It's almost as if there are two Ben Stillers. There's the actor who is most known for starring in, well, a lot of movies: "There's Something About Mary," the "Night at the Museum" franchise, "Meet the Parents" and its sequels, and many, many others (some good, some not). Then there's the director. Stiller's feature-length debut, "Reality Bites," is considered the quintessential film about Generation X angst. After that, his directorial efforts took a more cynical turn: the then-disaster "The Cable Guy" (a cult favorite that is discussed at great length in this interview), 2001's "Zoolander" and 2008's "Tropic Thunder." The cynicism found in those three movies is nowhere to be found in Stiller's new effort, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
Stiller seemed a little embarrassed when I mentioned that his new film "wears its heart on its sleeve" -- something that Stiller has certainly heard before, but wasn't necessarily his intention. Maybe I'm the one reading too much into it, but it's interesting to note the parallels in the lives of both Ben Stiller and his latest onscreen character. Mitty has a fine job at LIFE magazine, but often daydreams about a more adventurous and meaningful existence. It's notable how much effort Stiller used to bring a modern version of "Mitty" to the big screen -- everyone from Jim Carrey to Owen Wilson to Mike Myers had at one point been attached to this adaptation of James Thurber's famed short story -- and just maybe Stiller, too, wanted to attempt something meaningful as opposed to starring in another movie like, say, "The Watch."
I met an engaged and fairly candid Stiller at an Upper West Side hotel room, where we discussed his personal saga with "Mitty," finally getting a good review for "The Cable Guy" in the New York Times and why his short tenure at "Saturday Night Live" didn't work out as he had hoped.
Does this movie speak to someone of a certain age or is it a certain type of person? My friends in their late 30s are reacting different than my friends their 20s.
I would hope it's a certain type of person. And I only have anecdotal evidence, really. Except for having done screenings -- I've done a lot of screenings in the editorial process of making the movie. And it was interesting to see people -- even younger people; maybe your friend not included [laughs] -- but they responded in a different way. I found some younger people responded to it in the way that it has made them want to somehow have more of a real experience in their life, and go out and travel and do something in a world where, obviously, people of that generation have so many screens in front of them and so much virtual experience. This was connecting them in a way that they actually want to go and do something that's actually, you know, tangible and happening.
Looking at parallels, nothing against a movie like "The Watch," but I feel you can do that in your sleep. Now you've got this movie that you put a lot of effort into ... am I reading too much into that?
No, I don't think so. I mean, I got very excited when I read Steve Conrad's script for "Walter Mitty" and I had worked with Steve on another project that hasn't gotten made yet -- I just know what he goes for when he's writing. And, to me, that ambition of the script was something that excited me, in terms of trying to do something that wasn't necessarily one specific genre and that it had some different things going on. And, really, it was taking this story and it's technically a remake of a movie [1947's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" with Danny Kaye], but he really was bold enough to sort of put all of that aside and write what he wanted to write -- which related to this idea of getting to a point in your life where you go, "You know what? I want to do something." And getting in touch with why this guy is a daydreamer. Why do we live in our heads? All of that was new and interesting to me and got me very excited.
And, yes, I thought, OK, this is not necessarily a slam dunk kind of movie in terms of how you sell it or even people going to it. But I felt like if we can make the movie we wanted to make, I felt like there would be a chance that a lot of people could connect with it.
It's very earnest. Which seems rare today ...
I know [laughs], I never thought of it that way. I never thought of it in any way as a "feel-good movie." These people are telling me that and I'm like, "Really? Oh, man" [laughs].
Did it upset you to hear that?
It didn't upset me, but it surprised me. I know what it is, I'm used to making movies that are a little more cynical -- or a lot more cynical. And as a director, too, except for maybe "Reality Bites," So, for me, this probably connected with something that I inadvertently or subconsciously wanted to do, I guess. I never was thinking about it as we were making the movie. Like, "We've got to get to this ending where everyone is going to walk out of the theater feeling something like that." I was more thinking, I knew it had a "happy ending," but, to me, I didn't even know if people were going to go along for the ride of it once the fantasies stopped.
Which stop around halfway through.
Yeah, they stop because, to me, in the nature of the story, he starts doing real things and the fantasies go away and they get replaced by real things. That was a scary moment when at the first couple of screenings when I didn't know how people were going to react. I learned pretty early on that it was actually an opposite sort of situation, in that I had to work on honing down the first part of the movie because people have this natural instinct to follow the story.
Were you more nervous than you usually are at early screenings? Even with just the movies you've directed? I ask because I feel there's more emotion present here than anything I've seen you do ...
I think that's fair.
I feel like you're wearing your heart on your sleeve.
Yes. And I guess I didn't realize me heart was on my sleeve. [Laughing] And I'm like, "Oh my God, what am I going to do? Get back in!"
Are you embarrassed by that?
Well, it's just not, you know, it wasn't a calculated thing. I'm not embarrassed by the movie, I feel very proud and connected to the movie.
Right, but the "heart on your sleeve" aspect, you seem uncomfortable.
It's just not, yeah ... I felt like, you know what, it does somehow connect with where I'm at in my life. I know that just from experiences going on in my life. Whether it's the making of the movie itself is affecting me or the other way around ...
Where do you feel you are in your life?
I feel like I'm at a place where I've made some changes -- we moved out of Los Angeles and moved back to New York. You know, connecting with my family and seeing how life is moving forward. Soon, in a couple of years, I'm turning 50. Seeing how life goes by very quickly -- seeing things happen to people who are friends and people that you love and the impermanence of it all -- is a very real thing for me. So, wanting to seize that moment a little bit more and learn how to do that -- or even be aware of it -- and realizing that I never was aware. I think, maybe in the last few years -- it started five, six, seven years ago, maybe -- turning my attention toward saying, "Wait a minute, stop looking down or looking forward. Just be in the moment." Just to even notice that is a big thing for me.
Not to harp too much on nostalgia, but I am curious if you're surprised that people today appreciate "The Cable Guy," considering the original reaction.
I do movies where they get a good review like 15 years later.
Yeah, "Zoolander" is the same. Finally a guy wrote something nice in the New York Times about "The Cable Guy" when we released the Blu-ray. I'm like, "All right!"
Did it surprise you then that it didn't do well?
It definitely surprised me that it didn't ... well, I think Judd Apatow [who produced "The Cable Guy"] and I, we were both a lot younger and had a lot less experience. We had never experienced something that got that kind of reception -- where it didn't do well at the box office and critically people went after it. Until that happens to you, you don't know what that feels like. Because you're not expecting it! Because you haven't experienced it yet.
And everyone loved "Reality Bites."
They thought it was great, whatever. It was like, "fine," whatever. Even if it wasn't a huge hit, everything was fine. But until you get slammed hard, it's like literally like getting hit by a truck where you don't see it. I liked the movie, we felt good about it; then all of a sudden you open up the New York Times and it's like, "Oh my God. They hate it." It's a funny thing, in retrospect, and you go through all sorts of different feelings.
Do you feel vindicated now?
I do in that ... you know what? It's not "vindicated," it's more like if you like something that you do and you feel good about it at the time, that's the most important thing. Because then you go through all of the ups and downs and it could get rediscovered. It could not. As long as you feel good about it, that's all you've got. Then it's always nice when people go, "Hey, I like 'The Cable Guy.'" It's when you do something when you don't feel totally like... there's always stuff like that where there are choices you make where you're, "I wish I had done this or that," in the moment. And that's the stuff that gnaws at you. But when you say, "You know, I left it all on the floor there and that was my best shot at that moment in time," that's all you can ask for, really.
Why didn't it work out for you at "SNL"? I've enjoyed it when you've come back to host, I just never understood why it didn't work out when you were in the cast.
That was so long ago and it was such a short period of time that I think -- that was 1989 -- I was so focused on wanting to be a director, really, and to make my own short films. That was pre-Digital Shorts and pre all of that stuff and post-Albert Brooks.
Who did short films in the first season.
I wanted to be like Albert Brooks, basically, and they didn't have room for that. And I didn't think I was great as a live performer and there was an opportunity to direct and do this show that was more doing the kinds of things that I felt comfortable doing. And that's why I did it. You know, and I don't know if I would have made the same decision. In retrospect, I probably would have. What I regret is that it created any tension or weirdness there over the years with "SNL." And I feel that has sort of gone away ... that just wasn't the right fit at that time.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.