After making the award-winning The Squid and the Whale, filmmaker Noah Baumbach probably found it easier to get A-list stars for his independent movies, and that’s certainly the case with his latest Greenberg, for which he was able to get Ben Stiller, arguably one of the top comic actors working today, to play the title character.
Roger Greenberg is very different character from what Stiller has been playing in recent years, and Greenberg is a different kind of movie, returning him to more subdued and somber humor from his earlier roles in Neil LaBute’s Your Friends & Neighbors and David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster mixed with the drama of Permanent Midnight.
A neurotic former Los Angeles native who has been living in New York for decades, the soul-searching Greenberg decides to return to L.A. to housesit for his brother when he goes out of the country. Once there, he becomes involved with his brother’s personal assistant Florence (“Queen of Mumblecore” Greta Gerwig) and is forced to face his past in the form of his former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans) who he screwed over when he turned down a recording contract, forcing their band to break up. It’s really a great character role for Stiller, allowing him to do what he does best, but also showing off a few new skills. Both Roger and Florence are characters some people will be able to relate to more than others, and more than they’ll openly admit.
These days, whenever Ben Stiller has a new movie, he would normally do a huge press conference with hundreds of journalists from all over the world asking inane questions, but due to circumstance i.e. an enormous snowstorm, we were able to get a fairly quiet and small roundtable of just a few people asking questions. That relaxed vibe allowed Stiller to get a bit more introspective about his own life as he talked about the character he plays in Baumbach’s movie.
ComingSoon.net: How was Roger Greenberg introduced to you as a character you were going to play?
Ben Stiller: (Noah) is such a good writer that he wrote this very specific character and when I read it I was like, “Wow, this guy is very specific and there are a lot of issues” and there are some things that I could connect with and other things I didn’t connect with as much. We got together, we met and I was very excited to get the script and get a call from him because I’m a big fan of his. I probably would have done any role he sent me. But I did say to him that the original script was written as a guy who’s a few years younger than I was and that was my concern, just the issues he was dealing with were a little different than a guy my age. We talked about that, and we talked about what it meant to be in your early 40s, and he went off and he wrote a different draft. I think he just wrote something else, not based on any specific notes and that was more relevant to my age. For me, I felt more comfortable playing the part because it changed it a little bit.
CS: Back in the day, you used to do movies like this more often, then you started doing bigger Hollywood comedies, so had you been looking to do movies like this again?
Stiller: Yeah, sure. It’s just finding something that felt right and with a great filmmaker that I trusted. I think you do something like this you really have to trust the filmmaker, and movies like that don’t come around that often. Sometimes it can be a great script or an interesting director, but it’s not a great script. This was just a chance to work with somebody who really had a clear idea what they wanted. Yeah, I really welcomed that and it was something I wanted to do for a while.
CS: You do so few movies a year, too, so do you get a lot of pressure to do bigger movies?
Stiller: No, it’s a very personal choice what people do and work on, and a lot of different elements that go into it, but nobody’s saying, “Go do anything.” You just sort of make choices based on what feels right personally.
CS: Did you know who Greta Gerwig was before you worked with her?
Stiller: When Noah said “I want to do it with Greta Gerwig,” I was like, “Greta Gerwig… that’s a great name!” (laughs) And then he showed me some of her stuff, and I said, “Wow, she’s really interesting” and then she came in auditioned and we read together and she was amazing. She’s incredibly real and very open and just very talented and she sang in the audition and we were all like, “Wow, this woman is amazing.” It was very exciting to work with her, and she was just so generous and giving and committed. I really fed off her commitment to her role, in terms of her approach to the movie that I think really set the tone in a way, because she was so protective of her character and really had a respect for who she was playing. I really learned a lot from her.
CS: Were you at all leery about doing this movie with someone who is virtually unknown outside the indie world?
Stiller: With her? No, I had total confidence in Noah casting her. It was really exciting to work with somebody I didn’t really know at all, and I knew very early on in rehearsals that we did together that she was very competent and very strong as an actress. What I learned as we started to do it is that she didn’t have the ability to do anything falsely. She had this mechanism in her head to just make it real and whatever her thought process, it was really interesting to watch. She was coming at it from where she was coming at it, so I felt like, “Okay, she’s doing her thing, I’ll do my thing” and try to come together. Figuring her out was part of what the process of the movie was, too, so it was really great. I really loved working together.
CS: Have you ever felt as lost or adrift as this character?
Stiller: Yeah, sure, I think a lot of people can identify with what he’s going through. I think I’ve been very fortunate to have some measure of success that just by luck or whatever. There are so many people who are deserving of it who just don’t ever get it, and I think that’s something. Just being in the point of your life where you just go “Wow, I’m this age.” I think anybody in their ’40s gets to that point. When I hit 40, for me, was a big birthday–it’s already a while ago–where you go “Wow, this is it. I’m 40.” It’s the point in your life where you go, “I guess I don’t have more ahead of me than behind me.” That’s classic mid-life situations but it can be very hard for someone who hasn’t gotten to the place where they wanted to be or hasn’t done the self-examination or nurtured relationships in their life that they find themselves sort of alone. I think you’d have to be pretty callous to think that anybody’s immune from that.
CS: Are there still things that you want to do?
Stiller: Yeah, I don’t think you can do that to yourself and be a happy person. You just have to have a sense of where you’re at. To me, the biggest thing I’m trying to get to is to be okay in the moment, just be okay where I’m at right now, because that’s the only place that I’ve found true happiness is when I’m happy doing what I’m doing in the moment, whether it’s being with my family or working. Anything that’s result-oriented never ends up being that fulfilling, because it’s not in the moment. That’s the lesson that I keep on getting taught and trying to learn.
CS: Noah has said that he was listening a lot to the LCD Soundsystem song “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down” when he wrote the movie and that helped inform him who Greenberg was as well as why he had James Murphy do the music. Had you heard that song and did that inform your performance at all?
Stiller: I did not know about LCD Soundsystem until Noah told me about the group and played that song, so that was totally his thing, but I loved the score of the movie. I thought that was another brilliant move on Noah’s part to just go with a guy who never did a score before but he somehow understood what the vibe of this movie was. Noah did make an iPod up for all of us of about 350 songs, that was really great to have and I listened to it all the time, just different songs from the ’70s and the ’80s and that might have been in The Magic Marker, Greenberg’s group that he had, that vibe, just different music.”
CS: What’s going on with your directing? Do you have any project you might direct soon?
Stiller: There’s a couple that I’m working on but these things take time. I just got back from Africa, a project that I’d been working on that would take place there I’m working on and hopefully that will come together.
CS: “Tropic Thunder” was an amazing achievement as far as showing your directing chops. Have you been approached to direct more movies and do you ever see yourself going the Clint Eastwood route where you’re more focused on directing than acting even?
Stiller: Well, I would love to go the “Clint Eastwood route”… who wouldn’t? (laughs) I think he is amazing. He is a great example for anybody to follow. I hope to God I’m still making movies, doing what he’s doing at this point in his career, and yeah, I would love to do that. I think directing for me has always been something that I’ve sort of seen myself ending up doing because the acting is much more ephemeral in terms of being able to control what that is and the part changes as you get older. Choices and all that are based on who you are, and there’s much more freedom I think as a director to make lots of different kinds of movies.
CS: There was so much time between movies you’ve directed so was that just a matter of waiting for another project?
Stiller: Sort of. I’ve had projects I’ve been working on for years that took a while to come together. “Tropic Thunder” took about nine years to come together from when we first wrote it.
CS: It was worth it.
Stiller: Thanks, thanks, and I had the best experience doing that. I don’t want it to be that long in between directing projects again, but it just happens as it happens and when things work out. I have other ones I’ve worked on just as long if not longer that I hope get made.
CS: Do you think “What Makes Sammy Run” will ever happen?
Stiller: I don’t know, it’s been many years, but it’s a great book. I think that character is pretty iconic and sort of represents a type of person in Hollywood and probably in politics and lots of different walks of life that doesn’t allow their morality to get in the way of moving ahead. That’s why I think the movie should be made someday, I don’t know if ever will be. I hope so, but Bud wrote again a very specific archetype, and I think it’s very relevant always that character.
CS: You’re one of these actors like Nicolas Cage, whose name is attached to everything because producers know having your name attached would help get the movie made. Realistically, how many of these movies you’re attached to might actually get made and do you have any idea which one might be next?
Stiller: “National Treasure 3.” (laughter) I’m trying to figure it out, because it’s like what I was saying, it’s kind of a personal decision where you have to just figure out what’s right for you in the moment. So right now, I don’t know.
CS: Do you ever feel like going to IMDb and detaching yourself from projects just to give them a hint you might not do it?
Stiller: Yeah, but I don’t think you have that ability on IMDb.
CS: Of course you do.
Stiller: I do? Well, they never checked with me. I’m surprised about the things I’m attached to on IMDb.
Greenberg is currently playing in New York and L.A. and will roll-out into more cities on Friday, March 26.