Night At The Museum - Ben Stiller interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
BEN Stiller, 40, talks about some of the challenges of making family movie Night At The Museum, as well as what it means to him personally as a father and former lover of museums.
The following interview was conducted in Los Angeles.
Q: Did you go to museums on a regular basis growing up in New York?
A: I grew up three or four blocks away from the Museum of Natural History. I started going there as a really young boy and it was always fun. Of course, growing up in New York there were many museums I would go to: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum of American Art, but the Natural History Museum was special for me because it had cool dioramas and it was so interesting.
The aura inside was wonderful – a great dark hall with light coming from the dioramas, it was a great spooky place that you could get lost in, it seemed timeless. And I had such great memories of it, growing up. When I didn’t go to school some days (I ‘cut school’) it was a place that I could disappear into, so it really had a history for me.
Q: So was it exciting when you heard that this film was being made?
A: When I got the call about the script and then read it, I was very excited because it seemed like such a great idea. I thought it sounded cool and fun. I thought it was fascinating too, the idea of all the historical exhibits and creatures coming to life. It really connected witho me. I thought if I was a kid, I would want to see this movie and if I was older – which I am – the kid in me would want to see it. So it would appeal to every age group.
Q: Having children of your own must make the film even more appealing for you?
A: Definitely, having kids of my own now brings it all back to me, the fun I had at the museum. Going back with them to the museum and making this film, you get to experience it again through their eyes which is great and it takes me back to my childhood. I’ve been taking my daughter back to the museum for the last couple of years and loving it.
Q: As a father yourself, did you understand the plight of a man who did not want to disappoint his son?
A: Of course, because you want your children to look up to you and respect you. You don’t want to let them down. Any parent will tell you that. And that can be really frustrating and difficult sometimes, when you have to deal with the realities of life and things that you cannot control.
My kids are pretty young, aged four and one, but yes, the bottom line is that you want to be good parents and I can identify with Larry [his character] in that way. I’ve been lucky that I have always had steady work (unlike the character I play) and I have been able to take care of the family on that level. Men place a lot of importance on achievement in the world and their identity is tied up with their sense of success. That is just natural human nature.
Q: Have you ever been in the position in which you thought you were going nowhere? Looking at your career, it appears that everything has gone well from the start?
A: I feel like when I started out in this business there was a lot of rejection. I had to keep on going and keep trying despite the disappointment and continue doing my best. I had to do this in the face of a lot of apathy and when you are rejected you have to believe in yourself. You have nothing else to rely on.
Sometimes, looking back on those times I think: “Wow, what was I thinking?” Most of the time when I look back at work I did 20 years ago, I see someone who is a lot more confident. I looked as I though I knew what I was doing. I thought I knew it all in some ways. Now I think I know much less, but that kind of bravado is really the kind of confidence that you have to have when you are starting out in a career. You have to have blind faith that you will succeed; I don’t think it is a conscious thing. It is what you need if you are going to endure all the obstacles that will face you, if you are going to be a working actor because, of course, there are never any guarantees of success.
Q: Did you have a low point in your career?
A: I’ve been really fortunate that I haven’t been out on the street or destitute, there haven’t been really bad times. There are a lot of stories about actors who have lived hand to mouth. But I was lucky enough to be raised in New York City and my parents were very supportive.
I also started getting work when I was 20-years-old and I was able to support myself. There have been difficult times. But it’s during those uncomfortable times, that you become most creative, when things are not going the way you want them to. Those experiences make you a better actor or a better writer. But I am also lucky that I’ve had a fortunate life in terms of having a great family, and coming from loving parents.
Q: Was it fun having Owen Wilson in the film?
A: Owen always makes me laugh. I love working with him because I’ve always been a fan, so it’s great to have him in the film. I really do think he’s one of the funniest guys I know. There is something fascinating about his sensibilities and the way his mind works.
In his comedy, he has that mix of being very cocky and also really insecure and he has a vulnerability which is endearing. We just laugh at the same things. I feel that I identify with him. This time I didn’t really get to work with him much, because he was one of those little people who come out of the diorama, but that meant I could talk down to him which was nice. I enjoyed it.
Q: How enjoyable was it to work with Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney?
A: It was really as good as it could be. It was so exciting to come to work with those guys. It makes you want to show up to work on time and know your lines and be as good as you can be, because they’re setting such a good example. They’re so good and vibrant. So many people don’t understand their history and where they come from but for me it was really humbling.
People sometimes say: “You don’t want to work with your idols because you see the reality of what they’re like as human beings.” But both of those guys are just incredible people and have lived really amazing lives and they’ve been through the whole cycle of show business, which is something that I really respect.
They’re inspiring because they have had their ups and downs and they’ve survived. They are living legends. Dick Van Dyke has had a great screen and TV career, he’s iconic, but when you work with him, you find that he’s a really cool guy. He’s very connected to what is going on today. He’s 80-years-old, and yet he moves so well and he’s a great dancer.
Mickey Rooney is Mickey Rooney – it goes without saying. He will tell you stories about going to the preview of The Wizard Of Oz with Judy Garland and how Henry Ford gave him the first Lincoln Continental (car). Ford drove up to the set of Captains Corageous and gave him the keys and Clark Gable took it for a spin. It’s fascinating. If it were anybody else talking, you would say: “You’re crazy, you’re making this up.” But with Mickey Rooney it’s true. He has lived an amazing life.
Q: What’s the challenge for you of making a comedy like this?
A: The challenge is to create a tone that works on a creative and a comedic level, but also to create the different tones. Apart from the humour, there’s an interesting scary level to the movie, the idea of creatures coming to life at night. And there’s a really good, strong story about a father trying to make his son proud of him. He knows that at least he needs to have a job and a home so he can hang out with his son and be a real father with security. So, he has to take the worst possible job. I do like the idea that this film is a fantasy that’s grounded in reality.