There’s something about Ben
Observer News Service
When Tony Blair and George Bush met for the first time at Camp David, six months before 9/11, they went for a walk with the dogs, established the fact that they used the same brand of toothpaste and sat down to watch a movie together. The movie was ‘Meet the Parents’.
Ben Stiller, that film’s star, thinks it is hilarious. “I read an interview with Bush and his wife,” Stiller goes on to say, “where they asked them ‘what their favourite movie was’, and she said, ‘Me and the girls like Zoolander’.” It’s just so weird. Aren’t they busy? Shouldn’t they be doing other things?”
Ever since he played Cameron Diaz’s hapless suitor in the Farrelly brothers’ comedy ‘There’s Something About Mary’, Stiller’s position as Hollywood’s top comic antihero has been unshakeable. He has five films coming out this year. Stiller wasn’t exactly unknown before: he had his television debut at the age of eight. Spielberg cast him in ‘Empire of the Sun’ when he was 22 he had his own TV show in 1990 directed the Gen-x classic ‘Reality Bites’ four years later and went on to direct Jim Carrey in ‘The Cable Guy’. But in ‘There’s Something About Mary’ he coined a certain lovable discomfort that he has been able to riff on ever since — as Mr Furious, the ineffectual superhero in ‘Mystery Men’ as Chas, the pathologically over-protective father in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and as Greg Focker, Robert De Niro’s put-upon future son-in-law in ‘Meet the Parents’.
By the time he wrote, directed and played male model Derek Zoolander, Stiller had achieved a near-religious following. Stiller’s latest role is one that’s close to his heart. In fact, he says, it was like ‘fulfilling a fantasy’. Hamlet? No, Detective David Starsky, as in ‘Starsky and Hutch’. Hutch is played by Stiller’s frequent co-star Owen Wilson. “TV,” Stiller says, “was a big part of the 70s for me. I watched a lot of TV. Too much, probably. You know, it’s like a drug.” He liked ‘The Partridge Family’ and had a crush on the Bionic Woman. Now, when he watches re-runs of those programmes, he finds them comforting. “You know, you turn on those shows and it just feels like it’s so much a part of who I am.”
By the time Starsky and Hutch first aired, Stiller had already been on TV himself. “Oh that !” he says, when reminded of the occasion when he and his elder sister Amy played chopsticks on a talk show. “It was horrible.” His parents, the comedy team Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara (he now plays George’s father in ‘Seinfeld’, she played the English teacher in ‘Fame’), were asked to co-host ‘The Mike Douglas Show’. “Every week he’d have different co-hosts,” Stiller explains, “like John Lennon and Yoko Ono did it one week and Roger Moore — all different celebrities. And so my folks did it a few times. It used to be a big event for us as kids because we’d drive down with them to Philadelphia in a limousine and there was this famous restaurant there where they had lobsters in a tank. So, I guess they needed stuff to do on the show, and we’d have been taking violin lessons for about a year.”
Ben Stiller was suspected of being a practical joke even before he was born. His mother was pregnant with him when his parents were looking for a new apartment. “Can I feel your stomach?” the estate agent asked, and once he’d confirmed that the pregnancy was real he explained that he thought they might have been putting it on to jump the queue for the flat. A few weeks later, Ben was born. “My parents weren’t like stage parents, but I think we were always wanting to be a part of it.” he remembers, “It always seemed so much fun, much more than school. It was like: ‘Oh, this is great, they get to stay up late, people are laughing, applauding’.”
At the age of 10, Ben was given a Super-8 camera by his father. He lost no time in parodying the films of the period: “Like when ‘Jaws’ came out, we did our own little bathtub Jaws and a lot of basic action drama: like a kid would be coming home from school and he’d get mugged by another kid and then a friend of his would come and find the kid who mugged him and beat him up.” He loved disaster movies — he saw ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ “literally 25 times” — and as a pre-teen director he specialised in spoofs of the Airport movies — in which his father had appeared. Amid all this excitement, “School was where I didn’t want to be.” It can’t have helped that his school’s gym classes were held in the crypt of the largest cathedral in America. Stiller describes his teenage self as “not that well-adjusted. It wasn’t a great time. I was sort of confused and not that cool. Probably 13 through to 19 was not a great period for me.”
Then he moved to LA, hated it, and came back. In New York, he worked at the Actors’ Studio and waited tables. His debut as an actor came in 1986, in John Guare’s play ‘The House of Blue Leaves’. He was picked up by Saturday Night Live, and not long afterwards he had his own show. The Ben Stiller Show, which was cancelled after 12 episodes but won a posthumous Emmy, contained brilliant spoofs of the 70s TV programmes, including a cop-show sketch in which Moses parts the Red Sea without a permit. A running theme was the fear of not being funny. Stiller would meet up with his scriptwriter and ask him what he thought of the last show. Would he say he was paranoid?
“Paranoid? I’m not paranoid. Why? Why are you saying that? I don’t know. I tend to be a little bit cynical. I respect people who aren’t. My wife’s a lot less cynical than I am. I think that’s a great quality. But I don’t think I’m paranoid. It’s that thing, just cause you’re paranoid doesn’t mean somebody’s not up to something.” Stiller claims not to have particularly fancied Marcia in ‘The Brady Bunch when he was glued to his 70s TV set, but he eventually married the actress who played her in the movie. He met Christine Taylor when he was casting a TV pilot, and five months after they started seeing each other, he proposed. When they got married, six months after that, he cast her as the love interest in ‘Zoolander’, “which worked out great,” he says, “because I was directing, so it would have been a year when we wouldn’t have been able to hang out that much.”
Now, however, there’s someone else to think of: Ella. Stiller and Taylor’s daughter is nearly two. Can Stiller see Ella as a third-generation comedian? “I think she’s funny. She loves to laugh. She loves to eat.” Stiller ‘s production company, Red Hour Films (the name is a reference to Star Trek ) now has a three-year exclusive deal with Dreamworks, for Stiller to write, produce and direct. He’s working on another rewrite, although so much time has passed that he now feels he’s too old to play the lead himself. Jerry Stahl, the some-time heroin addict on whose memoirs ‘Permanent Midnight’ was based, and who is Stiller’s writing partner on ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ captured Stiller’s powers of perseverance when he said he could never rest on his laurels because “his laurels feel like cactus to him”.
“People have told me that I tend to be a little bit obsessive,” Stiller says. “I see it sometimes, but I’m trying to not be that much any more. I’m a recovering obsessive. But I can’t understand how if you’re working on something, you wouldn’t keep on working on it until it’s as good as you can get it.”