The original 2001 Zoolander has gained cult-like status as a definitive movie for millennials, poking fun at the absurdities of the fashion industry with its dumb-but-well-meaning supermodel protagonist, Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller). After 15 years of waiting, fans rejoiced when it was announced that Derek and his enemy-turned-partner-in-crime Hansel (Owen Wilson) would return in a sequel to the beloved comedy. Zoolander 2 finds our favorite male models in Rome, once again trying to use their super-human beauty powers to enrich the fashion industry—and save all of the pretty pop stars of the world in the process.
Nathan Lee Graham plays Todd, the assistant to the clown-haired villain, Mugatu (Will Ferrell), and one-half of the most singular foamy latte scene you’ll ever watch. We got a chance to talk to the star about Stiller scouting him for the original movie, his opinions on LGBTQ controversy surrounding the film, and his favorite cameo in the sequel.
You have an extensive background in theater. Tell us how you got involved in the Zoolander movies and how your character, Todd, was created. NATHAN LEE GRAHAM: Well, it was really quite amazing how I became a part of the original Zoolander! Ben Stiller happened to be in the audience of my first Broadway show, The Wild Party, that I did with Mandy Patinkin, Toni Collette, and my idol and mentor, the late, great Eartha Kitt. This was the final performance on a Sunday matinee in June 2000. The very next day, Monday, my agent was called, I was told to wear something fashionable, I show up in Tribeca, I meet Ben, and he says, “Paramount is making a movie of a sketch I did on VH1 called ‘Zoolander.’ I have this character of Todd, we haven't written anything yet, I don't know what you'll be doing, do you want to do it?” I'm like, “Yeah, my show just closed yesterday!”
Zoolander has become a beloved cult classic in the years since its release. Why do you think this is? NLG: Wow, none of us ever thought this would happen. Not in a million years. I suppose it's resonated with people because—first and foremost—it's just silly, ridiculous, over-the-top fun. It could be playing at any moment anywhere and you can pick it up in whatever scene and immediately start laughing! Remember, also, this opened [two weeks after] September 11, so we needed to laugh at that point, eventually. Also, everyone loves fashion. I mean, we all have to wear clothes... well, most of us anyway!
What was it like filming this sequel after 15 years? NLG: Listen, as far as 15 years later is concerned, this is a miracle. I mean I'm glad we're all still alive for God's sake. And we all look the same, and we all get along.... Foamy lattes for everyone!
What is it like to work with all of these amazing talents? Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Benedict Cumberbatch—the list is endless! NLG: I'm working with some of the comedic geniuses of our time! I mean, Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, and Ben Stiller… this has been amazeballs! And everyone is kind and generous on and off the screen. We had such a ball shooting in Rome. I mean, it was like an out-of-body experience. Here we are, back together again, but in a foreign country and Sting walks into the makeup trailer and rests his hand on my shoulder and says, “Nice to see you.” What?! I mean have I been in a Zoolander time warp for the last 15 years, trying to perfect the perfect foamy latte. Cray-cray and fabulous!
So what was your favorite cameo? NLG: Kiefer Sutherland!
And do you have a favorite scene in the new movie? NLG: The latte scene because it’s just such a classic. We shot the first latte scene about 14 times. The second time around we were older and wiser so we perfected it down to six times. And there was also an upgrade—the first time I was wearing a 2xist white V-neck T-shirt with some lovely navy blue Calvin Klein leather pants. This time around strictly couture Givenchy and Comme des Garçons!
As a member of the LGBTQ community, how did you react to, or try to understand, the controversy surrounding Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, All, in Zoolander 2? NLG: I would never be a part of anything derogatory or offensive to the community and it’s important to understand the humor in it all. Benedict’s character isn’t trying to criticize the trans community because his character exists beyond gender. Fashion, as an industry, is slightly ridiculous to begin with, and at the end of the day, the movie is a comedy. Zoolander 2 celebrates everyone and excludes no one from their own expression. In the words of David Bowie: FASHION!