Ben Stiller Gets Personal

The comic actor talks to us about Greenberg, acting like a jerk and realizing you don't know it all as a 20-something.

For most of the past two decades, Ben Stiller has proven himself to be one of America’s greatest comedic minds as well as one of the world’s biggest comedy stars. But in his new movie, Greenberg, (check out our review here) which opens today in select cities and more widely in coming weeks, he digs deeper than his usual funny-nebbish self and plays a character mired in sadness and frustration (that’s still expressed hilariously) who slowly opens up his emotions and life to a younger woman.

Stiller sat down with RELEVANT recently and spoke about Greenberg in the hopes of drawing greater attention to a very worthy but unusual and low-key film.

What drew you to work with (co-writer/director) Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), who’s known for much more personal and small films than you normally participate in?

I was a big fan of Noah’s, and was wanting to work with him. I’d have been open to anything with him, cause he’s very interesting. Then I read the script and thought it was very specific and written for somebody younger. That was my only concern, that this was going through a guy who was 10 years younger, so I said let’s talk about that and he went off and rewrote it to fit my age better. It wasn’t like he went off to do notes or rewrite specifically but had ideas based on us talking and came back with a very different draft. There was no question I wanted to do it.

What makes Baumbach’s work so different from other filmmakers you work with?

What’s interesting to me was it’s so specific. The film wasn’t about a younger woman and an older guy, but just two different people of different ages with their own issues in life. For Greenberg, it’s getting to that age without his life being what he thought it would be, and having to accept that. And she in no way fitting into his plan of what he thought his life was supposed to be. It’s really about two people connecting.

Yet a lot of people will just see Greenberg as unlikable, a selfish jerk, unless you really pay attention and see his vulnerability the way the girl does.

Noah wrote a character you don’t see often in movies, who’s really flawed but just trying to get through life. A lot of us can relate to trying to get through life with our ego somewhat intact, trying to make your way. I think there was something noble in that, having to empathize with him and this character was courageous in trying to get through this life and face himself.

A lot of people I know are not as fortunate as myself in having material success in what they do but they’re still very talented, they have a lot to offer but just never had the luck. It’s not about fighting a dragon or exposing corruption, but just trying to get through life, overcome mistakes and move forward. I think it’s a very courageous thing also as a filmmaker that he’d make a movie about a character like that.

(SPOILER) The film deals with abortion in a very matter-of-fact way with Greenberg taking her in to get an abortion of another man’s baby. It’s still unusual to see a character have an abortion in  a film. Did that make things harder?

I never really thought about it that way. It was part of the story and it seemed like for her character that was her choice. I think it shows where he’s at in terms of being able to reach out and do something. To look beyond his own ego and insecurities and do something for somebody that’ll help them. (END SPOILER)

Is there any way you can see yourself becoming stuck in life like Greenberg?

He made certain choices in his life a long time ago. In my 20s I thought I had it much more figured out than now. A lot of people say the older you get the less you figure it out because you lose that blind confidence and when things didn’t work out, his ego and sense of self was greater and he’s living now with relationships he didn’t nurture. His self-realization is happening at a late time. And it’s scary and lonely. That’s why I think there’s bravery when he does take the chance to change and get outside of himself in some way.

We had to have an idea of what was going on with him. There were so many things he had not acknowledged—feelings and regrets, little rationalizations he’s had to make over the years to get through each day. Finally in some way it just materialized in some sort of psychosomatic thing. In the end, so many years of not dealing with stuff came up and happened in some way. That’s what happened to him. He’s just starting to acknowledge that stuff, and has a long way to go.

Do you have any regrets from working so hard in your 20s?

I really love movies and didn’t take the time to think about doing other things. In retrospect, I think it would have been great to have my time when in my teens or early 20s in exploring opportunities anyway. I was lucky I had a thought of what I wanted to do and was able to pursue it.

30 Comments

84,105

Elisabeth commented…

I second the nice work, Carl. One more note on the "Relevant viewpoint on abortion" as it specifically pertains to this article... do note that this is an INTERVIEW not an editorial feature, which means most of the words in it are not Relevant's but Stiller's. As for Rrelevant running an answer that all of it's readers may not agree with, that's called conversation. And kudos to Relevant for running an interview that truly does what an interview should--allow us readers to see where artists are coming from and what they are bringing to their work--and to Carl for being both daring enough to open the door for Stiller to address a deeper often off limits topic (who's to say the many ways any person could answer that question without first asking?) and for doing it in a spirit of respect and conversation rather than confrontation or attack.

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JusticePirate commented…

I think it is good to talk about films that are coming out, but at the same time I often see where certain films are uplifted as being something we should see as Christians without discussing if there is a right vs. wrong according to scriptual standards. Are we being set apart from the world or are we finding ways to blend in with social acceptance by worldly standards? That's just something I've thought about for years about Relevant. I do see the heart and that love you pour out and I know that is the main focus, and that you don't want to come around as judgemental, but at the same time as humans we have to make right judgements every day, if we make them at all.

Personally I hadn't heard about this movie before, and reading this has helped me come to decide that it is not for me. It just seems like a long drawn out boring film by the trailer, and I'm quite a movie addict.

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Grace commented…

Yay for grace and sensitivity, speaking the truth in love. I think we must remember what this piece is about; Ben raising awareness about his movie.

In an interview, as a journalist, you're there interviewing someone else, it's not about you or your moral stance. This piece isn't about Relevant Mag, it's staff or us as Christians and our beliefs.

Any questions asked are asked in relation to the movie - scenes in the movie, character development, how it came about Ben got involved in the movie, if he relates to the character in the movie.

If anything I think the question on the abortion scene will provoke a few thoughts, maybe people who are indifferent or didn't give too much attention to that scene till Carl highlighted it. Something's not quite right, hey hang on, is another man is taking some else's girl (or whatever the relation is) to get an abortion, is that really the society we live.'

Ben said himself he never thought of it that way.

Great job. Maybe it's just a seed planted, someone else will water it but ultimately is up to God to bring the increase. We can trust Him to. We don't have to force issues or be in people's faces.

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Grace commented…

Oh my gosh you guys do such a great job. I just read the article on birth control and it actually got me thinking about why I do some of what I do, if it's just going with the flow, if it's a lack of faith. And something I never gave too much thought as to whether or not God might have an opinion on - birth control - is subject I wanna personally hear God on for myself.

So thanks for the great job you guys do, and printing out a publication that represents and challenges mindsets that maybe need to be challenged, so we don't end up just doing things, living life religiously with no meaning, thought or convition. This is a great mag and also resource/outreach for those outside the 4 walls, not only the people you guys interview but people who won't yet come to church and whose views on God, church and christianity is changed through reading and checking out your mag.

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Grace commented…

If anything I think the question on the abortion scene will provoke a few thoughts, maybe people who are indifferent or didn't give too much attention to that scene till Carl highlighted it, might just think, "something's wrong here."

Ben said himself he never thought of it that way.

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