He’s one of cinema’s biggest box-office draws, but every now and then, Ben Stiller likes to make a movie like Greenberg. He talks to Paul Byrne about going under the radar.

You kind of imagine that if Woody Allen had a Tyler Durden in his life, he’d look an awful lot like Ben Stiller.

All the same characteristics are there – the New York neurosis, the hapless attempts at being a ladies man, the emotional banana peel waiting around every corner – but Stiller is Woody Allen after a lifetime at the gym. And with better hair. And cheekbones.

“Well, I’m not entirely sure how to take that, but I’m hoping it’s a compliment,” laughs Stiller. “I’d certainly be very, very happy to be compared to Woody Allen in any way whatsoever when it comes to his work. Woody’s a big part of my film and comedy education, so, yeah, I’m guessing some of his techniques, his methods, have rubbed off on me.

“Not sure how he’d feel about the comparison though…”

Like Mr. Allen, Ben Stiller has long been keen to prove that he’s not just here for the fishhook-in-the-mouth moments. He may have made his name in such outings as There’s Something About Mary, Zoolander, Meet The Parents and Dodgeball, but right from the start – and even at the height of his box-office dominance (let’s say 2004, when this one-man hit machine had six films out) – Stiller has been making movies that aren’t designed purely to make you spit your popcorn out in delight.

Think of his angry, unforgiving son in 2001’s The Royal Tenebaums. His true-life heroin train wreck in Permanent Midnight (1998), the lost orphan son in Flirting With Disaster (1996), or his angsty, angry Ben Stiller in both Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

“Yeah, those last two were the toughest roles,” nods Stiller. “Very hard to get that guy right – he’s such a mess of contradictions!”

PAUL BYRNE: In your latest movie, Greenberg, you play the title character, just out of a mental ward and seemingly having a very hard time being alone, and angry, and in his mid-40s, and in LA. So, given that Ben Stiller is a happily married father of two, was Peter Greenberg easy to relate to?

BEN STILLER: Oh, absolutely, because he’s a part of just about every other guy out there hitting his mid-40s and trying to figure it all out. They don’t call it the mid-life crisis for nothing. It’s a time when you can see both the top and the bottom, both the beginning and the end, and it’s a difficult time for lots and lots of people. The trick is not to be an asshole about it. Which isn’t always easy.

As Peter Greenberg proves. It’s hard to imagine thinking the same about multi-millionaire superstar Ben Stiller though; you have a charmed life, right?

Oh, not a care in the world! Of course I can relate to this guy. All the same important stuff is in there. You have kids, and you want them to have a great life, and you want to understand where their choices, their characters might take them; what their hopes and dreams are in a world that you’re constantly having to figure out as so much changes so fast. I don’t think any amount of money or fame can save you from those very deep, heartfelt concerns… that’s evolving all the time.

This is another Ben Stiller movie that isn’t designed to pack ’em in at the multiplexes – why is it important to you to makes those smaller, more complex films?

It’s just a need in every artist to work at different volumes, in different ways, with new colours, new sounds. I’m happy to sit down and watch a big, blinding blockbuster or a small Belgian film about a lost hammer, depending on my mood. And sometimes, the latter beats the former, and sometimes the former beats the latter. It’s not like one is automatically better than the other; they both serve a certain kind of artistic challenge, they both deliver a certain kind of kick.

Do you feel you have to read just your set when you go from something like Tropic Thunder to Greenberg, or is it all the same process for you?

Well, it’s the same process in that I’ll try and figure out the best possible way to tell that story. What the character needs, what the script needs… you naturally want to make the best possible film that you can, and that means being aware of the whole process, not just your lines, or your costume, or whatever.
I’ve read that you’re a stickler for detail…

Well, so much can be said when it comes to the detail. And if you get that right, you’re going to deliver a much better performance, you’re going to make a much better film. You have to believe it yourself before the audience will, and I think it’s really my having grown up with two parents in the business that made me realise how the smallest change can have the biggest effect. Especially in comedy. It’s such a fine art, getting the laugh to land exactly where it should, and how the tiniest of tweaks can send it right up into the stratosphere or out the window. I love that moment, when you realise exactly how a scene should be played, how a line should be delivered. It’s like unlocking some great chest lock and all this gold comes pouring out…

You mentioned those showbiz giants you have as parents, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara – after all these years, and all the success, do you still feel you have to prove yourself to these guys?

It’s funny, even though my parents never took that approach to me or my sister Amy joining the family business, you can’t help but want to make them proud of what you’ve done. They know a thing or two about acting, especially comedy, so, you know, it’s kinda like you want them to laugh more than anyone else. Because you know they’re aware of what can be done in any given situation, and therefore, you want to surprise them. And that means surprising the audience too, so, it’s been a good motivation to have all these years.

Now, if only they just told me they loved me, even just once, I could give up this futile showbiz life, and get a proper job…

Words – Paul Byrne

Greenberg is now showing at Irish cinemas