We’ve already seen Robert Downey Jr. in one of the summer’s biggest blockbuster smash hits and now the Iron Man star gives another stellar performance in Paramount Pictures’ outrageous and raunchy comedy, Tropic Thunder, co-starring Ben Stiller and Jack Black. Downey plays Kirk Lazurus, an Australian five-time Oscar-winning movie star whose next project is a big budget war film in which he portrays a black Vietnam solider. The director (Steve Coogan) of the film can’t get his A-list celeb cast in check so he sends them into the jungle to teach them a lesson, however they end up having to really defend themselves when they run into a drug smuggling operation.
Q: How does it feel to be a huge star now? Robert Downey Jr.: You tell me. How does it feel?
Q: How would I know? Downey Jr.: How would you feel?
Q: Excited. Downey Jr.: Okay, I’m excited. I don’t want any trouble.
Q: I’d be scared. Downey Jr.: You would? More scared than if your superhero movie had come out and tanked? I’m just saying, I’m giving you a little counterpoint.
Q: How do you like having pigmentation? Downey Jr.: Listen
Q: Did you take it out for a test spin? Downey Jr.: No, why would I? See, I’m not an idiot, I don’t think, lately. There was times I’d be, I’d go through, 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… 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 interested. But to answer your question, 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.
Q: How serious is that element of the story to you? Downey Jr.: I don’t know. I’m a little retarded. I’m not very evolved when it comes to big picture stuff. I just know moment to moment, like we’d done this and Ben [Stiller]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 which is 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.
Q: And making fun of Russell Crowe? Downey Jr.: I love Russell Crowe.
Q: Will you send him a gift basket and hope he doesn’t beat you up? Downey Jr.: First of all I’m not going to make any threats. I can take care of myself. Second of all, I love Russell Crowe. Third of all, 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*ck 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.
Q: How do you prepare? Downey Jr.: Those were the 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, 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? Alright, sing it, sing it, sing it.” So I said, “No, I wouldn’t sing it. I would say it, like when we’re in a brace and he tries to hit me and I slap him.” Because 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.” There’s so many ways that in the blink of an eye it could have been wrong.
Q: Why did you stay in character if you’re making fun of that process? Downey Jr.: Because that’s the conceit of the movie. The conceit of the movie is the character does that. I didn’t stay in character when we were shooting.
Q: Brandon says you did sometimes. Downey Jr.: Sometimes. Sometimes doesn’t mean did. Like someone is kinda pregnant.
Q: What was it like being directed by Ben? Downey Jr.: 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. I mean, he probably could have done…
Q: He’s hands on? Downey Jr.: Yeah. And he 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, “Alright, now let’s get the coverage.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute, we don’t have anything yet.” Crazy.
Q: Shooting in those conditions? Downey Jr.: 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 sh*t to Ben as the character, saying what everyone else was thinking, just crazy stuff.
Q: What was the most honest thing you said? Downey Jr.: Oh, I said, 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?”
Q: Have you ever had a hard time losing a character? Downey Jr.: No. I want to get back to that collar up some greens stuff because I was thinking, alright, they say they’re going to break and make camp and I say, “So, what sort of really wrong stereotype?” And I did it like I’d done everything else, like naturalistically and I was like, “That’s’ not right” and then Ben, it was the last day of shooting, and Brandon’s like, “Man, come on. Just make it really two dimensional. Just really embarrass yourself.” And I was like, I don’t, like I could embarrass myself any more than I had already. And I just started going really broad with it and it felt really like ill and toxic. Then he came down and came in at the end of the scene and basically told me that he understood why I was such a loser. Then later on we have this scene where I slap him in the movie and then I said, “Well, he’s got to slap me back” and he says, “I’ll tag you back.” So later on we had the scene, so we’re on this rock and now we’re back on the stages and I’m doing this thing and Ben’s like, “Slap him again, slap him again.” I was like, “I get it, I get it.” Now I’m in black makeup being slapped by a black guy for playing a black guy in the movie. And I was just like, it was like take 37 and Brandon was just like, “You good? You good? You good, right.” [SLAP!] I was like down, so then I said in the voice, like “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He goes, “No, no, it’s okay.” [SLAP!] Pretty soon my wig was off and my hair was showing and my head was ringing and I was like, “Dude ” And Ben’s like, “Action, do it again!” I was like, “The wig is off.” He goes, “Doesn’t matter!”
Q: How excited are you to do another “Iron Man”? Downey Jr.: I’m stoked. I’m into it. I’m excited to do another “Iron Man” right.
Q: Did you get Justin the job? Downey Jr.: Yes.
Q: Why was it? Downey Jr.: Because this is a really complex movie and there’s a lot of moving parts and there’s a lot of things that had to be executed in a particular way and he’s a great partner in that endeavor. Ben obviously had a lot to do with getting the script right too.
Q: So much of what made “Iron Man” work was your contributions to each scene. Are you having a hand in developing the script? Downey Jr.: Yeah, 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*ckin’ 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’s looking at me like, “Alright, 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.
Q: How did you de-black? Downey Jr.: I had to let go. I didn’t de-black, just we stopped shooting. Then [my wife] Susan said, “You know, we’re done now and I know you’ve been calling me at night and talking to me as this and it was really sexy, but now if you were still doing it ” I was like, “I know, it’d be weird so I gotta stop.” So, you know. So I had to stop.
Q: You had a good phone voice? Downey Jr.: That’s no one’s business.
Q: You should do ringtones. Downey Jr.: Yeah? This is one of my greatest achievements. “Iron Man” came out and I’d gone in for all these things, like, “Chevy, an American revolution.” They’re like, “No Robert, can you do it, like hit the third word?” I was like, “God ” People had said you have a good voice and you could do radio or voiceovers and I’d go in for all these jobs and they’d be like, “What’s Robert Downey Jr. doing here for a Nissan commercial? Well, he’s no good anyway.” Then finally I got to be the voice of the new iPhone so that was a big moment for me.