You know what they say: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. For Ben Stiller, those lemons were the box office returns for Zoolander 2, his 2016 sequel to his sleeper hit about a dingbat male model he made 15 years prior. And in a new Esquire profile (in a bit teased out by The AV Club), the actor and filmmaker discusses the lemonade he made from that critical and commercial disaster.
The lemonade, if you can excuse the dodgy metaphor, came in the form of two TV shows: Escape at Dannemora and Severance. The first is the Emmy-gobbling thriller with Patricia Arquette and Benicio Del Toro that aired two years after Zoolander 2 croaked. The second, a sci-fi thriller about a disturbing workplace, is one of the most hyped shows of the new year. (Its run on Apple TV+ began last week.) Neither are comedies, though they can be funny. But both were directed (in the latter’s case, mostly) by Stiller, who was nominated for an Emmy and won a DGA award for his work.
Perhaps this is not the path Stiller’s had taken had a certain aforementioned sequel not tanked. “If Zoolander 2 had been a huge hit, and then people were saying ‘Zoolander 3! Do this movie! That movie!’” he said. “[T]hat might have taken me off the road of having the space to work on developing Dannemora.”
He imagines what could have happened otherwise. “I might have gotten distracted by other bright shiny objects, but instead it opened a path where I could just do what I’d honestly wanted to do for years and years, which was: just direct something!” Stiller said. “To say, I’m just going to work on this project that I want to work on, because it takes a little time to get these things going, and if you don’t stick with it you don’t get there.”
Stiller has done plenty of serious work before. Indeed, his big screen directorial debut, Reality Bites, is a drama-comedy-romance that was also one of Hollywood’s first looks at then-still-young Gen X. But people still seem surprised that he’s not exclusively cranking out comedies in which intellectually impaired guys set themselves ablaze.
“People do ask me, ‘Why were you drawn to this? You’re not a guy who does these kinds of things,’” Stiller told Esquire. “I get asked that about Severance, I heard it a lot about Dannemora. ‘You’re funny. Be funny.’ I get it. But I don’t analyze it. In my mind, it made total sense.”
Severance drops new episodes every Friday through April 8 on Apple TV+.