Ben Stiller on Night at the Museum co-star Robin Williams: 'Life is a mixture of good, bad and sad'

As Stiller returns for a third and final ‘Night at the Museum’ film, he tells Gill Pringle about the amazing time he spent on set with his co-star and late friend

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The Independent Culture

If you’ve ever seen the two Night at the Museum movies, you’ll know there’s a magic tablet which brings the museum’s historic people and artefacts to life at night. The franchise stars Ben Stiller’s museum night guard alongside Ricky Gervais’s acerbic museum boss, Owen Wilson’s cowboy, Steve Coogan’s Roman centurion and the late Robin Williams as President Teddy Roosevelt, in his final screen outing.

The Stiller I meet today to discuss the third Night at the Museum movie, Secret of the Tomb – largely set in the British Museum – avoids any gushing eulogies for his friend who died earlier this year shortly after the film was completed. However, the reminiscences are inevitable.

“The Rosetta Stone was the thing I was most impressed with,” recalls Stiller, who even tweeted a photo of himself and Williams with the famed granodiorite tablet inscribed in three ancient languages. “It was Robin and me standing by the Rosetta Stone saying ‘this is just the coolest thing ever’,” he smiles wistfully.

“I think all of life is a mix of good, bad and sad. I think the deeper the relationship with somebody, the more connection you have with that person, the harder it is to lose them. But then, the other side of it is, the more you keep of that friendship with you, so I am grateful for that,” he says, somewhat obscurely. Perhaps his loss is too painful to express more explicitly than this. Williams’s Roosevelt acts as something of a father figure in the movie’s plot and, to a certain degree, did so off-screen too.

The two actors spent a memorable night together in the British Museum’s Egyptian Hall and Enlightenment Room after the doors closed to the public. “It was really amazing and I felt like we really got to know it, being given private tours of different things. And then the Elgin Marbles, which you’re not supposed to call the Elgin Marbles, we shot in that room too,” he says, sipping iced tea through a straw.

The son of veteran comics Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, he has often spoken of being inspired by his parents when growing up. But his own style is far removed from that of his larger-than-life father. He parlays a certain social awkwardness into characters such as Walter Mitty, Derek Zoolander and Greg Focker, until it’s hard to know where the real Stiller begins and ends.

Raised in New York, in his early twenties he moved to Hollywood where the buzz of an early appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun soon wore off, and he grew frustrated at the roles being offered to him. Refusing to let others dictate his career, he precociously launched his own self-titled TV satire show, which was soon cancelled, before going on to make his directorial debut in 1994 with Reality Bites. The Gen X film, in which he starred, alongside Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, would become a cult favourite, launching him on the dual path of director and actor.

“When I look back on it, I wonder what I was even thinking. When you first go out and start doing stuff, you don’t even have a sense of what you’re doing, but you still think you do. That’s what allows you to have the confidence to try things when you’re young. In retrospect, I had no idea what I was doing. I feel lucky that I got to edit that movie on film. It was right when the transition to digital editing was happening and I edited it on flatbed, with a great editor, and I feel very fortunate to have had that experience.”

Reality Bites remains so beloved among his generation, that even today there’s discussion of a follow-up. “We talked about possibly doing a TV series, but didn’t end up doing it and I think it’s probably for the best, but I don’t know if I would do an actual sequel. I think it would be kind of weird.”

As a director, he’s enjoyed acclaim with both Tropic Thunder and Zoolander, but his dark comedy The Cable Guy was so disliked it threatened to derail Jim Carrey’s career, and his recent remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty met with mixed reviews. As an actor, he has been a part of some of the most popular movies of the past two decades including the Meet the Fockers franchise, There’s Something About Mary and Dodgeball. He has frequently stepped in as a producer, too.

He has been married for 14 years to actress and frequent co-star Christine Taylor, with whom he has a daughter, Ella, 12, and son Quinlin, nine. Shortly after their children were born the family moved to New York where Stiller, 49, likes the anonymity of being able to pull a baseball cap low over his face and walk the city streets.

If many of his screen creations are gauche and sometimes unlikable, then it’s as Night at the Museum’s affable guard Larry Daley that he has reached his widest audience.

“As you get older, I feel that there’s more nostalgia for the things you remember from your childhood, and it becomes more meaningful,” he says. He has just come from lunch with old high-school friends and they were exchanging stories of their youth.

In the hot seat: Ben Stiller (Getty)

“I was telling them how I’d found online the same skateboard I’d had when I was 12 years old and it brought back this connection with who I am, and who I was as a kid, and how far we have gotten from that. Sometimes in your life, you can feel very connected to it when you’re happy, and you can get disconnected to it when the troubles and struggles of life affect you,” says Stiller. He reveals that he’s actually asked his wife for his childhood Fiber Flex skateboard as a Christmas present.

“I think what I’m trying to say is that sometimes the reason people like to go to movies like this is that they can connect with their inner child, and be a part of something they remember, that thing that was always so much fun as a kid, like when you went to the museum,” says Stiller, who does double duty in the new film as a caveman named Laaa.

“I’ve always enjoyed cavemen and Neanderthals and that whole evolutionary process,” quips the actor who is joined by Museum newcomers Sir Ben Kingsley, Australian comedienne Rebel Wilson and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens. “Dan is a revelation, comedically. I’m a big Downton Abbey fan but our director [Shawn Levy] hadn’t seen the show so when he suggested Dan, I immediately went, ‘Cousin Matthew! Yes!’ And he came in and was just awesome. He really pulls off this tone where we don’t know if he’s quite good or bad,” he says of Stevens’s performance as Sir Lancelot.

When filming was completed, this probably being the last of the Museum franchise, Stiller was delighted to be given the film’s magic tablet, which is now located in his New York home, beside a pair of life-size Tom Cruise arms. Stiller is a long-time fan of Cruise, and his dreams came true when he got to direct his idol in the black comedy Tropic Thunder six years ago.

“So the tablet is going alongside Tom’s arms which is super cool; these crazy hairy arms with a crushed Diet Coke can in them that I took home from the Tropic Thunder set. So who knows? Maybe the tablet will bring Tom’s arms to life at night!”

That same tablet wove magic at the box office, as well as launching a ground-breaking sleepover programme at New York’s Museum of Natural History, where the first film was set. The second took place at Washington DC’s Smithsonian.

He confesses he’s never attended one of the museum sleepover events. “But I have met a lot of people who come over and go, ‘I had to sleep in a museum because my kids wanted to do it’, and give me a dirty look.”

‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb’  is released on 19 December