It’s fairly well known that in Tropic Thunder (Dreamamount, 8.13), Robert Downey, Jr. plays an extremely pretentious, Oscar-winning actor named Kirk Lazarus who decides to not just “play” a black guy but almost literally become one by changing his skin color and other physical attributes. One result has been is that some of the African-American “slow kids” have taken offense at his performance. Here’s an mp3 of Downey explaining the thinking behind the role, the genesis of it, and so on at today’s Tropic Thunder press junket.
Four Seasons hotel, 2nd floor, 11:20 am
A journalist at the round table actually asked Downey “how is this performance different from 19th Century blackface?” Downey said, “Well, first it’s entertainment set up by people who are high minded enough so the film won’t be racist or offensive. Second, the whole film is based on the idea that what [our characters] do on some level is offensive and who we are on some level is despicable and pathetic. Which is the truth and not the truth. But the part of it that’s the truth is entertaining. How far-reaching can someone’s narcissism go?”
Before accepting the Lazarus role, Downey sifted it all through. “You check your gut and ask, you know, do I feel like the universe is going to support this?” Going into a standup riff, he said that “for a moment I was thinking ‘fuck Ben Stiller…[here is coming to me saying] I want to do a great big movie with you, but I want you to have the highest risk factor and I want to maybe put you up for ridicule and have people, like, hate you for something you should have known was fucking wrong to do.
“We were in rehearsal and I said, if Kirk Lazarus has himself unde the imropession that he’s black but he’s coming up against an emotional interface with a black man….what’s entertaining about this? Just about nothing. So I said, the only thing he knows about black culture as an Australian…is what everybody who doesn’t know anything about black culture but has put themselves under the impression that they know, is that he knows some stuff from some shows…from the ’70s.” He meant The Jeffersons, characters in Across 110th Street, Isaac Hayes.
Downey also indicated his political leanings. To men, anyway. “I’m not a political person by design, but where we’re at as a country, which is often where things are on a global scale…we’re on a precipice where there can be a lot of healing and advancement or things can…out of fear or design or negligence, things can kind of go in a lousy way or stay stuck…and that’s kind of on the menu for the next few months.”
Again — here’s my recording of Downey’s chit-chat