`Along Came Polly' gives Stiller a new neurotic character

Fatherhood has become the actor's primary role

Movies: on screen, DVD / Video

January 15, 2004|By Cindy Pearlman | Cindy Pearlman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Along came Ella, and everything changed for Ben Stiller.

The 38-year-old Stiller, star of the new romantic comedy Along Came Polly, is married to actress Christine Taylor. Their daughter Ella was born in May 2000.

"It changes everything in your life in a very specific way," Stiller says. "A very positive way."

So changed is Stiller, previously one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, that lately he's actually been turning down roles.

"It's important for me to spend as much time as possible with my daughter," he says, "because I want her to acknowledge me. I don't want to be gone to the point where she's like, `Hey, who are you?' I think, with any child, you have to earn their respect and their love."

Along Came Polly, opening tomorrow, adds another to Stiller's gallery of screen neurotics. Reuben Feffer is a professional risk analyst whose own life is built around avoiding risk ... until he finds himself caught up in a freewheeling love affair with a wild card of a woman named Polly (Jennifer Aniston).

"I take my neurotics on a case-by-case basis," Stiller says, "and I take them seriously. All of these roles are a stretch, because I'm not neurotic about much. I don't fear germs, I eat food off the floor if something drops and it hasn't stayed there for too long. I'm your basic guy."

In a separate interview, Aniston agrees that Stiller takes his characters seriously, even in their funniest moments.

"You know when you're listening to jazz, and it's all over the place and unexpected?" she says. "Well, that's Ben. He does things that you don't expect. That's why he's so unique and real. There is also never a moment when you feel like he's playing comedy and just hitting the line to make it funny -- he really takes it to heart."

Perhaps because he's the son of a comedy team -- his parents are the actors and frequent comedy partners Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara -- Stiller has been at his best in team comedy, whether with Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents (2000), with Drew Barrymore in Duplex (2003) or with Aniston in Along Came Polly. The trend continues with Starsky & Hutch, set to open in March, which pairs Stiller with Owen Wilson in a remake of the 1970s TV favorite.

Stiller did his research, he says, "by watching hours and hours of the old show. I got all of the episodes, and I kept playing them throughout the shoot.

"I have so much respect for Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, who originated the roles," he adds. "If you look closely it was just a cop show, and those two guys took it out of the genre. They based the roles on themselves and having fun with it."

Glaser and Soul cameo in the new film, but Stiller doesn't want to provide details.

"They play themselves and they were awesome," he says. "It's a fun moment, and I won't ruin it. But those two just kind of show up. They look great, and they're such nice guys."

The conversion of vintage television shows into movies has a checkered history, but Stiller has high hopes for Starsky & Hutch.

"I think the key is that you need a strong point of view with these type of projects," he says. "That's what they did with Charlie's Angels [2000]. We definitely played on sex, because that's a big thing with Starsky & Hutch.

"You know," he says, laughing, "the film is basically about just how sexy Owen and I are in real life."

He may have grown up in a show-business household, but Stiller says that he wasn't especially stage-struck as a boy.

"I was a regular kid who really didn't understand what my parents did for a living," he recalls. "I did walk around wondering why we were such a popular family, one where people would come up on the streets to talk to us."

All the same, by the time he was 10 Stiller was running around shooting movies on his Super 8 camera.

"I never really thought about what I wanted to do with my life," he says. "I just always knew what I wanted. As a kid I always wanted to make movies and direct. Now I wonder what would have happened to me if my parents hadn't been in the business. Would I still have wanted this type of life? I don't really know."

After dropping out of UCLA, Stiller made his screen debut in Hot Pursuit (1987) and went on to small roles in Fresh Horses (1988) and Next of Kin (1989). He did a short stint on Saturday Night Live in 1989, and then moved to HBO for the critically praised, but short-lived, The Ben Stiller Show (1992-1993, recently out on DVD).

The failure of The Ben Stiller Show drove him back to the movies, but this time the results were far better: He directed and co-starred in Reality Bites (1994) and The Cable Guy (1996), starred in the gross-out hit There's Something About Mary (1998), earned strong reviews for his dramatic turn in Permanent Midnight (1998) and scored hits with Meet the Parents and Zoolander (2001).

Even now, he says, he has no idea whether a given movie will be a hit or a miss.

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