Arts & Entertainment, Features

Ben Stiller arrives at BU, inspires ‘new voices’

Hordes of Boston University students, waiting in line, crowded the aisles of Tsai Performance Center, dying to get a selfie with the night’s featured speaker or to maybe tell him how “Zoolander” inspired their future Hollywood career. Lost in a sea of eager, taller-than-him film and television students, was actor, writer, producer and director Ben Stiller offering advice to those trying to break into the industry.

“I just felt such a passion from the audience,” Stiller said. “Talking to students who are so committed, it was really exciting.”

This past Friday’s event, “An Evening with Ben Stiller,” hosted by the Film and Television department, sold out days after its announcement. On stage, Stiller hosted a talk, screening and Q&A to a full house filled exclusively with members of the BU community.

Ben Stiller speaks to audience members at the Tsai Performance Center on Friday. “An Evening with Ben Stiller” was a sold-out screening and Q&A with Stiller hosted by Boston University’s Film and Television department. MAGDALENA LAZOWSKI/ DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

“We’ve been trying to put this on for probably at least three or four months,” Ali Audet, department administrator for Film and TV, said. “[He’s] been the super secret guest we’ve been teasing.”

Tickets went on sale for the event last Monday, just days before Stiller’s arrival in Boston. His unexpected appearance was made possible by his close ties to Film and TV Professor Jeff Kahn, who won an Emmy in 1993 for his writing on “The Ben Stiller Show.”

“It’s an incredibly generous friendship thing to do,” Kahn said of his longtime friend and collaborator. “When I asked him to do it, I expected him to say, ‘Oh man, maybe I’ll think about it.’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ So it just meant a lot.”

At the event, Stiller screened his latest project, “Severance,” a sci-fi thriller streaming on Apple TV+. Diverting from his notoriety in comedic films such as “Meet The Parents” (2000) and “Night At The Museum” (2006), Stiller has moved behind the camera to direct the series.

“That was the first time I was able to watch this episode, our opening episode of the show, because we never had a premiere,” Stiller said of “Severance,” which was released in 2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This was such an amazing group just to feel the energy.”

The free event, Audet said, was targeted specifically at College of Communication and film and television students.

“He has an incredible catalog,” she said of Stiller’s multi-hyphenate status in Hollywood. “We really thought that he could speak to a lot of [COM] students and a lot of what they’re learning and what they want to aspire to in their lives.”

A veteran of the craft, Stiller has been nominated for seven Emmys, most recently for Outstanding Directing for “Severance,” and has achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim. In the early 1990s, he built his career working with the likes of Judd Apatow, Garry Shandling and Bob Odenkirk. He worked both behind and in front of the camera for films “Reality Bites” (1994) and “The Cable Guy” (1996), before becoming a household name for his performance in the comedy “There’s Something About Mary” (1998). 

“The world is changing all the time and it’s tough in a lot of ways,” Stiller said. “But there’s also an openness out there to new voices.”

Upon exiting the building, Stiller was bombarded by masses of students trying to get a word in. Only after the Tsai staff asked everyone to leave did Stiller walk away. He intended on answering every question, smiling in every picture and listening to every young filmmaker that he could, even if the event was technically over. Having never graduated college, Stiller said he was still so connected to the students “wanting to have a voice” and encouraged everyone’s originality.

“It worked out in a really wonderful, all-around way because I think he was just as inspired by [students] if not more so,” Kahn said. “I think he’s leaving with a lot of good, positive feelings.”

The questions about navigating the craft, Stiller said, were especially important for the young filmmakers pursuing personal visions and forming their own idea of what they want something to become.

“I think it’s really important to hear, ‘Go with your gut and go with your feeling and what you believe in,’” he said. “You have to have courage.”

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