'Brad's Status' star Ben Stiller talks aging and prosperity: 'Success doesn't relate to personal happiness'

Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams as father and son in director Mike White’s <em>Brad’s Status</em>
Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams as father and son in director Mike White’s Brad’s Status

Wanna feel old? Ben Stiller is sending a kid off to college already. Not in real life, but in the new comedy Brad’s Status, which finds the Meet the Parents and Dodgeball actor playing the eponymous Sacramento father on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he tours Boston universities with his musical prodigy son, Troy (Austin Abrams). The razor-sharp satire, written and directed by Mike White, premiered to high marks Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In real life, the 51-year-old Stiller isn’t too far off from emptying the nest. His oldest daughter is a sophomore in high school (he also has a 12-year-old son, both with actress Christine Taylor, whom Stiller separated from earlier this year after 17 years of marriage). “It’s crazy, it just happens,” Stiller told Yahoo Movies in Toronto, adding that the experience of making the film lead to some serious self-reflection. “You look at who you are at this point, because [your kids] hold a mirror up to you. Just yesterday, I left a message for my daughter on her phone, and I signed off, saying, ‘Love you. It’s Daddy.’ And that’s literally what my father [comedy icon Jerry Stiller] would do on the phone with me. I hung up and I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m literally turning into my dad.'”

Preparing to see his son off brings to the surface the main source of Brad’s discontent: He’s dedicated the bulk of his professional life to the nonprofit sector, and thus “settled” for a middle-class lifestyle. Four of his closest friends from college, meanwhile, have flourished: There’s Jason (Luke Wilson), a finance hotshot with a private jet; Billy (Jemaine Clement), a tech tycoon who retired at 40; Craig (Michael Sheen, a political insider and bestselling author; and Nick (White), a Hollywood director with a Malibu mansion.

Brad’s unraveling throughout the course of the trip plays out via his inner dialogue, as the regrets, self-doubt, and envy seep into his actions and threaten to affect Troy’s shot at admissions. It’s a deeply honest and brutal depiction about self-worth and how we compare ourselves with others, all told with piercing humor for White, who’s previously written films like The Good Girl and School of Rock.

It’s so truthful that it all feels like we’re traveling deep into the psyche of the writer-director, like we’re Being Mike White. “That’s what he’s so good at, is channeling the human experience. That’s why he’s such a great writer. He’s sensitive to it,” Stiller said. “His work is so honest. And I think that’s part of his talent, is he makes it so entertaining as well. He finds that balance.”

Stiller is conscious of that fact that if he were a character in this story, he would be on the other end of Brad’s resentment. He is, after all, one of the most successful actors of the past few decades, with box-office hits like the Night at the Museum movies, There’s Something About Mary, and Tropic Thunder to his name.

“What I think is good about this movie is that we can all find ourselves [in Brad]. And all of the guys that Brad quote-unquote envies, they all have their own issues. There are trappings of material success versus being happy. It doesn’t matter what you have or what you don’t have. Either you’re a happy person or you’re not a happy person in your life, though we’re all kind of striving for that I think.”

Stiller admits he shares some of the same neuroses as Brad, and he’s endured plenty of personal adversity, especially in recent years. In 2016, he revealed a battle with prostate cancer.

“The reality is that if Brad had a jet, he wouldn’t be any happier,” Stiller said. “As a person who’s worked for a long time in showbiz and had success that I’m really grateful for, does that relate to personal happiness? I don’t think it does. I think it’s how you are with yourself.”

Stiller takes a moment to drink it all in. “That’s pretty deep,” he adds with a laugh.

Brad’s Status opens in select cities Sept. 15. Watch an exclusive clip:

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