Kinder, gentler Stiller

It is the last scene of the film The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, and actors Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig are shooting it on New York's busy Sixth Avenue in the middle of the day.

The leads are trying to get into the moment for the quiet, intimate scene, when a cry of "Yo, Focker" shatters the illusion. And Stiller, 48, goes: "I'm trying to act, man, not f*** her."

He is recounting this, with Wiig, 40, beside him, at Sydney Entertainment Centre after the premiere of the film on Nov 21. This is humour with an abrasive edge and it marks the roles that he is best known for as a comedian.

As nurse Gaylord Focker in the hit comedy Meet The Parents (2000) and its sequels Meet The Fockers (2004) and Little Fockers (2010), Stiller has suffered through all kinds of humiliation.

Then, there is There's Something About Mary (1998), in which he was the awkward Ted, whose prom date with Cameron Diaz gets cut short by an embarrassing, and painful, zipper incident. And as the titular dim-witted model in Zoolander (2001), he perfected his signature Blue Steel pose.

With Walter Mitty, however, it is a gentler and kinder Stiller. The comedy is less in-your-face and more low-key.

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, based on James Thurber's 1939 short story of the same name, opens in Singapore today. In it, Stiller plays the titular timid Life magazine employee and Wiig plays his love interest, Cheryl.

Given that Stiller also produced and directed the film, the change in direction seems most deliberate. And it makes sense when you meet him in person.

Odd anecdote aside, he is more like the placid and amiable Mitty and there is little sign of the twitchy, nervous energy that his characters give off on screen, both at the premiere and at a later interview at Park Hyatt Sydney.

Even a question about his being reportedly difficult to work with fails to rile him.

He says with a smile: "I haven't read the stories. Being demanding is one thing. I think everybody I work with on a set is usually as demanding in wanting to do their best work, but that doesn't mean it has to be an unpleasant experience."

So what does Wiig have to say about working with him? Right on cue, she answers: "He's very demanding."

And Stiller chimes in: "By the way, honestly, that's how those stories get around because then you'll write in print, 'He was very demanding' and another person will say 'Kristen Wiig said you were very demanding'."

At the very least, it was a demanding shoot for Stiller himself.

He says: "It's frustrating sometimes because you can't be in two places at once. As an actor, I try to give myself as much leeway as possible because I know that in the editing room, I want to have the choices so I want to indulge that as much as possible without being indulgent."

That said, he is not too hung up over what hat he is wearing at any particular time. He says: "The producer is there to support the movie's vision. The director, getting the movie made the way he wants to get it made, and acting, you're getting in front of the camera and it all becomes part of the same thing."

Apart from the project giving him the chance to stretch himself, Mitty's rich interior life also resonated with Stiller.

He says: "Making a movie is that. You're daydreaming, thinking about the imagery and what the movie is going to look like. During the course of making a movie, I go off into that world all the time, sometimes to the dismay of my family."

He is married to actress Christine Taylor, 42, and they have an 11-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son.

And Stiller credits them for inspiring him.

"My kids have the most incredible imagination. They're always playing and making stuff up and living in that reality and we get disconnected from that as we get older. As actors and film-makers, what we're supposed to do is reconnect with that."

Part of the film's appeal was also the fact that it defied easy definition. Stiller says: "I love movies that you can't really categorise by genre and in (scriptwriter Steve Conrad's) writing, he was trying to get to the idea of self-discovery somehow.

"Without trying to sound too highfalutin or anything but it was really about this guy trying to connect with himself and everything else that happened in the story."

It certainly sounds more intellectual than the fare Stiller is generally known for, which includes the Night At The Museum adventure comedies (2006, 2009) and the animated series of Madagascar flicks (2005, 2008 and 2012).

Maybe part of it is getting more mature with age and getting more settled down with a family. That is not to say, though, that he has lost his sense of humour.

After all, he still does a pratfall off a bicycle in Walter Mitty and his comic flair is very much intact in Sydney, in the stories he tells reporters.

Part of the film was set in Iceland and Stiller ran into the infamously imperious Russell Crowe, who was filming the religious epic Noah there.

"And Russell said to me before we started shooting: 'It's great shooting here but you have to dominate the weather.'"

Stiller adds drily: "Yeah, all right, I'm sure you can dominate the weather, Russell, I don't know if I can."

Once the shoot was underway, though, Crowe's advice made sense as the weather was constantly changing - from a squall bearing down, to the sun coming out to rain the next moment.

"You just have to keep going and the Norse weather gods will respect you if you do that," concludes Stiller.

Asked if he thinks that comedy gets little respect compared to dramatic fare, and he disagrees.

"I think the audience respects it for sure and that's ultimately who you're making movies for. That's the ultimate respect, that they are willing to spend their money to have you entertain them.

"And I take that pretty seriously."

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