to play unsympathetic villains on screen. But for Ben Stiller, doing a down in the dumps, mentally stressed out loner in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, couldn’t have been a more satisfying character to inhabit, and in some ways exactly like parts of himself as well. Ben also shed some new and unusual light during our candid conversation, on the pleasures to be had in doing absolutely nothing, awkward screen sex, African bracelets and get well burgers in a movie.
BEN STILLER: I need a diet coke, please!
Hey, you made it here.
BS: Yeah, I got through the snow…
So how would you describe Roger Greenberg?
BS: He’s somebody you don’t often see in movies. Which is a guy who’s obviously flawed, but is really trying to do the best he can in life. And I think a lot of us can identify with that daily struggle, of just trying to get through the day, with your ego intact and your sense of self.
And then having to deal with the thousands of things that chip away at you in life, as you’re trying to make your way. And I think there’s really something noble in that. Because I felt this character was really courageous, in just trying to get through his life, you know? And trying face himself. And that’s a scary thing.
You know, there are a lot of people in my life, who have not been as fortunate as myself in having any sort of material success, or acknowledgement of what they do. But they’re still very talented. People who have a lot to offer, but have just not been lucky enough to have that success.
It’s not life and death struggles like, you know, having to fight a dragon, or what you see in movies all the time. It’s just people trying to get through life. And deal with their choices, and the mistakes they’ve made in their life. And then to still go forward. And there are parts of that in people I know, and parts in myself.
BS: Like when I was in my twenties, I felt like I had everything figured out, much more than I do now. And I’ve heard people say that the older you get, the less you understand and know.
Because in your youth, you have that sort of blind confidence that allows you to take chances, and do things you might not do when you’re older. If you knew better! But that’s scary. It can be scary, and lonely.
Did you go into this movie wholeheartedly?
BS: My only concern was that it was originally written for somebody a little younger. And that what this guy is going through, is stuff that would concern somebody about ten years younger.
So I sat down with Noah, and we talked about how I felt. You know, in terms of being this age, and the issues that would be a little different.
So he went off and, it was weird, he changed some stuff based on ideas we talked about. And he came back with a very different draft. Then there was no question that I wanted to do it.
What about the romantic age difference?
BS: Well, it wasn’t really a movie about a younger woman and an older guy. They just happened to be different ages. And for Greenberg, it was just getting to this age where he sort of realizes that his life isn’t what he thought it was going to be.
And then actually having to accept that, which can be a really hard thing. And she doesn’t really fit into his plan of what he thought his life was supposed to be. But it’s really just about two people connecting, I think.
Without giving too much away, there’s a unique thing about this movie, in the way it handles the ‘A’ word, abortion. Because it’s just a very natural part of the movie, without any moral judgments put on it. And that’s very refreshing.
BS: Okay…I never really thought about it that way. I don’t know what to say about that! I mean, it was just part of the story.
Well, the way it was handled, from a male perspective too.
BS: Yeah. Well, I think it just shows where he’s at, in terms of reaching out to try to do something. And getting beyond his own ego and insecurities, about it. And just trying to do someing for somebody, to help them.
Yes, bringing her that burger in the hospital was a nice touch.
BS: Yeah, the burger! He thought that would be a…unique gesture!
Was it a challenge switching gears from comedy, for a serious role?
BS: You know, I didn’t see it as a serious role. I just saw it as a movie about characters, rather than servicing an idea or a plot. And I thought that was really refreshing, and exciting. And it’s just nice to be in a movie that allowed space for people to be who they are.
So you don’t have a career game plan right now?
BS: It’s not really up to me. I’m just lucky to be allowed to have any choice. And with any role I do, I feel very fortunate. And I don’t think I have anything to complain about, in any way.
I do think people have a predisposition to see you as funny, when you’re in comedies. But ultimately, those are just the choices that I’ve made. In any case, it’s just hard to find anything that’s good. And for me, this was very different, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
Very refreshing as well, were the intimate scenes. Because in most movies, they seem to hire acrobats to do the sex scenes…
And that usually seems so unnatural and staged…
These were two people who didn’t really know each other well, and the way you pulled it off so awkwardly, seemed so real.
BS: It didn’t take a lot of work! But it was all about just making the sex scenes real. And in reality or any movie, it’s always just awkward. And strange. Even if it has to look graceful. And perfect. Not that I have any idea how that works! But yeah, it was challenging just to have to do those scenes.
You were born into a show business family, and started acting as a kid. Was there any doubt that this is what you would do for the rest of your life?
BS: Not really. No, I really love movies! Yeah, and I always loved them as a kid. And I didn’t really ever take the time to think about doing other things. Which in restrospect, it might have been a good thing to have a little time when I was young, to have gone off and explored other possibilities a little bit.
But I also feel very fortunate, that I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do. And was able to pursue it.
So your parents didn’t prod you?
BS: No, no. I think they had a healthy sense of the reality of the business. And they were protective, and encouraging about having me follow what they were passionate about. But I’m sure they had conflicting emotions about it.
How did you wrap your head around this character, who just wants to do nothing?
BS: That can be healthy! Sometimes I think that’s a very good thing and okay, just being.
Is there an interesting story behind the handmade leather bracelet you’re wearing?
BS: Ah, my bracelet! Yeah, I just got it when I was in Africa. I got it in Mozambique, It was my second time there, and it was wonderful.
What were you up to in Mozambique?
BS: I was scouting locations for a movie that I might direct, and that’s it. The bracelet is about two days old!
Speaking of future movies, any chance of a Zoolander 2?
BS: We’ve been working on a Zoolander 2 on and off, over the last six or seven years. You know, the biggest hurdle, for me personally, is that Drake [Sather] who co-created the character, is not alive anymore. And he was a good friend. So for a long time, it was hard for me to imagine doing it without him.
So over the years, we’ve tried to figure it out. And my buddy Justin Thoreau is committed to writing and directing it. So I’m excited. Because I feel we’re going to be able to get the sensibility that Drake had originally created.
So yeah, I’m excited. It’s really nice for that movie have some sort of a life. You know, after not having such an impressive…theatrical run! Yeah, it’s nice that it has lived on.
Well, there always seems to be excitement whenever the film gets shown again on cable.
BS: That’s great. Look, there’s nothing that feels better as a filmmaker, than seeing something like that happen. Especially something that didn’t connect with audiences. And I’d just like to make something that lives up to the first one. But we’re gonna start from scratch. So that’s the challenge.
But where were you when it came out? Nobody said those things when it came out!
Um, okay, thanks.
BS: Good talking to you…