If you're an actor who's lucky enough to work for 25 years, eventually you'll go from playing somebody's son to playing somebody's father. But few actors can match Ben Stiller, who 25 years ago starred on Broadway as the son in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves and is now returning to Broadway on April 25 to play that man's father in a revival of the play.
A tragicomic story about the lure of celebrity and notoriety, it takes place in 1965 and centers around a 45-year-old zookeeper who dreams of becoming a famous songwriter and a son who dreams of becoming famous by assassinating the pope during his historic visit to New York.
"I just think it's a great American play," Stiller says, eating a bowl of oatmeal at a restaurant in the midtown Time Hotel during a recent rehearsal break. "It's very funny and has broad humor but then there's all these really dark undertones and events that happen, and characters that are really cruel to one another."
Further, Stiller was clearly drawn to the revival because of how prescient it was about our society's reality-show-era obsession with fame. "What's amazing about the play is that it saw this very different world back in 1971. All the characters feel like they need to be validated somehow by celebrity or being noticed," he says. "And that's the sadness of the play; the idea that people can't just be happy with who they are."
This, of course, is a big theme in Stiller's work. Though he's veered back and forth between satire and drama, playing both the clown and the straight man, this son of two celebrities himself (dad is Jerry Stiller; mom is Anne Meara) has returned time and again to men with an obsession with fame as well as a somewhat outsize view of themselves and what the world owes them. In Zoolander, he was the aging supermodel who cannot fathom the idea that the universe doesn't revolve around him. In Tropic Thunder, he was a hopelessly deluded movie star in search of an Oscar. In Greenberg, he was a former musician who cannot stop telling other people what to do, even as he fails at everything himself.
As his longtime producing partner, Stuart Cornfeld, says, "With people who are narcissistic and egocentric, he is able to convey a certain kind of hurt." Says Scott Rudin, who's producing Blue Leaves, "He's got earnestness and rage and those two things fuel the character [in Blue Leaves]."
"I never analyze it or try to find a theme," says Stiller, when asked about this. "But there's a humor and a sadness when you see people who have a distorted image of themselves in the world. I think we all have this idea of how we want to be and then there's how others actually see us, and the distance in between those two things is where reality exists."
Suddenly, a man approaches the table with his wallet out; a business card the guy is holding appears to be on fire.
"Hi, I'd like to give you my business card," the guy says. "I run the Ink Lounge upstairs I'd like to give you my card in case you'd like to entertain anybody on the house while you're here."
“There’s a humor and a sadness when you see people who have a distorted image of themselves in the world.”
Stiller doesn't seem to know quite what to make of this, but he's perfectly gracious. "Wow," he says, laughing. "I didn't know if you were going to blow us up or what was going to happen."
"I used to do that, but I'm finished with that now," the man says, handing Stiller a card that isn't on fire.
The fan makes an exit and Stiller bursts out laughing. "Did you see that?" he says. "I literally was like, is this it?"
Thankfully it wasn't—and Stiller's also pleased not to have suffered through an episode with a wayward camera phone. "I just wish everybody would learn to use their camera phones better," he jokes. "The amount of seconds in my life waiting for people to figure out how to use their camera phone, come on. I want to start a charity for cellphone camera education."
Recently, Stiller actually did start an education charity, Stiller Strong, which is raising money to build schools in Haiti by using a totally ironic PR approach. The name of the organization and its artwork are a kind of spoof on Lance Armstrong's uber-successful Livestrong campaign. The videos all make a big joke of Stiller.
In one promotional spot, for example, Stiller tries to sell his friend, Owen Wilson, two horrible, fluorescent headbands at $400 a pop, one for Wilson and the other for Wilson's dog. "Don't humiliate him," Wilson says, wincing, as Stiller cluelessly puts it on the pooch's head.
"There's a lot of humor to be mined in the world of celebrity philanthropy," Stiller says, when asked about it. "We even have a show we're developing on that, a TV show, because the mix of ego and self-aggrandizement and also genuine need to want to help coming together are all very real."
With all this talk about the nature of fame, I ask him what he would say if his children told him they wanted to be entertainers. He says he wouldn't fight them on it, though he also doesn't seem eager to turn either of them into mini-me's of himself.
"I feel like [my kids] already they have a sense of what this reality is," Stiller says. "The only thing I would say is wait as long as you can, especially now, because in the last 15, 20 years, the age little stars are made—it just happens much quicker and there's something odd about that. It feels a little premature. I would try to keep them out of the professional thing, unless they said 'I have to have to do this.' I would encourage them to go to college."
Should his kids enter the business, Stiller had some advice about how to stay out of the tabloids. "Be boring," he says.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.