Ben Stiller is learning to fly. ”It sounds so actorly and horrible,” says the star of Flirting With Disaster, who divulges the new hobby only after some goading, giggling a little and speaking in hushed tones, so maybe the tape recorder won’t catch it all. ”Every actor talks about it,” he says.
Stiller’s a little torn about joining in the sport of Hollywood kingpins like John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Though he is a working actor who actually can direct, flying, in his mind, is probably not unlike Scientology or marrying Nicole Kidman. It’s just not something that a once-chubby regular fellow from New York ought to do. ”The funny thing about it was the way they advertised the flying school,” he says. ”They say, ‘We’ll let you land and take off the first time out,’ which is, like, not an inducement.”
Stiller’s career might finally be ready for takeoff after some high-profile engine trouble for him as both an actor and director. Despite cheers from critics, The Ben Stiller Show was yanked unceremoniously from Fox in 1992, and good reviews couldn’t help his feature directorial debut, 1994’s Reality Bites, find a large audience. Earlier this year, he costarred with Sarah Jessica Parker in the widely panned comedy dud If Lucy Fell. But last month audiences seemed to catch up with him. In the first weekend of its limited release, Flirting With Disaster opened to not only you-gotta-see-this reviews, but a whopping per-screen gross of more than $23,000. A screwball road comedy starring Stiller as a young father on a cross-country search for his birth parents, it has now made $3 million and risen to the top 10. Although Flirting’s ensemble cast includes everyone from Patricia Arquette (as his beautifully suffering wife) to Mary Tyler Moore (as his overbearing adoptive mother), the unlikely hit depends primarily on an unlikely leading man, an Al Franken brain with a Johnny Depp body. ”Maybe he’ll start a new trend,” jokes his girlfriend of four years, Jeanne Tripplehorn (The Firm). ”The smart leading man.”
”There was something about [the character’s] neurosis that I could identify with,” says Stiller. ”Whenever you f— up” — he catches himself — ”or screw up, you think you’re doing the right thing.”
But just as Flirting establishes his viability as a movie star, Stiller is now scaling more perilous career heights, as the director of this summer’s The Cable Guy, a comedy-thriller starring Jim Carrey as a cable installer who develops an unhealthy obsession with one of his clients (Matthew Broderick).
What should be a golden opportunity for Stiller is under especially close scrutiny because of Carrey’s $20 million salary. ”You have a $20 million movie, then it’s a $40 million movie,” says Stiller, his face mossy with stubble and his green eyes dimmed by late nights in Cable Guy’s editing room on the Sony lot. A deep, burgundy velvet couch has been imported to give this tiny, airless space a touch of home — Norma Desmond’s home, perhaps, but home nonetheless. ”The furniture that was here was s—ty,” he says. ”I told them they’d have to get me a good sofa if they wanted this movie by June 14.”