Picture the scene: you’re a teenager and you’ve just dropped acid for the first time. Far from being the mind-expanding, life-affirming experience you’d hoped for, it’s left you feeling frightened and confused. So, what do you do? How do you cope? Ben Stiller – aged 16 and gripped with hallucinogen-induced horror – chose to pick up the phone and call his father.
“I had taken this stuff, and I was freaking out,” he tells ShortList in a hotel room 26 storeys above New York’s Central Park. “My first instinct was to call my dad. I don’t know if that’s good or bad; I guess it’s just the relationship we had. He had no idea what acid was. He told me, ‘I know exactly how you feel – I smoked a Pall Mall cigarette once, and I was sick for two days.’ He was very nice. He talked me down.”
This, clearly, is not your average father-son relationship. But, then, the Stillers weren’t, and still aren’t, your average family. Parents Jerry and Anne were a successful comedy duo, performing their double act on stage and screen throughout the Sixties and Seventies, and their son Ben bounced back from his LSD mishap to become arguably the biggest comedy star on the planet; a jack of all humorous trades, shifting effortlessly between put-upon straight man (There’s Something About Mary, Meet The Parents), pantomime villain (Dodgeball) and lovable douchebag (Zoolander, Tropic Thunder).
However, his latest project finds the 48-year-old chartering into less familiar waters. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, a film based loosely on the eponymous 1942 James Thurber short story, eschews wisecracks and slapstick for heart-rending tenderness and weighty, philosophical questions. There are, of course, funny moments (the Benjamin Button parody will have you howling), but behind it is a serious message: are you making the most of your life? Stiller directs and stars as the titular Mitty – a Life magazine staffer who charms ladies and scales mountains in his daydreams, but spends reality cocking up his internet dating profile and trying not to get fired. As the Star Trek-obsessed man himself might put it: it’s Ben Stiller, Jim, but not as we know him…
Were you wary of how people would react to an actor best known for comedies making a ‘serious’ film?
No, because I don’t feel that […Walter Mitty] falls into a single genre. It’s not just a ‘serious’ movie – it has humour, fantasy, sincerity, emotion. It’s a different tone to much of the stuff I’ve done, though – it’s not a cynical movie, it’s an open-hearted movie, and that was probably the most uncharted territory for me. Reality Bites had a similar feel, but that was 20 years ago, so it’ll be interesting to see the reaction.
Much of the film is shot in Iceland. It looks spectacular, but was it actually fun to work there?
I loved it. I went scuba diving in volcanic pools, and climbed these incredible glaciers. The food was great. We had ‘rotten shark’; an old Viking dish made by throwing a shark in a pit, urinating on it, burying it for six months, then digging it up and eating it. We met Russell Crowe there, too. He was shooting Noah, and his advice on filming in Iceland was, “You’ve got to dominate the weather” [laughs]. He was totally right, though. It’s a place of extremes.
There are some incredible longboarding scenes in the film, too. Was that really you on the board?
For a lot of the shots, it really was me. I had this crazy safety rig attached to me, so if anything went wrong, it would yank me up off the board. I got yanked up a couple of times. It actually felt more dangerous to get yanked by the safety rig than to just stay on the board, as you’re basically pulled up at 40 miles an hour, and then dangled from this huge mechanical arm. So, that meant I was constantly thinking, “Don’t screw up, don’t screw up.”
Do you have a Mitty-esque tendency to daydream in real life?
I think so. I definitely look at my life like it’s a movie. I put on headphones, and ‘score’ the scene as I walk along. I used to daydream about being an archaeologist. I liked The Mummy, that Boris Karloff movie, and I was fascinated by archaeological sites. But I was such a bad student it wasn’t an option in the end [laughs]. I had to go into acting.
Your parents are both comedians. Did you feel pressure to be funny when you were growing up?
I never felt our household was like that. My parents were working all the time – doing TV or commercials or game shows. That time when I did the acid, they were off filming The Love Boat. So, comedy didn’t seem super fun to me; it seemed like hard work.
Can you remember the first time you realised you were good at making people laugh?
I used to make these Super 8 movies. I was obsessed with special effects, so I’d shoot my name – ‘BENJY’ – in white letters then superimpose it on to a wall. Then I’d shoot myself underneath the superimposed name, going like this [looks up, goofily].
How old were you?
This was last week [laughs]. No, I was eight, I guess. It’s funny, I watch my son now – he’s eight – and he’ll do something funny and everyone will laugh, and I can see that look in his eye, like, ‘I like this!’ Because there’s nothing like that feeling of making people laugh.
Would you want your children to go into acting?
If they wanted to, I’d encourage it. But I’d also be really happy if they did something different. I can’t help but think they’ll be creatively oriented, though, with the genes in my family. We don’t have physicist genes or tall genes, but we do have creative genes.
What’s the latest on Zoolander 2? Will it ever happen?
Right now, it’s on hold. There’s a script we like, but I don’t want to force it, because people who love that movie really love it, so I want to make sure we do the sequel the right way. Mike Myers did it well with the Austin Powers movies – they were all funny, and very ‘of their time’. And Zoolander is ‘of its time’, too, so it’s about how we could bring it up to date, to the present day.
Presumably, Derek will be rolling out ‘Blue Steel’ again in the sequel…
Not ‘Blue Steel’ again, no. He’s got a new look. I think part of the sequel will be about how the fashion world moves so quickly. So, the movie will begin at a time when the whole world has moved on from Derek and Hansel because they’re so ancient history. It’s about them having to reinvent themselves and try to become relevant again.
Steve Coogan says that he’s always imagining how Alan Partridge would react to certain things. Is it the same with you and Derek?
I don’t think I do it as much as Steve might do it with Alan. But the changing size of phones always makes me think of Derek. You know how [mobile] phones started big, then got really small, and now they’re big again? I find that really funny; I always think about what kinds of devices Derek would have now. Like, what’s the most ridiculous, up-to-date thing he’d own?
Derek would be a ‘phablet’ man, surely?
It’s not as big as a tablet, not as small as a phone.
[Laughs] Right, exactly. I always think things like that would be funny to include [in the sequel]. Devices where you think, “What actually is this?” I also like the idea of how Derek would deal with Twitter.
Director Terrence Malick is apparently a huge Zoolander fan. Have you met any other unlikely fans?
Laura Bush, wife of former president George W Bush. I saw her at a football game once and she told me she was a big Zoolander fan. That was pretty funny.
One more sequel-based question… Is it true that Dodgeball 2 is in the works?
There is a script. I haven’t read it, but I know it exists. I had so much fun on that first movie, so I could see myself doing [a sequel] at some point.
There were a lot of jokes, after Lance Armstrong was found guilty of doping, about how his cameo had tainted Dodgeball forever. What do you make of that?
Of course it hasn’t. Not at all. It’s just a movie. The only thing I’ll say about that whole incident is that Lance’s [charity] LiveStrong has done incredible work, and what happened with him shouldn’t taint that. I hope they can still keep going even though he’s no longer associated with them.
How often do you see Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd and the other ‘Frat Pack’ actors? And are you aware that you are listed on Wikipedia as the Frat Pack’s “acknowledged leader”?
[Laughs] Oh my God. Well, that’s a heavy responsibility for something that doesn’t actually exist. I don’t even know where the whole ‘Frat Pack’ thing came from. I think someone invented it because it rhymed. It’s funny to me because it’s not a real thing. I’m good friends with Owen [Wilson] and Jack Black, but everybody [in the ‘Frat Pack’] is basically doing their own thing.
Rudd told us he’d built a pub in the basement of his house. Have you been round for a drink?
I have not. You see, that’s how far out of the ‘Frat Pack’ I am. He’s got a basement pub? That’s smart.
Have you splashed out on any similar extravagances?
I purchased the drums that [Elton John’s drummer] Nigel Olsson recorded Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on. I’m a big Elton John fan, and I met [Olsson], and he said, “I’ve just refurbished my drums – want to buy them?” I’m not that good a drummer, but I’ll play them once in a while.
You’ve cited Robert De Niro as a big influence on you deciding to become an actor. Since you’ve now worked with him several times on Meet The Parents and its sequels, have you ever told him he’s a bit of a hero of yours?
Yeah, whenever I go for dinner with him, after a drink or two, I’ll start to make a fool of myself, like, “Oh man… Raging Bull!” He humours me because he understands how much those movies mean to people. We actually did a Cape Fear take-off [skit] when I was doing The Ben Stiller Show 20 years ago, and I sent that tape to him.
Was he impressed?
He has literally never acknowledged it [laughs].
What’s been the strangest experience you’ve ever had with a fan?
I once had a strange, stalker-type woman. This was about 10 years ago. She showed up in our production office wanting to say hi, and I thought that was that. But then she showed up again, two weeks later, at a press conference, and she’d somehow got hold of a press badge. It was crazy, I felt like I was in Basic Instinct. She ended up not killing me, though, so that’s good.
As this is our last issue before Christmas, we’ll end on a festive question. Who’s the hardest member of your family to buy gifts for?
Probably me [laughs]. I like silly things, such as Star Trek memorabilia. For my birthday this year, my wife got me a fan guide from a 1975 Star Trek convention. That’s exciting to me. I have Spock’s ears at home, too.
Be honest – do you ever wear them around the house?
I do not wear them around the house, because that would break down the foam latex. They’re too delicate and precious to actually be worn.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is at cinemas nationwide from 26 December