When Jay Roach first tried to interest a reluctant Ben Stiller in “Meet the Parents,” the helmer had been working on the project for years.

Robert De Niro’s enthusiasm turned everything around — at least with regard to Stiller. Roach recalls the dinner in Manhattan that sealed the deal.

“I met Bob the second time and Ben the first time in New York and it was a very defining moment for what became the film,” Roach says. “Ben is a very confident person, but around De Niro he was so eager to please. He was uneasy and I thought, How can I prolong this? That’s the movie! There was Robert at the table talking about his CIA experiences and I thought (although I couldn’t be sure) Ben was sweating and Robert was talking about lie detectors, and you felt he was tapped into the leaders of the free world. Robert was this paranoid character. I realized then how the movie was going to be so much better than I initially thought.

“Even at that dinner I could sense the anxiety Ben felt, of hoping the dinner went well but also trying to hide his anxieties and be cool — and that’s the character he took to such delicious, excruciating length as Gaylord ‘Greg’ Focker.”

Roach credits Stiller as “actor bait for the other actors,” like Owen Wilson, plus Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand for the second “Fockers” pic.

“The other thing that distinguishes Ben for me is he’s a director as well as an actor,” says Roach. “So you’re working with a triple-threat talent who can help you get out of any predicament you might get into and have excellent solutions. Whenever there was a staging question, Ben was there just thinking it through with me.”

Roach cites “a ‘Parents’ scene before he goes and plays water volleyball. He’s just talked to Owen Wilson and Greg Focker says, ‘I didn’t bring a bathing suit,’ and Owen says, ‘Don’t worry.’ And in the cut to the next scene we see Ben eating Nicoret gum (because he’s addicted), and it’s a very small tight Speedo suit on a chair and he’s pacing around, just glaring and that’s the entire scene. That was Ben’s idea, just having it on the chair and playing that intensity.

“Then he was in such great shape he didn’t look like the nebbish underdog to Owen. We had him come out holding his hands over the suit and he stands behind this fern being completely humiliated. Ben provides this other layer: Greg Focker does try hard. He would have to be in that shape and yet it’s not enough, he feels insecure in this WASP-y situation.”

American Cinematheque Award: Ben Stiller
Raised on a raucous road | Stiller on Stiller | When Stiller met De Niro to talk ‘Parents