“Zoolander”: Ben Stiller Interview

In 1996, Ben Stiller created a character, self-obsessed top male model Derek Zoolander, for a VH1 Fashion Awards skit. This week Stiller will bring Derek back to life in a full-length feature film called Zoolander, and the fashion world will never be the same.

Stiller sat down with us to discuss with us the character, the pout and orgies!

Where did you get the idea for the character?

Ben Stiller: One of the writers, Drake Sather–who’s a guy I’d worked with on different sketches and short things for the MTV Music Awards–came up with the idea. He wrote it up for the VH1 Fashion Awards. I guess he had seen a sketch I had done on the Ben Stiller Show in 1993 that was a take off on one of those Beverly Hills 90210 stud guys. We kind of went from there and just created it. Then we did a short that year in ’96 then another in ’97 and then started working on developing the character.

Is this VH1’s first movie?

Stiller: I think it is VH1’s first movie. Yes, it is.

Were there any business implications? Any things you had to deal with?

Stiller: We had to put their logo on our movie! [Laughs] I think the character had appeared on VH1 originally so it was kind of theirs. We worked with them and did a bunch of promos which aired on VH1.

Did they help in getting Lance Bass and Li’l Kim or was that you?

Stiller: I got Lance Bass! Once we were making the movie, it was just us making the movie and they were as supportive as possible. I had personally met him and I called him up. He’s a very nice young man.

Have you been to an ‘N Sync concert?

Stiller: I have not gone to an ‘N Sync concert personally. But my dad did a part in Lance Bass’ new movie… I don’t know what it is. But he could not be a nicer young man. A bunch of those people were people I know and asked favors. Other people I didn’t really know that well but just asked if they would do it and they thought the idea was fun. David Bowie, literally, we just came up with the idea of who would be funny to judge this “walk-off.” Bowie, with his song “Fashion” personified that. We put it in the script and sent it to him and he actually said yes. That was one of those out-of-the-blue things.

Do you think you will ever be invited back to the VH1 Fashion Awards?

Stiller: [Laughs] You know, I have been invited back, actually. The whole fashion community seems to be supportive of the thing because it’s so silly and goofy. I don’t think they take it personally in any way.

Not even that child labor thing?

Stiller: I don’t know. For some reason, they did not consider that their territory. I think they liked the idea that we’re having fun with that world. In a way, it kind of directs some attention on it. Fashion is so over the top anyway.

Do you think that the male models will understand the movie?

Stiller: The male models? [Laughs] I have to say I think the male models will. The male models are incredibly good-looking, incredibly nice young men who have had a really good sense of humor about this. Mark Vanderloo and Jason Lewis–they all know about it and I’ve met them and did some research and hung out with some of them. [Laughs] The idea for me is that Derek kind of is a male model but the Derek character I wanted to be funny for people who didn’t care about fashion at all, for him to just to kind of exist as a silly character that would be funny anyway.

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Can you talk about the casting of Owen Wilson as your rival?

Stiller: Owen was the most important casting to me in the movie because I think he is one of the funniest people around–and the part was written for him. I don’t think [the movie] could have made if he couldn’t do it. He’s a friend of mine and we’ve worked together a number of times. We love working together. I think he is such an important part of the movie because making a movie like this where it’s based on a short film–a sketch originally–you figure out ways to make it work in a longer format and you have to introduce new elements. I think the best thing about his character is that he’s real and goofy. The relationship with Derek and Hansel is really important and a real thing. He is just a uniquely funny guy. There’s no other person like Owen.

Outside of the orgies, did you loose any other bits you were particularly attached to? Is it truly unprecedented that no one else went to the MPAA?

Stiller: No, I don’t think that’s true. I know that other people have gone. I know actors and producers… Basically, the MPAA allow you one person from the movie to come and represent you. I’m not an expert on this but from what I understand, it doesn’t happen quite often. We cut a few pieces from the orgy. There was the bobbing erection thing that had to be incrementally cut down and a couple of minor drug references. It was all stuff I didn’t have a problem with to make it PG-13.

Are you happy with comedy now? Are you going to stay there or are you going to keep moving to stretch, as you told us one time?

Stiller: Did I say that–to stretch? [Laughs] I like doing comedies and right now, for the last couple of years for some reason, that’s what I’ve been concentrating on because I’ve had those opportunities. I don’t have a burning desire to go off and be taken seriously as an actor. I enjoy working in all different kinds of movies. I don’t have a master plan in that way. I just want to do what I enjoy doing and hopefully not doing the same thing over and over again.

People are expecting you to do comedy now, it seems.

Stiller: You have to understand what the expectation is when you come out with a film. Hopefully it gets presented to the public in the right way so that people aren’t getting something they don’t expect. So if I did something that was serious, it’s not getting sold as a comedy.

Does Malaysia know about this movie?

Stiller: I don’t know. I would assume they’ll find out about it. I’m not an expert on the Malaysian sense of humor but it represents the Prime Minister as a heroic figure. I would think that was a good thing. The bad guys are the fashion designers, all right! Let’s face it, the plot is kind of secondary in this movie. [Laughs]

How did you come up with all the different looks for the movie?

Stiller:By spending hours and hours in front of the mirror then realizing we only had one look! There’s no way to explain that–the joke was that he only had one look.

Are there any New York skyline scenes?

Stiller: Since last week, no. There was a shot of the World Trade Center that I felt was kind of drawing that I cut out. I’m very proud of the movie being in New York. I love New York and we’re putting a movie out at this time when the country is dealing with this. It’s an escapist comedy and I didn’t want to put a shot in there that would pull people out of it.

What was your reaction [to the terrorist attacks]?

Stiller: Like everybody else; I was sad, depressed and incredibly moved by our fellow countrymen and what they’ve done. It’s really not a fun time to have to go out and do interviews. I don’t really feel like it, honestly. But it was important for me to let the movie come out because it’s a comedy and I wanted to give people a chance to come out and see something funny, and have a distraction if they felt like it. It’s not the time you want to be talking about yourself or your career because it feels kind of silly.

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