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He can’t seem to escape from the museum

Busy Ben Stiller talks about being desperate, his love of old things and of his acting fun before the character-actor chore kicks in

by George Hadley-Garcia

Ben Stiller is back in the museum. Specifically, in “Night at the Museum — Battle of the Smithsonian.”

He points out that since the first “Night at the Museum,” he has received hundreds of letters. “So I’m told. . . . I can’t read all the mail that is addressed to me, which I think you have to agree is only logical, not lazy,” says the busy actor-writer-director. The letters he refers to are from kids excited about museums.

“It’s been proven since the original (movie) that more young people are going to museums. I guess their curiosity has been piqued. Maybe they think they’ll find adventure there, or the glamour of the past. It is gratifying. But I get all these letters asking me about museums around the world like I’m an expert. Sometimes (I’m asked) very specific questions, like which museum has the best collection of mummy cases, etc.

“The one question I can answer easily is which is my favorite museum, and that’s the Smithsonian, which I got to visit as a kid. Seeing the Starship Enterprise (from “Star Trek”) was a mind-blower; I’ll never forget that! But also, I have to say, I haven’t been to that many museums around the world, or even in the U.S. But I hope to, I do. Museums are cool, like this movie.”

The sequel features an all-historic cast of characters, from Napoleon, Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln to Ivan the Terrible, Al Capone and Amelia Earhart, not to mention a dictatorial ancient Egyptian. Stiller’s Larry Daley has been upgraded from a night watchman to an infomercial inventor, and this time around he has a romantic interest in the form of aviatrix Earhart, played by Amy Adams (“Doubt,” which brought her an Oscar nomination this year). It’s Adams who has told television interviewers that “Night 2″ is “not a biopic. . . . This is a dolled-up version of Amelia Earhart,” for the real person, some rumors have it, was a lesbian.

Ben says, “It was all fun, it was a blast (making the movie). Amy and Robin (Williams, as Roosevelt), Own Wilson, Hank Azaria, just on and on, and of course Shawn Levy (producer-director). . . . It was fun, so fun it sometimes took me days to realize how much energy you use up on a project like this.” Stiller began making the sequel soon after finishing work as director and costar of the comedy “Tropic Thunder.”

What keeps Stiller going at such a frenetic pace? “Desperation.” He pauses, then snickers. “You don’t want to be unemployed too long — it might get to be a habit!” Some of his spare time, though, goes to developing new projects, and to writing “notes to myself, on paper, on napkins, . . . just ideas, notions for a movie, for maybe a book. . . . My parents were comedians, and comedians often write their own stuff — on scraps of paper, cocktail napkins, etc. — plus they have comedy-writer friends and employees doing the same thing.”

Ben’s parents are the once-very-famous comedy team of Stiller and Meara. His father, Jerry Stiller, appears in some of his son’s films, and Anne Meara has written plays and still acts. The two gained notice as a Jewish/Irish-Catholic couple in the tradition of “Abie’s Irish Rose,” once America’s longest-running play. Ben’s wife is Jewish, and although his manner is always affable and humor-prone, he says with a ‘Ssshhhh,’ but we don’t want to invade the interviewee’s privacy and expose his private life.”

Indeed, Ben Stiller almost never makes the gossip columns, and his father has been quoted in Variety as saying that his son is “an ordinary good son” but becomes “fascinating” when in front of or behind the camera. Ben offers, “My dad used to tell me, ‘Work as hard as you can. Go for it. Strike while the iron’s hot.’ This was some years ago. Now he’ll sometimes say to slow down a bit, not to burn myself out.”

Ben points out that he is neither a sex symbol nor innately funny like a Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. Rather, he is “an everyman,” he says, an ordinary guy to whom extraordinary things happen. “I often get dumped on. . . . I’m not that tall; I’m not that muscular; I’d never be in the running to play a superhero. I’m kind of an audience stand-in. I represent what might happen to them — if they run out of luck.

“I don’t often play an outlandish character, though I’m fond of dress-up, you know, disguises and make-ups that turn you into a whole other individual, which for a lot of actors is what acting is all about.”

In the movie “Zoolander,” which satirized the world of male fashion models, Stiller enacted an outlandish, very made-up character, and “I enjoyed that. Owen (Wilson) and I had a ball doing that crazy movie. But what happens is, the more success you have in this business — which means the more successful movies you happen to be in, and nobody can predict that from a script — the more there is a demand for you to stop wearing the false nose and the wig and to increasingly play yourself or just one version of yourself, instead of experimenting with characterization.

“And I guess that’s what makes a star: when audiences want you to act less and sort of repeat yourself. It’s sort of flattering, but it is also pretty limiting. Still, I’m not complaining — the money’s too good!” Plus, as Stiller notes with a chuckle, “As my dad says, soon enough there’ll come a time when all you’ll get is character roles — if you get roles at all.

“It is a tough business, and it has little gratitude and little memory. That’s not bitterness, it’s just what I’ve seen close up. So therefore, for me, the most important thing, once you’ve made enough money to have lifetime security, is to just enjoy your work, the projects you do, the people you work with.

” ‘Cause you can replace money, but you can’t replace time. That is really the most precious commodity — and my parents fully agree with me on that!”

How do the “Night at the Museum” films differ for Stiller from other pictures he’s acted in?

“Well, the special effects are . . . they’re pretty awesome. In a straight comedy like ‘Meet the Parents,’ there’s less special effects. Also, anything with a museum in it, you have to stick to a few facts. Last time out, I was at the Museum of Natural History. This time, we actually got to film in the Smithsonian Institution; I believe we were the first film crew allowed in there. And we have all these historical personages in there, like Napoleon. And he’s one of the bad guys. Well, after all, he conquered all those countries in Europe and therefore caused all those deaths — probably millions. So what else is he going to be? But on the other hand, to a lot of French people, he’s a national hero, just ’cause he’s French.

“So although there’s lots of humor in this, it’s more of an adventure movie, and a pretty huge production. So I felt a little more like a chess piece — the central one, but just a piece — than in, say, ‘Meet the Parents.’ And then, with the romance they made up with Amelia Earhart, I had to be conscious of how I looked, so I watched what I ate, ’cause if you’re not tall — or a blond like Owen — you have to watch your weight closely. Personally, I like roles where I don’t have to be very concerned with how I look, or where I can look totally different.”

Stiller adds: “One exciting thing, and Owen and I commented on it while we were on-set, was seeing that Shawn (Levy) had really grown as a director (from the original film.) That is gratifying, because he was talented to begin with, but now he’s more confident and even more talented, and as a director myself I like seeing that — and it’s easier seeing it in others than in yourself; hopefully others see the same in me. And it would be nice to hear them say it too!”

Is a third “Night at the Museum” likely? Ben confesses: “It all depends on the money, the profits. This cost a lot, so it’ll need big audiences, throughout the world. In which case, of course! Will I return? Of course I can’t tell you that; if I said yes now, my salary wouldn’t be as high as if I played hard to get! In Hollywood, you have to be aloof . . . although half aloof is better than none.”