In some parallel universe, Ben Stiller is having a career like that of Hal Ashby or Albert Brooks, directors he greatly admires. “When I think about the movies I’ve directed—that, to me, is where I have the most personal investment,” he said. “Directing has been what I enjoy the most.” In this world, however, Stiller is a bankable star who has helped various movie studios bring in a few billion by playing put-upon schlumps in big comedies.
We all imagine lives different from the ones we have ended up with—lives more dazzling or eventful, or maybe just easier and happier. What if we did something about it? That’s the subject of the fifth movie directed by Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which shares something of the premise (guy who has intense daydreams) but not much else with the compact 1939 James Thurber short story of the same title.
It is also far removed from the 1947 musical adaptation that starred Danny Kaye. Stiller’s Mitty is a dutiful son who, like George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, has shelved his desire to see the world in order to concentrate on taking care of things at home—in his case, a widowed mother and kooky sister. As the head of the photo library at Life magazine, revived in all its analog glory for the film, Mitty is tantalizingly close to adventures he has not experienced firsthand, until one day—well, I won’t ruin it.
Stiller and I met in a wide-open section of the Catch restaurant of the Hotel Casa del Mar, in Santa Monica. He had some trouble getting through a late lunch (tuna crudo, fried artichokes) because of all the people who kept stopping by the table. The first person to say hello was baseball announcer Joe Buck. Then came the tourists—more than a dozen in all. They approached on gentle cat feet, only to whip out inevitable iPhones and request photos. Roughly half were from Asia or France, a testament to the reach of the comedies Stiller has starred in. They were exceedingly polite, even as their requests grew more and more exacting.
The American visitors, on the other hand, were almost backslappingly familiar. This was not, after all, some billboard god they were encountering, like Brad Pitt or George Clooney—this was Ben Stiller. They had seen his body and ego take a beating in comedy after comedy, and they felt like they knew him.
The attention seemed to embarrass him. He apologized to me more than once, as if his celebrity were a condition he should be able to control. The waiter asked him if he should shoo people away from the table.
“If they can get deflected before they come by?” Stiller said. “But once it’s happening, it’s too late.”
After a premiere at the New York Film Festival in October, Fox will release The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on Christmas Day, when studios tend to roll out blockbusters with decent Oscar chances. It has a shot at doing huge business, too, partly because its theme of the road not taken is, to use a Hollywood term, so relatable.
“That’s the thing,” said Stiller, who seemed to be suffering a case of prepartum jitters. “When I’m in the process, that’s when I’m the happiest, because everything is possible. But then you have to put it out into the world. Of course you want everybody to love it, but everybody’s never going to love it. So then it becomes: What do you have to do to get it out into the world? And then there’s the acceptance or nonacceptance of it. I do think that’s the biggest challenge, for sure.”
One of Stiller's favorite movies is Sullivan’s Travels, the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy that examines the value of comedy itself. It tells the story of film director John L. Sullivan, who abandons his life as a Hollywood hack (his oeuvre includes Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939) and hits the road, guised as a tramp, to gather the material he needs to make a movie out of a social-realist novel titled O Brother, Where Art Thou?
In the universe of Sullivan’s Travels, conveniently for Sturges, there are two types of films: fluffy comedies and heavy dramas; the movie provides no room for something that’s a little of both, like, say, Sullivan’s Travels itself. Now, some twenty years into his stop-start career as a movie director, Stiller seems to have hit upon the elusive middle way. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I saw at a press screening, has meaning and heart to go with the laughs. It’s a big-canvas picture, a real movie-movie, and it speaks in the language of classic Hollywood, with its echoes of It’s a Wonderful Life and Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. (Early in the movie, an office bully calls the stiff-bodied Mitty “Tinman,” although he seems to lack courage more than heart.)
“It feels very much like Ben, even though it’s a different aspect of Ben,” said the filmmaker Noah Baumbach, who directed Stiller in Greenberg (2010). “In a way, it feels like the kind of movie the studios used to make a lot more of, and we wish they would continue to.”
The last two movies Stiller directed, Tropic Thunder (2008) and Zoolander (2001), were satires more interested in tearing down established institutions (big-budget Hollywood in Tropic Thunder, the preening fashion industry in Zoolander) than in building up a fictional world in which audiences could lose themselves. His new movie risks more than his earlier work as a director. It takes Stiller further than ever from his spiritual home base—the piercingly satirical television series SCTV, which he has loved since he was a kid.
Stiller, 47, lives with his wife, actor Christine Taylor (Arrested Development, Zoolander), and their two children in Chappaqua, New York (home of Bill and Hillary Clinton). The family left Los Angeles three years ago. “I wanted to move back east while my kids were still young enough to give ’em a shot at seeing how they felt about it,” Stiller said. “We moved in the middle of the winter, and they had four or five snow days. They were like, ‘What is this? You never go to school here?’” His kids now experience some of what he went through as a child of working parents who were often on the road.
Stiller grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he now keeps an apartment, as the son of comedian actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Bickering and affectionate, they were beloved on the New York comedy scene as the Stiller and Meara comedy duo. Throughout the sixties, they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, despite the host’s habit of introducing “Stiller and Meara” as “Stiller and Mara.” “That’s just how he pronounced it,” Stiller said. “He was Ed Sullivan.”
As a kid, Ben shared a bunk bed with his sister, Amy, now a comedian and actor. He started making movie shorts at an early age, using a Fuji Super 8 camera his father had given him to shoot scenes with his friends in Riverside Park. “I started when I was 10, 11 years old,” he said. “I was actually looking at some of them with my kids the other day. They’re pretty crude, and they’re all the same story: a kid getting mugged, and a friend coming up and then beating up the mugger. Revenge stories.”
He got to know the nightclubs and comedy rooms of New York and Los Angeles. “My parents were at the Improv in L.A.,” he recalled, “and there I was, with my mom, and it was really crowded, and I heard this voice behind me, going, ‘Stay close to your mother—you’ll be safe!’ I turned around, and it was Robin Williams. It was right at the height of Mork & Mindy.”
He saw a lot of Rodney Dangerfield. “He was good friends with my folks,” Stiller said. “He would come over. I went to his club, actually. I met John Belushi at Dangerfield’s. I was maybe 10 or 11. He was sitting at the bar, and I walked in with my parents. I’ll remember this forever. He was sitting at the bar, and he said, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m OK.’ He said, ‘You sure you’re OK?’ And that was it.”