It would be an understatement to say that this is quite the busy year for Ben Stiller. So far, we’ve talked to him about "Along Came Polly" and "Starsky and Hutch", and later in the year are "Envy" and "Meet the Fockers". But if Stiller feels overexposed in any way, he is not prepared to admit it.
“We want to get Fockers in by the end of this year so that I can have five movies come out this year, so we’re hoping,” laughs Stiller. He does seem somewhat concerned that by year’s end the public may have grown tired of seeing a Ben Stiller film. “That would be horrible, yes, Jesus. Why didn’t I think of that? Unfortunately, I can’t control when they release the movies. I’ve done these movies over the last couple of years and you just do what you find funny. Hopefully, people will come if they want to come. But I have an awareness of not wanting to do too much, but I have to just go with my gut of what I think is worth doing.”
One such film that he found funny was Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, by a first-time writer/director, in which Stiller shines as an over-obsessive fitness guru who owns a major gym, determined to take over a struggling competitor, owned by Vince Vaughan. Easily the most comically unsympathetic character in Stiller’s recent arsenal, the actor laughs when asked if there are any parallels between actor and character. “I mean, look, they’re all elements of yourself somewhere.” He differentiates his White Goodman character from its recent predecessors, he says laughingly, “by starting with the moustache and then going to the wig and skin colour. He had this kind of tone of orange that doesn’t really exist in nature, that fake sort of skin, that tan machine, tan lotion thing. It’s just trying to somehow connect with some sort of ridiculous, self-made kind of fitness guru thing that I think exists out there.” Stiller says that the character isn’t based on any one particular person. “There are people and elements over the years, from which I borrowed, including characters on The Ben Stiller Show sketch show, where we did a Tony Robbins take off, or that fitness guy Tony Little. I just tried to come up with something that feels like what the character is, based on what [writer/director] Rawson wrote.”
For those unfamiliar with this distinctively American childhood game, Dodgeball involves throwing balls at your opponents and essentially hitting you. It is an aggressive, fast and wild sport, one which Stiller DID play as a kid, and, as exemplified in the movie, was one of the more aggressive participants in the sport. “I had a lot of anger and rage, but I was not very physically daunting, so I think that worked for me. But I was an awkward sort of adolescent and not as coordinated as I wanted to be. I was not the worst but I definitely wasn’t the best, so I was probably closer to the backend of the middle.”
It was Stiller’s sense of awkwardness that may have led him, on a subconscious level, to the world of comedy. “I think comedy comes, on some level, from having a sense of humour about life and seeing life in a way where you have to have some sort of perspective on it. People that don’t have any sort of insecurities, I think, tend to be less funny. I think humour somewhat comes from the fact that you can see how ridiculous everything is and how we’re all sort of just trying. I know I find those people funnier to me, those who can see the ridiculousness in life. Confident people seem to be less funny and seem to have less irony about them.”
It was fortunate that Stiller not only came from a family steeped in comic tradition, but also married a beautiful and sparkling comedienne in Christine Taylor who also happens to play his nemesis in Dodgeball. Stiller laughingly admits that she wasn’t as repulsed by his character as he thought she may have been. “She wasn’t really repulsed by it, at least that’s what she told me, almost turned on in a way,” confesses Stiller. “It was interesting because we got to sort of have fun on this film and somehow she thought it was funny, like this character. We were laughing a lot, and got to spend time together, which was good. When you’re working, you don’t get to do that and we just connect on that level, where we laugh at the same things, which was really fun and therapeutic. It’s always good to throw balls at each other and good couples therapy,” Stiller smilingly adds. But if you are throwing balls at the wife, hitting her in the process is not exactly a good idea. “I hit her in the face a couple times, which was neither good nor helpful. That actually affected our relationship for like a week, because there’s just no way not to get upset with somebody after you’ve done that. It just sent us both back to eighth grade.”
The couple has a two-year daughter who occasionally accompanies her parents to work, but Dodgeball was not the easiest set for a then one and a half year old. “She came a number of times, but when we were doing this movie, it was definitely not the best place for her to be, so she’d look at dad in his weird wig.”
Stiller is still at work on Meet the Fockers, in which Oscar-winning legends Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman play his parents to DeNiro’s somewhat scary in-law. He says he is having a blast working on this film, with that particular cast. “It’s one of those things where you go to work everyday and go: ‘This is just unreal.’ Yet, you get to a point, and luckily kind of quickly, where everybody feels comfortable with each other, which you have to have to make it work. But, I’m sitting there doing scenes with Barbra Streisand going: ‘I’m doing scenes with Barbra Streisand who hasn’t been in a movie in eight years.’ She’s so funny yet so iconic and it’s exciting.” Streisand gets to play the quintessential Jewish mother in the film, but with a twist. “She’s like the Earthy, cool, sex therapist for seniors, which is what she does in the movie. So she lets it all hang out and just looks great. She’s got this dark, curly wig, reminding me of a lot of moms from the upper west side in the 70’s that I grew up with.”
After having seen a lot of Stiller this year, t5he actor hopes to finally take a breather. “I am going to take a break for a while, let everyone chill out for a little bit, myself included.” Then he hopes to diversify and maybe return to drama. “I hope so, if people allow me to. Well actually and then kind of figure out what I’m doing. But I mean, my hope is to always be able to do different things.”
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY, OPENS ON FRIDAY.
– PAUL FISCHER