Why Robert Downey Jr. put on blackface for Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder

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      It’s hard to believe that in 2008 a filmmaker would decide to hire a white actor to play an African American. However, director Ben Stiller liked his Tropic Thunder cowriter Justin Theroux’s idea enough to keep it in the film. Then he went out to find someone to play an actor who had made a conscious choice to don blackface for a movie.

      (The plot follows modern movie stars who get lost in the jungle while shooting a Vietnam War film and end up being attacked by Vietnamese drug dealers. It opens August 13.)

      He chose Robert Downey Jr. who admits, in a Los Angeles hotel room, that there were many complications in playing the role of Australian actor Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Oscar winner who takes method acting to another level.

      “Ben [Stiller] said, ”˜It needs to be done right because the risks are far greater than the rewards. The reward is that you make a comedy that people like and the risk is much more far reaching.’” Downey Jr. says.

      “There were times when I went back to my trailer and looked at myself [in blackface] in the mirror and just talked to myself as the character. I found that to be very therapeutic. Here I was an American guy who has been raised in a time when the film industry has been integrated but is living in a city [Los Angeles] that is still segregated in a country that is on the verge of an opportunity to take big leaps.

      “Meanwhile, I am an actor who makes faces for cash and chicken. I thought this job could be really cool and funny but I had a lot of concerns.”

      To balance the concept of Downey Jr. playing a white actor playing a black soldier, Stiller and Theroux wrote an African American soldier into the script. Stiller gave actor Brandon T. Jackson the job of making the audience feel less uncomfortable and Downey Jr. says that when he saw Jackson’s lines in the script, he felt better about his own role.

      “They had him saying things to my character like, ”˜Dude you are so stereotyping yourself’ and ”˜I am so embarrassed for you’ and ”˜You wouldn’t last a minute in my neighbourhood.’” Downey Jr. relates.