In the fall movie "Zoolander," the spoofy tale of a male model caught up in international, "Manchurian Candidate"-style political intrigue, the dim-witted hero Derek Zoolander--played by Ben Stiller--has a number of killer expressions that have catapulted him to the top of the catwalk. There is "Blue Steel," "Ferrari" and, later in the film, the much-heralded beauty-weapon-in-disguise "Magnum." The joke is that all the looks are the same overly serious, faux-gaunt, cheekbone-enhancing, lip-puckering mug.
Ben Stiller admits it's an exaggerated version of the look that overtakes his face when he brushes his hair in the morning. "My wife will say, 'Why are you doing that thing with your lips?"' Stiller says wryly.
Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed the Paramount film, which opens Sept. 28, doesn't remotely think he's beautiful, which is also part of the gag of "Zoolander." He thinks he's like most people--OK-looking from one particular angle--"but only a really, really special angle that you have to always hit. I'm like that. It's kind of where the look comes from."
Indeed, up close, almost every one of Stiller's features appears about a millimeter too long to qualify for conventional celebrity heartthrob. His forehead is too prominent, his nose too pointy, his lips too full, his jaw too long, his brow too determined. The only movie-starrish element are his perfectly straight teeth, which gleam with preternatural whiteness, and an air of confidence that seems at odd with his persona as America's anxious young man.
At 35, despite more than 15 years in Hollywood proper and a show-biz childhood, Stiller is now known as America's poet laureate of sweat, the prince of twitchiness, the guy who got his penis infamously snared in his zipper in 1998's "There's Something About Mary" and who surreptitiously painted a cat and inadvertently popped a cork into Grandma's ashes in last year's "Meet the Parents." Almost no embarrassment appears too great if it's going to result in a laugh.
If Derek Zoolander has his look, so Ben Stiller--unlikely screen star--has his. It features a slightly stooped back and an almost permanently furled brow. Its top note is unabashed yearning, romantic yearning, but underneath is the distinct aroma of nebbish fury. "I do have anger," Stiller admits. "Rage and anxiety are kind of a funny mix because they're fighting against each other, and I definitely cop to that."
"Ben's pretty selective," says director Jay Roach, recalling the beginning of the "Meet the Parents" shoot. Stiller's part was tailored to and by him, rewritten as Jewish (he's half) and a male nurse, both features that accentuated his character's underdog status. "Ben's not automatically going to just hand himself over to you [the director], saying, 'Here, I'm your puppet. Do what you want.' He's going to engage you and test your insight into the character."
"There's gravitas there," adds his close friend Jerry Stahl, a writer whose descent into drug addiction Stiller reenacted in one of his few forays into drama, "Permanent Midnight" (1998). "He's not some neurotic, whining Woody Allen type."
Stiller is perhaps the only comedic star of his generation who didn't come from stand-up, and over a late lunch at one of his hangouts, a hippie-ish French bistro on the banks of the 101 Freeway, he doesn't flap-jaw, or gab, or generally wear his look-at-me-ma gene on his sleeve. His face has an unexpected repose, with clear gray eyes matching the gray flecks in his hair.
"He's not the class clown," says his wife, actress Christine Taylor. "When I first met him after seeing all his work, he wasn't trying to crack a joke. He's just a serious, real, connected guy. He doesn't even consider himself that funny, which is so ironic, given that he's in some of the funniest movies."
Although he's lived in L.A. for more than a decade, he still dresses all in black, a seeming remnant of New York armor. He's alternately friendly and amusing, referential to the Albert Brooks-loving Ben Stiller persona he's projected in other interviews and at moments determined to send his commentary through the celebrity bland-o-meter, which renders speech into inoffensive, meaningless mush.
"Do you think I'd be good in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee?" he asks jokingly, after a platitudinous conversation about the effects of 1996's "The Cable Guy," one of Jim Carrey's few flops. It happens to be the last movie Stiller directed before refashioning himself into a mainstream comedy star.
Stiller pointedly doesn't want to be reduced to Mr. Anxiety Guy.
"I'm not like the guy I play in the movies," he says, although he admits, "I don't think I'd be able to do what I do if it wasn't an aspect of my personality. But I'm not comfortable to just be categorized in that way." He repeats this point several times. "That's why 'Zoolander' is important to me."