Stiller, the reluctant comedy king
Despite the pc protests, Ben Stiller was never going to alter his new film 'Tropic Thunder', says Evan Fanning
Ben Stiller walks into the room carrying a giant piece of traditional knitwear he's just been given by a Norwegian journalist. Were this one of Stiller's movies then he would be forced to wear this monstrosity -- which appears to have bells on its collars and red knitted elks as its pattern -- as he goes on hugely embarrassing date with some girl who is way out of his league.
Instead, Stiller lays the jumper on the floor and gets on with the show of promoting Tropic Thunder, the latest hugely successful comedy that the 42-year-old stars in and which he also happens to have written and directed. Though he is nothing but helpful, you can't help but get the impression that Stiller would rather be wrapped up in the woolly jumper, playing out some scene so cringeworthy that you almost need to shield your eyes as you squirm in your seat while watching, than sitting here fielding questions.
I've been warned that Stiller has something of a reputation for being quite serious. He's certainly not, I've been told, anywhere near as funny in person as he comes across in his succession of hit movies like There's Something About Mary, Zoolander and Meet the Parents. It's also something that Stiller himself is aware of.
"I guess I am," he says when asked if he knows of his reputation off-screen. "I'm not really good at trying to be 'funny funny' so I don't try to push that, though it is something I would like to be all the time. Sometimes it happens. It's not as if I'm trying not to be funny, it's just that I don't want to push something that's not there and try and be the guy who's trying to get laughs."
He also seems slightly wary today, which is not all that unsurprising, considering that all most people want to talk to him about is the controversy surrounding Tropic Thunder. The movie's plot centres around three Hollywood actors thrust together on the set of a war movie. The film within the film is an Apocalypse Now-style war movie which has gone horribly over-budget thanks in no small part to the film's central explosion scene -- a pyrotechnics extravaganza which involves $4m of explosives being detonated taking place without the cameras rolling. The horribly out-of-his-depth director (played by Steve Coogan) takes the pampered actors into the jungle in a bid to inject some realism into their performances which he intends to capture with some guerrilla-style filmmaking.
One of these actors, Tugg Speedman (played by Stiller), is a failing action hero who in a desperate bid to be taken seriously makes a movie called Simple Jack in which he plays a mentally handicapped farm-hand who has the ability to speak with animals.
In promoting Tropic Thunder it was decided that a spoof website be created for the Simple Jack movie and this website contained the word "retard" which, as Russell Brand recently found out, is now on the black-list in America's politically correct world.
Criticism and hysteria followed and several groups called for a boycott of Tropic Thunder. The Simple Jack website was taken down but by that stage the damage was done. The US premiere of the movie was picketed even though the protesters, as is often the way with protesters, hadn't seen what it was they were campaigning against.
If they had, it may not have made much difference, as Tropic Thunder also contains a scene in which the five-time Oscar winning Kirk Lazarus (played by Robert Downey Jr.) explains to Tugg that the reason the Academy didn't acknowledge his portrayal of Simple Jack was because he went "full retard" rather than the partial efforts of previous Oscar winners such as Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump.
Stiller is cautious about stoking the flames of a fire that he is sick of talking about. He says he was more than happy to take down the offending website, but that he wasn't, under any circumstances, going to change the movie.
"I think it's up to us to see how we allow it [political correctness] it to affect us. It's up to the people who are being criticised to make their own determination, in other words not allow that to influence you. There's a freedom of speech.
"You have to understand where you're coming from. The political correctness thing can go too far, I think. At the end of the day if you're being protested you can either respond to it or not, you can change your thing or not."
If anything he seems a little surprised that it is Simple Jack that is causing the controversy and not the storyline that sees Downey Jr's character undergo a skin pigmentation process in order to play a black character.
"It's like trying to take care of your buddy at the bar so that they don't get beaten up, and then you get knocked out by the bouncer," is Downey Jr's unique description of the situation which has seen Stiller, and not him, come under fire. The controversy hasn't stopped Tropic Thunder being a huge success. It's already knocked The Dark Knight off the top of the American box office charts and is threatening to eclipse another Stiller movie, Meet the Fockers, as the highest-grossing live-action comedy of all-time. The upshot of this is that however reluctant a superstar he may be, Stiller is now unquestionably the King of Comedy.
Humour is something that has been in his blood ever since he was born in New York in 1965. His parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were a hit comedy team in the Sixties and Seventies, and the young Ben remembers seeing their nerves and anxieties as they prepared to head off and appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. "My sister and I grew up watching them together and watching the hard work that they did to write their routines and seeing how hard they worked. There was a real work ethic there," he says.
That work ethic is certainly something that's rubbed off on their only son, particularly in terms of his directing.
"Ben is so driven, it's crazy," says Downey Jr. of his time on set with Stiller, while Steve Coogan recently said that Stiller is "a very, very nice machine".
Through simply just observing his parents he believes that comedy "was chosen for me early on, in so far as that I made choices early on that I liked comedy. My parents are my parents and I grew up around that.
"My father always wanted to be a stand-up comedian and he grew up in the depression and was very poor. My mom grew up middle-class in Long Island. She's Irish-Catholic and he's Jewish. She had more of a parochial upbringing with nuns and that whole world, so I don't think that comedy was ever her thing growing up. She wanted to be a serious actress, a really good serious actress. My dad always wanted to be a funny guy. But then they met and they formed a comedy team to make ends meet and to try to make a living.
"They're very different in that way. I think my dad always wanted to be like the guys he saw growing up and my mom just wanted to do her thing and be an actress. The humour in their dynamic is that she just has a very dry sense of humour and he's a little bit broader, so I think it was a combination of their personalities which I got. I think I probably lean more towards my mom's sense of humour in terms of what makes me laugh but my dad is just naturally a funny guy."
His path to the top seems to be littered with the kind of success and opportunity that to those on the outside at least seems impossible to achieve. It's hard to pinpoint the moment that Stiller became a superstar. Even at just 42, it almost feels like he's always been there.
What isn't in doubt is that his stardom has been achieved through his work in his movies, rather than any personality he has tried to cultivate. In 2000 he married Christine Taylor, an actress who has starred alongside Stiller in movies such as Zoolander and Dodgeball. (She also has a blink-and-you'd-miss-it role in Tropic Thunder). Together they have two children and live in Los Angeles, though Stiller shuns any sort of publicity-friendly lifestyle, but keeps his family on set with him as much as possible when he's filming. At the end of our time, he gets up to leave and almost forgets his newly-acquired woollen jumper. Almost. I've a feeling a prop like that may come in handy some day.
'Tropic Thunder' is in cinemas nationwide