Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Robert Downey Jr. Agreed To Become Kirk Lazarus In Tropic Thunder Under One Condition

In 2008, Robert Downey Jr. took on a controversial role in the Ben Stiller film "Tropic Thunder." His character, the delusional and egotistical Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus, submits himself to an experimental pigment alteration surgery in preparation for an upcoming role as an African American in the film's in-universe movie of the same name. Even as a farce of Hollywood's rampant narcissism and racism, however, Downey's decision to play Lazarus is (and was) an incredibly controversial one, as it required him to spend nearly the entire movie in blackface.

Even so, the film's nature as a parody was enough to make Downey consider the role despite his doubts. "I started thinking 'this is a terrible idea,'" Downey said in an episode of "The Joe Rogan Experience" podcast (posted on YouTube). "And then I thought, 'Hold on dude, get real here. Where is your heart?' And my heart is: A) 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 are allowed to do."

Justifications aside, Downey still had doubts about playing Lazarus. Not only was he morally torn on the issue, but the thought "horrified" his mother and made some of his friends uneasy. In the end, Downey agreed to take the role under one condition: that he trust the vision of writer/director Ben Stiller.

Why Ben Stiller's vision convinced Downey to be in Tropic Thunder

Of all the things that convinced Downey to play Lazarus, Ben Stiller's creative control over "Tropic Thunder" played the largest role. Downey makes it clear how much respect he has for Stiller's artistry.

"[Ben] is a masterful artist and director, probably the closest thing to a Charlie Chaplin that I've experienced in my lifetime," Downey told Rogan. "He writes, he directs, he acts. If you had seen him when he was directing this movie, you would have been like, 'I'm watching David Lean. I'm watching Chaplin. I'm watching Coppola.' He knew exactly what the vision for this was. He executed it. It was impossible for it to not be an offensive nightmare of a movie."

It's fair to say that if Stiller hadn't been the one in control of this project, Downey might never have taken such a risky role. Even with all of Stiller's artistry, however, the movie was not impervious to criticism. Surprisingly, Downey felt like neither he nor his character received the brunt of it.

Ben Stiller's character in the film received more criticism

Downey's portrayal of Kirk Lazarus wasn't the only controversial role in "Tropic Thunder." Evidently, Stiller threw himself in the line of fire with his character, another actor who had played the in-universe role of a mentally disabled individual in another movie, called "Simple Jack."

"The funny thing was that all the heat got deflected to Ben and 'Simple Jack,'" Downey told Rogan during the 2020 podcast. "That's what people were pissed off about ... But you never know when it's gonna be your time in the barrel. Sometimes life just says, 'You're a symbol now.'"

Regardless of how viewers and critics felt about the wealth of controversial materials in "Tropic Thunder," however, Downey remains a dubious defender of its artistic intent. While he is open about the fact that he can't blame others for finding the film offensive, he personally "takes exception" because "'Tropic Thunder' was about how wrong that is."