Ben Stiller, the funny man from Zoolander, Night at the Museum and The Royal Tenenbaums is about to surprise audiences by going straight. In Greenberg, Noah Baumbach's follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, Stiller plays the eponymous 40-year-old trying to reconnect with his own life.
Greenberg returns to his childhood neighbourhood in Los Angeles to house-sit while his brother is on holiday. He has recently lost his job, is not really keen on finding a new one and seems to want to pick up with old friends, including Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and his old band-mates. It soon becomes clear that Greenberg has always been a bit too stubborn for his own good. The humour comes from how gauche Greenberg is, especially when it comes to relationships with women. The central relationship is with his brother's assistant, played by the rising star Greta Gerwig. It's the type of awkward, inept character that Stiller has specialised in, but by playing down the comedy angle he departs radically from his other recent roles.
Stiller says of this choice: " I just want to do good scripts that have directors with a vision. That to me is the really great thing about this film, having a director with a vision and a real tone who wrote a really specific character. I don't categorise it as a comedy or not a comedy. I didn't think, 'I'm playing a serious character now.' I felt like he wrote a very multi-faceted character on the page that was not easily definable. So as an actor trying to figure out why he was doing the things he was doing and who he was, I haven't had the opportunity for a long time to do something like that and never with a director like this."
The biggest challenge for the actor was that Baumbach did not want him to improvise any lines. He wanted him to say the words just as he had written them on the page. "There was no room for improvisation at all and that was a new thing for me," admits Stiller. "In most movies I've done there is always a looseness on some level in terms of it being OK to play around, but with this it was written so specifically, right down to the cadences and the dialogue. It was really fun to embrace that and then worry about becoming more like the character rather than having to make the character sound more like me. That helped me have to dig deeper into figuring out who the guy was saying that line, as opposed to making it more convenient for me to say the line in my own way."
It's unsurprising that Stiller should find relinquishing control of his personal persona so difficult, as the 44-year-old has done much to cultivate his image as the man to call on when you need a character so obsessed with himself that he cannot see the world beyond his own four walls. The son of the comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara made his first acting appearance aged 10 as a guest on his mother's television series Kate McShane. He got a taste for the actor's life and landed a part in a Broadway show in his 20s. It was failure rather than success that led to his writing his own skits and thence to a short-lived writing job on Saturday Night Live.
"I've always done my own thing," says Stiller. "Really out of necessity, because ever since I started auditioning and I wasn't getting jobs I'd just start to do my own thing because I wanted to be creative and doing stuff, just kind of hoping to find people who wanted to work with me that I wanted to work with." Luckily Stiller got some good breaks that led to The Ben Stiller Show, which was a series of television sketches parodying popular entertainment culture. The show acquired a cult following and would win an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing a Variety or Music Programme.
Stiller was now hot property and he found a lot of people wanting to work with him when he wrote, directed and starred in the romantic comedy Reality Bites in 1994. Starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, the film opened at no. 1 at the box office and Stiller was in demand as both actor and director. His next directing job was The Cable Guy, a comedy and the first film to pay an actor - Jim Carrey - $20 million (Dh74m) to take part.
As an actor, Stiller was cast in David O'Russell's Flirting with Disaster and Neil Labute's Your Friends and Neighbours. Then, just as it looked as if his fortunes might have peaked, Stiller had a golden year in 2001, first by appearing in Wes Anderson's acerbic comedy The Royal Tenenbaums and then writing, directing and starring in the fashion parody Zoolander. From that moment, it would be impossible to think of Stiller without thinking of Blue Steel, the fabled catwalk look he perfected for his character.
Often working with the same people, Stiller was seen as an elder statesmen of the generation of comedy actors known as the Frat Pack. Appearances in movies such as Dodgeball and Starsky & Hutch cemented his place, and directing took a back seat until his 2008 action pastiche Tropic Thunder. His association with comedy has become such that when it came to casting Greenberg, Baumbach says he chose Stiller because he realised that even playing the role straight the actor would bring humour to the part. Yet Stiller feels that his biggest influence on the movie was in helping to pitch his character in the right age group.
Stiller explains: "The first draft that I read was written more for a guy in his mid-30s. I said to Noah that since I'm older I would relate to it on a different level being this age and we talked about what it meant being in your 40s and what it would mean for this character. "He went off and did a rewrite and changed the character and that helped him find more of a story too, about a guy who was at this point in his life when he is either willing to open up on one level or he is going to get worse and worse."
The different stages of life intrigue Stiller: "Something happens around 20 when you realise that your life is not all ahead of you. It's a very real thing that happens at that age and I think at 30 it's still possible to think you have got your 30s and you're going to make stuff happen. I think Greenberg is smart enough to know that at 40, whatever he is doing he is not where he wanted to be and in 10 years he's going to be 50, and that's scary."
Luckily for Stiller, at 50 he's likely to be entertaining audiences just as much as he has been doing for the past two decades.