This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"There's nothing funnier than someone trying to be serious," says Ricky Gervais of his Night at the Museum co-star Ben Stiller, who will leave his hand- and footprints in cement in front of Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theatre on Dec. 3. "He doesn't simply play comedy characters -- his acting chops go a lot deeper." Stiller, whose portfolio of edgy comedies and family films includes Meet the Parents, Madagascar and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, agrees: "Yes, they're broad and silly, but you have to treat them as real people, as crazy as they are." Adds Gervais: "He plays characters who have a blind spot: They think they're acting normally, but in fact they're acting like a dick. They think they're cool and they're not, like Zoolander."
At first, Stiller was way too serious, as in 1988's Molly Ringwald vehicle Fresh Horses. "I suck in the movie," he says. "It's like I'm on drugs. I'm trying, doing way too much." But his intensity soon paid off in critically acclaimed films like David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster -- in which Stiller's comic drive measured up to that of co-stars Lily Tomlin, Mary Tyler Moore and Alan Alda -- and smash hits like There's Something About Mary. "You see him getting into the zone beforehand, and he's just concentrating on every single take, every nuance, every word," says Gervais. "He's a perfectionist, a slave driver on himself. I've never seen anyone work so hard."
At the 2012 American Cinematheque tribute to Stiller, Judd Apatow told him he had never worked harder than on MTV and Fox's The Ben Stiller Show, which aired from 1990 to 1993. "It was the biggest opportunity of my career," said Apatow. "You knew what you were doing; I did not. I can tell you now I was scared shitless." DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg showed a page from the Madagascar script. "As you can see, the page is blank," said Katzenberg, himself a perfectionist. "We knew nothing we could write could be as good as what he would improvise." Jennifer Aniston cited another side of the comic actor: "Ben has the ability to make sexy smart, smart sexy and nebbishness nonchalant. He projects an earnest tenderness."
Stiller's tenderness and perfectionism are seen in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which he stars and makes his fifth feature-helming effort after Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. "I spent pretty much the last three years of my life working on Mitty," he says of the movie that opens Dec. 25, "and it's been a gift to have something I feel that connected to, to engage in for that long."
Stiller's favorite film as an actor has been the 1998 addiction drama Permanent Midnight; the man he played, Jerry Stahl, remains his best friend. Asked if he hungers for more dramatic roles, Stiller says: "Yeah, definitely, as an actor and as a director, too. Certain actors are very malleable, and other actors, myself included -- I feel like I'm not going to be playing Lincoln in Lincoln 2. But as a director, I feel much more freedom." He adds, "On Tropic Thunder, the days that I wasn't acting were my favorite."
Not that he's abandoning comedy. "I also like comedies," says Stiller. It's just that after all these years and more than $5 billion earned at the global box office, he's after more than laughs. "I don't think movies have to be categorized all the time. I didn't know exactly what genre [Mitty] would fit inside. I realized early on that the comedy and the laughs were not the way to judge the film and how the audience was engaging. It was the story and the character." Stiller put it best while accepting his Cinematheque award: "The best movies are where someone took a chance, and I hope I can go forward and keep taking chances -- right after I do Night at the Museum 3."