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What Makes Ben Stiller?

It is three weeks before the Permanent Midnight opening, two weeks before the MTV awards show. This morning, Stiller flew solo at a 10 a.m. Permanent Midnight press conference held for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. ("Just me. That was lonely.") Bleary-eyed, he answered questions and posed for photographs, even a though the day before he'd worked 21 hours straight shooting skits for the MTV show, not wrapping until 6 in the morning. This evening, he and co-writer Drake Sather will put a final polish on the Zoolander script.

"Part of it," says Stiller, explaining why he works so hard even on such seemingly meaningless projects as MTV awards shows, "is it's sort of fun to do the type of things that I used to do on my show. You don't get a chance to do that when you're doing movies - your life kind of becomes about what movie you're going to commit to for four months. This is just, you know, a couple of days where you do this funny thing. That's what I really loved about doing the show, that energy. And I've done enough of them now to know the routine and know what you can get out of them, which is fun, immediate gratification."

Certainly Stiller is enjoying himself. But there's something else in it for him, too. To watch him shoot a Backstreet Boys parody with Andy Dick is to understand how he uses such projects as a kind of creative workshop. Extraordinarily attuned to detail, Stiller is as involved with styling the curvature on his phony sideburns as he is in the choreography of a faux music video - offering continuous, and apparently welcome, directing suggestions to the segment's producer along the way. And there is another benefit to working three days for something like six minutes of final material: a built-in audience. It's something Sammy producer Bill Gerber touches on when asked to describe Stiller's place in the industry. "I think," says Gerber, "that as music and film and video and the Internet collide, people are interested in artists who cross over." An audience that watches MTV and HBO and turns There's Something About Mary into a hit is also a potential audience for Zoolander, and maybe even a period piece like What Makes Sammy Run? It's what the industry still likes to call "synergy."

For all that Stiller seems primed for success, his career is not as golden as one might think it would be with a huge Hollywood hit behind him. "I've gotten a few offers, yeah," he says. "I'm really trying to focus on the stuff that I'm developing on my own, as an actor and as a director and writer. It's very tempting sometimes." ("The guy turns down multimillion-dollar gigs," volunteers Stahl.) At least for now, he doesn't appear too concerned that Mary will determine his future. "I don't think I'm in danger of becoming the 'gun guy,'" he laughs. "I'll be the 'cum guy.'"

For the immediate future, Stiller's schedule is more of the same. Next week, he shoots three days on the new James Toback-directed film, Black and White, with Robert Downey Jr.; and on October 24, Stiller returns to Saturday Night Live, this time as host. "It's my, like, dream come true," he says. "It's something I've always wanted to do. I was talking to [Chris] Rock about it - he said it's the best way to come back." At the end of the month, he begins filming Kinka Usher's Mystery Men, based on the cult comic book about some unlikely superheroes; Stiller plays Mr. Furious. After that, he may do Henry Selick's surreal fantasy Monkey Bone, and shortly after that, perhaps, Zoolander. Bill Gerber says that What Makes Sammy Run? - the film that at one point Stiller calls "the hardest movie in the world to get made" - will start production in either the spring or the summer.

"I like the idea of playing parts that will somehow just give me a little bit more insight into myself as a person," says Stiller. "That's what was great about Permanent Midnight. The movie itself was incidental to the experience of making it, in a way it had never been before. I liken it to The Ben Stiller Show. I was just so happy to be doing the show that when it got canceled it wasn't that much of a letdown. On Permanent Midnight, being exposed to different parts of myself, trying to figure out how to become that character and finding what I had in common with that character - which sounds, like, very 'actorly' - I'd never had that experience before. And now my friendship with Jerry is more real than anything in my life, in terms of relationships. That was the most important thing that came out of it. Just the process of finding how to play that character made me become more aware as a person."

Bill Gerber is banking on Stiller, so it's understandable why he sounds so enthusiastic about him - in searching for comparisons he mentions Clint Eastwood and Orson Welles - but it remains an open question just how much further the entertainer-auteur can go. Stiller has unquestionable appeal: He's funny, smart, good-looking enough, and now he's famous, which is in and of itself appealing. He seems to have been working toward this moment his entire life, though now that he's here, even he can't seem to articulate what it is that got him here. "I don't feel like it's my responsibility to be the guy who has to say, 'This is what I am and here it is.'" He's right, of course; that responsibility belongs to the audience, which appears to love him very much, at least for now.

There's Something About Mary has made Stiller famous, maybe even more famous than his father at the height of his Seinfeld popularity. But there is a world of difference between a mass phenomenon like Mary and a dark, chancy project like What Makes Sammy Run?, between the sweet silliness of the Farrellys, who never take themselves seriously, and the savage self-loathing of Jerry Stahl, who seems incapable of a taking himself any other way. You can feel Stiller pulling toward each extreme, struggling to define himself against each end - to be famous yet not too famous, dark yet not too dark, alienated yet never so alienated that he loses the audience's love.

For while there may be an infinite number of ways to become famous, including hard work, there is finally only one thing that creates fame, and sustains it, and brings it back to life when it's close to extinguished: the audience. Stiller belongs to a generation of comic actors who have learned to wrap themselves in irony in order to shield us, and them, from their own neediness. But while he's part of that post-Letterman generation, he was weaned on the old-fashioned show-business ethic in which the audience, rather than the performer, always gets the last laugh. As with Jim Carrey, an avatar of the old school, Stiller will sacrifice himself for the audience. Throwing himself on the altar of self-abnegation, he will let loose a ribbon of drool, as he does in his Backstreet Boys send-up. He will masturbate with feverish avidity in There's Something About Mary, feign bad sexual technique in Your Friends & Neighbors, jab a needle into his flesh for Permanent Midnight. He will even, in a genuinely perverse Oedipal ritual, allow his father to insult him in front of millions upon millions of the viewing faithful.

Stiller will give, and he will give some more. In return, he gets . . . Fame, certainly. Money, unquestionably. He says he wouldn't mind a lot of money and fame, but he also says, "I think where I'm at is fine, in terms of fame. I know Jim Carrey, and that guy cannot have a normal life." Yet for all his concerns about losing his anonymity, he compromises in the way that the famous tend to do - he drives a Jaguar with smoked windows, writes gracious notes to interviewers and refuses to reveal much of anything about himself. "You separate your own experience from what people think or write about," he says. "Because even if somebody writes about something that happened in your life, 95 percent of the time they get it wrong."

Nevertheless, Stiller isn't about to stop making movies, drop off the party circuit, deny the press or the fans, check into workaholics rehab or call it quits. And just as he separates himself from what people think and write about him, Stiller will continue to separate himself into the anxious entertainer with the man-eating zipper and the edgy auteur in black, trolling Hollywood with an ex-junkie in tow. There is something that drives him - boom, boom - from one deal to another, then the one after that.

At one point, when asked, "How can you relate to Jerry Stahl?," Stiller shoots back, "How do I not relate to him? I didn't know him. The minute I met him, I did. On the outside, the circumstances of our lives are very different. I never was a heroin addict. I never was a serious drug user. I didn't live in Pittsburgh, and my father didn't commit suicide." He pauses. "But in terms of his attitude about his work and himself, you know, and his feelings of self-loathing, not feeling worthy, those are all things that I connect with. I don't know where they come from, and I think it gets kind of boring to psychoanalyze it. But I think the way we both approach our work and creativity, as a way of channeling everything, is something we have in common."


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