TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Ben Stiller, has starred in a wide range of movies, mostly comedies, from big hits like "There's Something About Mary," "Meet the Parents" and "Night at the Museum" to indie films like "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Your Friends and Neighbors." He directed and starred in the comedies "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder" and produced and starred in "Dodgeball." He's the son of comic actors Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller.

In the new film "Greenberg," Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a 40-year-old whose life hasn't turned out the way he'd hoped. He's just had a midlife crisis/mental breakdown. After recovering in a hospital, he's spending a few weeks at his brother's house while his brother and family are on a trip to Vietnam. When people he meets ask what he's been doing, he tells them he's trying to do nothing for a while.

In this scene, he's with Florence, the young, attractive woman who works as the personal assistant for his brother's family. Florence is played by Greta Gerwig.

(Soundbite of film "Greenberg")

Ms. GRETA GERWIG (Actor): (As Florence Marr) I'm impressed by you.

Mr. BEN STILLER (Actor): (As Roger Greenberg) In what way?

Ms. GERWIG: (As Florence) I don't know. I mean, you seem really fine doing nothing. It's like you don't feel the pressure to be successful, I mean by other people's standards.

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) I'm - you know I almost had a record deal when I got out of college. I haven't done nothing.

Ms. GERWIG: (As Florence) Cool.

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) I want to be doing nothing. I'm doing nothing deliberately.

Ms. GERWIG: (As Florence) That's what I'm saying. I don't know that I could do nothing and be that cool with everything.

GROSS: Roger Greenberg is very cynical and alienated, and that really comes out when he's the only 40-year-old at a party of people in their 20s.

(Soundbite of film "Greenberg")

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) The thing about you kids is you're all kind of insensitive. I glad I grew up when I did because your parents were too perfect at parenting, all that Baby Mozart and Dan Zane songs. You're so sincere and interested in things. There's a confidence in you guys that's horrifying. You're all ADD and carpal tunnel. You wouldn't know agoraphobia if it bit you in the (beep) and it makes you mean. You know, you say things to someone like me, who's older and smarter with this life air. I'm freaked out by you kids. I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview.

GROSS: Ben Stiller, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. STILLER: Thank you.

GROSS: Congratulations on the film. I really liked it a lot. Your character is kind of taking a break from life after having a nervous breakdown. Why do you think he had a nervous breakdown?

Mr. STILLER: I don't - I guess he did. You know, I don't think he looks at it as that. I think I even have trouble saying it. You know, I feel like he - I feel like he just spent some time in the hospital. You know, he had a psychosomatic condition where he couldn't move his leg, and it probably was a result of not dealing with a lot of things over the years.

You know, he's a guy who hasn't really gotten to where he wanted to be in life and hasn't really been able to accept that. And he's very critical of everybody else in the world, and he's really probably too smart for his own good. And so, when the movie picks up, he's sort of at a place where he's having to accept some things in his life that he's denied for a long time.

GROSS: Yeah, like he doesn't know whether he really is a carpenter or that's just his day job.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, he was in a band when he got out of college, and the band had a moment in time where they were playing out and probably, you know, doing okay. And then they had a shot at a record deal, and he was the one in the band who didn't want to sign the deal and probably thinking there would be a lot more offers, and he was pretty self-important and very idealistic.

And then it didn't happen, and since then, he's been just slowly, year by year, sort of just going through his life and he's become a carpenter to make money, and it's just not really happened for him the way he thought it was going to happen.

GROSS: Having been successful at a very young age, what do you relate to about this character?

Mr. STILLER: Well, I think everybody's had failures in their life and decisions that you regret and relationships that didn't work out. And I think I've been really fortunate in my life to have had great things happen, and friendships and love and family in my life over the years, but I've still had those bad decisions and things I've done in the past that I still regret.

But for Greenberg, he hasn't had a lot of successes since the bad decisions, and he hasn't had anything to sort of temper that, and so it's a lot harder to get through the day. So I could identify with - on that level I think there are a lot of people I know who have had bad luck and are very talented and good people, and it just hasn't worked out for them, or you know, their life isn't quite what they want it to be, and they have to figure out a way to get through the day.

And we all have to. I mean, I have days like that, too. And I think it was just a matter of empathizing with this guy, not looking at him as a guy who had really screwed up or anything but just a guy who was trying the best he can to, you know, just to get through.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Stiller, and he's starring in the new movie "Greenberg."

Let's talk about some of the movies that you've made. And let's start with "Tropic Thunder," which you co-wrote, you directed and you starred in, and it's such a funny premise. It's about actors making a Vietnam -well, a jungle war movie, where...

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, it's a Vietnam movie.

GROSS: Yeah, Vietnam movie, where an elite Army team is sent to rescue one man. And so it's both the movie within the movie that's being made, but you know, we also see, like, the actors who are making that movie and how they get into character and all that. So it's a parody of movies and of actors.

Were Vietnam War movies important to you when you were starting out?

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. Some of my favorite films are that genre. I mean, I remember seeing "Platoon" and just being deeply affected by it. I love "Deer Hunter," Apocalypse Now." You know, those movies - in terms of generationally, those movies were very important movies because that era was when I was younger, and those are the movies that influenced me a lot.

You know, in a way I wanted to be doing those kinds of movies. I think that's a lot of what "Tropic Thunder" is, like, my sort of stab at being able to do one of those films.

GROSS: Did you ever try for real to be in one of those war films?

Mr. STILLER: I had a meeting with Oliver Stone for "Platoon." I think I was, like, 20 or 21. I had a go-see, as they call it.

GROSS: What was that like?

Mr. STILLER: I was - I remember I was doing a play at the time, and he - I think he thought I looked too cleancut or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: He said something like, oh - he looked at my picture, said, oh, you're cute or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: And then...

GROSS: Not knowing that you'd eventually be "Zoolander."

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, exactly. I think he was being generous.

GROSS: So you get so much - some of this so perfectly right. Like, there's a scene toward the beginning where your character in the movie, like your character the actor in the movie shot, is getting, like, shot up.

Mr. STILLER: Right.

GROSS: And as the bullets riddle his body, it's shot in slow motion, and he's just kind of almost like dancing, you know, as the bullets hit him, and with the music behind him, it's the music you always hear when that happens. Can you talk to me about that shot and why you knew you had to use it?

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, well, I mean, that was pretty much directly ripped off from "Platoon." I mean, that was, you know, that's that incredible moment in "Platoon" near the end with Willem Dafoe, and you know, the idea...

GROSS: At his most Christlike. (Laughing)

Mr. STILLER: Yes, for sure. He was - definitely went into that pose. And you know, in this, the context of "Tropic Thunder," it's like, it's a movie that's being made obviously post-"Platoon," and you know, it's probably very derivative and, you know, because they've already done that, and it's an actor trying to be taken seriously. And he probably saw that movie, and he's doing his best guy-getting-riddled-with-bullets-in-a-Christ-like-pose ending. And he's not really doing that great at it.

So, you know, it's sort of the idea of a guy trying to do something because he's not - in the movie, the character's an action star, and he hasn't been taken seriously, and he really wants some credibility. That's a lot of what the movie's about, is actors taking advantage of people's - you know, real-life people's suffering to try to further their own careers.

GROSS: Yes, and one example of that is that your character has also starred in a movie called "Simple Jack."

Mr. STILLER: That's right.

GROSS: And why don't you describe what "Simple Jack" is.

Mr. STILLER: "Simple Jack" is a mentally challenged farmhand who can talk to animals. And it was - the character in the movie that I played, Tugg Speedman, it was his attempt to do a role that was going to be taken seriously and win him an Oscar, and it ended up having the exact opposite effect and being derided by everybody, critics and audiences, and being a huge failure.

GROSS: Now, I want to play a scene from the film, and in this scene from "Tropic Thunder," you're in the jungle making the movie and you're taking to another actor, played by Robert Downey, Jr. And his - he plays an actor who's, like, this serious, multi-Oscar-winning actor, and he's so into getting into character and being De Niro-ish about it that he's gotten this special pigmentation procedure so that he can look African-American because he's playing a black man in this.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, that's right, he never goes out of character.

GROSS: And he never goes out of character. So here you are, you know, walking through the jungle with him, and you're both out of character here. You're not - but - so you're just talking as yourself, but he's still, you know, quote, "talking black" because he never gets out of character. And what you're talking about is the "Simple Jack" role, and so this ended up being a very controversial scene because of the use of the word "retarded." So I just want to warn our listeners, for anybody who finds that word, like, really, you know, insulting, that this is a comedy. This is a parody. You know it's an insulting word, and you're using it - you, the writer-director of this movie, are using it knowing that. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film "Tropic Thunder")

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) There were times when I was doing Jack that I actually felt retarded, like really retarded. I mean, I brushed my teeth retarded. I rode a bus retarded.

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. (Actor): (As Kirk Lazarus) Damn.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) To be a moron.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) To be moronical.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Exactly, to be a moron.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) An imbecile.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) About the dumbest mother(beep) that ever lived.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) When I was playing the character.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) When you was the character.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Yeah, I mean, as Jack, definitely.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Yeah, Jack, stupid-ass Jack, trying to come back from that.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) In a weird way, it was almost like I had to sort of fool my mind into believing that it wasn't retarded. And by the end of the whole thing, I was like, wait a minute, you know, I flushed so much out, how am I going to jump-start it up again? It's just like...

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Yeah, yeah.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Right?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) You was fartin' in bathtubs and laughing your ass off.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) But Simple Jack thought he was smart or rather didn't think he was retarded. So you can't afford to play retarded being a smart actor, playing a guy who ain't smart but thinks he is, that's tricky.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Tricky.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) It's like working with mercury. It's high science, man, it's art form. You an artist.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) It's what we do, right?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Yeah, it's awful going there, especially knowing how the Academy is about that (beep).

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Wait, about what?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Are you serious? You don't know? Everybody knows you never go full retard.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) What do you mean?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, "Rain Man" looked retarded, act retarded, not retarded, count toothpicks, cheat at cards. Autistic, sure, not retarded. Tom Hanks, "Forrest Gump." Slow, yes. Retarded? Maybe. Braces on his legs, but he charmed the pants off Nixon, and he won a ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded. He was a goddamn war hero. You know any retarded war heroes? You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don't buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, "I Am Sam." Remember? Went full retard, went home empty-handed.

GROSS: So that's my guest, Ben Stiller, with Robert Downey, Jr., in a scene from "Tropic Thunder," which Ben Stiller directed, co-wrote and starred in. So what kind of blowback did you get from that scene?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: Had a little blowback.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, I mean, you know, to me it was pretty clear that this was, in the context of the movie, was, you know, ridiculing the actors who were taking advantage of other people's real struggles to try to further their own careers.

So, to me, that was always clear in the context of these actors speaking in a way about - in a really very uninformed way about something and sounding like kids talking about a mental disability and all of it being in the context of talking about, you know, how you win an Oscar for doing that. So I don't think it could've been any clearer what the context was, but I guess some people still had a problem with it.

GROSS: Now, Robert Downey, Jr.'s character, I feel like a lot of people didn't get it. You know, a lot of people said: it's so wrong for a white actor to be playing a black man. But that was the whole point. I mean, this is a parody of somebody who's so into, like, his method that he has the pigmentation changed so he can, like, be black, and he's black even when he's not in character.

Mr. STILLER: I think that - again, that was the point in the movie was that, you know, there's no reason that a white actor should be playing a black character, other than his own ego to think that he could do it.

And you know, and that's - so that was why it was ridiculous, and the fact that he ended up actually getting an Oscar nomination for it to me is the sort of the ultimate irony of the whole thing, which I was very happy about. But, I mean, that's - you know, I think only Robert could really pull that off, too.

GROSS: Now, you know, he's trying to be very like De Niro in the movie, in terms of, like, going to extremes to physically embody the character he's playing. You've actually worked with De Niro in "Meet the Parents." So - that's not the kind of movie you'd have to go to extremes for. It's like a family comedy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But what did you learn about how he gets into character by actually working with him? Because you're obviously fascinated by those kinds of extremes that some people go to.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think De Niro is obviously, you know, he's had a total commitment to those roles that he did when he needed to get into that head space...

GROSS: Like "Raging Bull."

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, like "Raging Bull," and I - sometimes I ask him about that. Like, you know, I heard that you used to run from your hotel to the studio in the morning, you know, to do your roadwork. And it's true. He did all that stuff, but he also has a really good sense of humor, too, about all of it. But I think he just has, like, he doesn't know how to do it any other way. I think that's just, you know, the way that he approaches it is he has to understand where the character is coming from and feel as connected as possible - I would assume. You know, every once in a while, I'll get up the courage to ask him stuff about movies he's been in. But you know, I think he just has a - you know, it's just about integrity and I think in feeling like he wants to be as close to the character as possible.

GROSS: Was there anything really surprising about doing scenes with him?

Mr. STILLER: Well, just how funny he is. I mean, that, to me, the first time we did it on "Meet the Parents," I remember doing the first scene and how funny and how reactive he is because he really listens.

And there was a scene where I'm meeting him for the first time, and we're standing in front of his house and I was, you know, shaking his hand saying hi to him. And then I looked at something in the house behind him because I was looking up at the house, and he, like, he literally, like, turned all the way around to look at what I was looking at on the house. It wasn't even in the script or anything, and I immediately started cracking up because, first of all, I couldn't - I was nervous because I was in a scene with Robert De Niro for the first time ever, but also I couldn't believe how sensitive he was to what I was doing and how he just picked up on it and went with it.

I think he has a really great sense of being in the moment. And I think he just has a sense of humor, and he's always had it in his serious roles. I mean, you go back to "Mean Streets" and all those movies, he's very funny in those movies. You always enjoy and laugh at him in any of these films, even while he's scary and intimidating and, you know, all those other things. So that - it's not surprising to me that he has that sense of humor in the comedy stuff, too.

GROSS: My guest is Ben Stiller. He stars in the new movie "Greenberg," which was directed and co-written by Noah Baumbach, who made "The Squid and the Whale." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ben Stiller. He stars in the new movie "Greenberg." When we left off, we were talking about co-writing, directing and starring in the comedy "Tropic Thunder."

In "Tropic Thunder," which you directed and co-wrote, there's a scene in which the special-effects guy, the special-effects guy in this movie set, you know, in Vietnam, he misunderstands a cue, and he thinks that that's the cue to, like, set off the climactic explosions. And so he sets them off, the cameras aren't rolling, nobody's in position. In fact, some of the actors are in jeopardy of getting, like, blown up. And it's a very funny scene.

But I'm wondering what it was like for you to be directing a movie in which there really were explosives, and you really had to blow up, like, part of the set. I mean, that's a huge responsibility. People really can get hurt. It's very funny in the movie, but you, you had to deal with it for real. It's not like really your thing. You don't make, like, big special-effects movies, but...

Mr. STILLER: Right. Well, I mean, I think that goes back to what I said earlier about, you know, it's my chance to do one of those movies, you know, in a context that sort of made sense for me because I really love those kinds of movies. And so it was really fun to have the opportunity to do that and to figure out what that process is and to get to work -first of all, safety-wise, you just have to work with the best people, and that's the most important thing. And we did and, you know, so that was what it was.

But the opportunity to, like, blow stuff up and to have helicopters and do all those scenes, I mean, I never had more fun as a director, ever. And the hard part really wasn't shooting that stuff, I found. It was really more once we got in that scene after everything, after the scene ends and the director yells cut, before that explosion happens, to film a movie set, to film, like, the actual geography of people standing around a movie set in the scene, that was actually harder than shooting the action scenes.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. STILLER: Because a movie set is such a weird, amorphous place where it's just people standing around. You realize, there's no - there's where the camera is, there's some lights, but then after that, it's trailers, they could be anywhere. There's a craft service table where people get food, and that's it. So it's, like, it was actually harder to sort of navigate that cinematically and figure out how to film that because it just looks like an amorphous blob, and that ended up being a much more stressful few days than all the other stuff which we got to plan out and do storyboards on and was very, you know, much more sort of movie-like.

GROSS: You have really big muscles in this movie. When did you start working out and get those, like, really big muscles?

Mr. STILLER: 1973 for this movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: No, I don't know. I just - you know, I figured I was playing the action guy in it, so I - and I wasn't going to get any taller. So I should do something that showed that I could be an action guy. So I just did as many curls as I could before the camera rolled.

But also, you know, the character's just such a - you know, he made a point of wearing the sleeveless vest in the movie, you know, because that's - you know, 'cause obviously that's his thing, but, yeah, just a lot of curls, no 'roids or anything like that, though.

GROSS: Just the showy stuff?

Mr. STILLER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So do you still have what you had in that?

Mr. STILLER: No, I do not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: I'm a flabby 44-year-old.

GROSS: Ben Stiller will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the new movie "Greenberg." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ben Stiller. He stars in the new movie "Greenberg," which was directed and co-written by Noah Baumbach, who also made "The Squid and the Whale."

Stiller has starred in lots of hit comedies including "There's Something About Mary," "Meet the Parents" and "Night at the Museum." He co-wrote, directed and starred in the comedies "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder."

Let's get back to talking about "Tropic Thunder." I just want to play a clip from "Tropic Thunder." And this is so funny. The movie starts with an ad and then three trailers. And the ad - these are all, it turns out, things that the actors within the movie have done. So it's three trailers for movies that the actors within the movie have made...

Mr. STILLER: Right.

GROSS: ...and then an ad that one of the actors in the movie is famous for. But I didn't know that when I went to the theater and I thought, oh, god, another ad.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I thought another trailer. Oh, wait a minute, Ben Stiller's in that trailer. You know, it took me a minute to realize, oh, this is all - this is the movie, this is comedy. So I want to play the trailer for your actor that we see...

Mr. STILLER: Okay.

GROSS: ...before the movie starts. And I think it will speak for itself. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie "Tropic Thunder")

Unidentified Announcer: In 2013, when the earth's rotation came to a halt...

Unidentified Woman: And has declared all of North America a disaster area.

Unidentified Man: ...my fellow Americans to come together.

Unidentified Announcer: The world called on the one man who could make a difference. When it happened again, the world called on him once more, and no one saw it coming three�more times. Now, the one man who made a difference five times before is about to make a difference again. Only this time, it's different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I love that. Trailers that drive me crazy...

Mr. STILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...because sometimes they're written exactly like that. It's like one cliche after another and sometimes...

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, it's ridiculous.

GROSS: It's ridiculous, I know. And there's always things blowing up and there's always that Carmina Burana kind of music behind it.

Mr. STILLER: Uh-huh.

GROSS: What's the music that you use?

Mr. STILLER: That was - we actually scored that. We just made our own music.

GROSS: Oh, I swear I've heard that in every trailer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. Yeah. We wanted to make it sound...

GROSS: You can't have written it. I've heard it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: ...like every trailer. But yeah, no, I mean, that was really fun as a way to sort of try to set up the characters before the movie. And the only thing that frustrated me in that process was I wanted to get the real green band before each trailer, you know, that the Motion Picture Association of America shows?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh.

Mr. STILLER: And they wouldn't give it to us and it drove me crazy because I actually got the studios, like that, you know, would have like a Universal logo at the beginning. The movie, you know, the movie was a DreamWorks movie, but Universal gave us their logo for that. And New Line gave us the logo for "The Fatties," which was Jack Black's character's comedy and Fox Searchlight gave us their logo for the "Satan's Alley," which was sort of like the serious, you know, gay priest movie that Danny's character was in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: So we actually won this, you know, great battle of getting these other studios to put their logos in front of a movie that wasn't from them, but then we couldn't get the Motion Picture Association to give us the real green. In fact, they told me that the color - the shade of green that they use we weren't allowed to use, which I wanted to like take to the Supreme Court or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. STILLER: Because I felt like, you can't tell me what shade of green to use.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Stiller and he's starring in the new movie "Greenberg."

Let's talk about another movie that you co-wrote, directed and starred in, and this is "Zoolander," which came out in 2001, just a few days after 9/11. And this is such a funny film about, you know, a famous male model who's kind of on the outs. It must've been so - I don't know what word to use, but nobody was going to go and see this movie after 9/11. I mean, the country was in shock and in mourning and this is like a funny comedy about the world of modeling and fashion.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. Yeah, it was very strange. It was a really weird experience, so...

GROSS: Can you describe what that experience was like for you?

Mr. STILLER: Well, it was confusing, mainly. I mean, it was sort of surreal because like, at the time, the last thing really that I ever thought, you know, as I was working on the movie that there would be, you know, be something - some sort of event like this that would happen that in any way would have anything to do with the release of the movie. I mean, just something you would never think of. And then, of course, when that happened, it felt really wrong in any way to be caring at all about how this event was going to affect the release of the movie.

It just, you know, that just seemed - I think it just was inappropriate and, yet, there's those feelings when you've been working on something for like a year and a half and you're like, oh, my God. So I think it was the feeling of what everybody was feeling after 9/11, being a New Yorker and, you know, just experiencing that, and then on top of that, trying to figure out what to do with the movie.

And, you know, there was a discussion at the studio about whether or not to release it. And, you know, when it came down to it, there was just no reason not to release it other than it might not make as much money. And to me, that was the wrong reason to not release it. You know, I felt like if anybody wanted to see a comedy they should have the option of going to see a comedy.

GROSS: I want to play a short scene and this is a scene with your father, Jerry Stiller, and your father plays Maury Ballstein, head of Balls Models.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: That's right.

GROSS: And this is a model agency that he helped build with Zoolander.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, the male modeling agency - Balls Models. Yeah.

GROSS: Male modeling agency. Yeah. So at this point in the movie, your character, Derek Zoolander, wants to take a break from the fashion world. And so, here's you with your father, Jerry Stiller, in a scene from "Zoolander."

(Soundbite of movie "Zoolander")

Mr. STILLER: (as Derek Zoolander) I want to do something meaningful with my life, Maury. I have deeper thoughts on my mind. The other day, I was thinking about volunteering to help teach underprivileged children to learn how to read. And just thinking about it was the most rewarding experience I've ever had.

Mr. JERRY STILLER (Actor): (as Maury Ballstein) Derek, I don't think you're cut out for that kind of thing.

Mr. STILLER: (as Derek Zoolander) I mean, maybe I could have my own institute. We could call it the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good.

Mr. JERRY STILLER: (as Maury Ballstein) What about us? We built this place together. Look out. Tushy squeeze.

Unidentified Actress: Ooh, Maury.

Mr. JERRY STILLER: (as Maury Ballstein) Derek, when I met you, you were a junior petite who couldn't book a goddamned Sears catalog and who couldn't turn left to save his ass. Now look at you.

Mr. STILLER: (as Derek Zoolander) I can turn left.

Mr. JERRY STILLER: (as Maury Ballstein) Yeah, right. Derek, please. Some male models go left at the end of a runway, others go right. You got a lot of gifts but hanging a louie just isn't one of them.

GROSS: It must have given you such pleasure to say, okay, I'm now going to write a role for my father and direct him in it.

Mr. STILLER: Oh, yeah. I mean, that's why I was laughing listening to that, just because he's just so - first of all, the character of Maury is so far afield from my dad's actual personality...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: ...in terms of like, you know, ever squeezing the tushy of a lady. I couldn't picture him doing that. But that was what was fun was getting him into those situations. And he, you know, he really goes with it and goes for it, and it was great. I'm really happy. Like, I'm kind of looking forward to someday my kids being able to see their grandfather in that movie. Yeah, because he's just - he's awesome.

GROSS: What was it like for you when your father was co-starring on "Seinfeld" and everybody was watching the show?

Mr. STILLER: Well, you know, it really changed his life. I mean he, you know, for years and years my parents, you know, were successful as a comedy team and, you know, did the "Ed Sullivan Show" I think over 30 times and nightclubs and TV shows and all that. And they, you know, did really, really well. But then I think when "Seinfeld" happened for my dad, it just changed people's perception of him and it reached so many people. And I was really very, very happy to see that for him because I think he's really deserving of it.

As I think my mom is, too. I mean, she hasn't had her "Seinfeld" but she's an incredibly talented actress. And so, you know, and I think for him, you know, he thrives on work. I think he loves to work. It keeps him going. And then, you know, out of that came "King of Queens" for him and people love him. He's a naturally funny human being and he's incredibly loved from that show. And so, it was great. It was great to see that.

GROSS: Now, just something about movies that you've been in. You've been in a lot of like pretty broad comedies. But you've also been in movies that are very kind of quirky in their own way. I'm so sick of that word but I don't know what other word to use.

Mr. STILLER: Right.

GROSS: But they're also like in their own way very sad. And I'm thinking here of Wes Anderson's film "The Royal Tenenbaums" and also of your new movie "Greenberg." I mean, they're funny, they're about reasonably eccentric people, but there's a sadness underneath. I mean, whenever I see "The Royal Tenenbaums" I mean, I'm kind of in tears at, at the end. There's just something so emotional about it. And I guess I wonder if youve thought about that at all - about that undercurrent of sadness in some of the films that youve been in? Even though there's something...

Mr. STILLER: Right.

GROSS: ...you know, comic about them.

Mr. STILLER: You know, I mean, I haven't thought about it in that way. I mean, I think that's what I really like about "Royal Tenenbaums," that there's a real sort of emotional sort of vulnerability there. And I think in "Greenberg," you know, that world and the people in it, you know, I can relate to that. I feel like a lot of people can relate to that in terms of just trying to get through the day, you know.

That's what I thought was sort of amazing about what Noah attempted in this movie is that he really just tried to make a movie about real people trying to get through their lives every day with their sense of self intact and all, and it's hard and, you know, it's lonely. And, you know, Greenberg, you can look at him as sort of like, you know, a guy who's, you know, really unhappy and hard to deal with and critical and, you know, and angry and all those things.

But at the heart of it, he's - I think he's a lonely guy who's, you know, looking for something, looking for a connection and he doesn't have it. And that is really sad, I think, and kind of beautiful, too, that - what Noah decided to embrace in this movie. So I'm happy to be a part of that and I like movies that are that open in that way.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. STILLER: You too, Terry. Good talking to you.

GROSS: Ben Stiller stars in the new movie "Greenberg." You can find clips from the film on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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