Chemistry is what Hollywood calls that mysterious on-screen fizz between two romantic leads. But there’s something else just as hard to conjure: perfect anti-chemistry. It’s what’s created when movie stars team up in mutual antagonist roles that let them warily circle, size up, and try to outdo each other with such comic ferocity, you can hardly look away from their prickly partnership.
Tweety and Sylvester have perfect anti-chemistry. So do Alan Alda and Larry Linville in endless M*A*S*H reruns. And here comes another pair for the scorpion-dance hall of fame: Ben Stiller as a bumbling Jewish boyfriend and Robert De Niro as his WASPy future father-in-law in Meet the Parents, a new comedy from Austin Powers ringmaster Jay Roach.
Does it take a special brand of directorial trickery to make a man as practiced in menace as De Niro come off both creepy and funny? Did the star of There’s Something About Mary feel like a pip-squeak next to this acting giant? To find out, we convened a roundtable with the make-believe in-laws, along with their director, at the Manhattan digs of De Niro’s Tribeca Productions. Thankfully nobody asked, ”You talkin’ to me?”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Bob, were you consciously hunting for more comic roles after Analyze This?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Well, I was, [but] I wasn’t sure about Meet the Parents. Jane Rosenthal [De Niro’s producing partner] said, ”We got this thing, and we’re trying to develop it, blah blah blah.” So I guess I kinda got pushed into it, in a way. Jay seemed like a nice person, and so sincere about what he wanted to do. But he seemed very apprehensive about doing it.
BEN STILLER: Jay was not the guy going ”Come on! I got De Niro! I got you! We got a movie! Let’s go!” It was more like, ”Gee, I don’t know. It seems like a good idea, but let’s keep talking.” In hindsight, talk about a Machiavellian scheme to draw me in.
JAY ROACH: I don’t think it was strategy. I wanted them to know I was terrified. I’m really bad at faking.
Jay, the early buzz was that Jim Carrey would play the son-in-law, and the story was more a one-young-man show than a young-man-versus-old-man showdown. How did Bob and Ben get cast and change the focus?
ROACH: We locked on to Ben first. He plays a kind of earnestness mixed with anxiety I thought would be ideal for what I saw as a nightmare comedy. Ben has a worried look even when he’s being charming.
STILLER: The script needed a lot of work. There was all this broad stuff written for Jim Carrey. We did an initial read-through and even though we’d all kind of committed, it could have not happened.
ROACH: I got definitively hooked a little before [the first read-through], when we all had dinner. Bob started talking about research he was doing on polygraph guys for another film. He went into all this detail about the mythology of these guys who give these lie detector tests. And suddenly it clicked with the character Bob would play in our movie, this ex-CIA psychological profiler whose job was to root out moles and double agents. At that point, there was no lie detector scene in the script. But after hearing all this, I thought, Oh, this has to be in our movie. Now it’s become the central image of all the ads, the trailers, everything.