From the EW archives: Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, and Jack Black riff on Tropic Thunder
The trio of stars talk about about reaching the heart of darkness — and ridiculousness! — on the set of their jungle-set action comedy
Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder hit theaters on Aug 13, 2008 and appeared on the cover of EW that same week. Check out the whole cover story interview with Stiller and his co-stars Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. below.
The summer’s unlikeliest superstar enters the room carrying a black case full of herbs. No, not those kinds of herbs — those days are long past now. These are the kind you pick up in a health-food store. ”My nutrients,” Robert Downey Jr. explains, settling into a chair in a suite in Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons hotel. He opens the case, pops some type of nutritional supplement into his mouth, and then pulls out a pack of cigarettes. Ben Stiller shoots him a wry look. ”Do you see the contradictions?” Stiller asks. ”Is there a syringe in there, too?” Jack Black flops onto a couch and erupts with laughter.
The three amigos — who have honed their comedic rapport over the past few months with bits on the American Idol finale and at the MTV Movie Awards — are here to discuss their action comedy, Tropic Thunder, a deliriously satirical smashup of Platoon and The Player about a big-budget war movie gone horribly awry. Directed and co-written by Stiller, the film chronicles the misadventures of a group of self-absorbed actors who, while attempting to film a Vietnam epic, inadvertently stumble into a real-life battle with a heroin cartel. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a dim-witted action star. Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a drug-addled comedian best known for his highly flatulent Fatties franchise. And, in a high-wire performance that tests the limits of some racial taboos, Downey is Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar-winning Method actor who undergoes a skin-darkening procedure to play the black Sgt. Lincoln Osiris — and then clashes on the set with his African-American costar, rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). Rounding out the cast is a nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise, who makes a startling cameo as a profane studio exec.
Though hardly as troubled as the production it lampoons, Thunder, which opens Aug. 13, still took years to reach the screen and nearly stepped on a few land mines along the way. Stiller — directing his first film since 2001’s Zoolander — cooked up the premise way back in 1987. But it would take years of on-and-off work with collaborators Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen to get the screenplay into fighting shape. ”It was one of those projects that was like, Are we ever going to make this movie?” Stiller says. Once shooting finally began last summer in Hawaii, the film quickly hit a snag. Owen Wilson, who’d been cast as a slick Hollywood agent, dropped out following an apparent suicide attempt. Within weeks, Stiller (who had earlier considered casting Keanu Reeves in his role of Speedman and playing the agent himself) hired Matthew McConaughey to take Wilson’s place. With a budget reported to be north of $90 million, Thunder could be the most expensive R-rated comedy ever — and Stiller commanded the shoot with the discipline of a drill sergeant. ”Ben is a stern dude,” says costar Nick Nolte. ”When he gets stern, everyone picks it up a notch.”
War is hell, and comedy ain’t a cakewalk either. Put them together and it’s a wonder Stiller, Black, and Downey survived to tell the tale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This movie mercilessly ridicules the self-important aspects of acting. Ben, you were telling me earlier that there’s nothing actors love more than to sit around telling stories about other actors behaving like jerks.
JACK BLACK: But not in an interview!
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Literally, I once heard an actor say, ”This whole process — us trying to shoot this scene — this is garbage. We need to put on animal masks and get primal with each other, and then we’ll understand who really has the status in this scene. I’ve got the masks.”
BEN STILLER: Wow.
DOWNEY: I remember looking at this dude and going, ”You brought animal masks? You honestly think your, like, improv summer-stock idea is going to break it open for me? We’ve got money on the line. I’m not going to put on rabbit ears and figure out who’s king of the forest.”
STILLER: I remember being in a car scene with a jaded actor who pulled out a flask: “It’s 4 o’clock. Time for a little nip.”
DOWNEY: [To Stiller] But you’ve never worked drunk or loaded?
STILLER: Um, no.
STILLER: I haven’t! Just out of fear of screwing up.
BLACK: No. I had an improv class in high school and I came stoned one time. And I was so paranoid that I never tried to f— with it again. I marvel at some people’s ability to party and then act. I’m not built that way. [Pauses] But what blows me away is how quickly someone who’s new to the industry can go from being, like [breathlessly], “Whoa, what? I have my own trailer?! Oh my God, you guys, this is insane!” to [smugly] “But I deserve it. And actually now I expect it.” The transition into the spoiled actor happens really fast. That’s why you hear about a lot of actors who live on a farm out in the middle of the country to shield themselves, so they can stay grounded. But that’s it’s own kind of spoiledness too.
STILLER: I was directing an actress once who was taking a nap on the set and I had to gingerly wake her up. [Whispering] “We have to film now.” “But I’m so tired.” “I know, but everyone’s here and we’re ready to do the scene.”
BLACK: There is an infantilization that happens to actors. I had to catch myself a couple of times while we were making this movie from falling into the trap of being the character. I got a really bad sunburn on the very first day of rehearsals, and I was so mad and I really wanted to blame someone besides myself for not putting sunblock on.
STILLER: “How could you not tell me how strong the sun was going to be?!”
EW: You’re also each playing with the audience’s perceptions of you. Jack, in some nightmare alternate universe, you actually could be starring in The Fatties: Fart 2.
BLACK: Not even alternate. I have done lots of farting in movies. And I’ve been fat in almost all of my movies. So it’s very close to home. I don’t know where Ben would have gone if I didn’t do the role. He would’ve had to rewrite it.
STILLER: You were dream casting.
BLACK: Or you would’ve had to get some fresh-faced new guy. And I couldn’t let that happen because it would have been someone making fun of me who wasn’t me. So I had to do it to bring some grace and elevate it. In my own defense, though, I haven’t done any movies that center around a farting character. That’s when I hit rock bottom: when it’s all about my character’s flatulence. That could be coming, though, because I get the feeling people would go see that movie.
EW: Robert, your character, with his over-the-top adherence to Method acting, has definite echoes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Russell Crowe.
DOWNEY: There’s a little Colin Farrell in there, too.
EW: But were you also consciously playing around with your own image?
DOWNEY: Well, I realized that the justifications [my character] made in the movie as a joke are exactly how I operate. Like, I really can complain about a script I haven’t read. [Laughs]
EW: With the power you’ve gained this year, that could be dangerous.
DOWNEY: I don’t have power. I have the possibility of power. [Points to Stiller] He has power.
STILLER: [Shrugs] I don’t know what that means…. I got to sit behind Downey at the Iron Manpremiere and watch the back of his head while it all unfolded.
DOWNEY: Did you see me squeezing [my wife] Susan’s hand going, “Yes! Look at me!”?
EW: Did you all have a sense during the Tropic Thunder shoot of how huge Iron Man might be?
STILLER:Robert was talking about it way early on. All this “I’m Iron Man.” [Dismissively] Whatever.
DOWNEY: Then I showed them four minutes of cut footage from Comic-Con and they realized who they were f—ing with.
EW: Ben, by all accounts you really push your actors hard as a director.
STILLER: The thing is, these are genius actor guys, but they do go off on their own little… You have to corral them. But you’re right, I would look back on the footage and I’d go, like, This was a little excessive.
DOWNEY: But it worked. I believed in your vision! Ben would be over there setting up a shot, and he’d be sipping his Smartwater and they’d bring over these 35-pound weights and he’d be lifting them while he was watching the monitor. His arms would get so big, and he’d be looking really formidable. I’ve never seen you like that.
STILLER: You obviously had a gay crush on me.
DOWNEY: Dude, you were crazy butch. But more than your physical rawness, it was just your obsessive drive to mastery. That’s how you got us all. Because we would have mutinied. We would have torn you to bits.
EW: Robert, what went through your mind when you first got hit with the idea of playing a character in blackface?
DOWNEY: I felt like, I want to work with Ben and Jack, but my way into the movie is I’ve got to be tarred and feathered for three months and maybe have my reputation destroyed. That was my fear. And then we started doing makeup tests, and it was like Mr. Potato Face: “Can we take that wig off and put these teeth in? Now put this on. Now put that on.” But by the time we were finally in rehearsals, I knew I had it.
BLACK: I thought he looked like Lando Calrissian.
EW: The challenge with that character was to find the right line. You want to make fun of this pompous actor, but if you play it wrong, it verges on being minstrel-like. Your costar Brandon T. Jackson told me there was a scene in the script where Osiris uses the N-word and that he said it went over the line.
DOWNEY: Brandon might have saved the movie that day.
STILLER: For sure. We were rehearsing in Hawaii and we got to that scene and I said to him, “What do you think of this?” Brandon said, “This feels wrong.” It was definitely a constant process of feeling it out. But [in general] what Robert was doing was so genuine and funny, it felt okay. I didn’t know if it would feel okay when we saw the movie, but it felt like he was in a groove, and this character was just really likable and enjoyable. Robert couldn’t be tentative about it, though. He had to commit fully to this guy.
BLACK: I remember when we were doing the big opening shot, I had a thing in my ear so I could hear what was going on for cues, because I’m suspended from a helicopter. And I heard Downey go to the bathroom. I could hear the whole thing. And he stayed in character talking to himself. He peed in character!
STILLER: I got so used to seeing him as Osiris, it was just, like, a different person. [Pause] And I kind of liked that guy better in a weird way.
DOWNEY: [Nodding] I do too. I have not been the same since.
EW: The other big issue you had to crack was, How do you make a movie satirizing Hollywood that isn’t too inside for general audiences?
DOWNEY: Sixteen years ago The Player was inside. Nowadays in the information age, with how much more people know about the workings of movies, it’s different.
STILLER: It’s because of your magazine. I don’t know, though. At the end of the day you can’t make a movie for everybody. You have to make something you think is funny without being too indulgent.
EW: One thing you all have in common is a total lack of inhibition about putting yourselves in potentially embarrassing situations on screen. Do you have a high tolerance for humiliation or is it something you can tap into just in your work?
DOWNEY: I have been so wantonly, flagrantly humiliated [in my personal life] that anything that could happen as a result of a movie doesn’t even register.
STILLER: [To Downey] Does that give you more fearlessness working — because you’re just, like, Who gives a s—?
DOWNEY: It’s pretty effective.
BLACK: Look, humiliation hurts. So on the one hand, you have the pain of humiliation. But on the other, you have the delicious guava nectar of laughter. You have to balance it out: How much of this are you willing to endure to get that? Certain people have that thing where they need that guava so badly they’d do anything for it.
DOWNEY: Ben? Humiliation?
STILLER: Yeah, it’s definitely been a part of my career. We’ve all gone for that guava. But I don’t know if anybody has a high tolerance for it personally or enjoys it.
DOWNEY: [Shrugs] I do. I like it.
EW: Last question: What’s Tropic Thunder 2 going to be?
BLACK: [Pauses, then stabs a finger in the air] Arctic Lightning! It’s the opposite of “tropic”: arctic. You twist it. You flip it.
STILLER: [Laughs] What, like the guys get sent up to the North Pole to do a Thing type of movie?
EW: Or to make a movie of the Ernest Shackleton story, maybe.
STILLER: Yeah, the Shackleton story!
BLACK: Oh my God, that’s a great idea.
DOWNEY: Would I actually be playing an Arctic animal then? Like, a narwhal?
BLACK: [Shaking his head] But you can’t really do a sequel to this.
STILLER: Yeah, you can’t on this one.
DOWNEY: [Smiling mischievously] Hold on. Let’s see the numbers. If the numbers come in like we’re expecting, we can at least talk about it.