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STILLER, BEN: Zero Effect

He confesses to being lazy, but in Zero Effect comic actor Ben Stiller plays a smart lawyer nothing like his real persona: PAUL FISCHER met the actor in Los Angeles.

Ben Stiller has the bearing that oozes stardom. He arrives for this interview dressed in an elegant, brightly coloured suit and large sunglasses, which he never removes, with an air of confidence. But then Stiller has been around showbusiness for much of his life; his father, Jerry, plays George Costanza's erratic father in the hit sitcom Seinfeld.

Stiller was the second of two children born to comics Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara (who, during their '60s heyday, appeared together over 30 times on The Ed Sullivan Show).

"An easy target..."

Being the offspring of celebrity parents makes one an easy target for the entertainment industry's pundits. When The Ben Stiller Show premiered on Fox in 1992, Washington Post critic Tom Shales quipped, "Who is Ben Stiller, that he should have a show?" Beating his peers to the punch, Shales concluded that the mastermind behind the patently irreverent sketch-comedy revue was merely a "well-connected Hollywood brat," and suggested that his material was perfectly suited to "that hard-to-fill 3 a.m. Slot on the Home Shopping Network."

The series may only have lasted midway through its first season, but the relatively unknown Stiller enjoyed a measure of vindication when he shared a 1993 Emmy Award with its co-writer for the sharply satirical scripts that became the show's most distinguishing characteristic during its brief run.

But looking at the baggage his parents may have brought to his career, the younger Stiller remains philosophical. "I think anyone who has parents in the business and then goes into it themselves, has this kind of unspoken understanding, which is that you're always carrying around this baggage that are your parents."

"It's not fun to have to deal with mass judgement of ANY kind."

While he made a number of TV guest appearances during the mid-'90s, the commercially frustrated comic concentrated the lion's share of his post-Fox creative energies on forging a career in movies. For his Reality Bites directing debut, Stiller cast himself in the role of a shallow careerist yuppie on the corporate fast track at the MTV-esque In Your Face network. The film may not have been a huge hit, but it was received well enough to enable Stiller to direct his next film: The Cable Guy. While Carrey's fans didn't get it, Stiller's direction won him critical kudos, and on that film, Stiller has no regrets, though he remains clearly disappointed over the film's reception. "It's not fun to have to deal with mass judgement of ANY kind. Obviously it's great if everybody keep saying: We love you and you're the best. However, I think an experience like that really serves to put everything in perspective, because at the end of the day you come out of something like that, you have to just believe in what you did, and realise that all the accolades, all the criticism exist outside all of the work that you're doing. THIS part of the job, sitting here talking to you, is probably the LEAST enjoyable part of being a film maker or an actor, not because of you, specifically, because it doesn't really have anything to do with the WORK that you're doing."

But Stiller is still very much the actor: first timer Jake Kasdan made his feature film directorial debut with the oblique thriller about eccentric and intensely private detective Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) and cast Stiller as his sardonic front man partner Steve Arlo. After the two are hired by blackmail victim Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal), Zero sets up a sting operation and soon focuses on his suspect, Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), a woman he meets at a health club. Thinking Zero is an accountant, she asks him to look over her tax return. Clues lead to hitman Kragan Vincent (Matt O'Toole), who could be Gloria's father. The role as Zero's dry and sardonic front man was written especially for him.

"I loved Jake's clever script" on Zero Effect

"I think I've been very lazy in getting jobs", the actor recalls, "in that I've tended to generate my own work, making films that I've also appeared in, and with this, I loved Jake's clever script and was thrilled that I could do it without having to go through any kind of hoop-jumping. It was fun."

Zero Effect is an unusually complex mystery, a return to the private eye genre of old, but asked if the actor could be as adept as solving mysteries as his onscreen character, and that of Zero, Stiller offers a resounding no. "I'm really bad at figuring out the mystery/plot/ things; I'm just simply not good at that", he says laughingly. "The character that I play in this movie is a lawyer who's pretty smart, and he's so far away from me. I'm more a kind of an emotional, right-side-of-the-brain type of guy. So to play a guy who's really ordered and has it all together, and understands all these intricate little details, is not me in reality. So I couldn't figure out the mystery if I tried."

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