Vman 35: Zoolander's Big Return

Vman 35: Zoolander's Big Return

Vman 35: Zoolander's Big Return

Ben Stiller Is, At 50, An Accomplished Actor/Writer/Director/Producer Playing The Part Of A Precursor To The Selfie- Obsessed Aiming For A Comeback—And The Irony Doesn’t Escape Him.

Pre-Order Your Copy Of Vman 35 Here

Ben Stiller Is, At 50, An Accomplished Actor/Writer/Director/Producer Playing The Part Of A Precursor To The Selfie- Obsessed Aiming For A Comeback—And The Irony Doesn’t Escape Him.

Pre-Order Your Copy Of Vman 35 Here

Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Styling: David Vandewal


Why are hand models smarter?

Ben Stiller has had the 15 years since the release of the first Zoolander movie to think of a response.

“They couldn’t rely on their good looks to get through life.”

The other pressing issue raised by male supermodel Derek Zoolander in 2001 isn’t so easily addressed, however: If God exists, then why did he make ugly people? Derek’s search for an answer to that question—and a dozen other conundrums that cloud his challenged intellect—has carried him into a follow-up. But Zoolander 2, aka 2oolander (call it “two-hundred-lander”—Derek does) is a much stranger beast than the sequel as we know it. For one thing, the original was loved by neither critics nor public on its debut. In the interim, Stiller has become the linchpin of three billion-dollar movie franchises, but it is the gormless Zoolander who has evolved into his most famous creation. In one of those po-mo life-imitating-art tropes, Derek’s signature look, “Blue Steel,” has become something that models actually do. Inadvertently, hilariously reaffirming and skewering fashion cliché after cliché (“Blue Steel” is exactly the same as all his other “looks”), he is finally back, much older, and not a scintilla wiser. And this time the world can’t wait.

You could see it already last March at the finale of the Valentino show for Fall 2015. The audience hollered with glee as Stiller and Owen Wilson, in character as Zoolander and his bromantic catwalk rival Hansel McDonald, did a slow, glad-handing lap of the venue, Stiller grabbing a proffered phone so he could snatch some selfies on the way around. It was the kind of screamfest you never see at a fashion show, a fabulous incongruity that became even more so seconds later when the designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli took their usual bows. Such was the Zoolander halo effect that the audience extended its standing O for the twosome, a rowdy reaction that their exquisitely detailed, sumptuously textured collections has never elicited in the past. I couldn’t help feeling it was a kind of “thank-you” from the crowd—thank-you for being so serious about what you do, but for not taking it so seriously that you can’t spread a little joy when you’re given the chance to. Stiller had the same sensation. “I think there was such a reaction because it was so unexpected in such a serious arena. The fact that Maria Grazia and Pierpaolo actually did that was what people appreciated most.”

But this second coming has been tough. How do you restart such a story, especially when the very nature of its main character and his profession dictates no second acts, even more so when the parade has well and truly passed him by? Stiller tried more than once over the years. “Whenever we got back into it, more time had gone by.” And time, as we are often told, is the enemy of all things fashion-related. What’s magic today is marked down tomorrow. Besides, in Derek’s years out of the spotlight, fashion has been consumed by social media, guaranteeing that his has-been status is cast in Luddite iron. “For me, it’s a very natural thing that Derek would do selfies,” Stiller valiantly insists, “once he figures out how to flip the camera around to take the picture. I’m probably as uncomfortable as anyone trying to figure out how to be a part of that, but Derek Zoolander has to figure out how to exist in that world, because if it had existed 15 years ago it would have been a big part of the movie.”

And, come to think of it, Derek Zoolander was defined by a look, a readily identifiable (lack of) fashion expression that slots perfectly into the narcissistic, pouting roundelay of Planet Selfie. Stiller wittily nods to such a notion inZoolander 2. Someone is assassinating social media superstars (a fiendishly clever way to inject Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato et al. into proceedings as shorthand for now) who die with Blue Steel frozen on their faces.

Wait, I digress. Before all of that came Stiller’s exposure to Valentino: The Last Emperor, Matt Tyrnauer’s 2008 documentary about Valentino Garavani’s imperial retirement. The closing sequence—the designer’s spectacular send-off at the Colosseum—was the catalyst that Zoolander 2 had been waiting for. “Whenever I would go to different places in Italy over the years, I felt a connection with Zoolander. And then I saw the Valentino documentary, and it occurred to me that Rome would give us the opportunity to add a crazy Italian movie vibe to the film: Ancient Rome, the mythology of models, the legend of the first model, the pure-blood model. We wanted it intentionally overcomplicated, like The DaVinci Code. So putting it in Rome seemed to make sense and it lent itself to the tone of the humor.”

Tone—or maybe a-tone—has always been Stiller’s secret comic weapon. Tad Friend described him in a 2012New Yorker profile as “the put-upon Everyman striving for dignity as the mayhem escalates.” And doomed to failure. That is why our first cruelly human response is laughter. Buster Keaton mined the same comic seam to cinema legendhood. But there was also a sardonic distance in Keaton’s dignity, and it’s that same discord, that same skeptical edge, which makes Stiller the one you’re watching in every scene he’s in. It’s a natural offshoot of the satirical sensibility that infuses his films, whatever their subject matter. (Yes, even Night at the Museum.)

Stiller gets his sense of humor from his mother, Anne Meara, the queen of droll, he says. “My father [Jerry Stiller] enjoyed stand-up comedy and my mother came at it as an actress first, and then became a comedian and worked with my father that way. She had a very satiric-minded sense of humor as opposed to the broad comedic thing. She didn’t like the Three Stooges, but she loved George Carlin: not necessarily political, but a point of view about the world. And I guess I’ve always leaned that way myself.” It would seem to be an ideal outlook with which to approach fashion, which is so widely held to be a subject that is crying out for satire. I mean, just look at what Stiller did to the movie industry in Tropic Thunder. So why don’t more people have a go at fashion—and why is it that the ones that do fail so miserably? (This includes the 1994 satire Prêt-à-Porter. Robert Altman, take a bow.) Stiller’s response is refreshingly pragmatic. “It’s almost necessary to take yourself seriously in fashion because that’s your stock in trade, because what you’re really saying is, ‘This is what we think is fashion, what we think is cool, what we think is the next thing.’ And if you don’t take that seriously, no one else will.”

It’s hardly like fashion is alone in that self-regard. Stiller agrees. “We’re all guilty of it in show business. Anything that involves ego, where you think the world revolves around you. It’s all in the same world of entertainment, as opposed to doing things like being a heart surgeon or a fireman, jobs that are life and death. Anything that’s not that is very easy to conflate.” But before you conclude that gimlet-eyed outsider Stiller has gone soft, you need to know that it was those crazy Valentino kids Maria Grazia and Pierpaolo who took him to “serious” school. “They were willing to let us walk their show in March, because they were like, ‘Hey, we have to take ourselves seriously, but we also see how ridiculous it is.’ That’s something you don’t see so often in this world, but I get it. Every four or five months, they have to come out with a new show. That’s their business. And it’s a business like any other business. That’s what I liked about The Last Emperor.” The difference being, of course, that fashion measures itself in spin cycles, months rather than the years that movies take to make, books take to write, or albums, increasingly, take to record. And Stiller’s experience of the fashion world has warmed him to it for that very reason. “Having a point of view as an actor, or a musician, means expressing yourself creatively to the world, and critics will love it or hate it. But in fashion, you have to go through that cycle every few months. That was something I totally came to appreciate. You have to say, ‘This is good.’ And I imagine that is a very lonely thing.”

Stiller’s identification hints at seduction. “No, not seduced,” he counters. “It was more an appreciation of the hard work—and an empathy too. We had such a great connection with the Valentino people, and to see Pierpaolo and Maria Grazia, who are my generation, working in that world, to see what they have to deal with…I feel I learned a little more about it this time around.”

This all rather sounds like an antidote to the laughs that audiences will come to the new Zoolander 2 in search of. Empathy? We want more of that poodle-haired fashion flapjack Mugatu, the Blofeld/Lagerfeld hybrid so memorably essayed by Will Ferrell. “The first time, no one really knew what we were doing and they were all like, no, we don’t want to get involved,” says Stiller. “This time has been great, because the fashion world really embraced the movie and we had a lot more cooperation. We were able to get great cameos from real designers—and Mugatu interacts with them. He was an effective way to have fun with the fashion world, rather than simply making fun of the clothes.”

So there was an agenda after all. What did you expect? Stiller is much too savvy a filmmaker not to understand what ultimately helped Zoolander survive the indifference with which it was originally met. “Not because of the commentary on fashion,” he says sagely, “but because of the characters. That was what people really connected with, and that’s what I tried to focus on in the second movie, while still giving a nod to what we needed to acknowledge in the fashion world.”

That nod is a major concession. “In the broadest comedies, there’s always a connection to reality,” Stiller notes. “I don’t know if we think about it consciously, but we’re always influenced by what goes on in the world. That’s constantly the line you’re walking when you’re making a movie like this. How far can you go? What’s okay in this reality?”

The topic of fatherhood might be an interesting place to start. Derek Zoolander has sired a child, a boy now 12 in the new film. He’s a pure-blood model, the DaVinci-style holy grail. He’s also overweight, which grieves body-conscious Derek intensely. “He has to figure out how to deal with it,” says Stiller. “I think people might be surprised that we go into that.” The first Zoolander came out a couple of weeks after 9/11. The second one obliquely incorporates the reality of the world since. “This one is superlight, but there is a darkness under it. We deal with people dying. I feel like in any comedy you have to take some risks that aren’t politically correct. You have a very clear point of view of what you’re trying to say when you take those chances. Today we have to be willing to make fun of ourselves and our own political correctness. Nowadays there’s a group that’s ready to react on any front and you can’t allow that to guide you when you’re making something that’s funny.”

You might imagine that a man who has proved his sense of the ridiculous to be as finely honed as Stiller’s would find contemporary America a banquet of lunatic inspiration. He does, after all, compare the country to a Rorschach test, with millions reading their own meaning into ambiguous inkblots. But Stiller also recognizes the climate that fosters such freedom of thought also allows for freedom of creative expression, something he feels is taken a little bit for granted. Call me crazy, but I find a suggestion of equanimity there, maybe even a mellowness, that goes with his status as—so he says—a recovering obsessive. New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell wrote, in his 2001 review of Zoolander, “[Stiller] understands how pop culture has infantilized those who worship it.” Now Stiller says, “I wouldn’t make any grand statements about it except to say it has overtaken us in the amount of media there is to absorb. I find myself distracted all the time by my phone. Everybody’s looking for a distraction and we’ve provided an incredible distraction for ourselves. The danger is that it’s much easier to spend time doing things that don’t relate to anything other than looking at other things. I feel it’s an individual’s responsibility to make the choice where you turn your attention.”

As far as his own responsibility extends with something like Zoolander 2, it’s quite simple: “First and foremost to hopefully make people laugh. That’s why people come to a comedy, and what I learn every time I screen a comedy, no matter what you do, if people aren’t laughing…” His voice trails away, an abyss of box-office catastrophe yawning. “But hopefully it’s a movie that has the world we’ve created that feels consistent, that takes you to a different place. And hopefully it’s the characters that people loved from the first film doing things they haven’t seen them do.”

I think of Stiller as being a student of the “clenched hair” school of acting. (Tad Friend called his face “an unmade bed of comic distress.”) What it bestows on an actor is the ability to inject a disquieting intensity into comedy, but also to cross convincingly into the heaviest drama (with addiction a specialty). Jack Lemmon was its greatest modern proponent, with an award-draped career that ran an impressive gamut from Some Like It Hot and The Odd Couple to Missing and Days of Wine and Roses. Stiller’s personal favorite from his own repertoire is tellinglyPermanent Midnight, the one where he’s a heroin-addicted screenwriter. And he dreams of adapting Budd Schulberg’s coruscating 1941 satire What Makes Sammy Run?, with himself as Sammy Glick, again a screenwriter, whose rise and rise offers a vision of Hollywood as venal and amoral as anything Nathanael West ever conjured up. The novel is “anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed,” no less an authority than Steven Spielberg apparently once opined. “When I lived out there, I used to think about that story all the time,” Stiller counters. “Schulberg’s writing is so spot-on, it says so much about Hollywood as a microcosm for the world. I would love to make it as a period movie.”

But, according to Variety, it’s been nearly 15 years since DreamWorks acquired the movie rights for him. In that time, he’s become utterly ingrained in the public’s consciousness as Gaylord Focker, Larry Daley, Tugg Speedman, and, of course, Derek Zoolander. He remade and starred in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which, despite its scale, ended up playing out as a personal project. And he also employed his talents to tellingly subtle effect in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg and While We’re Young. Stiller has just turned 50, so it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that he’d be looking for more of that subtlety in his roles. “I do feel as I get older there are different things I want to explore as an actor and director,” he agrees, “but I don’t feel I need to make any big statements about not wanting to do broad comedy anymore. It was fun to be Zoolander again. He’s such a unique character.”

One natural asset that will always allow Stiller to skate between comedy and drama—and comedy/drama—is his lack of vanity as an actor. But if it’s the key to his range (and while we’re on that subject, attention must be paid to Justin Theroux, co-writing Zoolander 2 while he was grappling with the metaphysical angst of HBO’s The Leftovers), it’s also the source of molto mirth. “It is just because there’s something funny about seeing guys who are obsessed with themselves,” Stiller acknowledges, “and it’s probably even funnier to see Derek and Hansel 15 years older in the fashion world and see them deal with that issue, which is a very real thing. The bottom line is that people don’t want to see people get old in that world.”

Still, don’t go thinking that Zoolander 2 is striking a blow for anti-ageism. “No, but hopefully at the end of the film there are little messages about redefining what we think is beautiful. But it’s through the lens of Derek and his incredibly self-absorbed narcissism, and he can’t see beyond those things until he’s able to.”

And—Derek’s own bête noire—If God exists, why did he make ugly people? He doesn’t find an answer inZoolander 2. “Derek doesn’t  change that much as a character,” says Stiller. “He has some kind of arc, but one of the great things about him is he’s always going to be as not-smart as he is.” So he’ll still be looking for an answer in Zoolander 3? Stiller laughs. “I’m surprised we actually got to the point where we made a second Zoolander. I never made this one with the thought of having it become part of a trilogy.”

C’mon, Ben, 300lander? If Ancient Rome got a look-in in 2, then that threequel title surely introduces the Spartans. “Hmmmm,” Stiller muses. “It would be a great poster.”








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