October 1, 1998
Actor Ben Stiller discusses being Jewish in Hollywood
Looking studiously at the floor during a recent interview, Ben Stiller came off less the Hollywood "It" dude than the cute, shy guy you had a crush on at Jewish summer camp. The slight 5'7" actor has intense, crystalline blue-green eyes, three days' growth of beard, graying temples, black clothing, white sneakers and a thoughtful, serious demeanor. "I'm shy," admits the 32-year-old actor, who is appearing in no less than three films now on the big screen.
He is the sleazy drama teacher in "Your Friends & Neighbors," the summer's best independent film; the nerdy hero searching for his high school dreamgirl in "There's Something About Mary," the year's biggest comedy;" and a Jewish junkie TV writer in "Permanent Midnight," based on screenwriter Jerry Stahl's 1995 memoir. Entertainment Weekly even dubbed him the 44th-funniest person alive.
But for all his screen success, Stiller had a revelation for The Journal: He feels typecast as neurotic-New York-Jewish.
"You get termed 'ethnic,' and that cuts you off from many roles," says Stiller, who portrayed a Jewish TV exec dumped by Winona Ryder in "Reality Bites" and a nudgy Jewish adoptee in "Flirting With Disaster." "That's why I really enjoyed working on 'There's Something about Mary.' My character doesn't have a specific background. He is just who he is."
Stiller says he was drawn to "Permanent Midnight" because, like Stahl, he is "funny and Jewish and not particularly confident or comfortable" in his own skin. He feels "somewhat of an outcast in the WASP culture;" and he has felt pressured to assimilate not because he is self-hating, but because he hates when people typecast him.