‘Museum’ exhibits funny pals
Despite the catastrophic experiences suffered by his luckless characters, Ben Stiller has become the central figure in Hollywood’s current comedy universe in part by amassing good career karma.
Everything he touches in such movies as There’s Something About Mary and Meet the Fockers tends to fall apart ó or get stuck in a zipper.
But even though he rarely triumphs on-screen, the intense Stiller, 41, has carved out his own cinematic empire with an all-for-one, one-for-all approach, forging screen partnerships with some of today’s top scene-stealers: Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn among them.
Stiller’s Night at the Museum, opening Dec. 22, is the latest result of his team-rallying. It’s a cameo-filled, special-effects family comedy starring Stiller as a beleaguered security guard who discovers a curse that brings everything in the Natural History Museum to life, wreaking havoc after closing time.
For Museum, Stiller invited funny men of a different era, Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney, into his circle of film friends.
Stiller doesn’t just get his pals to work for him; he also does bit parts and behind-the-scenes duty on their projects. He had a cameo role in this year’s School for Scoundrels and Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny.
It’s a habit that evolved decades ago when Stiller was a struggling newcomer.
“Every actor is out there trying to get parts, auditioning, going to acting class and creating a network of people who are in the same position you are,” he says. “I couldn’t sit around and wait to get work, because it wasn’t happening. I would just try to create my own projects with friends who were filmmakers.”
He has had career ups and downs since those early days.
Duplex was one that flopped in 2003 despite his best efforts, and his agent advised temporarily putting his directing career on the back burner after the mixed response to 1996’s The Cable Guy.
He has become one of the most influential comic stars in the business with a total career gross of $1.38 billion, thanks to mega-blockbusters such as There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, the popular Dodgeball and Along Came Polly, and cult movies Reality Bites and Flirting With Disaster.
Even when he is only signed on to act, Stiller has a reputation for getting hands-on behind the scenes. That doesn’t always make him friends.
“You’re automatically responsible for the movie, because there’s no disclaimer that you can put in front and say, ‘Hey, I’m just in the movie. Don’t worry about the script, production design or direction because I’m just acting in this one,’ ” he says.
Making funny friends
In Night at the Museum, one of Stiller’s non-acting contributions was helping round up the cast.
Look for Wilson, one of Stiller’s best friends and a frequent co-star, as a tiny cowboy who feels fenced in by the museum’s Old West diorama.
Robin Williams, who is new to the Stiller universe, is the animated wax figure of President Teddy Roosevelt, and British comic Ricky Gervais, the co-creator and star of the BBC’s original The Office, plays a bitter museum curator.
Stiller befriended Gervais when Stiller did a guest shot as himself on Gervais’ HBO series Extras, about a desperate background actor with a talent for alienating major stars.
Gervais is notoriously picky about the supporting roles he takes. But Stiller makes the persuasion sound easy: “I e-mailed him and said, ‘I’m doing this movie. There’s a funny part, and would you maybe think about it?’ ”
Gervais signed on.
In Wilson’s case, he and Stiller have appeared alongside each other in Meet the Parents, Starsky & Hutch, Zoolander and The Royal Tenenbaums, among others. And Wilson got one of his first roles in Stiller’s Cable Guy.
Getting him into Night at the Museum was practically telepathic: “Owen? I personally didn’t even call Owen. We know each other so well, I think the thought came up, and he sensed I was doing a movie and just woke up in the middle of the night,” Stiller jokes.
The film also brought together legends Van Dyke and Rooney as two old-timer guards who are handing the key rings and museum secrets to their new replacement.
“He’s a very good actor, which a lot of comedians are not,” says Van Dyke. “And he’s a good director and a good writer. So he doesn’t have to steal the show. That’s why his movies are so good. He uses good people and gives them a chance to work.”
The Mary Poppins star, who says he is semi-retired, is ready to be part of Stiller’s Rolodex: “I was disappointed I didn’t get a scene with Robin, or Owen Wilson, who I would love to work with. So Ö maybe later.”
Stiller says his work with friends is like musicians playing on each others’ records.
“We never had a troupe or anything like that. This is more informal,” he says.
While he guest-stars in others’ films, as in Ferrell’s Anchorman and Black’s Orange County, he also gets involved in the business side.
For Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, Stiller helped produce and appeared on-screen as a burned-out music clerk.
Black says getting studios interested in the movie, which has caustic sex, drugs and occult jokes, required a heavy hitter such as Stiller.
“He’d come to the crucial meetings at different studios, and whenever we were in a pinch or needed some muscle, he would make the power call,” says Black, who was an unknown when Stiller cast him in a supporting role in Cable Guy. “He would cut through the crap, and we’d have been lost without him doing it.”
Tenacious D flopped, taking in only $8 million since Nov. 22.
Stiller got involved because he was a fan. “I just wanted to be a part of it, selfishly,” he says.
More ‘Glory’ to come
Lots of actors want to produce and direct, but Stiller is busier than most. While promoting Night at the Museum, he is shooting a raunchy romantic comedy for Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who last worked with him on his career-making There’s Something About Mary
Simultaneously, he’s working with editors on Ferrell’s upcoming figure-skating comedy Blades of Glory, for which he is a producer but doesn’t act.
“I don’t know how he does it,” says Bobby during a break in shooting on a Malibu beach. “He’s got 20 things going on, but somehow or other, he pulls it all off. He must work in his sleep.”
Surrounded by crew and cameras, Stiller is improvising jokes for the closing dialogue. Peter Farrelly says, “I’m always trying to keep him calm, because he’s got so much going on. I worry about him. I’ve had this conversation with him where I say, ‘Just stop for a moment and enjoy this.’ ”
Stiller also is developing a TV pilot for his wife, actress Christine Taylor (The Brady Bunch movie, The Wedding Singer). At home, the couple have a son, 1, and a daughter, 4.
He says budgeting personal time has become more important since having kids, but his home life already is enmeshed with his career.
Taylor co-starred with him in 2001’s Zoolander, which he directed, and 2004’s Dodgeball, which he produced and co-starred in as the villain. Her yet-untitled TV show is a joke-altered version of their real life, and Stiller plans to direct, produce and make guest appearances ó as her husband.
Mom and dad on-screen
“I think it’s great to work with your family,” Stiller says.
His parents are Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, who had a husband-and-wife comedy routine in the 1950s and ’60s but are now better known as character actors.
They also are peppered through their son’s filmography. Mom turns up in Night at the Museum as a cranky civil servant, and Dad plays his father in the Farrelly movie.
“I just knew I was going to get upstaged in every scene with him,” says Ben, who guest-starred in a 2002 flashback episode of his dad’s CBS sitcom The King of Queens as the father of his father’s character.
How did he get Mom to do Night?
“Mom drives a really hard bargain,” he jokes. “We only talk through our agents.”
Though his parents were stand-up comics, Ben says he had no talent for that. Even a brief stint on Saturday Night Live wasn’t for him. “I hated the pressure of it,” he says. “What I like about making movies is you can do it over and over again.”
After the Farrelly brothers’ film, he’s exploring a sequel to Zoolander, his takeoff on the modeling industry, and is producing a thriller based on the Scott Smith best seller The Ruins, which will be the first non-comedy he has overseen.
He plans to keep working with his ever-widening circle, but holding the center isn’t easy.
“It’s almost more difficult to work together as everybody has gotten successful. Everybody is doing their own thing, and it’s sometimes hard to get together.”
‘Museum’ exhibits funny pals