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March 2010
GREENBERG | An Interview with Ben Stiller

An Interview with Ben Stiller

By Max Evry

March 18, 2010

Ben Stiller’s Roger Greenberg is a singular creation. At once both hostile and vulnerable, insensitive yet caring, Greenberg is a Gen-X casualty full of contradicting moods that seem to fly beyond his or anyone’s control at a moment’s notice. It is no surprise that the failed-musician-turned-carpenter, newly released from a mental institution, finds himself somehow failing to reconnect to people from his past, including former bandmates, ex-girlfriends, and his own brother. The latter has allowed him a chance to house-sit for 6-weeks in Los Angeles, where Greenberg meets and falls for his brother’s young assistant, Florence, played by Mumblecore vet Greta Gerwig. Under the bright veneer of LA, where dark emotions are often hidden under a smile, Greenberg’s volatile New Yorker forces both he and Florence to address the shattered hopes in their lives and, quite possibly, learn to appreciate the people they have become.

In sharp contrast to the usual broad comedies Stiller is known for (Meet the Parents, Night at the Museum, et al.), playing the title character in “Greenberg” allows the actor the same kind of mid-career melancholic sea change that Bill Murray started over a decade ago with “Rushmore”. Written and directed by acclaimed “Squid and the Whale” helmer Noah Baumbach, it is a sophisticated, unpredictable, and above-all HONEST film that always goes for the slow-burn character moment over slapstick. Stiller sat down with us in New York to discuss this very mature, adult comedy that speaks frankly about a generation lost in its own irony.

There are themes of identity and emotional arrested development in this movie. What would you say are some of the parallels between your character and being in the movie industry, where a prolonged adolescence is the norm?

BEN STILLER: That’s interesting. I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about that. In the movie world people never really tell you what they’re thinking. You never hear “no”, you just hear silence. Greenberg is a guy who’s been rationalizing and justifying to get through his day-to-day life. Lying to himself to get through, I guess that happens in the movie business.

  Is it cathartic to play a character who is this vocally misanthropic, doesn’t have a filter, can just say whatever he wants?

STILLER: Yeah. I felt like he wrote such a specific character, and his opinions and views on things are part of who he is in the way he deals with life and not having to feel his own emotions. He’s smart enough that he can rationalize and justify and analyze things as a defense mechanism. He’s subjugated stuff for so long that right before the movie happens he’s probably gotten to the point that he’s pushed so much stuff down for so long that it literally physicalizes itself.

As someone who has suffered for years from people in restaurants laughing and giggling uproariously, it was so good to see that scene where you tear into that man.

STILLER: (laughs) The great thing about that scene is it’s Noah’s agent. That’s his little revenge there or something. I think we all have those feelings. I was just on a plane with a businessman guy who was doing the full-on speaking on his phone. I think he wanted everybody to hear how many millions of miles he had on British Airways, how it was not a big deal to spend $100 grand each way, some business deal he had. Literally it was the Greenberg rant in your head to go off on this guy. The thing that’s interesting to me about the character is he’s a guy who’s always taking his own issues and funneling them out to everyone else. He can analyze everybody else but he can’t analyze himself.

There are many scenes where Greenberg is not so much having conversations but rather talking TO other people.

STILLER: What’s interesting about the dialogue is he writes the way people talk where they’ll be talking and somebody will start saying something else and the person is still completing their thought, catching up with what the person said a few lines later. Greenberg is so into his own thing that he doesn’t listen that much. That was something I got out of the part was realizing how much I don’t listen a lot of the time. I’ll have a thought, and you’re saying something but I’m thinking about what I want to tell you. You said something that brought up something for me, so you’ll finish saying what you’re saying but while you’re finishing saying what you’re saying I’m thinking about what I want to tell you about what you said, so I’m not hearing what you said.

  Like the scene with you and Jennifer Jason Leigh where she’s telling you about her mother.

STILLER: Exactly. And even in that moment he realizes he might have missed it there by not listening. That’s what’s so great about Noah’s writing is he write’s so specifically that way.

A key part of the film is the decision Greenberg made to walk out on the record deal and his band wound up imploding. Did you ever have to grapple with a crossroad in your life where you made a conscious decision you maybe later regretted?

STILLER: I don’t know. The thing with Greenberg is he made a choice that at the time didn’t seem like a crossroad so it wasn’t even a question for him because he had such an inflated sense of self and ego. Speaking for myself, when I was in my twenties I felt I had it much more figured out than I do now. That blind confidence is what allows people to take chances and do things at a young age that can be successful but for him it didn’t work out that way. He didn’t nurture these friendships because he didn’t think he needed to, or wasn’t thinking ahead. I think he’s been in that headspace for the last fifteen years. He didn’t think of it as a crossroads and then as the years have gone by and his opportunities didn’t happen and he’s found himself further and further away from what he thought he was going to be, he can look back at that choice and realize that was the turning point, but I think that’s
too painful for him. He says in the movie, “I wouldn’t have done that now if I knew.” I can look at choices and decisions and mistakes I’ve made over the years, I think anybody can, and I go, “If I’d done that differently what would have happened?” Things would have been different. I’ve been lucky to have other success so I’m not living with those choices eating me up every day, but I definitely have those. “If Id gone for that, if I’d done that movie, if I hadn’t said that to that person.” I’m lucky enough to have other successes and people in my life that don’t make those decisions as fateful to me, but I still regret them. If I didn’t have those things I have now it would be much more painful, and that’s where he’s at. There are people I know in my life that have to live with that. There are people I know and care about who have not had success who deserve it, but for whatever reason haven’t been lucky enough, didn’t have the outer shell that was tough enough to withstand the rejection which is part of it. I empathize, and feel like I can connect with it on that level.  

Did that arbitrary nature of things influence how you got into this role?

STILLER: I think it’s the arbitrary nature of the movie business in that you have the ability to say “no” to things but other than that you don’t have the ability to say to people, “I want you to do a movie with me.” You have to wait for things to come in from people you respect. As a fan of Noah’s there was no question I wanted to work with him. I got the script, the script was written for a guy who was a little bit younger. That was the only discussion I had with him, how I related to this guy who was dealing with issues closer to someone in their thirties. We talked about that and he went off and did a rewrite not on specific notes but just what he took from that. The arbitrary nature was just getting a call from him, and to me it was a no brainer.

  The relationship between Greenberg and Florence is such a minefield since it could have felt so phony or forced, but it comes off as both palpable and genuine. What did you and Greta do to make that affection between the two of you feel real?

I think he had written it very specifically in the script, first of all. Then in rehearsals it became about finding the specifics of each event that happened in their lives. We did it separately, he didn’t really have us together too much. She is such a good actress, and so real, that interacting with her became… I think when you’re working with a great actor that dictates everything. Somebody’s just being very real with you, your instinct is to be just as real back with them and react off of what they’re doing. She just had that. Then I think the combination of her having a very specific understanding of her character, and I felt it was my responsibility to just connect personally as much as I could with what Noah had written ‘cause it was so specific. Then we just came together and tried to do the scenes both coming from our own point of view. He didn’t over-rehearse but we did spend about four weeks or so just talking, I would read the scenes with Noah, not with Greta.

There was supposed to be some distance between you?

STILLER: I think he wanted to keep distance, yeah. He kept on saying we were gonna rehearse together and it never happened. (laughs) Until we got there. We did some blocking rehearsals with the cinematographer.

Michael O’Donoghue is famous for saying “Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy.” This movie is funny but not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny, and the film is richer for it.

STILLER: The great thing about working on this film is there was no pressure to be funny. That’s it. When you say a movie is gonna be a comedy then people want to laugh. I learned that on “Tropic Thunder”. As much as I get into the action sequences and other stuff, if you tell people it’s a comedy then they’re just waiting to laugh. When the pressure isn’t on we just say, “Look, this isn’t a comedy, it’s a Noah Baumbach movie.” Then it has the ability to just be what it is. The context is totally different. I think we felt that making it, and an audience knows that going in, hopefully.

“Greenberg” opens in New York & LA on March 19th, then expands to limited release March 26th. It is released by Focus Features.

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