Ben Stiller Plays It Straight In 'Greenberg' Ben Stiller is no stranger to comedy. He is the son of comedians, and has starred in a number of comedies, including There's Something About Mary and Meet the Fockers. But in Greenberg, he plays it straight. Stiller talks about taking on Roger Greenberg, and working with director Noah Baumbach.
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Ben Stiller Plays It Straight In 'Greenberg'

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Ben Stiller Plays It Straight In 'Greenberg'

Ben Stiller Plays It Straight In 'Greenberg'

Ben Stiller Plays It Straight In 'Greenberg'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Roger Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, is a 40-something musician-turned-caprenter, recently released from a psychiatric hospital. Wilson Webb hide caption

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Wilson Webb

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'I'm Impressed By You'

'How Long Do We Wait?'

'Musso & Frank'

Ben Stiller is no stranger to comedy. He is the son of comedians, and has starred in a number of comedies, including There's Something About Mary and Meet the Fockers.

But in Greenberg, he plays it straight. Stiller talks about taking on Roger Greenberg, and working with director Noah Baumbach.

"I really would have done anything he wanted me to do," Stiller says of Baumbach. "He's just one of those filmmakers that I would go anywhere with." Stiller liked the original script, but told Baubach he felt he was a little old to play Roger, who was originally written as in his early 30s, rather than 40s.

Following that conversation, Stiller says, Baumbach did a rewrite. "He came back with a pretty different movie," says Stiller, that became more of a love story. "Then, basically we did the script — the script did not change from the first day of rehearsal."

Stiller gives Baumbach great credit for the quality of the dialogue as written. "It made me realize, as an actor," he says, "how lazy you can be, in terms of trying to change dialogue to be more comfortable for you to say as a person, as opposed to trying to understand what the character is saying ... There was a reason why everybody said what they did. So it was good to work that way."


Ben Stiller is the son of comedians, and best known for his role in comedies like "Something About Mary," "Meet the Parents" and "Tropic Thunder." But in his new film, he's taken on a more serious role. He plays a 40-something, musician-turned-carpenter just released from a psychiatric hospital trying to find meaning in his life by, it turns out, doing nothing - a decision that intrigues a young woman named Florence.

(Soundbite of movie, "Greenberg")

Ms. GRETA GERWIG (Actress): (as Florence Marr) I'm impressed by you.

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

Ms. GERWIG: (as Florence Marr) 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 Greenberg) You know, I almost had a record deal when I got out of college, and done nothing.

Ms. GERWIG: (as Florence Marr) Cool.

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

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

CONAN: Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig in their new movie, "Greenberg." And the actor joins us in a moment. We know you're a fan. We know you love his pictures. We don't need you to tell us that. If you have an actual question for Ben Stiller, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Ben Stiller joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. STILLER: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.


Mr. STILLER: I'm on - I'm sort of bummed I don't get to see Gene Wilder, though, or you.

CONAN: Oh, well. We're bummed we don't get to see you. We can't imagine the number of people who decided to come in today, for some special reason.

Mr. STILLER: I was so excited when I got the call to come on the show. I was like, yes, I got to see Neal. I got to see their - you know?

CONAN: Oh, well.

Mr. STILLER: I'm in an empty studio.

CONAN: Well, that would have been a disappointment, anyway. But I'm sure...

Mr. STILLER: No, no. And Gene Wilder, I mean...

CONAN: And Gene Wilder, who wasn't in the studio here, either. He was...

Mr. STILLER: He is amazing.

CONAN: San Diego. Amazing actor. Yeah. Do you - must have grown up watching his movies.

Mr. STILLER: Oh, yeah. He's definitely, for me, sort of up on the comedy Mt. Rushmore, you know. I think what he did - even like, you know, "Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask."

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MR. STILLER: His sequence with the sheep, it was classic. And, you know, yeah, "Young Frankenstein" and - you know, all of his movies - "The Producers." He just - he's one of those guys who his comic persona is so genuine and his comedy is so subtle and so real. And, yeah, for me, he's sort of up there with the greats.

CONAN: Do you empathize with him what he was talking about there at the end, the difficulty of finding roles and producers who are willing to take chances on movies?

MR. STILLER: Sure. I mean, I think it's a tough business to navigate, really, to figure out what you want to do, what studios want to do. And even a movie like "Greenberg," it was sort of not easy to put together, because I think these days, what he was saying is true. You know, these big movies had now become such a business in terms of what the return can be on investments.

It's become this math equation for studios, and it's sort of taken out the sense of really, you know, just the creative choice and taking a flyer on a movie because it could be a good movie and maybe not make a lot of money.

CONAN: And maybe not make a lot of money. I don't think "Greenberg" is going to make what "Tropic Thunder" made.

MR. STILLER: I don't know. Let's see what happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I could be wrong.

MR. STILLER: No, no. You're probably right. But it's also, you know, the budget is smaller. And it becomes - that's what I meant by the equation, you know? And just - but it's tougher and tougher for the middle-of-the-pack movies, the movies that are not small budget and not big budget, not, you know, comedies, not special effects movies but sort of that, you know, midrange drama. I think those are really tough to get off the ground now.

CONAN: You are regarded, I would think, as somebody who is, what they call, a bankable star. Where you brought into this project to say, boy, if we can get Ben Stiller, we can get this made? Or were you part of this project and say, I'm going to join this and we're going to get it made.

MR. STILLER: I would hope the latter. I mean, I think it was, you know, I was just happy to get the call from Noah, because I'm such a huge fan of his movies. And I think...

CONAN: "The Squid and the Whale," I think people would remember.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. He did "The Squid and the Whale" and "Margot at the Wedding." And before that, his first movie was "Kicking and Screaming," which was made in the early '90s and was a really well-observed movie about that generation getting out of college. And he's just, for me, one of those writer-directors that has such a clear vision. And, you know, he's still interested in the sort of, you know, the small human minutiae of interaction and characteristics of people. And he lets the character's progression sort of be the story.

And - so anyway, but in terms of like getting that movie put together, it wasn't that easy. And though it's a small-budget movie, it's - I think these things become - they - it's amazing to me the projections that the studios do and the way that they sort of try to forecast how a movie is going to do, when in reality nobody ever has any idea how it's going to do.

CONAN: And if they did, they would make a lot of money and...

Mr. STILLER: Of course, yeah.

CONAN: in probably some other business. When you were - when you saw - did you see the script or did you help develop the script?

Mr. STILLER: No, I saw the script. And the only input I had on it, when I got the script, I think he had written it for a guy who was about 10 years younger.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STILLER: And Greenberg's issues were kind of the same, but he was a guy who was in his early 30s. And so when I talked to him about it - and I really would've done anything he wanted me to do because he's just one of those filmmakers that I would go anywhere with - but I said, look, if I was going to play this guy, I feel like I'm a little old. And, you know, what I'm going through as a guy in his 40s, there are some different issues, and we started talking about that. And we just had a discussion about it, about what it meant to get into this, you know, get older, get to this point of your life.

And then he went off and did a rewrite, not really based on any specific notes. I think it was just sort of what he took away from it. And he came back with a pretty different movie that I thought was, you know, really amazing, because he had sort of taken it to his own process and it became more of a love story, I think, somehow. And so that's what it was. And then basically, we did the script. I mean, the script did not change from the first day of rehearsal, and that was a really great experience to just do Noah's words and kind of approach it like a play.

CONAN: That's interesting because it sounds like it's adlibbed, at least part of it.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. I mean, this is really the first movie for me that there was no improvisation. There's one scene where there's a little bit of improvisation at the end. There's one scene where Rhys Ifans and I are talking about what video to watch, and we talk about the movie "Mannequin." And there's like a little interchange, and that's the only thing that was improv. But the rest of it was word for word. And Noah really writes very specific rhythms and overlapping dialogue in a way where, you know, I think people talk in a real way, where a lot of times people talk and they're not listening to what the other person is saying. They're sort of waiting for the other person to finish talking, to complete their thought. Or somebody will say something and that'll give you an idea of what you want to say and you're just waiting for them to finish.

And so all that dialogue was word for word. And, you know, forced us as actors to have to learn the dialogue because it also is a low-budget movie so we had to come in and know the lines because he'd shoot these five or six or seven or eight page scenes all in one shot. So that was great, because it really - it made me realize as an actor how lazy you can be in terms of trying to change dialogue to be more comfortable for you to say as a person, as opposed to trying to understand what the character is saying. And I think he spent enough time working as a writer on this script that he really had - there's a reason why everybody said what they did. So that's - it was good to work that way.

CONAN: We're talking with Ben Stiller about his new movie "Greenberg." 800-989-8255. Email us:

And Nino's(ph) on the line from Augusta in Georgia.

NINO (Caller): Hello, Mr. Stiller.

Mr. STILLER: Hey, there. How are you?

NINO: Huge fan of your work.

Mr. STILLER: Thank you.

NINO: I was wondering if your being approached with the script was serendipitous or were you looking to change your game? I know it's going to be a pretty serious movie, and I'm actually a huge fan of the movie "Squid and the Whale." I think it's got some really raw moments. It was kind of funny. But were you looking to change your game kind of something or...

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. You know, honestly I guess you're - I'm always looking for something interesting and different to do. And I feel these, you know, maybe its just me personally, but I just haven't gotten that many scripts that are this good, I think. And with a filmmaker who has that clear a point of view. I mean, I - so when Noah sent me the script, I was very excited to get it because I feel like these script - you can get a great script if there's not a great director who's making the film. I feel movies are so much a director's medium. And to have a writer/director like Noah, I just felt from the beginning I knew I'd be in good hands and be able to trust him. So for me, yeah, I actually have been looking to do something different and interesting like that. It's just it's, you know, for me this is the first thing that came along that really made sense.

CONAN: Nino...

NINO: Well, I'm excited to see it. Thanks a lot, Mr. Stiller.

Mr. STILLER: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And thanks for the phone call.

Both the film and you have gotten good reviews. Do you think it's going to expand your opportunities?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: I don't know. Maybe. You know, I'm just happy to be a part of the movie. I really feel - I really, you know, I'd never worked with Noah before. And really, I didn't really know him. I mean, you know, I'd knew him through Wes Anderson because I know Wes and we'd worked together before. But this - we really, I feel like we just got along really well, and we bonded and sort of - we have similar reference points in terms of what our comedic reference points are, people like Gene Wilder, his movies, TV shows like "SCTV." Noah has a great sense of humor. His movies are known are sort of serious and introspective. And he's interested in that world, but there's always humor within them.

And I feel that's - in any great drama, there's always humor within it because that's what real life is about. So, you know, for me the great thing about this movie was the experience of making it. I never had an experience like that where it just felt so - everybody was there because they wanted to be there. It was a real low-budget. It was a short shoot but it was really concentrated. And Noah and his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, were real collaborators on the movie. And it was a (unintelligible) experience...

CONAN: They co-wrote the script, yeah.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, they co-wrote it. And for me, it was the experience of making the movie. I walked away from the experience thinking, you know what, no matter what this thing is or how it's received, it was just a really fulfilling creative connection that we all had there.

CONAN: Email from Sue in New York: Ben's parents are both so funny. What's the conversation like around the Thanksgiving dinner table?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: You know, it's entertaining. I mean, it's - I think anybody's family is their family, so, you know, it's sort of hard to have the perspective. But my parents are - I really feel - are, after working together, they've been married for, I think, 56 years now. And they have such an incredible dynamic together that, you know, as a kid, you don't really appreciate it when you're a kid because they're your parents. But now, I feel like I can really have an appreciation of how funny they are together.

I mean, we were just - the whole family was at a memorial for George Carlin a couple of nights ago and my parents got up there and, you know, what they do together and what they say and - you know, it's sort of like they're - like an organism together. And so they're very funny, very funny people.

CONAN: Ben Stiller's new movie is "Greenberg." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get David(ph) on the line. David's calling us from St. Louis.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. How are you all today?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.


DAVID: I'm 44 years old. I'm very glad that you are making this movie. And I do nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: I quit working in September of 2005. I was in the insurance industry as an applications processor for six years. And, you know, they weren't going to promote me, which is fine, you know, it's kind of difficult to get promoted in that industry because there are so many hardworking people. But I just haven't worked since and, basically, just every once in a while do a little data entry and live off my savings. And I just thank you so much for making this movie.

Mr. STILLER: How is that experience going for you? How has it changed your life?

DAVID: Well, I'm able to read books. I just finished a huge book by David Halberstam on the Korean War.

Mr. STILLER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Don't tell me how it comes out.

DAVID: No, no. I finished it. I had to renew it three times.

Mr. STILLER: I read that last week in, like, a day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: Oh, really?

Mr. STILLER: No. Not really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: Anyway, I just finished - I'm in the middle of one book on atheism. Read another book on - well, let's see. A huge novel by a Russian - the most famous Russian author, but the guy who was inside the system and never got out of it. Anyway...

Mr. STILLER: If you're looking to me for that answer...

CONAN: I was going to say Dostoyevsky, but it's just a guess.

DAVID: I can't quite...

Mr. STILLER: I'll say Tolstoy. That's the only other Russian I know.

CONAN: Okay. All right. So we want letters from our emails. Tell us which one is right.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah.

CONAN: So, David, thanks very much for the call and we wish you luck with your burgeoning career.

DAVID: Okay. Yes, thank you.

Mr. STILLER: Thanks, David.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Interesting that you do a film about a guy who is at the sixes and sevens and consciously doing nothing. This must - you have done - you have been very driven in your career, it seems.

Mr. STILLER: Mm. Yeah. I mean, you know, I think it's interesting what he was saying because I do feel that, you know, you can keep going and going and going and almost, you know, be on this hamster wheel where you don't think about it. And that, for me, it was when I had kids where I started to think about how much I worked.

I've always enjoyed working. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but it becomes about balance in your life. And for me, when I had kids, I started to realize that, you know, there's no way to sort of balance being - when you're away from your kids, there's just no way to get that time back, and you have to figure out in your life what's important to you in terms of time for them, time for yourself, what's going to make you a happy person and be happy when you're with them, and also finding the joy in just being able to not have be defined through your work. And so for me, that's been a, you know, sort of a learning curve, you know?

But I really do admire when somebody can say, you know what? I'm just going to take time to just be and not be defined through my actions. And I think - you know, I think, maybe in the movie, it's a little bit different because Greenberg's coming...

CONAN: Got other issues. Yeah.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. And he's - and it's almost a defense mechanism for him and he's sort of trying to, you know, justify where he's at in his life because things haven't happened the way he wanted them to.

But, you know, really, I always think about that line in - I'll paraphrase, but it's in - I think it's "Manhattan." You know, where Woody Allen talks about people just being obsessed with their - they get obsessed with their own little problems in life because it's really the bigger questions in life that we're all intimidated by. Like, why we're here, what are we doing? And, you know, it's - it can be that in life where you just focus on, you know, what's in front of you. And if you take a second to breathe, you feel all sorts of different things.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last caller in. Andy(ph). Andy is with us from Okemos - am I pronouncing that right - in Michigan?

ANDY (Caller): It's Okemos, Michigan.

CONAN: Okemos.

ANDY: Thanks for having me on, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ANDY: Hi, Ben. I know you recently got a Twitter account a few months ago. And it seems like you're a regular contributor. I was kind of wondering about how you see the role of Twitter in your life as a celebrity or as a public figure or is that just a fun thing that you do and how does that work? I'm kind of curious about how you use social media.

CONAN: Me, too. I'd started on Twitter yesterday.

Mr. STILLER: Oh, you did?

CONAN: I did. Yeah.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. It's pretty crazy, isn't it?

CONAN: It is.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah.

CONAN: Do you friend everybody back? I mean, do you follow them, too?

Mr. STILLER: No, I do not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: I don't. I don't - I'm still trying to figure it out, like, I'm still trying to figure out how to follow people or friend them. You know, I think following is what you do.

CONAN: On Twitter, yeah.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. It's an interesting thing. I mean, some - it's, first of all, you have to feel that whatever you're, you know, whatever you're tweeting about is interesting enough that people would want to read it, which I - that's my big struggle always. It's like, you know, what it -really, what am I doing that's worth sending a message out to the world about?

And then they have this thing called direct messaging where you can basically send a direct message, a private message to somebody else who's following you. And I have screwed up with that about four or five times...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: ...where I've said, hey, I'm going to be - I'll meet you at the, you know, at this restaurant at 8:00 and I sent it out to a million people. And nobody cared, interestingly enough.

CONAN: That's interesting. Yeah.

Mr. STILLER: But I do find it a really useful tool in terms of being able to get a message out to a broader audience of people - like, you know, a message, like a guy in Haiti who's tweeting about what's going on there...

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. STILLER: ...and has 17,000 followers. If you can get it out to more people, it's really useful, so.

CONAN: Yeah. Well, good luck with the movie.

Mr. STILLER: Thank you. Great talking to you.

CONAN: Nice talking to you.

Ben Stiller stars in the new movie "Greenberg," and he joins us today from our bureau in New York. You can watch clips from "Greenberg" online at, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. And, yes, a Twitter account, nealconan, one word.

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