Ben Stiller on Risk, Reward and ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’
I have been waiting a long time to talk to Ben Stiller about his new movie, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’ opening Christmas day. I have already seen the film twice, and can honestly say it is the perfect gift to come along during this meaningful time of year. It is rare to find a movie these days that is as thoughtful, beautiful, inspiring, and missing the usual blood, guts, violence, graphic language and other gratuitious elements.
We have had an inside track into this Hollywood project for nearly two years, as one of the characters written into the story was an eHarmony counselor who helps Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty with his dating profile. Talk about gifts — to be organically written into this sort of film was a big blessing for us. (Sidebar: The eHarmony counselor in the movie also inspired us so much, we decided to offer a service just like the one you see in the movie. How’s that for life imitating art!?)
I traveled to New York on a chilly December weekend and began my own little adventure, a chat with man behind the lens and in front of the camera, Ben Stiller. Here are some excerpts from our conversation. And yes — I found him to be as humble, down to earth and genuine as his lovely character, Walter Mitty.
eH: Thank you so much for putting us into this movie.
Ben Stiller: Oh yeah of course — it’s a great touchstone for people.
eH: Walter spends much of the film in these vivid daydreams. What do you think the role of fantasy is in self-discovery?
BS: It’s a really interesting area…in terms of when it becomes self-destructive to be too out of your reality. How I felt in the movie was that it kind of propels Walter to take the chances that he does, too.
eH: The movie is about a great journey on many levels, most importantly the journey of self-discovery. Do you think you have to have experiences like Walter did to learn who you are?
BS: I think you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone in some way in life, otherwise you never grow. I really do think that’s true. Whether it’s intentional or not, those are the times where you discover parts of yourself that can survive things you didn’t think you could survive. I remember when I was a kid at camp and I was homesick. My dad said, “That which does not kill you only makes you stronger!” That always stuck with me. It’s a real thing to get outside of those things you are used to and you do adapt.
eH: Are you comfortable with risk, and taking risks?
BS: Sometimes I am, it depends on the risk. It’s interesting, it’s almost like … if you are comfortable with the risk, than is it a risk? Putting something out there in the world creatively that might not be something people expect or is a sure thing — that is one kind of a risk. Running into a building to save somebody, that’s a life and death risk, I don’t know how I would react to those types of situations. But I think I am always aware that it’s good to try and take chances in life.
eH: And to push yourself…
BS: Sometimes it’s putting your head down and just doing something, and not worrying about what the result is or what the consequences are. If something feels right, follow your gut instinct.
eH: Where does the self-belief come from to direct, star in, and produce this movie, which is out of the box in many ways?
BS: I think that comes after years of doing this. I feel like if I remain too much in a comfort zone, for me it’s not as creatively interesting. If I’m not interested, then I feel people aren’t going to be interested. So, it’s almost necessary. I guess I have enough confidence on one level in terms of doing what I do that I feel like I’m willing enough to take the risk and do something a little different. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to see how people react to it. When you do feel like you’ve done something that is personally challenging and you have pushed yourself in some way — no matter what it is — you feel better about yourself. No matter what the result is or the response, and that’s important. Taking the chance and the risk is the real reward.
eH: When people walk out of the theater, what would you hope they would take away?
BS: I just hope they walk away feeling something, feeling connected somehow in some way personally. For me, I love movies that in some way move me or that I connect with. It could be any number of ways; I just hope there is some feeling there.
‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ opens December 25.
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