Ben Stiller showed off his comic skills with huge success in the 1998 film "There's Something About Mary." So what led him to take on a more serious role in his latest movie out this weekend? Rita Braver looks for answers in this Sunday Profile:
Girl: "I'm impressed by you."
Stiller (as Greenberg): "In what way?"
Girl: "You seem really fine doing nothing."
Stiller: "I wanna be doing nothing. I'm doing nothing deliberately."
That may be true of his latest character, Greenberg, but Ben Stiller seems to do everything.
At age 44, he's made a name for himself as a writer, director, producer and, of course, actor.
So who knew that as a kid, Ben Stiller loved astronomy so much, he'd want to go up to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
"Did you ever think it was ironic that you've loved the stars as a kid, and now you are one?" asked Braver.
"Many a night I have mused about that," he laughed.
But he probably never mused on the fact that he'd grow up to make films that have grossed more than $5 billion worldwide!
Braver said that people describe Stiller as "one of the most powerful and popular stars in Hollywood."
"Not true, neither," Stiller said.
"You really don't feel that way?" Braver asked.
"I don't, I do not, no."
But Ben Stiller is secure enough to make a very different kind of movie.
Instead of his usual play-it-for-laughs role, as the title character in "Greenberg" he portrays a 40-something loner, recovering from a nervous breakdown.
When one character pronounces "Youth is wasted on the young," Stiller's Greenberg says, "I go further: I think life is wasted on … people."
Stiller says he wanted to work with director Noah Baumbach, known for small independent films (like "The Squid and the Whale"). So Stiller took a smaller salary, and gave up his usual inclination to change dialogue.
"You know, 'Would this maybe be better if I said it this way?' And he was . . . he didn't say no, but every time he would come back, 'cause he was working on the script, [and] the script would kind of stay the same . So I realized that we weren't going to change that much!" he laughed.
"Your fans are kind of used to seeing you play a very different kind of character; are you worried at all, well, 'What if they don't like me in this one? This isn't their cup of tea?'"
"You know, honestly no," Stiller said. "There's a few actors, very few actors I would go see anything they're in. You know, Sean Penn or someone like that, 'Cause I think they're amazing."
"You don't think you're there?"
"What, me? Oh, no, no, no, no. No."
"I would go to a Ben Stiller movie if I knew it was a Ben Stiller movie," said Braver.
"Well, that's because you're nice," Stiller said. "You're very kind!"
"Greenberg" has drawn mostly positive reviews, but Stiller says he doesn't care if the critics are kind.
"I stopped reading reviews in 2001, 'cause I think Roger Ebert said that 'Zoolander' was the reason why people hate America or something," he laughed.
Ben Stiller grew up understanding the ups and downs of show biz. He and his sister Amy are the children of New York-based comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
"I liked my parents, so I enjoyed hanging out with them, if they'd be on the set or something - it was much more interesting than school to me."
And he dropped out of college to act.
"I was kind of like trying to figure out who I was, and that kind of went on into my early 20s, I think," he said.
"Have you figured all that out now?" Braver asked.
"Still working on it, still working on it."
In 1992, he landed his own comedy show on Fox. It lasted one season.
"I guess one of the problems was that no one actually knew it was on?" Braver.
"I think the biggest problem was that nobody actually watched!" Stiller said. "I think even the people who knew it was on weren't really that interested in watching."
After it was cancelled, it won an Emmy for best writing.
But Stiller says for a while he had trouble finding work of any kind:
"I knew that I wanted to be a director, but I also was interested in acting. But then, when acting jobs weren't happening, I would just go and try, you know, to make a movie with friends."
That's how he came to direct and co-star in "Reality Bites," a film about Gen-X angst.
"Now it's a cult classic," Braver said, "but it didn't do great at the beginning . . . "
"Right, which I didn't realize."
"That it's a cult classic, or you didn't realize it didn't do well?"
"Either!" he laughed. "Wow. Wait a minute. I have to process that. I'm glad it's a cult classic!"
Four years later came "There's Something About Mary," with Stiller playing the role of a nerdy suitor trying to woo Cameron Diaz. It was the film that gave him star status in Hollywood.
"Somebody, who I knew said to me, 'I always knew you were gonna make it!'" he laughed. "And I remember feeling really, like, surprised, 'cause I felt like, I thought I was doing great, up until then!"
He's gone on to make more smash hits, like "Meet the Parents" and its sequel, and "Night at the Museum" and that sequel.
And he's directed some of his own biggest movies, like "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder."
And Stiller admits there is pressure to batting out box office hits:
"But you can't let that rule you," he said. You know, that's been trial and error really, just for me learning what makes them happy."
One thing that makes him happy these days is the work he is doing to help build schools in Haiti, where he visited even before the earthquake.
Stiller and his wife, actress Christine Taylor, have two children.
"Are there things that you do differently as a show business parent that your parents didn't do?" Braver asked. "Maybe carve out more time specifically for kids?"
"That was an early-on fantasy, again: 'I'm gonna improve!' Now it's like, I just want to maintain. I just want my kids to, when they do eventually go to therapy, not totally hate me!" he laughed.
These days, the whole world seems to love Ben Stiller. But now, at the height of his career, he is still surprised by his own success:
"Do you ever think that you could have imagined the life that you have?" Braver asked.
"Definitely not," he replied. "I think that's what's great about life. Just, you know, you have these plans and then, you know, life is just gonna happen."