Ben Stiller and Melanie Griffith were both honored by the Taormina Film Festival in the Sicilian town’s open-air Teatro Antico on Thursday.
Earlier in the afternoon, the actors held separate master-class interviews for local film students and enthusiasts — an audience clearly obsessed with Stiller’s 2001 comedy “Zoolander.” (One fan presented the stunned Stiller with a hand-drawn caricature of the vain male supermodel, and the crowd erupted into cheers when he flashed them Derek Zoolander’s trademark “Blue Steel” look.)
Whereas the audiences for such Q&As often want to know what an actor is doing next, in Taormina, the question was more focused: Will there ever be a “Zoolander” sequel?
Yes, Stiller assured the room, a follow-up script exists, though they’ll have to be patient. His production company, Red Hour Films, is “actively” working on a rewrite now.
“I can’t say that it’s actually a reality yet, but I hope some day it is,” he pledged. “It’s been about 10 years now. It’s going to be old Derek Zoolander.”
“Zoolander” also proved the ideal go-to example for Stiller when the audience asked for advice on how to make it in Hollywood.
“A lot of times, I did things because I wasn’t getting work as an actor,” he said. Whenever the audition process got him down, “I would make shorts or I would generate my own things.”
The Derek Zoolander character resulted from a segment Stiller and screenwriter friend Drake Sather created for the VH1 Fashion Awards and then grew into its own feature. “When we told the studio, they didn’t quite understand it. It was a very strange experience, because even when the movie came out, I don’t think people quite got it. It’s sort of grown over the years,” he said.
These days, with the Internet, aspiring filmmakers have the opportunity to test characters and material in much the same way. In that spirit, Stiller is supporting a new generation of comedy talent through the Red Hour-backed “Next Time on Lonny” — a Web series that parodies banal reality TV by teasing the crazy new directions the show might take with next week’s episode.
“Basically, you have the creative freedom to put something directly out there to the audience and not have to worry about ratings or box office,” Stiller advised. “You don’t have to worry about making a movie that everyone in the world will go the first weekend or it goes away (and you don’t) have to worry about any lowest common denominator in reaching an audience.
“There’s really no excuse to not be doing what you want to do. Now, you can make a movie with your phone,” he said. “If you start to create, something will come out of that.”
Both Stiller and Griffith discussed the fact that they were born into showbiz families, insisting that such a background actually made it harder to launch a career as actors.
In Stiller’s case, as the son of thesps Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he would accompany his parents on tour as they did traveling theater, played nightclubs or appeared on game shows (later, over dinner, he mentioned an episode of “$25,000 Pyramid” in which Meara beckoned her son “Benji” onstage at the end of the show).
“My sister and I would get up onstage after everybody had left and act out what our parents had done,” Stiller recalled. “I never really necessarily wanted to be a comic. I loved comedies, but I didn’t think I wanted to be in them. (From age 9), I wanted to be a movie director. I watched Scorsese movies and Coppola movies and all of those great ’70s movies — actors like Al Pacino, these were people I idolized. And then as I got older, I started to be more aware of comedy, people like Bill Murray and Steve Martin, and that appealed to me as a teenager.”
The daughter of Tippie Hedren, Griffith got into acting by accident. Forty years ago, she was a teenage model when she booked her first film role opposite Gene Hackman in “Night Moves.”
“Actually, I thought I was going on a modeling job. I got this movie, and I started working, and I never stopped,” said Griffith, who offered memories from various roles, including her Oscar-nominated turn in “Working Girl.” When asked about her leading man in that film, she said, “Harrison Ford was so sexy and so handsome and so married that no matter how hard I tried — which I did — he didn’t go for it.”
Both Stiller and Griffith described their parents as being protective of them early on, something Griffith has tried to pass along to her daughter, Dakota Johnson, who stars in the upcoming “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“I think that if you’re more interested in your children than you are in your work, then it’s fine, everything will be all right,” said Griffith, explaining that Hedren had her priorities straight. “If you’re more interested in your work than your children, then your children are going to be messed up. I was still a little bit messed up anyway,” she joked.
For the Italian audience’s benefit, Griffith shared how Sophia Loren had been a role model to her when she was young. “When I was 8, my mom did a movie with Sophia Loren and Charlie Chaplin called ‘A Countess From Hong Kong,’” she recalled. “She was so wonderful with me and so loving, and she had such a huge effect on my world and my view of what a woman should be. I saw my mom and Sophia. At that young age, it was a mixture that I felt strangely that I followed.”
Of Hedren’s films, Griffith’s favorite has always been “Marnie,” though her memories of meeting Alfred Hitchcock remain somewhat disturbing.
“I wasn’t allowed to be on the set ever, no children were,” she said. “I remember him being very strange. He gave me a Christmas present when I was 5 that was a box like a coffin, and inside the coffin was a doll, like a Barbie doll, but it was my mother. I think that fucked me up really bad. It was so strange.”