CHARLOTTE O'SULLIVAN has a tetchy meeting with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, stars of the new 'Starsky & Hutch' film
The PRs are flapping. We're waiting for Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson - promoting their surprisingly sweet spoof/homage to the 70s TV cop show, Starsky & Hutch. The pair have flown in from Germany and, along with running a little late, have phoned ahead to say they want the windows in the hotel room opened and the heating turned off.
Wilson, it transpires, is "worried about staying awake". Tension also surrounds the food. It's imperative the hot meals be ready in time (vegetables and Dover sole). The men finally arrive in the building, and an underling goes to greet them. A few seconds later she's back, muttering: "He's in a really bad mood."
I step into the by now freezing interview room. New Yorker Stiller (38, greying at the sides, taller and more imposing than he looks on screen) comes bounding in and heads straight for the soft drinks. Dallas-born Wilson (35, slighter and less imposing, with a sports cap crushing his blond hair) sidles on to the far end of the couch. In the manner of one hangover sufferer to another, he mouths: "How are you?"
Stiller wants to know if there's ice for his cola. The PR struggles with the tongs and Stiller snaps: "I'll do that," digging his hand into the ice box. I'm guessing he's the one in the mood, but the next minute he has fixed me with a big, friendly, curious stare, so maybe everyone's happy and we're all going to get along.
Things begin promisingly.
On the subject of what some (ie, me) would describe as the film's pro-cocaine stance - Hutch and two girlfriends have a pleasant evening thanks to the drug - they note cheerfully that there have been no complaints, as far as they know.
"That's pretty impressive," I say.
"Yes it is," agrees Stiller.
Wilson suggests the fact that the villain - a cocaine dealer - is brought down provides a kind of moral lesson. But, as I point out, it's drug money that allows Starsky to salvage his beloved Torino car ...
"Good point," says Stiller. "Uh-oh!" says Wilson. He giggles. "We take our tone from the 70s. Back then, no one worried about stuff like that."
They're just as happy to discuss how they met. Stiller saw Wilson's first film, Bottle Rocket (directed by Wes Anderson and starring Owen and his brother, Luke) and sent off a letter of appreciation.
"I'd cast Owen in a small role in my film, The Cable Guy, but I just wanted him to know how much I liked the movie. I got this letter back ... " He laughs. "It was like this form letter: 'Thank you for your interest in the movie'. It had loads of typos, and at the end it said, 'Dictated but not read'. Oh, yeah, and there was this line where he says [Owen snorts helplessly in the background], 'Good luck with Cable Man'!"
Bottle Rocket was a financial disaster, but since then Wilson has become an increasingly big name - almost as big as Stiller. He has blockbusters such as Behind Enemy Lines and Shanghai Noon on his CV; Stiller's got There's Something About Mary, Meet the Parents and Zoolander (Wilson appears in the last two), and, most recently, the disappointing Along Came Polly with Jennifer Aniston.
Wilson has become famous for his witty-stoner persona; Stiller invariably plays the beleaguered geek, with tense shoulders up around his ears. The point is that both men have managed to hold on to a kind of street cred while also building up lucrative careers. Some, though, maintain they're now in danger of selling out.
I ask, tentatively, what an acclaimed indie "auteur" such as Wes Anderson made of Starsky & Hutch?
"He loved it!" yelps Wilson. "He said it was the best movie he'd ever seen."
"The best movie he's ever seen?" says an incredulous Stiller. "Really? Wow."
"Really?" says an even more incredulous me.
"One of the best," says Stiller, sternly. "I think he said one of the best."
"It's the most satisfying reaction," continues Stiller, "when someone whose work you respect approves of something you do."
Does he worry that, as his films make more money, it will be harder to earn that respect? Or is that not an issue?
Stiller shoots me a cold look. "What does that have to do with it? Making money?"
"Well," I say, gulping ever so slightly, "some people think it's hard to maintain quality control on big-budget pictures."
Stiller frowns. "I don't think how much money a movie makes has anything to do with its quality. Or how people respond to it. I mean, I know some people are sceptical about anything that's part of the mainstream. But you can't really operate your life on generalities like that. And anyone who's been through the film-making process has a different viewpoint on that experience. You know, they're less ... harsh."
But, I say meekly, he has joked in the past about Wilson's turn in Behind Enemy Lines ...
"But I liked that movie," protests Stiller. "I enjoyed it."
"But yeah," says Wilson in his quavery voice, "you take the mickey."
So, are there any movies of Stiller's that Wilson likes to poke fun at?
Wilson blinks. "Well, I thought he was great in Meet the Parents."
Stiller pulls a face. "She's looking for some movie you can insult me about."
"Oh," says Wilson. "A muck-raker."
"Yeah," continues Stiller. "She's taking the interview in that direction."
I'm not sure how seriously to take this. Surely there are movies he doesn't like?
"Sure. There are films I don't like."
So what sort of movies would those be?
Stiller shrugs, clearly not happy. He says in a singsong voice: "Movies that I don't like." There's a pause. "Look," he says, fiercely. "You're not going to get me to ... I'm not going to rip movies in an interview. You want lots of negatives."
He starts again. "You know, it's really hard to make a movie. Like I say, once you're part of that process, you become more generous ...
" But I don't feel generous towards other journalists, just because I'm in the media ... " "Well," says Stiller, raising his eyebrows. "It's more of a creative process I'm talking about." Touche.
The atmosphere has become colder. Wilson, unnerved, tries to make amends. "If we were interviewing you, and asked what journalists you disliked, you'd be horrified."
"It's a negative way to go," says Stiller, staring at the floor.
"It's much more life-affirming to be enthusiastic," adds Wilson, softly.
Somehow, the conversation manages to recover from this seeming impasse. There's a scene in Starsky & Hutch in which the cops have to interview a cheerleader in the locker-room - as in so many shows of the time, she proceeds to "change" while they're chatting, leaving them staring in wonderment at her chest. It's a neat spoof on the macho morals of the time - funny, not sleazy, to watch. But was it awkward to film?
"Well, there was a kind of freedom about it," says Stiller, grinning. "It was actually one of the easier scenes to play, because it's all real." He looks me in the eye. "If you were standing here with your shirt off, it would be a very real awkward situation. [He laughs nervously]. Right? No matter what. Even if it was a scene, I'd be awkward with you."
"It was harder probably for her," says Wilson, thoughtfully, "because she had to do the acting natural thing. She was actually a former Playmate of the Year, but she was a little ... self-conscious." Yeah, I bet.
The pair insist that the film's sexism is about the 70s, not the noughties. They admit they are products of that benighted era. A few years ago when both were single (Stiller is now married, with a baby daughter; Wilson has been with his girlfriend, actress Gina Gershon, for four years), they felt hamstrung by "insecurities" and fantasised about being "good with girls".
"I don't know if that's something you grow out of," muses Wilson. "There'll always be a girl who's pretty, and smart, who makes you feel like you're in ninth grade, and she's a senior. I know when I first met Milla Jovovich, on Zoolander, I was really like, wow, because she looked so incredible. Ben introduced me, and she said really nice things. But still ... "
Stiller is laughing hysterically at the thought of Wilson's discomfort. The two seem finally to have relaxed. They start talking about how many of the lines in Starsky & Hutch they ad libbed - one of them, "We was robbed," causing Wilson particular amusement. "Todd [Phillips, the director] wasn't that crazy at first about, 'We was robbed."' His forehead crinkles. "Why was 'We was robbed' so funny?"
"It was just funny to us," replies Stiller.
"I think it was because it was W-U-Z," decides Wilson. "That's what made it funny."
I mention that the only line that didn't get a laugh when I saw it involves an "Oriental" man who says to Hutch, "All you whiteys look alike."
"That's funny," says Hutch, "that's exactly what we think about you."
Wilson looks stricken. "I don't think my delivery was good. I probably messed it up."
Stiller is in stitches. "That was Owen's line. He thought it up. I think that line ... I'm surprised that line is in the movie, it's so politically incorrect. It is funny."
That these two are comfortable with each other is clear. And their pairing in the film seems obvious. There were rumours early, though, that Brad Pitt would play Hutch.
"Did you really go to Brad?" asks Wilson, leaning back and looking dreamily at Stiller.
"No!" says Stiller. "He was never involved."
"Honestly?" croons Wilson, pouting ever so slightly.
"No," says Stiller, "there was nobody else - you were first."
I wonder how intentional was the camp, touchy-feely stuff between Starsky and Hutch. Stiller (still playing the uptight one in this double-act) looks shocked. "We never thought of it that way," he says. "Is there really that much touching?"
"Well," says Wilson, "there's that stuff with the hand towels." (The two men, having picked the wrong towels, stride around the room virtually in the buff.)
"That's not touching!" squeaks Stiller.
"No!" grins Wilson. "But it was funny."
* Starsky and Hutch is out on April 29