There’s more to Ben Stiller than meets the eye as the Emmy-award winning comedian, actor, producer and director reprises his role as Madagascar 2‘s Alex, the innocently egotistical Lion looking for more in life than the inside of his cage at the New York City Zoo.
The witty father of Ella Olivia and Quinlin Dempsey, his children with fellow actor Christine Taylor, stopped by to dig deeper into his wild ride as king of the jungle.
You’re known for portraying characters with outrageous lines or looks and manage to deliver both with a perfect deadpan. How you do that without laughing through every take?
Well, when you’re making a movie, the good thing is you can do it a few times, so there’s sort of a freedom there. If you’re working with somebody who’s funny, or makes you laugh, then it’s very easy to lose it a lot of the time. But that’s sort of, I think, the fun thing too, because then you know that there’s something going on there that’s good and it’s making you laugh.
It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make an audience laugh, but at least it’s energizing and real and so, sometimes you just, you know, you just laugh. And then you go do another take, and sometimes that becomes one of those things where people are cracking each other up, and it’s like the Carol Burnett Show or something.
Do you ever bring your straight-faced strategy into real life?
Yeah! I mean it’s almost harder in real life when you’re in a situation where you’re not supposed to laugh, or something’s funny, ’cause the stakes are higher and you don’t wanna embarrass yourself or somebody. But I feel like that’s sort of like, controlling. And I don’t think I’m necessarily that good at it, I’m just sorta.
You had the opportunity to record with Chris Rock this time around. Did that affect either of your performances in any way? Was there a lot of improvising going on?
I really wanted to record with Chris just because I felt like that’s what we’re talking about, just having the energy in the room and obviously a lot of improv happens if you’re there in the room with somebody, because you can actually have a scene. When you’re doing these lines by yourself, it’s very isolated. So I specifically requested just to be able to get Chris and I together just to see what that was like. And he’s so good, and he’s so funny at this sort of genre, too. Just in terms of knowing the character so well that I just ended up laughing at a lot of what he was doing. I don’t think I came up with that many funny lines, but I enjoyed what he was doing.
It does give you a sense of the camaraderie and just the connection, too, because when you’re doing this over the course of a few years, you don’t get that feedback from anybody else until you actually see the movie. And then you see scenes cut together, it’s like, “oh wow, this actually worked, these people together” and you know, you feel the relationships.
Of the two of you, was Chris Rock the biggest ad libber?
I think so. I mean, I would go off of what he was doing, but he just seems to have a real knack. I think it’s something about that character, Marty, and how he just really knows that guy so well. I think my character’s a little bit more reactive to him, anyway.
Did you have a chance to interact with Bernie Mac at all?
Not really. I mean, it’s so sad and what I did get the chance to do is listen to his performance a lot, especially in the last few months. And I thought we were going to be able to spend some time together doing press, because I think he’s so good in the film, and I just thought it was great casting, and what he did with the role, it just like, exuded so much warmth. And so, it’s obviously a really, really sad thing, and my heart goes out to his family.
What did your son, Quinlin, think about coming on board with the project?
Actually both my kids did. With Quinlin, it was tough because he knew that there was something going on. He’s only three, he’s like under three, I guess when we did it, and Ella’s six. And they were sort of wary of the situation, just because they don’t like to be told to do anything.
But, then he got in there, and he got in front of the microphone, and there was like a run of like a minute where he just had fun and he was making sounds, and we were saying, ‘Oh, be happy, happy and sad.’ And then he started to get a little bit intimidated by the microphone and the whole thing. And then that’s when you start to feel, like, this horrible stage parent saying, ‘Laugh, cry, cry.’
But I’m happy that they’re both in the movie. It’s interesting because you realize that if your kids aren’t that comfortable with that situation you don’t wanna force them to do it. I was happy that they weren’t getting up there and going all Shirley Temple or something.
How would you feel about your children getting involved in show business?
If they wanted to, I would support it. It’s not the easiest business, and I think I would try to tell them the ups and downs, you know? Or, try to give ’em some sort of overview of my experience, and give them a sort of an idea of what it is. But, if you love doing it, that’s why you should do it. The other stuff just comes along with it. I think I’ve encouraged them to go to college though.
Does being an actor come in handy when reading bedtime stories or playing with the kids?
I think every parent has to sort of be an actor with their kids when they’re doing that. You know, you just sort of have to commit fully, and you don’t care, because you know the audience, and you want them to be happy, and kids love to be told stories, my son especially. So if you can make them laugh, or you can sort of get them into that mode where they’re into it then yeah, you use whatever abilities you have. And that’s fun, you know, that’s really fun.
When the kiddies pounce on you the minute you walk in the door wanting to hear a story after a long day of shooting, how do you handle it?
It’s always great to see your kids after your working. It’s always such a fresh, new, energy, and just pure love, it’s nice. Sometimes they need to hear the story, like right now, my son likes to hear the same stories over and over again. And he has this thing with Thomas Trains – he knows all the Thomas Trains and all the names of the trains, which there are a lot of them, so he likes to have stories told to him that involve the Thomas Trains, and the hard thing is remembering the names of all the trains because he knows them inside and out, and there’s like, hundreds. Well, not hundreds, but, maybe like, 50, 60, whatever. They keep coming up with new ones so that’s the stress of trying to remember, you know, if you get the names wrong he’ll correct you.
Sometimes I’ll fall asleep while I’m telling the story, and then I’ll fall into my subconscious and I’m talking and not making sense, and then he’ll say to me, ‘You know you’re not making sense,’ and then I’ll wake up.
What does Ella like for you to read?
She likes these chapter books where she can read a page or two, and then I’ll read a page, or my wife will read a page. You know, sort of alternate. But, it’s fun though, because she’s reading on her own, so, it’s good.
How do you balance family time with your other commitments?
You just have to do it. You have to be aware of it. I think being together no matter what is probably the biggest thing. Just being in the same place. So, like, this summer I’ve been shooting in Vancouver and the family’s been up there all summer, so we’ve been together. We’re here now together, because even if the hours are long, you still get together at night or in the morning and there’s a feeling that everybody’s connected, which is really important.
And then, you just have to sort of try to plan your life accordingly, and make sure that you know how long you can go without seeing them. So when I was doing a movie a couple years ago and I was in Vancouver, I would just come back every weekend, things like that.
Do you think that voiceover work is a good fit for your family life?
Oh this is great, yeah, because you go in for three or four hours every few months. But it’s a very different process.
Will you continue to do voiceover work in the future?
It’s really very doable. We’re actually starting a new one with DreamWorks with Robert Downey and I’m really excited about that. And that’s a whole different world, in that we’re producing that, too. And so I’m getting more into the making of these, which is fun.
Did you kids enjoy seeing the first movie?
Yeah, they did, oh yeah. I mean, you know how it is with movies and kids, so you get these DVDs and they go back to them. I mean, I don’t think they’re any more connected to it because I’m in it, I think they just like the movie. But it’s a nice thing that they know it’s my voice, but, also, it’s kinda like they get wrapped in just watching the story and the characters, so you don’t wanna keep on reminding them, ‘That’s me, that’s me.’ Destroy the illusion.
Are they excited to see the characters matched up with their own voices on the big screen?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if Quin is gonna quite get it, but I think Ella will be excited. They love to watch home movies and some stuff that they’re in, they like that.
Are Ella and Quinlin aware of what you do for a living?
I think Ella’s a little more aware of the stuff that goes along with it a little bit, and it’s not the greatest thing in the world to explain. It’s a weird thing to be able to explain really.
Having grown up with parents who were in the business, I saw my parents getting recognized, and you know, there’s nothing you can really do other than pay attention to them and really be aware of it. It’s just part of it, like young people coming up or photographers and things like that. It’s a little bit abnormal, so you try to protect them from it as much as possible.
Have you had a favorite dad moment in the past few months?
Gosh, you know, there are a lot of great ones. I mean, just yesterday we all went to the playground together on the Upper West Side where I grew up going. It’s fun as a dad to be able to take my kids there, having gone there as a kid. Feeling that connection and that cycle of being able to keep things going… that sort of continuity.
But I love every day and every, just like I was saying, it’s like pure love and good things, you know?
Convonista says: Ben Stiller and I chatted in October 2008, and the interview was originally released a few weeks later.