It's no surprise that Tropic Thunder is one of the summer's most eagerly anticipated movies. What other film offers Tom Cruise as a bald, overweight, ruthless studio executive and Robert Downey Jr. as an African American, plus Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, Nick Nolte and, by the way, very few women unless you count a bunch of men in drag? Nor is it surprising that the movie's director and star is Ben Stiller, the bent comic mind behind some memorable hit comedies, from Zoolander to Meet the Parents to Dodgeball. What is unusual is Stiller's ascension to the top ranks of Hollywood power players—on the screen (where he's a top box-office draw), behind the camera (as director and writer) and as a producer who owns a thriving production company and not only puts together his own films but also invests his money and talents in movies involving other actors. No wonder Newsweek named him the third-most-powerful actor in Hollywood after Will Smith and Johnny Depp.
Of course, even Newsweek admits Stiller's prominence on its power list was "the biggest surprise of all." Comedians rarely get that kind of respect in the entertainment industry. In show business it pays to look at the bottom line: His Meet the Parents movies took in $847 million worldwide. Night at the Museum grossed $574 million. There's Something About Mary pulled in a nifty $370 million. Stiller, 42, is also one of the most reliable comedy commodities around, playing cameos in numerous movies, music videos and sitcoms and bringing an extra creative twist to the talk-show circuit.
Stiller, whose parents are the famous comedy team Stiller and Meara, was born and raised in New York City and backstage at his parents' TV shows. Growing up, he made Super 8 films with his sister, actress Amy Stiller, and made his professional acting debut when he was nine, as a guest on one of his mother's TV series. His breakout (and famously sticky) role in There's Something About Mary launched him to stardom.
He has dated Jeanne Tripplehorn, Janeane Garofalo and Amanda Peet, and married actress Christine Taylor—with whom he has since appeared in Zoolander and Dodgeball—in 2000. The couple, who live in the Hollywood Hills, have two children.
Playboy caught up with Stiller soon after Tropic Thunder was completed. To get a fresh perspective we tapped Jerry Stahl, a contributor to the magazine who has not only worked with Stiller in the past but actually been portrayed by him in an adaptation of Stall's book Permanent Midnight. Here's his report:
"When I met Ben for this interview he was standing in his kitchen, stretching his lip to give me a look at the orthodontic mayhem he endured earlier in the day. His dentist, it seems, cut open Ben's lip during a procedure that involved shoving a peg into his gum to stick a tooth on it after the one that used to be there mysteriously fell out.
"I asked if he had been given painkillers, and Ben responded, "You know I can't take them.' He reminded me of an evening years ago when in the name of research for a film about an L. A. dope fiend—that would be me—Ben consumed a slightly heartier than recommended dose of Vicodin and puked all over Vermont Avenue and my boots.
Since then I've been best man at his wedding, and he has driven me home after a hernia operation. It's that kind of friendship. Some of this interview was conducted in his house, but some took place as Ben test-drove an Audi R-8 around the hairpin curves near his home. Not only was he able to answer questions calmly, he got us back to his house in one piece. Even though Ben barely dodged a couple of pedestrians, he never dodged a question."
PLAYBOY: Tug Speedman, the character you play in Tropic Thunder, is a movie star whose dream is to break away from the kind of role that made him famous. Is the movie autobiographical?
BEN STILLER: Tug's an action hero. As an actor he's forced to do the same movie called Simple Jack over and over again. I wouldn't say that was accidental. And he's so committed to his character, he's slightly delusional. He thinks he's always in a movie.
PLAYBOY: Is that a familiar feeling for you?
BEN STILLER: Look at the actors you connect with over the years. When you see some characters, you go, "This is a Jimmy Stewart role." If it's comedy, "Okay, I see Steve Martin doing this." I am in no way saying I'm on their level, but if people see any quote-unquote movie star in a certain role over and over, they have a preconceived idea. Baggage develops.
PLAYBOY: At this point are you in a position to choose the types of roles you'd like to do?
BEN STILLER: Creative freedom comes with success in this business, but the more success you have, the more pressure you have to do what made you successful in the first place. But as I said, in the future I don't see myself doing the kinds of movies we've been talking about.
PLAYBOY: So in a way you are a bit like Tug.
BEN STILLER: Yes. That can happen at a certain level of celebrity. What makes it—hopefully—comedic is the way he ends up a prisoner of his own image. He gets captured in the Golden Triangle by a remote tribe of heroin traffickers who force him at gunpoint to reenact scenes from Simple Jack, in which he played a mentally impaired farmhand who can talk to animals. This was his big, serious movie—his Oscar bid. It is being universally ridiculed except in this tiny jungle compound where they love it so much they make him perform it at gunpoint on a sort of Gilligan's Island stage five times a day. It's the only movie they've ever seen, so he's kind of worshipped and humiliated at the same time.
PLAYBOY: You've had your share of humiliation in movies. You have your face rubbed in fat-guy sweat in Along Came Polly, you're hit by Mickey Rooney in Night at the Museum, and you suffer sticky indignity in There's Something About Mary. You are physically or verbally tormented in Dodgeball, Zoolander and pretty much all your movies right up to this new one. Do we detect a theme?
BEN STILLER: It's obviously a through line that people pick up on, but it's not something I seek out. For Polly I wasn't pounding the table, saying, "Find me a script where my face is smeared into a sweaty guy!"
PLAYBOY: Is there a line of humiliation and abuse you won't cross?
BEN STILLER: There are things I refuse to do. I think I'd draw the line at porn, but no one has asked.
PLAYBOY: Do you regret the types of roles you've had?
BEN STILLER: I'm not going to lie. It's worth getting a little beat-down from Mickey Rooney to hear his stories. One day, out of nowhere, he told me that when he was making Captains Courageous at MGM, he drove the first Lincoln Continental ever manufactured right onto the set. Another time he actually told me he gave Walt Disney the name Mickey Mouse. Disney wanted to call the mouse Mortimer. Mickey told him Mickey was better.
PLAYBOY: When you started out, did you fantasize about—dare we say—being as famous as Mickey Rooney?
BEN STILLER: Are you kidding? When I was starting out all I thought about was, How am I going to get work? I auditioned for three or four years before I got a job. Once you start to get work, you just want to figure out a way to keep working.
PLAYBOY: So there was no master plan?
BEN STILLER: I admire actors who have a plan. I wasn't one of them. Looking back, the great part about starting out is, you don't have people assessing who or what you are. Nobody's analyzing your work, because nobody cares. There's Something About Mary was my first box-office success. I remember people calling up and saying, "I knew it was going to happen." Suddenly I was some sort of quantifiable actor who could determine whether or not a movie got made.
PLAYBOY: So that wasn't your goal, to be a bankable star?
BEN STILLER: Before that I was happy acting, directing—just doing stuff. Suddenly you have this thing called a track record. It's a trap. You have this awareness that, Wow, that was a success. Now they expect the next one to be a success. But maybe it'll be a onetime thing... I never thought about any of this before. That's the trap: You start to care too much. It's like, now you're in the penthouse, but there's a trapdoor. You start to miss the days when you were starting out, when you were thrilled to get a callback.
PLAYBOY: You were born into a showbusiness family. Weren't you just kind of in?
BEN STILLER: God, no. In fact, that's where the idea of Tropic Thunder came from. Around 1985 all these Vietnam war movies were being made. I never got any of the roles. I even met with Oliver Stone. Nothing. I remember the guys who got those parts were always doing interviews about going off to boot camp for two weeks, how it was the toughest experience of their lives. They had to camp out, shoot guns, eat C rations, all of that. There was something so ironic and funny about actors talking about how hard it was to go off to boot camp for two weeks for a movie about a war when it obviously had nothing to do with the real experience of war. It might have been my own bitterness about not getting parts in these movies, but I did think there was the seed of something in the irony of actors taking themselves too seriously. Maybe this movie is my revenge.
PLAYBOY: Tropic Thunder is about actors in a war movie who become involved in an actual war. To prepare your actors, did you send them to boot camp?
BEN STILLER: We were going to have a three-day boot camp with Dale Dye, the bootcamp legend. Then three days became two days. Then it became 24 hours. Finally Stuart Cornfeld, my producing partner, came over and said, "Okay, here's the deal: We can do either the one-day boot camp or a cast dinner." I said, "Fuck it, let's do the cast dinner."
PLAYBOY: So this movie is bitter because you never got any Vietnam war movie roles?
BEN STILLER: Busted.
PLAYBOY: Why didn't you get any of the roles you tried out for?
BEN STILLER: I'm not a great auditioner. I freeze. For me it's very tough to go into a room full of strangers. I remember I really boned the audition for the Ralph Macchio role in My Cousin Vinny. I had a few callbacks, but I blew it. That's why I'm always amazed when I see actors come into a room and relax. When Owen Wilson auditioned for The Cable Guy, he was unique. He wasn't polished, but he was laid-back. He didn't push. I didn't think he nailed the audition, but Judd Apatow, who produced the film, said, "No, we've got to go with this guy. He's funny." He got it right away. Then I went to see Owen's first movie, Bottle Rocket, and I laughed literally from the minute he came on-screen until the end of the movie. I got him.
PLAYBOY: You and Wilson became close friends. It must have been difficult when you heard he was hospitalized last year because of a reported suicide attempt.
BEN STILLER: I love Owen, and I felt bad that he had to deal with all the outside bullshit. It's impossible to understand that kind of pain—depression or anything like that—until you're in it.
PLAYBOY: Is it harder to deal with when you're a public figure and your personal problems are fodder for gossip and entertainment news?
BEN STILLER: It's completely unnatural for people to lead public lives. It has gotten kind of crazy.
PLAYBOY: Why are people so fascinated?
BEN STILLER: People would rather dwell on somebody else's problems than look at their own. Or they'd rather look at somebody else's problems than at what the rest of humanity is going through. Do I want to pick up a copy of U.S. News & World Report or grab Us Weekly? If I'm in a checkout line, I'll take the one with the big pictures.