Ben Stiller: "MY first love was older. There was that wonderful older woman, younger guy thing."

Ben Stiller: "My first love was older. There was that wonderful older woman, younger guy thing." Photo: Joe Pugliese/AUGUST/Raven & Snow

Ben Stiller
Actor and director, 48, married

 

As a teenager I didn't have confidence, and I didn't know how to talk to women. I had girls as friends, but I wasn't that good at expressing myself. Over the years, I've accepted I'm never going to be that super-confident guy, but I can be confident in being who I am.

Ben Stiller with his mother, actor and comedian Anne Meara.

Ben Stiller with his mother, actor and comedian Anne Meara. Photo: Getty Images

My mom, Anne Meara, has been a huge influence on me: incredibly funny, smart, very discerning humour. She's a strong personality, a very good actress, and I watched her dynamic working with my dad, Jerry Stiller, as a comedy duo. I always identified more with my mother's sense of humour.

Dad is Jewish, Mom is Irish-Catholic and grew up in Brooklyn, an only child, during the Depression; I have heavy guilt influences on both sides. She lost her mom, Mary, at seven, so had to toughen up. There's a dark Irish sense of humour, because when terrible things happened she was never afraid to undercut the tension with a joke.

Mom converted to Judaism and took it seriously. But we were never a very religious family. We would celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. Dad's mother, Bella, was very religious, and at a time when inter-faith marriage was a big deal, mom's converting meant something to Bella.

Stiller with his wife, Christine Taylor, and their daughter, Ella Olivia, at a screening of <i>The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty</i> last year.

Stiller with his wife, Christine Taylor, and their daughter, Ella Olivia, at a screening of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty last year. Photo: Getty Images

Mom has been a guidepost for me in integrity in my work. She wasn't a traditional mom who made us sandwiches and took us to school; she'd be working, but she supported us, and would give her opinion about what she thought was funny and who she thought was a good actor.

Another woman who had a huge influence on my life was Hazel Hugh. Hazel was Jamaican and became our nanny when I was four. She lived with us in our apartment on New York's Upper West Side five days a week and would go home to her own seven children on weekends.

Hazel stayed with our family her entire life. She passed away last year at 86 years of age. She was an incredible woman. She was our mom whenever our mom wasn't there; she was very maternal. She was very close to her own seven kids, and we've talked about what it meant for them to have their mom taking care of [Stiller's sister] Amy and me a lot of the time.

Often, Hazel was the only person there with my sister and I. Amy and I created this world together. We'd put on shows and had a secret language; a Franny and Zooey relationship. Amy rolls with the punches, and she's creative as an actor and in comedy. She's spiritual and into astrology. She has an open way of looking at life, which I connect to through her.

I remember my kindergarten teacher, whose name was Mrs Lustgarten, and I loved her. I remember her being very nurturing and loving and having a kindergarten crush on her. There was also an acting teacher I had, Jacqueline Knapp. Again, the nurturing was what I liked; maybe it was also a balancing because my mom was a little bit tougher. Later in life, my mom became a lot more nurturing.

My mom has talked about this: she drank for a lot of her life because of the pressure she thought she was under, then later quit. She was always a great mom doing the best she could. She grew as a person, reading about alternate realities - we had these Seth [metaphysical] books in the '70s. For me, whatever was missing at that time, I found in other women, like Hazel and other maternal, nurturing figures. I always looked for that.

My first love was a girl I met in acting class. I was 19. She was a bit older. There was that wonderful older woman-younger guy thing. Eventually, we both called it off. I haven't had that many relationships in my life.

I've been lucky to work with a lot of great actresses. I'm still friends with Jen Aniston; she's a great person. I immediately connected with my future wife, [actor] Christine [Taylor], when we met. We were both not looking for a relationship, which is probably what allowed us the freedom to not put any pressure on it. Over the course of a summer, we fell in love [they married in 2000]. The cornerstone of our relationship is that we laugh together a lot.

I've been learning every day since becoming a father for the first time with the birth of our daughter, Ella Olivia, in 2002. [Stiller also has a son, Quinlin, born in 2005.]

Ella Olivia is the most fascinating woman I know; very smart, incredibly headstrong. Connecting with what she's doing has been a big lesson for me, as opposed to trying to get her to be interested in what I'm doing. But at 48 I do not understand women yet. I am working on it still.

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is out on DVD in May.