There is a Hollywood story that I always thought was apocryphal. A movie star turns up for a magazine cover shoot in New York and isn't happy about the studio conditions.
He is sullen throughout the entire shoot. At one point, while standing beside the editor, the movie star dials his publicist back in Los Angeles and is overheard demanding that the publicist call that same editor and ask for the air-conditioning to be turned down.
According to the editor in question, Mickey Boardman of Paper magazine, that was Ben Stiller. "Two seconds later my phone rang and the publicist told me," recalls Boardman. "I said, 'I know. I'm standing next to him.' "
It sounds like an incident straight out of Stiller's Zoolander, which brilliantly skewered the self-absorbed behaviour of models and designers in the fashion-world bubble.
As I'm preparing to meet Stiller to talk about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (in cinemas on Boxing Day), which he both stars in and directs, I'm warned by a Hollywood insider who knows him that Stiller can be a "pill" - prickly, rude and impatient.
Yet despite his reputation as an intense, single-minded control freak, the Stiller I meet in a New York hotel suite is earnest and self-deprecating, without a hint of impatience, even though it's well past the hour when he's due to meet his wife for dinner.
Of course, he is promoting a movie with a budget in excess of US$90 million and he's anxious for its good reception, but Walter Mitty is also garnering the "Oscar buzz" that has eluded him until now. At 47, has he finally chilled out?
Stiller's best buddy is Justin Theroux, who appeared as an actor under Stiller's helmsmanship in Tropic Thunder and who is co-writing and directing Zoolander 2. I ask him if Stiller is as tightly wound as he is often depicted as being.
"He works extremely hard in a business that puts people on a very high wire to do their work," Theroux says.
"He's also an extremely good director, which I think sometimes gets overlooked because he's often the actor sitting in the centre of the same frame that he constructed. When you have the responsibility of creating a movie and carrying it at the same time, you are forced to become incredibly exacting."
John Goldwyn, a producer on Walter Mitty, also worked with Stiller on Zoolander in 2001. Goldwyn says their battles were furious. "I was under enormous pressure to watch the costs. Ben and I fought over the budget, never creative issues. He was less seasoned then, less confident ... the Ben Stiller I worked with on Mitty was patient, inclusive and very generous."
Walter Mitty is loosely based on the James Thurber short story of 1939, about a daydreamer who imagines his dull life to be a series of colourful adventures, which spawned a 1947 film musical starring the goofy US comic Danny Kaye.
Stiller's reimagined Mitty is a meek Life magazine photo editor whose life is so dreary he can't even find anything vaguely interesting about himself to add to his eHarmony profile.
His means of escape is fantasy - elaborate daydreams where he transforms himself into a hero straight out of the images he curates for the magazine. In short-sleeved shirts with greying hair, hunched over with a downtrodden demeanour, he's easily bullied by his new boss (Parks and Recreation's Adam Scott) and can't work up the courage to ask co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Bridesmaids' Kristen Wiig) on a date.
When it's announced the print magazine is closing down and Mitty discovers he has misplaced the transparency of the image for the final cover, he goes on a secret mission to find the elusive photographer of it, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn).
This takes him to Greenland and Afghanistan, encountering "real-life" adventures that are more surreal than anything he could have dreamed up: wrestling with a shark and skateboarding towards a volcano being two of them.
Stiller, playing Mitty, is as grey and colourless as you've seen him. In person, in dark jeans and hoodie, rid of the short sleeves and grey hair, the actor is surprisingly good-looking, maybe not the "really, really, ridiculously good-looking" of Derek Zoolander, but handsome enough that the conceit of him being a supermodel isn't that far-fetched, although his lack of height might still remain a challenge to that ambition. He has so often played the hapless, nebbishy guy put upon by the world, like Mitty, or the balled-up angry man who is at odds with it, that Stiller rarely allows a glimpse of this handsomeness on screen.
One side of his face is droopier, less chiselled, than the other: a gift to an actor who needs to nimbly move between broad slapstick and the delicacy of romantic comedy.
He needs all that versatility for Walter Mitty, a huge risk for studio and star, because it's a big- budget, special-effects production that has to appeal to mainstream Hollywood audiences (teenage boys) with themes that are more suited to mature and female audiences.
Stiller was sent a script a decade ago, but he felt it too closely followed the Danny Kaye original, which was hilariously camp. Fast-forward a few years and several screenplays and leading men (Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson) later, and a new script lands on his desk, written by Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man).
"I felt emotionally connected to it and moved by it," Stiller explains. "It became about this person and his journey of self-discovery. The idea is there's this heroic person inside these ordinary people. This guy is relevant and he has a lot to offer, but things have just not quite gone the way he wanted."
Mitty's journey is about engaging more fully with reality, and in the course of that, understanding that his own life is worthwhile. "It's just saying, like, 'You matter', " Stiller continues.
"Any person in showbusiness, actors, whatever, we all have different ways of having to deal with that stuff. We're all sensitive people and have an idea of what we want to be, whether it's a guy who works at a gas station or the president of the United States. What I like about the story is that it's about a guy who learns to be more who he is."
Stiller relished the opportunity to move away from broad comedy towards something more philosophical. He was intrigued by the fact he "couldn't define what kind of movie it was".
The tone was hard to pin down, mixing genres and shifting mood from sentimentality to edge-of-the-seat thrills. Perhaps that was why the project had difficulty signing a director. He put up his hand. "Hey, I think I can do this if you guys are open to it."
Stiller says, "I knew the movie wasn't going to live and die on the comedy." There are some hilarious scenes of slapstick tomfoolery but there are plenty of big sentimental moments, some genuinely affecting, others a little mawkish.
Sean Penn's character, the risk-taking photographer who is Mitty's polar opposite, and who spouts sage-like lines such as "Beautiful things don't ask for attention", would be mercilessly lampooned in a film like Zoolander. When I tell Stiller I think the Sean Penn character is a wanker, he laughs but looks genuinely taken aback. "Oh, really?"
Stiller is best known to movie-going audiences for his broad comedy. His testicles-caught-in-the-zipper scene in There's Something About Mary is one of the great pieces of cinematic clowning.
One of Hollywood's highest-paid actors, he is also one of the busiest, with three lucrative movie franchises on the go - Meet the Fockers, Madagascar and A Night at the Museum. Then there are the straightforward acting jobs, such as in Noah Baumbach's forthcoming While We're Young, co-starring Naomi Watts.
Stiller has had such a stellar career as a comic actor it's easy to overlook the fact that his life's ambition, from age eight, has always been to direct film.
Armed with a Super 8 camera, and with his older sister Amy as his cast, he would film spoofs of movies that were currently showing at the cinema. His earliest memory was the film he named Airport 76 after the blockbuster Airport 1975 in which his father, comedian Jerry Stiller (best known as Frank Costanza in Seinfeld), appeared. It also marked his first experience with special effects - he shot a model 747 crashing into the sofa.
Stiller's mother, Anne Meara, teamed with husband Jerry to create the successful comedy duo Stiller and Meara, which was a mainstay of TV variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s and '70s.
At age eight, the young Ben reluctantly made a guest appearance with them on the daytime program The Mike Douglas Show playing his violin, although he denies that his parents wanted to push their children into showbusiness.
"They wanted us to do what we wanted to do," he says. "There were times when they were working so hard that we would go along with them when they were being interviewed on the TV and we would come out.
"It wasn't like they were giving us dancing lessons and making us sing. I think we were around it [showbusiness] so much we saw what it was. As a kid you got to stay up late and there were parties and yeah ... that seemed like that could be really fun and cool."
When Anne Meara was cast in the original off-Broadway production of John Guare's play The House of Blue Leaves in 1971, young Ben would hang around back stage. Even then, there were foreshadows of his future. John Guare recalls: "There is this wonderful home movie of Ben at age five in a little suit and necktie and overcoat, with a copy of the script in front of the Truck and Warehouse Theater, yelling at me, shaking his fists, demanding rewrites - and I'm bowing and taking notes from him."
When The House of Blue Leaves was revived in 1986, Stiller nagged his mother to get him an audition. A small role in the Tony Award-winning revival was his first real acting gig. In 2011, when the play was revived once more on Broadway, Stiller played the lead opposite Edie Falco.
Growing up on New York's upper West Side, where he still keeps an apartment, Stiller and his sister were often left in the care of a housekeeper while their parents toured nightclubs around the US with their double-act as warring husband-and-wife.
He watched a lot of movies on TV at home and took himself off to the cinema alone. The actor, writer and director Albert Brooks, whose father also was a comedian, was his greatest influence.
"That kind of comedy, parody, really affected me." He related to both Brooks' and Woody Allen's Jewish humour, although he says he has more in common with his mother's cynical Irish wit than his father's Borsch-belt comedy. "She probably has the best sense of humour of anyone I know."
His father wanted him to be a stand-up comic, but he says he's never felt the need to enter a room and make people laugh.
"I wouldn't say I don't think I'm funny. I've seen things I've done that I've laughed at, but for me the humour that comes out of a situation or a real moment, those are the things that I find funniest."
Nevertheless, when asked was there anything we didn't know about Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld - his business partner in production company Red Hour - tells me he is "a devastating mimic" (and "a gifted drummer".)
Stiller set his heart on being a director, the guy with the control. "I was really single-minded about wanting to be a director as a kid but I was not a good student, so my options were very limited. I didn't get into USC [University of Southern California] film school because I didn't have the grades, so then I started to act because that was a little bit more accessible.
"I was bad a lot of the time and with the auditioning process I was scared and nervous. Then I got better at auditioning. I started to get some small parts, and I wasn't that great, then I got more small parts," he laughs. "I didn't come out of the box like, 'Okay!'" he says, making a "ta-da!" gesture. "I wasn't Richard Burton or something."
His skills as an amateur filmmaker came in handy at this point. "When nobody was hiring me as an actor, that's when I started making my own short films, trying to generate my own stuff because I didn't want to sit down waiting for nobody to hire me." He gives a throaty guffaw. "Now it has changed so much. It's almost expected now. That's what you do, you make your own short film and you put it on the internet and you can't not do it."
His short spoof of The Color of Money, made during the 1986 production of The House of Blue Leaves, won him a short-lived job on Saturday Night Live. He quit in 1989 to do The Ben Stiller Show, which he wrote, directed and starred in. T
he 30-minute satire, which was produced by Judd Apatow and co-starred Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick, screened on Fox in the US for 13 episodes in 1992-93 before it was cancelled. It won a prime-time Emmy for its writing after it was cancelled. In 1994 he directed his first feature, the Generation X classic, Reality Bites.
He finds directing himself "frustrating". Does Stiller the actor always do what Stiller the director wants? He chuckles. "Never! Sometimes I feel that what I want to be happening in a scene is not necessarily happening. I can't be as aware of what I'm doing because I have to be there for the other actors." He gives himself more takes than usual so he's covered in the editing process. "It's a very inexact process when you're dealing with yourself!"
Stiller says he learnt to "develop a thick skin" watching his parents suffer rejection after rejection. He is nonchalant about fame, being around it from an early age.
"I feel I'm lucky I'm not one of those people who is interesting and sells magazines," he grins.
"There isn't a photographer there every second. That reality, which I've seen with people I know, it's insane. It can really, totally affect your life." Is he too famous to ride the subway? "No, I don't think anyone's too famous to go on the subway. I rode the subway only recently."
He engages with fans on Twitter @RedHourBen. (His production company name, Red Hour, is taken from an episode of the original series of Star Trek.
The "red hour" is 6pm, when the inhabitants of a repressed planet go berserk, a kind of interplanetary Happy Hour.) "I'm appreciative that the people connecting with me are the people who go to my movies," he says. "I can't go, 'Oh, these people!' " But he does have his limits. "When I'm with my kids, I find sometimes people don't quite understand when I say, 'Look, I'm with my kids, you can't do a picture.' "
Stiller lives in quiet Westchester County, New York, and Manhattan with his wife, actress Christine Taylor, who co-starred with her husband in Zoolander and Dodgeball, and their children Ella, 11, and Quinlan, 8. (The couple married in Hawaii, where they have a house, in 2000.)
He is a well-known liberal, a supporter of Barack Obama. "I was very glad he was elected again." Less known is his charitable work through his Stiller Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for children around the world, with a special focus on Haiti.
I comment that the celebrity charity world is something he would send up in his movies. "For sure!" he smiles. But, "It helps [the charities]. If they have somebody they can take a picture of, it gets [the charities] some attention."
Is it difficult to be funny in the 21st century? "I sometimes get a little bit overwhelmed when I think of all the problems in the world and how can we affect them, when you see what's going on in parts of the world, like now in Syria. How do you deal with that? Do you try to do something? Do you try to shut it out? Do you go on like nothing's happening?"
Stiller admits there's a "shadow side" to his funny man personality. Like the two sides of his face, there's "yin and yang".
He says, "I wouldn't say I'm an optimist. I wouldn't say I'm a pessimist. I do feel that human connection - people connecting and being open and caring about each other - that's ultimately the challenge these days. There's also a lot of anger and frustration and rage in the world and crazy people and all of that. To stay open in that kind of world is challenging."
Of course, conveying that frustration and rage on screen is something of a Ben Stiller speciality. Which is why the reflective and mild Walter Mitty character is such a shift for him.
"The new, improved Stiller that John Goldwyn enjoyed working with this time around seems to take his cues from the film's premise that one should live in the moment. "I'm sort of just trying to be present," Stiller says. "Sometimes I'm good at it and sometimes I'm not good at it, but ... that's all I can do."
Interview concluded, Stiller exits this particular moment. A handshake and he's off for dinner with his wife.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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