Interview: Robert Downey Jr. on His Acclaimed 'Tropic Thunder' Role

"I think it's funny and entertaining, and if it's done right it's not offensive"

Tropic Thunder
DreamWorks Pictures

In one of his most memorable roles, in 2008 Robert Downey Jr starred as a five-time Oscar-winner who goes to extreme lengths in order to star in an epic war movie in Tropic Thunder, an action comedy co-written and directed by Ben Stiller. To say Downey, hot off a starring turn in Iron Man, took a real chance playing Australian actor Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder is putting things mildly. As Lazarus, American actor Downey is playing a white Aussie actor who has his skin surgically dyed in order to take on the role of an African-American sergeant named Lincoln Osiris in what is supposed to be a war epic but goes horribly awry during production.

In 2008, Downey told About.com about this unique opportunity, which will likely never present itself again.

On Why the Role Was Introspective:

I'd be in makeup for a couple hours and they'd be setting up some big shot or whatever. I'd go back to my trailer and I'd close the door and I would lock it. I'd just look at myself in the mirror and I would talk to myself as the character and I swear to God, it was one of the most therapeutic [moments]. I'd look at myself and just be like, "You beautiful, man." And I would actually have this strange transcendent experience.

It could have maybe happened in other ways, like I've done other special effects jobs. Once I was covered in hair. That was different. That was like I was making peace with my beast, whatever, but this was an American guy who's an actor who's been raised in seeing the film industry become much more integrated, still living in an urban city that is largely, I'm realizing, segregated in a country that is verging on an opportunity of taking big leaps or taking steps to the side or backward.

Meanwhile, I'm an actor for hire and I make faces for cash and chicken, and I thought that this job could be really cool and funny and interesting. I loved it. Then it had to end because it had to end because it would be inappropriate if I was still black when the movie was over.

On Treading Carefully with Offensive Comedy:

I just know moment to moment, like we'd done this and Ben said, "What do you think of this?" And I said, "I think it's funny and entertaining, and if it's done right it's not offensive. But I don't know if the risk outweighs the reward," because the reward is that you make a comedy that people like and the risk is something so much more far reaching than that. But then I look at the whole movie as just so generally offensive, particularly… I'll just start out with myself. The idea that someone's "my process," and me when I think of myself as an artist and then I realize really all I'm doing is dressing up and running around or whatever.

On What Actors Inspired Lazarus:

When I was thinking about Kirk Lazarus, I was thinking about Colin Farrell. Particularly when I was standing out on the balcony with my d--k out and I also wanted to have a love child in my hand and a bottle. I just wanted this thing like, "How dare you look at this baby that I have with this woman you've never met?" That was my idea. But then I also love Daniel Day-Lewis a whole bunch and I've seen him when his beard was grown out and he was wearing weird sweaters and I was like, "That guy is crazy cool." And Russell Crowe is nuts and awesome and so gifted.

So I wasn't really thinking about any of them. Just like when I was thinking about Lincoln Osiris, it's not like I picked a guy and said, "Oh, that's who I'm going to…" I just thought more the energy of it. I think you get more energy if you're not specific.

How He Prepared for the Role:

[There] were two things. One is I said at one point, I didn't want to do this. I said at one point, "If he goes too far, it's good provided Brandon [T. Jackson who plays] Alpa Chino, gets to pull up the slack and say, 'Dude, you are so stereotyping yourself right now that I'm embarrassed for you and you wouldn't last a second in my neighborhood type thing.''' We shot versions of that. Before that I was thinking, and we were working on the scene, I said, "I think if my only reference is the guy that I'm playing, the white guy, for real black culture is a TV show, it shows that A) now I have never had any business even saying I understand the black experience because all I know is the theme song to a show." So Ben was like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait.

You want to what? All right, sing it, sing it, sing it." So I said, "No, I wouldn't sing it. I would say it, like when we're in an embrace and he tries to hit me and I slap him."

Originally, Brandon helped us a lot with these scenes. He was like, "You can't call me, I can call you that, you can't call me." And I was like, "I know." He goes, "Well, that's easy. Just take your name off there and put it here." But if we had shot it a different way…you know what I mean? There's so many ways that in the blink of an eye it could have been wrong.

Working With Actor-Producer-Writer-Director Ben Stiller:

Even just the first day of shooting, everybody went home and said, "He's a monster. This is going to be absolutely impossible." And then we realized as we were going along that what he is is he's a leader. And he is an artist and he's probably as capable in every single department that he was hiring people to be heads of department as the heads of department he had hired them to be. In other words, he probably could have shot this movie. He probably could have costume designed and production designed the movie. He probably could have done the transportation.

[Stiller] had this relentless pursuit, which I think is half the reason the movie turned out as well as it did. Now, if I was directing the movie, it wouldn't have turned out so well because I would have been like, "It's really hot. I think that was funny. It's raining. We gotta make the day. I'm not going to get all you people mad at me by saying we have to do this 300 times," and then go in for coverage.

Like, we would shoot a scene for three days and I'd be like, "We got it!" And he'd be like, "All right, now let's get the coverage." And I'm like, "Wait a minute, we don't have anything yet?" Crazy.

On Messing With Ben Stiller:

My conditions were special effects makeup. Meaning they'd do this great job and I'd say, "Oh my God, we did it again, I'm a beautiful black man. It'll be a really fun day." And I start doing the voice and then I'd have a little breakfast and people will walk by the trailer and I'd just say exactly, like it was an excuse to be as honest as I wanted because Robert Downey, Jr. was a character, but really I was just kind of reading everyone's beads and I was talking s--t to Ben as the character, saying what everyone else was thinking, just crazy stuff.

I would say in his voice, I promised myself I wouldn't do the Lincoln Osiris voice even though I desperately want to - that's not appropriate because that time's come and gone - so I would say, "Welcome to Ben Stiller's Comedy Death Camp." I would proclaim to everyone, "Isn't it good to be on his comedy gulag?"

On his Second Iron Man Movie:

I'm stoked. I'm into it. I'm excited to do another Iron Man right.

We're kind of building it from the ground up but I also have to let go because there's an aspect, particularly after the success of things, I noticed my narcissism got dialed up. Suddenly, for a minute, I felt like everyone needed to take a knee and listen to what I had to say because I f--kin' made it and my way works and all this stuff.

I could tell when I'm looking around the room or in a script meeting when Jon [Favreau's] looking at me like, "All right, he's being really hurtful right now. I gotta be the bigger person." Then I go home and I go, "Oh my God, what's happening to me? I gotta get grounded here." Because there's a tendency to start, because if something's unrequited for a long time and then you achieve it, that hurt or the feelings associated with it, they'll hijack your head and you'll start… It's weird.

Edited by Christopher McKittrick