What Makes Him Run?

Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Ben Stiller, who has had to live with the distinction not only of being the son of comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara but also being "one of the 50 funniest people alive," as determined by the list-makers at one of those list-making magazines, is not really in a funny mood this morning. One suspects he is often not in a funny mood in the morning. Nothing sullen or unpleasant about him, it's just that he's kind of serious, not your "Did you hear the one about Madonna and Newt Gingrich?" type of guy. Maybe if he weren't serious he would not be so funny in "There's Something About Mary," trying to get his zipper unstuck during that ill-fated bathroom accident. We feel his pain.

But it was that other scene in the summer hit that was the hard one, he acknowledges, the one where he had to perform an autoerotic exercise on camera in preparation for the big date with Mary, his long-lost love. Even allowing that it was strictly simulated, this does not fall in the ho-hum range of an actor's scene assignments.

"I know it sounds ridiculous, but to re-create that is the same thing as working on being high or getting shot," Stiller says. "But you don't want to be off-putting to people. It was a challenge. And lonely. It was one of those days when you're thinking, 'What is my life about? What do I do for a living?' "

And yet in the area of off-putting, that was nothing compared to the scene in the coming independent film "Permanent Midnight," in which, playing heroin-addicted TV writer Jerry Stahl, Stiller drives into the barrio with his infant daughter to make his daily score. As she wails beside him in the car seat, he struggles desperately to find a usable vein in his arm, then finally shoots up in the neck. Some moviegoers may find this as hard to watch as the beach landing in "Saving Private Ryan."

But let Stiller himself briefly reconstruct the Year of Ben Stiller, which actually began in the summer of 1996, he says, after the memorable media and market crash of "The Cable Guy," directed by him. He neglects to mention "Flirting With Disaster," the David O. Russell art-house comedy that in the same year brought him sterling notices as a young husband who set out on a cross-country odyssey to find his real parents.

This season, Stiller is also a member of the sexually unsatisfied circle of young moderns in Neil LaBute's current nasty piece of work, "Your Friends and Neighbors." And, wait, can this be? He also was tapped to host the MTV Video Music Awards and was in another film, "Zero Effect" (directed by Jake Kasdan), just out on video. Before 1,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild shout, "Hey, how about spreading it around a little, Ben?" Stiller can explain that this sudden confluence of prominent performances is mainly an accident of timing and occurred in a year in which he thought he was going to be busy instead directing and starring in the long-delayed adaptation of Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run?" at Warner Bros.

"Didn't John Goodman have five movies out one time?" he says, seated in a booth at Red on Beverly Boulevard, looking down at a late-breakfast bowl of oatmeal while he reckons with the current elevation of his visibility. "Somebody told me he did."

Though he denies being part of any comedy corps of Generation X hipsters, as he was once described ("Can I take this opportunity to say that there is no hip fraternity?"), Stiller, 34, admits he likes dark clothes and today is wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt. He is sitting in a black booth. He also has black hair and drove to the cafe in a black Jaguar.

But he has emerged from the creature-of-the-night persona he attained through weight loss and morbid concentration to achieve the maximum Jerry Stahl resemblance. The bowl of oatmeal only adds to the picture of health he presents now, his eyes bright and torso toned, in striking contrast to the haunted junkie we see in "Permanent Midnight," which opens Friday.

The film, written and directed by first-timer David Veloz, is adapted from Stahl's febrile memoir, a cautionary tale of Hollywood excess and decadence that strives to hit notes of black comedy.

The role was to have gone to David Duchovny. But, says Veloz, "I was so happy that Ben would do it because I always thought he had the dramatic chops. I think he's been overlooked as an actor. Everybody likes him, but his performances in these three movies are showing he's an actor equal to anybody in town."

"Yeah, it's definitely not a comedy," Stiller says about his latest. "But there are elements of humor. The book is really funny. He wrote these really dark situations in a really funny way. So I knew there was an opportunity for some humor in the movie."

While he was waiting for the film company (Live Entertainment) to get the money together, Stiller spent time getting to know Stahl and found an immediate rapport with him, so much so he enlisted him in his labor of love to bring "What Makes Sammy Run?" to the screen. Stahl is co-writing the script. "We just had an immediate connection," Stiller says. "The incredible self-loathing in 'Permanent Midnight' I felt had a lot of connection to Sammy," the amoral young studio exec with unfathomable gall that Schulberg set down for history 50 years ago.

"After 'The Cable Guy,' I wasn't looking to jump into another high-profile project right away. We wrote a draft of 'Sammy,' then I was expecting to do 'Permanent Midnight' and was so much into it in the months leading up to it, then it got pushed back. Then, as it was about to go, this movie 'Zero Effect' came along. Then I went right back into 'Permanent Midnight,' had to lose a lot of weight, then hoped to direct 'Sammy' but 'Sammy' wasn't coming together, and right after finishing 'Permanent Midnight' I got a call from Jason Patric about Neil LaBute's movie, saying we start rehearsal in two weeks, rehearse for three weeks and shoot it in three weeks.

"I had just seen 'In the Company of Men' and really liked it and thought, I don't want to turn down this opportunity because I like the filmmaker, so I went right into that after 'Permanent Midnight,' then while we were in rehearsal for that, I got a call about 'Something About Mary.' And that started like the day after 'Your Friends and Neighbors.' So I went to Miami for three months [for "Mary"]. And that finished in March."

Strictly by accident, the sequence in which the films were shot proved to be for him akin to "a decompression chamber," he says. " 'Permanent Midnight' was so all-consuming; 'Friends and Neighbors' was a very actor-oriented film, very much about rehearsal and the work, but the character wasn't the type where I had to get into any special physical mode. 'Mary' was almost like a vacation. It wasn't a character you could over-think."

Working with the Farrelly brother farceurs from Rhode Island, Peter and Bobby, he says, was itself a tonic after all the heavy drama.

"They're like, 'Let's show up, let's make it funny, let's figure out the joke, we'll have fun, we'll work nine, 10 hours [a day] at the most and go off and play golf on the weekends.' Which was like a whole new way of working for me. At first I was like, wait a minute, aren't we going to obsess about this? I actually learned a lot from them--like energy, trust and having fun. Having fun. It was a totally different experience."

That was the sunny summer hit. Now comes the fall and a story about heroin addiction in Hollywood.

"I laughed so hard it devastated me," dad Jerry Stiller says about seeing his son in "There's Something About Mary," "and essentially I'm a prude. But this one ["Permanent Midnight"] I think is the best thing he's ever done."

The elder Stiller has watched his son leap from a part in the Lincoln Center revival of John Guare's "House of Blue Leaves" in 1986 to a career that has eclipsed those of his parents. "He made the jump. He grew up on the road with us in motels and backstage in rehearsals, as did his sister Amy [Stiller, the actress], but then he did it on his own. When he dropped out of UCLA and came back to New York and was living at home, I said, 'You're not going to just hang around the apartment,' and he didn't. He started going to classes, studying acting, stopped eating sugar for two years to improve his body. I swear to goodness, between the ages of 17 and 21 he lived like a monk, dedicated to the work.

"I very much appreciate what he does, and I'm somebody who can remember how shocking it was to hear Jack Benny say 'kiss my ass.' But whenever I'm in the car with Ben, he'll put something in the tape player and start to sing along, and I'm still into Dizzy Gillespie and I'll say, 'Hey, that's not too bad, is this new?' And he'll say, 'Dad, that's Steely Dan, they disbanded 10 years ago.' "

'Permanent Midnight" is open to criticism that, like the book, it offers audiences an armchair traveler's thrill ride through the demimonde of fashionable degradation with, yes, a happy ending. And for an actor a chance to really chew the scenery, shades of James Woods in "The Boost" and Gary Oldman in "Sid and Nancy," and for a comedic actor a chance to show his dramatic mettle.

Stiller the younger would not put it that way.

"The situations, some of them are serious, and 'Something About Mary' is definitely a comedy, but you don't approach it like, OK, now I'm doing a comedy, now I'm doing a drama. That would be bad, you know what I mean, to say, 'Now, I'm going to act seriously.' "

Veloz says he confronted his star up front about the awkwardness of directing someone with more experience than himself. "I said, look, you've directed huge movies, how do you see our relationship? He said, 'Give me direction. I need help with this role.' He wanted to act."

"You don't get to play roles like this that often," Stiller says. "And how do you do it and not do the stereotypical thing? That's what interested me. This guy was not what you usually see in the movies as a drug addict: a comedy writer living a very upright life, Jewish background. You don't see a lot of Jewish heroin addict movies. It just doesn't get dealt with as much, but I think they're like everybody else.

"I think there are a lot of people with addiction problems who can identify with that, believe it or not. To see where this guy went and was able to somehow get out--to see that bottom he hit is worth showing."

Still, shooting up in the car with the baby crying in the night is not a character development likely to bond the audience with the leading man. Indeed, it's the sort of thing non-addicts might find impossible to forgive.

"It happened, you know?" Stiller says. "And it happened in worse places than you can even show in a movie. It's real stuff. So it wasn't contrived, and for me that was the justification for the movie. In terms of likability or following a character. . . . " It could be a problem, is what he doesn't say just now. "But to me Jerry [Stahl] is one of the best people I know, one of the most likable. And he also did that. It's like people have dark places they've gone and it doesn't make them bad characters.

"It's harder for me to watch the character I play in 'Your Friends and Neighbors' because I think Jerry is a morally centered person, a good person who was dealing with a lot of problems and got out, as opposed to another guy who is harder to watch because he doesn't have that."

His character in "Your Friends and Neighbors" is a college drama professor scheming to bed a good friend's wife at the same time his live-in girlfriend throws him over for another woman. And that just describes one of the three couples in LaBute's vision of the sexually agonized, thirtysomething demographic.

" 'Your Friends and Neighbors' is a much bleaker view," says Stiller. "At the end of 'Permanent Midnight,' the guy's got a chance and is trying to put it together. Neil's characters are very much more lost."

So lost, they also raise the question of empathy, as in why should anyone care about them? It's one thing to admire Stiller's performance as the skulky, empty-hearted opportunist, as many critics did. Fewer found it quite as easy to identify and celebrate the movie's murky objectives.

"It's interesting to work with a filmmaker who has a strong point of view," Stiller says in defense of LaBute. "It doesn't mean you have to agree with it. Some people might think it's extreme.

"It's a very private movie in that everybody's going to have their own reaction to it that they're probably not going to share with anybody. I always find it interesting when people react violently against it because that's definitely telling me something about them. I think Neil's an incredibly talented guy who chooses to put that out there, and either you like it or you don't like it."

Stiller knows what it feels like not to be liked. After winning hosannas for his first feature as a director, "Reality Bites," the 1994 romantic comedy of contemporary disaffection in which he also co-starred with Winona Ryder, he found himself charged with a battery of offenses for "The Cable Guy," in which Jim Carrey played his first $20-million role as a demonically giddy cable repairman damaged by a lonely childhood spent in front of the tube. The backlash was waiting for Carrey, Stiller figures.

"Jim had been having this incredible ride, and the money--a few choice [negative] comments by studio executives . . . the press is always looking for an angle."

For someone identified as a leading member of the ironic generation, it must have been, well, ironic, for Stiller to watch the media and movie audience lionize Carrey this summer in "The Truman Show," a movie that also offered a serious and critical view of television's effect on society.

He laughs now at the comparison. "It was interesting to watch. It was a good movie. I don't think 'The Cable Guy' was as bad a movie as some people said, and I don't think 'The Truman Show' is everything the hype said about it. But it's a good movie and Jim is incredible in it. I think it's all about extremes. People who go to Jim Carrey movies were genuinely put off by seeing him in a role [in "The Cable Guy"] other than what he'd done before, but I think it opened him up for the next level, the ability of people to accept him as something other than Ace Ventura."

Maybe Carrey and director Peter Weir will thank him come Oscar time. It seems entirely possible Stiller will be there himself.*

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