Ben Stiller's balancing act directing dark workplace comedy Severance

Adam Scott in Severance, a dark workplace comedy directed by Ben Stiller. PHOTO: APPLE TV+

LOS ANGELES - As an actor, Ben Stiller made his name with offbeat comedies such as Zoolander (2001), Tropic Thunder (2008) and the Meet The Parents trilogy (2000 to 2010).

But as he perfected his goofball persona on screen, he was also becoming a respected Hollywood director.

Stiller was behind the camera on the cult romantic comedy Reality Bites (1994), acclaimed true-crime drama Escape At Dannemora (2018) and the endlessly memed Zoolander.

And his latest directorial effort, Severance - a dark workplace thriller streaming on Apple TV+ - expands his eclectic resume.

The series follows Mark (Adam Scott), an employee whose workplace has made him undergo a "severance" procedure - the implantation of a microchip in his brain to separate his work memories from his personal ones. But this experiment in "work-life balance" is thrown in doubt when Mark finds himself at the centre of a mystery that forces him to confront the true nature of his work and himself.

Speaking at a virtual press event for the new show, Stiller, 56, says television as an art form is unrecognisable from how it was three decades ago, when he created and starred in The Ben Stiller Show (1990 to 1993), a sketch comedy series.

"Television's changed a lot. There's the opportunity to do so many different kinds of things and genres on a level that, 30 years ago, people weren't investing in because television was looked at very differently," says the star, who won an Emmy for his writing on that show.

"But now, I feel like it's the place you go if you want to take chances and explore different genres and work with really amazing people," says Stiller, who also directed and starred in adventure comedy The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (2013).

Stiller has studiously avoided being pigeonholed into any one genre.

This is why after Escape From Dannemora - which picked up six Emmy nominations, including for direction - he did not immediately embark on another project based on a true story.

"That's sort of a predictable thing in our business, where if you do one thing that people respond to, then you get more of that offered to you," says the actor, whose parents were the late comedians Jerry Stiller - star of the sitcom Seinfeld (1989 to 1998) - and Anne Meara.

While working on Escape From Dannemora, Stiller read the script for Severance, which felt radically different in tone.

Creator Dan Erickson "wrote something that was such a metaphor for not just the work-life balance, but also our lives", Stiller says.

"It's about how we're going through this experience we all have of being alive, how we spend our time, and what we question and don't question."

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And as he and the cast and crew worked on the series, they found themselves reflecting on how they lived and compartmentalised their lives.

"As we were toiling to make a show about people toiling and doing things, we were all wondering, 'What are we all doing here - doing all this stuff, keeping ourselves busy?'

"I think ultimately, those bigger questions are interesting and they resonate for me with this show."

But Stiller has probably found the right calling in his own life, he says.

Growing up with parents who worked in Hollywood, he saw "all sides of the business, including the ups and downs".

"But my parents loved doing what they did and it was so much a part of our lives. It seemed exciting to me and it seemed fun," recalls the star, who is married to actress Christine Taylor, 50. The couple have two children aged 16 and 18.

"The downside is it's a tough business, but I think any business has that. It's interesting to me and I feel so lucky to do what I love doing."

Severance is available on Apple TV+.

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