There’s Something About Ben – Ben Stiller, actor – Interview
Ben Stiller struts his stuff as a supermodel In Zoolander–an omnisexual romp he Cowrote and directed that’s got the censors Snipping away at the gay subtext
In his new comedy, Zoolander, Ben Stiller stars as Derek Zoolander, a celebrated but dim-witted supermodel caught in an Austin Powers–style plot to kill the prime minister of Malaysia by evil fashion designers bent on preserving their cheap foreign labor. And while he’s fighting crime, Derek may also be causing major fluctuations on your gaydar.
The bad guys hypnotize him with the gay club anthem “Relax.” He persuades a studly bouncer to let him into the VIP area by reminding him that they’ve “been in, like, 60 orgies together.” He tells a style-challenged female reporter (played by Stiller’s real-life wife, Christine Taylor–Marcia from the Brady Bunch movies): “With your complexion, you really shouldn’t be wearing your hair pulled back that tight.” He even appears on the cover of International Male.
So is this guy gay or what?
Well, not exactly. “In one draft of the script, Derek described himself as ambisexual,” says Stiller, trying gamely to explain what exactly blows Derek’s skirt up. “He’s like, `Whatever feels good.’ In his world of modeling there’s bisexuality, homosexuality, everything sexuality. He doesn’t question it. [Zoolander] is not the kind of serious movie that deals with sexual issues. It’s a silly movie.”
That’s cool. We like silly movies, especially when Stiller’s in them, as the box office receipts for his hits Meet the Parents and There’s Something About Mary will attest But with Zoolander, which originated as a pair of short films for VH1’s Fashion Awards, the Manhattan-born son of veteran comedy performers Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara is not just acting he’s cowriting and directing as well. And though he’s directed movies before (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy), this is the first time Stiller has created a project from the ground up since his short-lived but much-loved early-’90s TV series, The Ben Stiller Show. “I was anxious to do something closer to my comedic sensibility,” says Stiller over a plate of enchiladas at a restaurant across the street from Paramount, where he’s putting the finishing touches on Zoolander. “The movies I’ve been in that have done well are not really related to that world. People don’t know me that way.”
If Zoolander lives up to its hype as the next Austin Powers, they will. And Stillers wrangled a supporting cast of established sidesplitters to help the cause, including Owen Wilson as Derek’s smug archrival, Saturday Night Live’s Will Ferrell as a flouncy, maniacal designer [see “From Bush to camp”], and lesbian fave Milla Jovovich as Ferrell’s butch sidekick “I tried to stack the deck by hiring the funniest people out there,” says Stiller, who also landed cameos from David Bowie, Vince Vaughn, Andy Dick, David Duchovny, and E!’s Steve Kmetko.
Even without that stellar cast, gay audiences would get a kick out of the jabs Zoolander takes at our beloved fashion industry. “The stakes are so high to the people in it,” muses Stiller. “That’s one of the funniest things about it. They take it all so seriously.”
In your mind, was Derek ever gay?
No. He’s probably bisexual. The scene that best defines who he is sexually is where he’s getting a rubdown from a masseuse at a spa and he turns over and he’s got a big boner under the sheet But the masseuse is a 300-pound Slovakian woman with one eyebrow.
But I read somewhere that Andy Dick plays the masseur.
He does. He’s in drag.
Adding yet another level of sexual ambiguity to the proceedings.
Exactly. It doesn’t matter who’s doing anything to Derek, he’s gonna get aroused.
Did Derek’s busy sex life play more of a role in earlier drafts of the script?
There were drafts where it was more emphasized, but it’s a hard selling point when you’re saying, in a mainstream PG-13 movie for kids, “Hey, come see …”
“… the guy who’ll bang anything.”
[Laughs] Exactly. But I think that’s one of the funniest things about the character. There’s this orgy scene where everybody’s in there doing all sorts of things. I’ve had such problems with [the Motion Picture Association of America] on it.
You agreed to deliver a PG-13 movie.
Yeah. I’ve had the most hilarious conversations with these very sweet, mature MPAA women. They have no specific guidelines, so you really have to make your case but not piss them off. It’s like arguing with the umpire in baseball.
Did they have trouble with the erection joke in the massage scene?
They made me keep cutting it, but it’s still in there. That was one victory.
Have you had any other rude awakenings on this project?
I found when we were testing the movie that people don’t respond well to the idea of male models, or models in general. They don’t want to go see a movie about male models.
Straight guys would just think, Who wants to watch a bunch of posers?
And straight teenagers, you know?. That really has been a challenge in the marketing–how to represent the movie the way it should be but not turn off the teenage boys. We’ve had to go, “Well, how do we not make it too gay?”
Because in some people’s minds nude models equals gay.
Right. At the end of the day, the character is the character, and I feel pretty comfortable with the tone of the movie. We don’t make gay jokes; it’s just a certain aura that the film has.
Campy, fashion-y, over-the-top, sexually ambiguous.
And a good portion of the audience you want to attract is turned off by that vibe?
Turned off, scared, whatever. Not to mention the fact that the studio is trying to put out a mass product Ultimately, I think the movie’s funny and everybody should see it. And I look forward to the gay audience this movie will hopefully attract. My own sensibility is probably closer to [theirs] than what middle-American sensibility supposedly is.
Has there been a gay-related film that really moved you?
I just saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and I thought it was incredible. John Cameron Mitchell really took a lot of chances there, and he didn’t shy away from any of the issues.
In terms of themes and jokes, has American culture relaxed a bit? Are there enough positive gay images out there now that it’s OK to poke a little fun?
Yeah, but you don’t want to go into stereotypes, even inadvertently. That’s probably the hardest thing for someone who’s straight to stay away from. In a movie like this, with such broad characters, there’s always that danger that some people might take it the wrong way.
Speaking of which, Will Ferrell plays a poodle-toting, power-hungry fashion designer who’s on the effeminate side. When you’re directing somebody in a character like that, how do you know how far is too far?
The key is, you cast somebody like Will. It seems impossible to direct somebody in a character like that because it’s their own creation, but I directed him to be pretty big and broad, just because it would always make me laugh.
I heard that Milla Jovovich plays a mini in this movie. Is that true?
That joke isn’t played in the movie, but it was kind of her subtext for the character. She plays Will Ferrell’s brainwashing dominatrix sidekick.
Lesbians dig Milla because she always plays tough chicks who kick ass and look amazing.
She’s great. She really takes it seriously. And her outfits are really cool.
There is at least one fall-on openly gay character in your film; E! News Daily’s Steve Kmetko.
Steve is a good guy and such a professional. He’s in the movie a lot. He has one of my favorite lines: “Derek Zoolander just tried to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia!”
Do you think you have good gaydar?
I have to say, I think I’m pretty good with that. Above average.
How about lesbian gaydar?
I think OK, but I might be fooling myself. [Laughs]
In Your Friends and Neighbors, Catherine Keener left you to be with Natassja Kinski. Have you ever dated anyone who ended up being a lesbian?
No, but my best friend went through that. He said it was tough, pretty emasculating.
Have you ever heard gay rumors about yourself? Because you’re nobody in this town unless people think you’re gay.
[Sadly] I’ve yet to hear a rumor. [Laughs] But it wasn’t like I always knew, “I’m straight, and I’m OK with it.” I went through my period where I was like, “Oh, sex!” [Mimes overwhelming excitement]
The wonder of it all.
Your sex drive when you’re an adolescent is a real major thing Luckily, I grew up in an environment that wasn’t repressed. My mother has always had a very open attitude about sexuality, like, “When you go to the bedroom, it’s about whatever makes you happy.”
I’ve been around gay culture all my life. It was introduced to me through the New York theater world–this very effusive world with a great sense of humor. My parents were very cool with me experiencing that, because that was part of their world.
In preparing to make Zoolander, how privy were you to the inner workings of the fashion world?
I’ve been going to fashion shows, meeting designers. And I went out with a model for a very brief time.
Were you taking notes?
I think I was, even though I didn’t realize it. [Laughs]
Where did the character of Derek come from originally?
Drake Sather, who wrote the initial piece for VH1, was going off on a character that I’d done on The Ben Stiller Show, a takeoff on this Beverly Hills, 90210 guy, you know, a lot of posing, sucking in cheeks, being superaware.
You’ve also done parodies of Bono, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Cruise. What’s it like when you meet a celebrity that you’ve poked fun at?
It depends. I’ve met Tom Cruise a couple of times, and he was incredibly gracious and had a great sense of humor about it. But I’ve also have had some less enthusiastic reactions. I won’t name names.
Does Derek talk like you, or does he have his own kind of voice?
No, Derek talks like this [shifts into a breathy, high-pitched voice]. It’s kind of like a bad Marilyn Monroe impression. Ridiculous.
What’s the most revealing getup you wear in Zoolander?
Probably when Derek is doing a commercial where he’s a merman. I’m naked from the waist up, with a fin. I’ve been told it’s one of Derek’s more effeminate moments.
You turned up in a white Speedo for Meet the Parents. I bet that was fun.
One of the most horrendous experiences ever, standing around in that thing all day.
Now you know what it’s like for us during pool-party season. [Laughs] I’m not a very adventurous dresser. My wife teases me because I wear the same thing all the lime, though I don’t think I do. I’ll go, “No, these pants are navy, these are dark navy, and these are actually black.”
In your own life, how vain are you?
I have no problems with vanity when it comes to work. People who’ve seen this movie have told me, “Wow, you really have no problem being a total ass.” But as far as my own life, I’m pretty vain. That’s not something I’m really proud of. The whole Derek Zoolander “look” idea comes from this thing I do when I go by a mirror or I blow-dry my hair [tilts his head down and sucks in his cheeks]. People always say, “Why are you doing that?”
Did you feel like you had to get in shape for the movie?
Yeah, I wanted to–purely out of vanity. It’s not like it would make it any funnier.
You didn’t want to sit there and think, Would it have killed me to do a few sit-ups?
Or to lay off the frigging M&Ms for the two months that you’re shooting the movie. I love my peanut M&Ms.
Though it’s primarily a silly comedy, there seems to be some underlying satire in Zoolander about the power of beauty in our society.
Right, but also the joke is that I’m playing this incredibly good-looking guy that everybody talks about being the most incredible supermodel ever, because, you know, it’s me.
Yeah, but at the risk of sounding totally gay, you’re a very good-looking guy.
[Laughs] But it’s me, it’s not …
Antonio Sabato Jr.
Right. I think that kind of underlines the fact that it has nothing to do with how a person looks, it’s the attitude. Derek goes around like he’s the most good-looking guy in the world, and people treat him that way. I think that’s funny.
Derek shares a one-bedroom apartment with three other male models, and I hear they have bunk beds. That sounds like the first five minutes of a gay porn movie.
[Laughs] That’s probably why that scene doesn’t last that long.
Have you ever played a gay character?
Just in shorts that I’ve done, not in a big feature.
Would you want to?
Definitely, but you have to think about why you want to–and if you can do it in a way that’s convincing. That would be the biggest thing: Can I make it convincing? I have no problem with straight actors playing gay, but I always feel like I can tell. Does that sound horrible?
No, I saw a gay movie recently starring a straight actor, and even though he was very appealing and hit all his marks emotionally, I didn’t believe he was gay for a second.
To me, the biggest issue, when you’re coming from a straight perspective, is not wanting to mess it up. For example, the gay best friend has become this out-of-control stereotype in movies. Sometimes it’s done well, but sometimes it’s not.
There have been gay characters in a number of your films like Reality Bites and Flirting With Disaster. Have you ever heard of strange notes coming from the studio regarding gay content?
I’ve had to deal with it the most in the marketing meetings, where people are very reluctant to come out and say that. I’m always the one to point out the gay factor and say, “It’s coming out too gay, right?” That’s just in terms of Zoolander. I never had to deal with it on other Movies.
Gross-out comedy seems to be peaking. What’s next?
I hope we’ll return to good old solid funny situations and characters. And not having to shock people. It’s gotten out of control, and it’s not funny. I know There’s Something About Mary kind of put it in the forefront, but I mean, what else can you do?
You brought sperm humor out of the closet in Mary. Now it’s everywhere.
I claim no responsibility. [Laughs] I’m just the actor who portrayed it. Actually, I always had a problem with that scene. I thought a person would feel it. I was like, “Should we set up earlier in the movie that I have a numbness in my ear?” Turns out, nobody cared.
RELATED ARTICLE: From Bush to camp
Will Ferrell, Saturday Night Live’s George W. impersonator, goes over-the-top to play Zoolander’s flamboyant nemesis
To those who know him, it’s a joke in itself that Will Ferrell is playing a fashion designer in Zoolander. “I’m constantly being teased about the way I dress,” admits the California-raised comedian, best known for his hilarious turns as Attorney General Janet Reno; Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek; and Marty Culp, the music teacher on Saturday Night Live. “My wife actually shed tears one day at the outfit I put together,” Ferrel says. “I had on white socks, sweats, and a pair of ankle zipper boots from Florsheim that I bought to wear as a joke on SNL but continue to wear. She was like, `Why do you leave the house looking like that?'”
Ferrell might have picked up a few dress-for-success tips while doing research for his outrageously campy rote in Zoolander, but the designers kept upstaging their designs. “I watched footage of, like, Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen,” he says, “and I got a little taste of how it’s almost more about these guys than their clothes. I mean, McQueen rode out on a skateboard at the end of his show.”
As Derek Zoolander’s maniacal nemesis, Jacobim Mugatu, Ferrell doesn’t need a skateboard to get people’s attention. He’s got skintight space-age jumpsuits, a gorgeously butch latex-clad accomplice (Mia Jovovich), and a poodle with the same platinum-blond Flock of Seagulls hairdo as her master.
“Though it’s never fully stated, Mugatu has moments where you definitely think he’s gay,” says Ferrell. “Like his little lust-hate moment with his male assistant.” And what about the poodle? Lesbian? “Well, she had a couple of earrings, but I don’t know what that means.”
So how do Ferrell and his SNL cohorts decide how far is too far when getting laughs out of gay-related themes and characters? “It’s mostly based on what we think is funny or not,” he explains, “unless the humor goes out of its way to go after a certain stereotype in a hateful, unnecessary way. We like to think of ourselves as equal opportunity offenders on that show.”
Many of Ferrell’s characters are gay and lesbian favorites–tapes of his Spartan cheerleader sketches with Cheri Oteri are gay video bar staples–but it’s one of his straightest characters, befuddled president George W. Bush, that most hits home with many GLBT viewers. “My friends run Don’t Panic! [a gay-themed West Hollywood, Calif., T-shirt and novelty shop], and I had two of thek bumper suckers on my car. One says, HE’S NOT MY PRESIDENT; the other, BUSH + DICK = SCREWED. Someone peeled the HE’S NOT MY PRESIDENT off my car. I figure they wanted it for themselves, because if they’d hated it, they would have taken both.” –D.H.
RELATED ARTICLE: Fashion’s gay `scale
Where do model movies fall on Kinsey’s straight-to-gay continuum?
Whether it’s the kooked-out camp of Zoolander or the smack-and-tickle heat of HBO’s Gia, movies about the rag world can’t help but acknowledge the hommes au sexuel side of life. We tested several fashion flick favorites on the Kinsey scale:
Model movie: Funny Face (1957). Runway rundown: A colorful Fred Astaire musical with Audrey Hepburn as a reluctant fashion model. Uh-huh. Gay accessories: The “Think Pink” production number, if you use your imagination. Kinsey quotient: 2 (out of 6)
Model movie: Darling (1965). Runway rundown: Julie Christie becomes the supermodel of swingin’ London. Gay accessories: In addition to the bisexual waiter who serves both Christie and her male photographer, we get Dirk Bogarde as Robert and John Schlesinger directing, for the last word in “gay sensibility.” Kinsey quotient: 6
Model movie: Blowup (1966). Runway rundown: A fashion lensman thinks he accidentally photographed a murder. Gay accessories: A steamy shoot with model Vanessa Redgrave–an icon is born. Kinsey quotient: 2
Model movie: Mahogany (1975). Runway rundown: Diana Ross battles to become a top fsshion diva–as if she weren’t already. Gay accessories: Tony Perkins, Bruce Vilanch, those insane Ross-designed outfits, that supersoapy script. Kinsey quotient: 5
Model movie: Lipstick (1976). Runway rundown: Tasteless rapesploitation revenge thriller about a fashion model (Margaux Hemingway) and her young sister. Gay accessories: Does a pre-Personal Best Mariel Hemingway count? Kinsey quotient: 1
Model movie: Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Runway rundown: A fashion photographer glimpses murders through the eyes of a serial killer. Gay accessories: Faye Dunaway, dearest. Kinsey quotient: 4
Model movie: Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear) (1994). Runway rundown: Robert Altman dumbs down his Nashville shtick for fashion-week Paris. Gay accessories: A same-sex twosome, a lesbian photographer, and Rupert Everett–all as soulless as the other characters. Kinsey quotient: 5
Model movie: Unzipped (1995). Runway rundown: Sew-fine documentary tracing one season in the life of out designer Isaac Mizrahi. Gay accessories: Isaac, Sandra Bernhard, Eartha Kitt, Isaac, supermodels galore, Isaac. Kinsey quotient: 6.
Hensley writes for TV Guide and Cosmopolitan and is the author of the novel Misadventures in the (213).
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