Robert Downey Jr. reignited his career with the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008 with Iron Man. Still, the same year also sparked controversy with his role in Ben Stiller’s Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder.
In the film, Downey Jr. plays Kirk Lazarus, an Australian method actor who undergoes pigmentation alteration surgery to darken his skin to play a black character in a war movie. The decision to have Downey Jr. appear in blackface for the majority of the film has continued to spark debate and court controversy for 12 years and counting. Downey Jr. reflects on the casting on an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Mother Was Terrified
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When Ben Stiller called Robert Downey Jr. and offered him the role, the actor initially thought it would be a great opportunity to take on after his role in Iron Man. However, as he began to delve deeper into the character, Downey Jr. began to have second thoughts about the decision. He realized that it could potentially be a “terrible idea.” Despite this, he ultimately decided to take on the role and court controversy for over a decade.
“My mother was horrified. When Ben called and said, ‘Hey I’m doing this thing’…I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that and I’ll do that after Iron Man.’ Then I started thinking, ‘This is a terrible idea, wait a minute.’ Then I thought, ‘Well hold on dude, get real here, where is your heart? My heart is…I get to be black for a summer in my mind, so there’s something in it for me. The other thing is, I get to hold up to nature the insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion, just my opinion.”
Downey Jr. argued that the film intended to satirize the practice of blackface and the hypocrisy of actors who partake in it. Tropic Thunder received positive reviews for its scathing commentary on Hollywood but also raised eyebrows with its blackface and drew criticism for its depiction of people with mental disabilities.
Nightmare of A Movie
Downey Jr. stated that the director knew exactly what the vision for the movie was and executed it, making it impossible for it not to be an “offensive nightmare of a movie.” However, he added that 90% of his black friends said it was great, but he couldn’t disagree with the other 10% and knew where his heart lay.
“[Ben] knew exactly what the vision for this was, he executed it, it was impossible to not have it be an offensive nightmare of a movie. And 90 per cent of my black friends were like, ‘Dude, that was great.’ I can’t disagree with [the other 10 per cent], but I know where my heart lies.”
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Downey Jr. acknowledged that the decision to play a character in blackface in Tropic Thunder was a mistake but argued that the film’s overall message was about the wrongness of such actions. He stated that having a strong moral compass is important and that sometimes individuals must own up to their mistakes. He also added that he believed the film “blasted the cap” on the issue and that the film was meant to critique the use of blackface.
“I think that it’s never an excuse to do something that’s out of place and out of its time, but to me it blasted the cap on [the issue]. I think having a moral psychology is job one. Sometimes, you just gotta go, ‘Yeah I effed up.’ In my defense, ‘Tropic Thunder’ is about how wrong [blackface] is, so I take exception.”
Despite the mixed reactions from his friends and associates, Downey ultimately decided to take on the role and poured his heart and soul into the character of Kirk Lazarus. The result was a critically-acclaimed performance that earned him an Oscar nomination and solidified his status as one of Hollywood’s most talented actors.
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While some may agree with Downey Jr.’s defense of the role, the controversy surrounding blackface and its use of it in entertainment continues to be a contentious issue. As the industry continues to navigate and reckon with its past, it remains to be seen how Hollywood will handle similar situations in the future.
Source: Joe Rogan Experience | Youtube