Ben Stiller is learning to fly. ”It sounds so actorly and horrible,” says the star of Flirting With Disaster, who divulges the new hobby only after some goading, giggling a little and speaking in hushed tones, so maybe the tape recorder won’t catch it all. ”Every actor talks about it,” he says.
Stiller’s a little torn about joining in the sport of Hollywood kingpins like John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Though he is a working actor who actually can direct, flying, in his mind, is probably not unlike Scientology or marrying Nicole Kidman. It’s just not something that a once-chubby regular fellow from New York ought to do. ”The funny thing about it was the way they advertised the flying school,” he says. ”They say, ‘We’ll let you land and take off the first time out,’ which is, like, not an inducement.”
Stiller’s career might finally be ready for takeoff after some high-profile engine trouble for him as both an actor and director. Despite cheers from critics, The Ben Stiller Show was yanked unceremoniously from Fox in 1992, and good reviews couldn’t help his feature directorial debut, 1994’s Reality Bites, find a large audience. Earlier this year, he costarred with Sarah Jessica Parker in the widely panned comedy dud If Lucy Fell. But last month audiences seemed to catch up with him. In the first weekend of its limited release, Flirting With Disaster opened to not only you-gotta-see-this reviews, but a whopping per-screen gross of more than $23,000. A screwball road comedy starring Stiller as a young father on a cross-country search for his birth parents, it has now made $3 million and risen to the top 10. Although Flirting‘s ensemble cast includes everyone from Patricia Arquette (as his beautifully suffering wife) to Mary Tyler Moore (as his overbearing adoptive mother), the unlikely hit depends primarily on an unlikely leading man, an Al Franken brain with a Johnny Depp body. ”Maybe he’ll start a new trend,” jokes his girlfriend of four years, Jeanne Tripplehorn (The Firm). ”The smart leading man.”
”There was something about [the character’s] neurosis that I could identify with,” says Stiller. ”Whenever you f— up” — he catches himself — ”or screw up, you think you’re doing the right thing.”
But just as Flirting establishes his viability as a movie star, Stiller is now scaling more perilous career heights, as the director of this summer’s The Cable Guy, a comedy-thriller starring Jim Carrey as a cable installer who develops an unhealthy obsession with one of his clients (Matthew Broderick).
What should be a golden opportunity for Stiller is under especially close scrutiny because of Carrey’s $20 million salary. ”You have a $20 million movie, then it’s a $40 million movie,” says Stiller, his face mossy with stubble and his green eyes dimmed by late nights in Cable Guy‘s editing room on the Sony lot. A deep, burgundy velvet couch has been imported to give this tiny, airless space a touch of home — Norma Desmond’s home, perhaps, but home nonetheless. ”The furniture that was here was s—ty,” he says. ”I told them they’d have to get me a good sofa if they wanted this movie by June 14.”
As Stiller knows, big breaks and broken promises look a lot alike. He got this a decade ago when he left UCLA after nine months to embark on an acting career. His first clue: Fresh Horses, the 1987 bomb in which he starred with sensations-on-the-wane Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy. ??It was the end of their reign,?? says Stiller, ??but we didn’t know that when we were making it. I was, like, ‘Wow, this is it! I’m gonna be a member of the Brat Pack!’?? This was followed by an unpleasant five-week stint on Saturday Night Live. Frustrated by not being allowed to make short films for the show and disillusioned by the ??very negative atmosphere?? backstage, he left in 1989 for Los Angeles, where he began to develop The Ben Stiller Show, a half hour of sketch comedy that aired briefly on MTV and was revamped for Fox.
Working on the series, he tapped into the cynical, showbiz-savvy sense of humor that has become his trademark. He owes the wry style to his showbiz family. The son of the comedy team Jerry Stiller (who plays George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld) and Anne Meara (author and star of the Off Broadway hit After-Play), he preferred accompanying his parents on gigs to playing with other kids. He and his older sister Amy, now an actress-comedian, made their TV debut playing a violin duet on The Mike Douglas Show. ??I wanted to act and direct and I wasn’t very popular in high school,?? says Ben. ??I had bad skin growing up, I was a little overweight.??
??He got to see behind the facade of show business,?? says his mother. ??There was always a show to get ready for, there was always PR and a lot of grandiose stuff, the need for fame and fortune and all. That led to him being a terrific satirist.?? The elder Stillers, in more recent years, have tried to make up for being absentee parents by going to family therapy with their kids. ??Now that I’m not ovulating,?? says Meara, ??I’m ready to be a better mother.??
Television was another major influence. His many hours in front of SCTV inspired The Ben Stiller Show‘s crazy juxtapositions of pop icons, such as Eddie Munster as Robert De Niro in Cape Fear. ??It all went back to SCTV,?? says Stiller. ??They would take their funny characters and put them in movies.??
??I always thought the Fox show was Ben’s film school,?? says Tripplehorn. ??When he would do those [film parodies], he would research the exact style of the directors and learn how they worked.??
Although Fox didn’t share the critics’ fondness for The Ben Stiller Show and canceled it after 12 episodes, it did get Stiller noticed in Hollywood. But his follow-up project, Reality Bites, about a group of Brady Bunch-literate kids in their 20s (Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke among them), garnered little attention among audiences except to set up Stiller as a reluctant Generation X spokesman in the media. ??It’s so weird that that was the spin, that I got that kind of label,?? says Stiller, still confused and a little bugged by the pigeonholing. ??For me, I was just doing my stuff.??
His next directorial effort never even made it to the finish line. Six weeks into preproduction on the movie version of Scott Smith’s 1993 mystery novel, A Simple Plan, Stiller and the now nearly defunct Savoy Pictures parted ways over budget issues, and the project fell apart. ??They were dividing up the money and weren’t leaving enough to make the movie,?? says Stiller. Though Stiller and Savoy agreed on the casting of Nicolas Cage, according to a source close to the director, their disagreements intensified when Savoy allocated too much of the budget to pay Cage’s salary.
When Flirting presented itself, he wasn’t taking any chances. After he saw the script, Stiller met with writer-director David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey). ??I really want this part,?? Stiller begged. ??Please don’t make me audition, because I’ll screw it up.??
Stiller didn’t have to beg to direct Cable Guy. In fact, he turned it down early on when his friend Chris Farley was attached. ??The original version of it was a goofy comedy, and I didn’t want to make that,?? says Stiller. He didn’t sign on until Carrey took control and employed Judd Apatow, a former writer on The Ben Stiller Show, to retool the script. Although hiring a novice director helped subdue the costs of the movie, ??we did not hire Ben because he was a bargain,?? says Columbia’s president, Lisa Henson. ??Ben and Judd wanted to do something that seemed new and original. I don’t want to sound pretentious talking about Cable Guy, but they also made it deeper, which is sort of funny because you don’t look for comedies to be deep.??
In the new-and-presumably-improved Cable Guy, Carrey’s character is a creepy, lisping fellow, a venal Ace Ventura, whose evil is inspired by the footage of Fatal Attraction and Cape Fear that unreels in his addled brain. ??It’s like [The Ben Stiller Show], very satiric,?? Stiller says. ??The whole movie has become about TV and how it affects people from our generation. Jim and Matthew’s characters have grown up on television. That’s kind of what makes them up and brings them together.??
In the Cable Guy editing room, Stiller is watching Carrey free-fall from the spear of a satellite dish. As he plummets, a medley of familiar images — Court TV, MTV — flashes across the screen. The few seconds of footage on the monitor look promising — sweeping, ambitious camera setups and good, restrained use of Broderick’s straight-man comic timing.
In the sound-mixing room next door, a minor but persistent distraction flares up. It’s Carrey’s lisp, magnified into a hissing air hose by the soundtrack. ??We’ll take care of it in looping,?? says Stiller. The editor, Steven Weisberg, stops Carrey in midair and sets about switching the images that will accompany his fall, aiming for the right mix. ??We’re staring at monitors all day,?? says Stiller with the halflaugh of fatigue. ??I guess this is why I love this job. I get to watch TV all day long.??