‘Tropic Thunder’: Q&A with Robert Downey Jr.

You’ve seen the Tropic Thunder trailer and heard about Robert Downey Jr. controversial comedic role in the film as an Oscar winning actor playing a black soldier in big budget war movie. Now, hear what Downey has to say about the risky role everyone’s buzzing about. 


Hollywood.com: What was it like playing this character? 

Robert Downey Jr:

There were times…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…but this was an American guy (referring to himself) 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.

HW: How serious is that element of the story to you or am I reading too much into it?


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.

HW: Did you have fun making fun of Russell Crowe?


I love Russell Crowe.

HW: Will you send him a gift basket and hope he doesn’t beat you up?


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…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.

HW: How do you prepare?


I said at one point, “If he goes too far, it’s good provided Brandon [Jackson], 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.'”

HW: What were the shooting conditions like in Hawaii ?


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 shit to Ben as the character, saying what everyone else was thinking, just crazy stuff.

HW: What was the most honest thing you said?


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?”

HW: What was it like having Ben Stiller as a director?


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.

HW: Have you ever collared up some greens like your character?


I would like to. I would like to consider myself a culinary experimenter.

HW: Do you struggle with dropping character?


No. I want to get back to that collar up some greens stuff…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…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… 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!”

HW: How did let go of this character?


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.

HW: You had a good phone voice?


That’s no one’s business. 

Tropic Thunder opens in theaters Aug. 13, 2008