Ben Stiller unconfortable talking about his Jewish identity

                             June 2004  By Philip Berk

Ben Stiller, who’s made a career out of playing Jewish geeks, has never been comfortable with his ethnicity.

When I once reminded him that he had a barmitzvah, his quick response was, “Yes but I haven’t had anything to do with it since.”

In Along Came Polly, which came out earlier in the year, his character was married by a rabbi, and now in Starsky and Hutch, opening this month, again he’s playing a Jewish character, a cop.

Even when he played a rabbi in Keeping the Faith, he seemed to be in denial.

“I’m not a religious person,” he told  me at the time. “I’m not really involved in organized religion. I was raised Jewish. My mother is Irish Catholic. We went to synagogue a couple of times a year and then kind of fell off. I’ve never really gone with anyone who was Jewish, and I married  a girl who’s not.”

The girl he married is actress Christine Taylor, who played Marcia Brady in the Brady Bunch. They were married in a non denominational ceremony and are now the proud parents of Ella, aged two.

At the Starsky and Hutch press conference I ask him if he’s finally come to terms with his Jewish identity?

Deflecting the question, he replies, “The thing about Starsky, he had a swarthiness about him, and if you were a kid you could identify with that in any which way. For some he was Armenian Greek. On the original show he was never (ethnically) identified, but because of who I am, certain roles are identified more than others, and I don’t really shy away from it. But it’s interesting because I just came back from Italy, where a lot of the questions were about my being Jewish and being a Jewish comedian. People’s perception of who you are informs what they see. You don’t know how people are going to react to you, so I don’t think about it. In Zoolander the character I played was (he jokes) multi-sexual, so I don’t get overly concerned with it. It’s a perception of me that I have to embrace even though I’m half Jewish. It’s like being Black. If you have a white parent, people don’t look at you as being half black. My personal relationship with being Jewish is my own thing, but as an actor I accept it and welcome it if it’s right for the character.”

The original Starsky was also played by a Jewish actor, Paul Michael Glaser. He and the original Hutch (played by David Soul) make a surprise guest appearance in the film.

What was it like meeting them on the set?

“I had grown up watching the show. I was ten in l975 so I was sort of the target demographic for the show especially since I had dark, curly hair. Starsky was your sort of guy. So I was really excited about doing the movie, and then I watched a lot of episodes to get a vibe for what he did. I just enjoyed what he was doing on the show. The whole basis of the show was their chemistry together, how they interacted with each other, otherwise it would be just another cop show. So when they showed up on the set and we actually worked together, it was real exciting. I had lunch with him before we started shooting just to get a vibe and to talk to him about it. They hadn’t worked together for years so it was fun to see then fall into whatever they did so well.”

So he and Owen (Wilson who plays Hutch) weren’t intimidated in the least?

“In a way, yes, because by the time they came on the set, Owen and I had sort of found our rhythm. Owen’s approach to playing the character was different than mine. I had gone to the old episodes to get some feeling of what Paul Michael Glazer had done, but the more I watched the more I realized his character was so specific to who he was as a person, I couldn’t really do that. Ultimately we decided that the connection we have with each other is what would make the movie work. But we both felt they were really cool. They’re naturally cool guys, and neither Owen nor I look at ourselves as a being cool. Part of the humor in our movie comes from our attempt to be cooler than we are, and they were very supportive of that and didn’t make us feel like they were judging us in any way.”

Starsky’s Ford Gran Torino was an integral part of the original show. So what was it like being behind the wheel of that car, and how much actual driving did he do for the film?

“I didn’t do much of the stunts, but there are shots where I’m actually driving. I took lessons with the stunt drivers. They blocked off a a parking lot for a few days, and they taught me how to reverse 180 degrees, how to do power slides, and stuff like that. I scared the hell out of Owen. He was like a white-knuckle passenger the whole time. But I always felt in control, and I found it fun. I had never done anything like that in a movie before, and having grown up in New York where you don’t get to drive that much, it felt like I’ve made up for lost time.”

Both he and Owen have projects that are unreleasable.

Ben’s is Envy.

Wasn’t that made two years ago?

“I think they’re releasing it soon.”

Why the delay?

“You know, I don’t know. I’m sure there were reasons, but we’ve done some re-shoots.” 

The movie opens next month in the U.S. It was directed by Barry Levinson, and Ben’s costar is Jack  Black. 

You go figure!

On a happier note, what can he tell us about becoming a father. Has it changed him?

Seriously he responds, “Until you have children it’s hard to comprehend what it is. It’s such an all-encompassing change in your life. The emphasis for me is how I want to spend my life. I want time to be with her, but in the last year and a half I’ve worked a lot so the time I’m with her has gone by so quickly. So it’s really important that I try to work less. But as far as changing me, it makes you aware that the feeling of a child for a parent can never compare with the love a parent has for a child. So you look at your parents in a whole new light even if you’ve appreciated and love them, which I do. You see now, on a certain level, what they saw when you were born and for the first few years of your life, and it’s helped me to warm up to them in a way that’s really been great.”

Has she inherited his sense of humor?

“In terms of her being funny, definitely, she’s very rambunctious, very physical. It’s interesting, just seeing her personality develop. Children seem to come out with their personalities determined, at least for the first couple of years, but what I’m hoping is that she gets all my wife’s best qualities, and whatever good qualities I have, but because my wife is so incredibly naturally cheerful and happy, I just hope she inherits that.”

His acting career has had its ups and downs but surprisingly the three movies he’s directed were all stamped with  his brand of genius.

(Have you seen Cable Guy recently?)

So when is he going back to directing again?

“Thank you for asking because it’s something I love more than anything. It’s more enjoyable for me than acting even though I love acting too. I find it more creatively fulfilling. But there’s been a lot of work for me as an actor the last couple of years, but after the Meet the Parents sequel, I intend to take some time off and then work on a project I’ve been developing as a director.”

The cop shows we see on television today have come a long way since Starsky and Hutch. 

Did he talk to Paul Michael Glaser, also a director, about that?

“I did, and he explained that when they did the show, it was the period just after the Vietnam war. There was still a feeling of anti-Establishment. This was the first time you were seeing cops on TV as cool guys. They were working within the system but not part of it. There was a simplicity, a lack of irony. There was no cynicism. They felt free to have fun with each other, but they always took their job seriously. Something happened since then. We had shows based on movies like Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to do the film and have it take place in the 70’s. We went back to the original and embraced that. We didn’t want to reinvent the buddy-cop movie. In fact the director wanted is to play the roles as though Owen and I were making the pilot for the series but were later replaced by Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul.”

But there wasn’t much humor in the original series, was there? 

“At first they had story lines that were quite dramatic, but as they went along they got funnier, even a little goofy. The crucial element was the warmth between these two guys.”

Chat rooms on the internet are intimating that Starsky and Hutch were actually gay, even though the film’s logo is, “They are The Man.” 

Is he amused?

“People seem to be obsessed with that idea. But the director conceived the movie as a romantic comedy between two straight guys, so you go figure. But every buddy movie has to have that relationship, and in fact the scene where they wear their holsters in the shower is actually in the original series.”

He’s just completed  a second  movie with his wife — the first was Zoolander.

At an earlier press conference when a journalist asked him if the two of them ever fought on the set, he clenched his jaw angrily.

”I don’t understand the intent of the question,” he responded and then proceeded to clam up for the rest of the interview.

Having read the interview, I ask him if he was provoked.

“I guess it happens. I just kind of go off, based on the specific energy I’m getting from a person. It’s like any human interaction when you sit down with somebody. You can sense if somebody has an agenda or is being weird with you. But maybe I wasn’t in the right mood that day.”

So will she continue to work in movies?

“She’s very busy with our family, but we just did a comedy together with Vince Vaughn called Dodgeball, A True Underdog Story, in which she plays opposite Vince and I play the bad guy. It’s a pretty funny comedy about the game of dodgeball, which all children play at school.’

Next up for him is the Meet the Parents sequel. What can he tell us about that?

“Dustin Hoffman will be playing my dad, and we hope to get Barbra Streisand to play my mom. I’ve never done a sequel before so the challenge is to recreate something that was funny before and make it funny again.”