Tom is amazing. We'd be talking about the characters, and in the middle of the conversation he'd say something like "My character should have these giant hands." I remember thinking at the time, Wait, did he just say "giant hands"? I seriously believe the man is a movie savant. The last time I saw him do something this out there was in Magnolia.
PLAYBOY: Was it intimidating to direct or act with someone at that level of stardom?
BEN STILLER: It depends. I wouldn't say intimidating. With Robert Downey Jr., for example, it was closer to embarrassing.
PLAYBOY: Why was working with Downey embarrassing?
BEN STILLER: Because I was so blown away by the guy, I started trying to copy him. It was like, Wow, this guy's a genius; maybe if I do what he does, I'll be a genius too! So I started doing what he did.
PLAYBOY: What did he do?
BEN STILLER: If Downey had some crazy vitamins, I'd get some. If he had spun around and thrown oat bran at the moon, I'd have run out, bought some oat bran and started spinning. I want to look like I'm as big a genius as he is.
PLAYBOY: Did the vitamins help?
BEN STILLER: They didn't help me, but Downey nailed the part. He plays Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Academy Award winner, the most respected actor of his generation—up there with the Daniel Day-Lewises, the Sean Penns and the Russell Crowes—and he's playing an African American. We had to find a funny, great, serious guy people would actually buy as a great actor. Someone who was a great actor—a great white actor—playing a black sergeant in a 1972 Vietnam war movie.
PLAYBOY: What inspired that?
BEN STILLER: I was talking to Justin Theroux, a writer on the movie. It hit us how funny it would be to see this massively talented actor take on the role of an African American and play it completely straight. I don't think another actor could have pulled it off. On every level he was a different kind of person than I expected.
PLAYBOY: What were you expecting?
BEN STILLER: Well, Robert Downey Jr. Obviously, he has had his troubles that everybody knows about. But you look at him and you see a guy so happy and generous that he makes those working with him better. He has this sharp, cynical thing going on, too. Some kind of anger fuels his acting, but he has found a balance that enables him to use it. I don't think I ever directed an actor that good. It was daunting. Even eating with him was daunting.
PLAYBOY: Why was that daunting?
BEN STILLER: His mind works so fast, when you eat with him you almost have to stop what you're doing and think about what he's saying. He has a unique thought process. Our first few dinners, I couldn't keep up at all. I was laughing and literally going back three sentences trying to understand what he was saying. You're on guard when you're around him but in a good way, because you don't want to miss anything. He's throwing out ideas—really good ideas—in a torrent.
PLAYBOY: You're a dad now. Does being a family man influence your work?
BEN STILLER: The biggest difference is that I wasn't accountable before. I tend to be a workaholic. You can keep some pretty insane hours when you don't have to be anywhere. But now I do have to be somewhere.
PLAYBOY: Was there a conflict between work and family?
BEN STILLER: There's always that conflict. And it's not just about time. When you're with your kids, you have to actually be there. You can't be thinking about how this scene has to be cut or that bit of music needs to be redone or about the scene you're shooting tomorrow. You need to find some balance, which was an entirely new concept for me. But hey, I've been married almost eight years. I live a pretty boring, stable life.
PLAYBOY: In an alternate universe, what would you be doing if you hadn't ended up directing and acting?
BEN STILLER: As a kid I was interested in being an archaeologist. I was into Egyptology. Also I loved scuba diving. I was an assistant diving instructor when I was a teenager. So I might have had some kind of undersea career. Another thing I loved was astronomy. In the summer, I took some extracurricular classes at the Hayden Planetarium in New York with my mom.
PLAYBOY: You took astronomy classes with your mom?
BEN STILLER: Yeah, and it was great. I loved that. But you know, once you get into all the stars and the constellations, eventually some math will be involved. That's when it always broke down for me. I've got some deep and unresolved math issues. I suck at it.
PLAYBOY: It's no secret that a lot of actors' production companies are more or less vanity operations, but yours actually makes movies.
BEN STILLER: Well, I don't want to get into other people's operations, but yeah, this year we were really busy. I mean, I got to direct and produce Tropic Thunder, and my company, Red Hour, produced The Ruins, which we developed from a great script by Scott Smith, the novelist and screenwriter who wrote A Simple Plan. The best thing about where I am now is getting to work with writers I love, trying to develop things a major studio might not necessarily jump on. It's always an uphill fight. One of the things I want to do is CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, from the short story by George Saunders, the New Yorker writer. He has been working on the script for the better part of 10 years.
PLAYBOY: Didn't you develop and make Dodgeball after the studio passed?
BEN STILLER: Yeah, but it's that way with any script that gets made eventually, unless it's some high-concept tent-pole thing. That's what being a producer is—trying to get things made. At this point I think I'm a better director than producer. I'm not the first person to say it's hard to get things made in Hollywood. Tropic Thunder took nine years.
PLAYBOY: You obviously don't need the money, so what keeps you going?
BEN STILLER: One of the reasons—no, one of the obligations you have when you get to a certain place in this business—is to take on projects that would not happen otherwise.
PLAYBOY: Is there a movie you made that you really love that didn't come easy?
BEN STILLER: Zoolander. That was a hard one. And when it finally got made, it came out two weeks after September 11.
PLAYBOY: Was there any talk of delaying the release?
BEN STILLER: Obviously, there could not have been a worse time to put out a movie. But at the same time, I couldn't think of any reason not to release it, other than people would be worried it wouldn't make as much money. Zoolander is more gratifying than any of the big-box-office movies I've been in.
PLAYBOY: What makes it more gratifying?
BEN STILLER: What it has become for people. The way it has lasted. Who could have predicted that? That's why you keep pushing. I've been trying to make What Makes Sammy Run? for, I don't know, 10 or 11 years. People were trying to make it for 50 years before me. I'm now too old to play Sammy, the part that made me want to do the movie in the first place. But that's the deal, man. You're always doing this at the same time you're trying to figure out how to do that. If you really believe in a project, if you have that passion, you have to be patient. And meanwhile you have to keep working, keep making movies. That's the nature of the business. It's like acting. There's more to making movies than people see.
PLAYBOY: What is the reality that people don't see about acting?
BEN STILLER: People tend to look at acting and say, "I could do that." I wish everybody could come on a set one time, stand in front of the camera and try it. When suddenly everyone is looking at you, the chemistry changes. It has taken me 10 years of working to get to the point where I feel comfortable. Try being funny or emotional when there's a bunch of union guys sitting around waiting for lunch, a director telling you to do something, an actor across from you who may or may not be giving you anything, a camera staring at you and some guy in a suit in a corner texting, probably about you.
PLAYBOY: Are you looking for sympathy?
BEN STILLER: No, that's what the job is. I'm sure any surgeon would probably say, "Nobody understands what it's like to cut open a human body." Or some fireman's reading this, going, "Nobody understands what it's like to walk into a burning building." Those jobs are a lot more daunting.
PLAYBOY: Do you prefer working with directors who have acted?
BEN STILLER: Directors who haven't acted don't have the same relationship to an actor. I've worked with directors who will give you a line reading off the bat. To me that's the death of creativity. You might as well be a puppet. Anytime I work with a director who has some acting experience—even if it was 20 years ago for five minutes—they know what it's like to get in front of a camera and try to portray reality. It makes a difference. Acting can be the most creative, amazing experience in the world. But it's a weird thing to do for a living.
PLAYBOY: Is it less weird when you have your own customized trailer? Is it true you designed yours?
BEN STILLER: How do you know that? That's horrible to talk about. A custom trailer sounds so... [laughs] Well, you know how it sounds.
PLAYBOY: You've come clean about dog suppositories, yet you're ashamed to talk about a custom-made trailer?
BEN STILLER: Dog suppositories are somehow less embarrassing. But if we're going to talk about it, we should get it straight. I did not design it, and it is not exactly custom-made. I told them some things I thought would make it a little more comfortable than average.
PLAYBOY: What's wrong with the regular trailers?
BEN STILLER: Believe me, they can suck. And you know, given the nature of moviemaking, you spend a lot of time in them. On the other hand I'm not Matthew McConaughey, who has literally lived in an Airstream trailer for the past 10 years or something.
PLAYBOY: What's so special about your trailer?
BEN STILLER: It's not like I did anything fancy. But why not be able to have the place you're spending 12 to 14 hours a day in be comfortable?
PLAYBOY: But what makes the Ben Stiller trailer different from the standard star wagon?
BEN STILLER: It's 500 feet wide and 30 feet tall. It's the largest man-made trailer on the North American continent. It has built-in speakers and a trampoline because, as you know, I'm a tumbler. No, come on-- it's just a regular trailer. Nothing groundbreaking. The big difference is, it doesn't have to be disinfected.
It's risky having my own trailer, though, because then I have to be happy with it. I can't complain to the movie company about its not being big enough: "My trailer's not big enough!" "But you made it!" Same thing when you're directing and acting in a movie. What can you do, yell at yourself?
PLAYBOY: Because of things like the trailer, most people assume your life is pretty cushy. What is the biggest fear you've had to overcome?
BEN STILLER: I've been lucky in my life. But the scariest thing I've been through did not involve cameras and directors, I can tell you that. It was when my son, Quin, was born. The doctors told us there were complications. He suffered a trauma because he inhaled amniotic fluid, which has waste in it. So he was in a neonatal intensive-care unit for three days. That was the most fearful time I've ever had. I felt totally out of control. There wasn't anything I could do. It was surreal seeing all those little babies who are there for weeks at a time and the stress it puts on the families. We became friendly with the parents of the baby in the incubator next to Quinn's. This little kid had to have three surgeries, and he was only a few weeks old. I got a letter from his mom about six months ago, saying their son hadn't made it; that was crushing. You go through something like that and you realize there are no guarantees in life. You have to be thankful day to day.
PLAYBOY: How's Quin doing now?
BEN STILLER: He's great. You've never seen a more healthy, fun-loving kid. And here's the irony: He's the funny one in the family.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever think of just packing it in?
BEN STILLER: Sometimes I say to Christine, "Let's just get out of here and buy a farm in Virginia." I think I saw somewhere that somebody—maybe it was Robert Duvall—lives on a farm. I read that and it was like, Oh wow, that's what I've got to do.
PLAYBOY: Is it?
BEN STILLER: [Laughs] I seriously doubt that's going to happen. A farmer? It's probably a hard thing to learn at 42. Now that I'm talking about it, it sounds terrifying. I think I'll stick with what I'm doing for a while.