Feature: The Cast of Tropic Thunder Speaks
Wed, 13 Aug 2008 14:37:07
If Hollywood has a fatal flaw, it’s that the town, and its cog-driven movie making industry in particular, are bloated with self-importance. Stories of actors making ridiculous on set demands, believing themselves entitled to privileged treatment, and productions which spin wildly out of control, over schedule, and over budget as a result, are common fodder for salacious tabloid reports. Drop a handful of egos into the middle of the jungle to shoot an action film, throw in one incompetent director, an overseas narcotics operation, and things that go “Boom!” and you’ve got an avowed recipe for disaster, as the principals of Ben Stiller’s film-within-a-film quickly discover. Tropic Thunder is an over the top lampoon of big budget filmmaking, taking shots at familiar Tinseltown conceits like narcissistic thespians, formulaic approaches to garnering critical acclaim, and sleazy agents, among several other industry traits. Stiller, who did double duty behind and in front of the camera, conceived of the story over 20 years ago, during which time he observed a laughable degree of self-involvement from certain young contemporaries. Stiller and his cohorts drew from personal experience to craft what became Tropic Thunder.
“[Our industry experiences were] what we were pulling [from], really—our images of people and the reality behind stuff and also the ridiculousness of it,” says Stiller. “It’s about the dichotomy of being in movies and being an actor, how people can take themselves too seriously, how people take movies very seriously, and how that culture takes over sometimes in our lives and these actors lose their way a little bit. I never knew if it would be relatable to anybody, but I knew, for us, it was very much about stuff that we were familiar with.”
The egomaniacal actor archetype is hardly new, but here it is lampooned to a ridiculous degree by Robert Downey Jr., who plays a huffy Australian thesp so dedicated to his craft that he undergoes pigmentation treatment to play a black army sergeant. Downey’s performance is garnering attention not only because he appears in blackface, but also because he alludes to certain real life public figures in his portrayal.
“When I was thinking about Kirk Lazarus, I was thinking about Colin Farrell and I was thinking about Daniel Day-Lewis and I was thinking about Russell Crowe. Whoever was the most effective tool [at any given moment], I would use,” says Downey.
Co-writer Etan Cohen, however, is more elusive when speaking about which individuals informed the Lazarus character, saying, “There are elements from recognizable actors who are in all of this. But it’s certainly not any one [person], even though [Russell Crowe] is an easy one to peg it to. It’s not based on him. It’s based on a ‘Greatest Hits of Hollywood Douchebaggery’ compounded into this guy.”
Cohen also addressed the controversy associated with Downey’s outward appearance in the film, which has incited the ire of certain critics, some of whom have yet to screen the movie. Lazarus was carefully crafted and written, ultimately intended to function as a human commentary on Hollywood’s skewed hierarchy. Says Cohen, “I actually saw in a chat room people saying, ‘There was one good part for a black man in this movie, and they gave it to Robert Downey Jr.’ I was like, ‘Yes, that is exactly the point [laughs]!’”
While the personalities portrayed in Tropic Thunder are accused of making production troublesome, to put it mildly, shooting was much more pleasant for the quintet of movie stars who united under Stiller’s direction. When asked whether any of his cast members were prone to diva-like outbursts, he was quick to refute any accusations of the sort.
“Nobody was a diva on this movie, thankfully, because we wouldn’t have been able to make it…Everybody sort of banded together,” Stiller says.
With its five primary comedians (a “brodeo” of male energy, as described by Jack Black) placed in such close quarters for the duration of shooting, improvisation played a large role in translating the material that Stiller, Coen, and Justin Theroux wrote to screen. Longtime Judd Apatow collaborator and up-and-comer Jay Baruchel describes the on set philosophy as such: “Let the camera roll and have everyone contribute and basically subscribe to comedic Darwinism, which is, say whatever you want as long as it works, and it better be funny.”
Black stops short of stating that an improvisation free for all took place among the actors, though it certainly played a large part in his approach to portraying drug-addled megastar Jeff Portnoy.
“I was sticking to the script for the most part, but you’ve got to tweak it and put it into your own words as the takes go on just to keep it fresh,” explains Black, “Part of my technique is getting stuff in there that’s just off the top of the head, the stuff that makes it fresh and fun.”
“Ben is the ultimate actor’s director. He allows you the freedom to explore.”
Black further explained that it was Stiller’s direction that made exploring different comedic avenues easy and enjoyable, stating, “Ben is the ultimate actor’s director. He allows you the freedom to explore—improvisations and stuff—but he also understands how to keep the flow moving. If you do a scene and a shot, it’s very disruptive to do the shot, say “Cut!” and then come over and for five minutes, talk about what you did wrong or what could be better. He doesn’t do that. He’ll do a shot and he’ll keep it rolling and say, “Do it again!”, and he’ll just do it again. Because you know as an actor what didn’t feel right and what you want to do to make [it] better. He’ll do it 15, 20 times, sometimes, in a row without cutting. You get to some really good funny places that way.”
Provided the glowing comments that his stars were showering him with, it’s clear that Stiller is the antithesis of a vision-imposing auteur, the furthest thing from a directorial diva. However, Stiller did reference one movie star demand that plays an integral role in Tropic Thunder.
“I will not work without TiVO,” he joked at press time.