Ben Stiller may be one of comedy's most bankable stars, but for once, the old film cliché happens to be correct: Unlike so many of his movie acting peers, what he really wants to do … is direct.
Stiller, 42, stars in, co-wrote and directed "Tropic Thunder," a $90 million war-zone comedy hitting theaters today.
But in the days before its release, "Tropic Thunder" has been met by protests from advocates for the disabled, who object to the film's repeated use of the word "retard" to describe a character portrayed by Stiller's character, Tugg Speedman, a fading action star, desperate for an Oscar.
"We screened the movie so many times and this didn't come up until very late and I think the guy spearheading [the protest] hasn't seen the movie. So in the context of the film I think it's really clear, they were making fun of the actors and actors who try to use serious subjects to win awards," Stiller said on "Good Morning America" today. "It's about actors and self-importance. I think the context of the movie it's pretty clear."
Stiller said he wanted to try his hand in the director's chair, even as his peers chose to stay in front of the camera.
"You get to, you know, make the decisions and the choices and get to sort of try to make it happen the way you see it in your head, which is what directing is," Stiller told "Nightline."
'Just a Bunch of Spoiled Actors'
"Tropic Thunder" serves up a group of pampered, self-impressed actors who are making a troubled Vietnam-era war picture and drops them, unaware, into a real war zone. Stiller said the inspiration for the movie came in the 1980s, as he watched many of his fellow performers head off to actor "boot camps" for films such as "Platoon" and "Hamburger Hill."
"The idea was in there for, you know, something about actors and war movies," he said. "Just a bunch of spoiled actors stars who go off and make a war movie and get stuck out in the jungle. And then, 10 years later, we finally made the movie."
But the target of "Tropic Thunder" is Hollywood, not the military. Stiller himself grew up in a Hollywood family, the son of the comedy pair and real-life couple Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, who helped along their young son's directing ambitions by giving him a Super 8 camera.
The first movie he shot was Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."
"My dad was the man with the evil eye and who gets chopped up in the bathtub," Stiller said.
"I was working on some issues, I don't know. He played along, he was great. We got him a night shirt, and a night cap, and we got him in a carriage in Central Park."
Stiller got his start directing feature films with Helen Childress' "Reality Bites" script. Along with Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder, Stiller directed longtime friend Janeane Garofalo.
"Well, I mean, I think being a director, your job is to bring the best out of the actors that you are working with," he said. "Every actor is different and needs a different kind of direction and, yeah, I don't think I was really good at telling Janeane what to do. I don't think anybody should tell Janeane what to do, she knows what to do."
But he was an actor, only, for the most significant movie of his career: the memorably raunchy 1998 comedy "There's Something About Mary."
"It was taking some chances and it wasn't worrying about being politically correct, but it also had a relatable story and the character," he said. "I think that was the first time you were seeing that, at least with that tone of humor, you know, going that far."
Like "There's Something About Mary," "Tropic Thunder" includes some blisteringly profane language and R-rated gags, which Stiller said is just part of the genre.
"There's a freedom saying, 'hey, it should just be what it is.' I mean, I don't know. I feel like people know what they are getting into if they come into an R-rated movie," he said.
One of the people dropping swear words is Tom Cruise. Years earlier, Stiller had cut short his honeymoon to do a short film in which he played Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" stunt double.
"We both had a good time doing that," Stiller said. "I think, after that, we kind of stayed in touch."
Stiller said it will be fun for audiences to watch Cruise in this movie "because he really takes some chances."
So, has Stiller become one of those Hollywood types his movie mocks?
"Well, I think that's why I made this movie," he said. "All of a sudden it's just sort of you can have this, and you can have this, and you have to be careful about that."
"You know, my wife will call me on it," he said. "I just also think it's the nature of the stressful nature of making movies, where there is, like, where you are in a situation where you are called on to do a scene and be funny, and do this, and 'people, can you now go a little cuckoo?'"