If you dare to stare hard enough into the heart of darkness and cross a thin red line to join a platoon of foolhardy souls willing to don full metal jackets and head back into the jungle, then you may just be man enough to watch Tropic Thunder... Or you may just be fan enough of epic comedy to enjoy a wartime movie satire featuring an all-star cast including Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Tom Cruise, Nick Nolte and Mr. Iron Man himself, Robert Downey, Jr. The insider tip is that Downey's performance as the maniacally committed Aussie method actor Kirk Lazarus may well be worth the price of admission all by itself, so Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down with the man himself in Hollywood, CA to talk about the darkness that lurks in the heart of men. Oh, and how fun it was to make this movie.
Emmanuel Itier: When Austrailia was mentioned today, you didn’t get a good look on your face.
Robert Downey, Jr.: I love Australia. We did our world tour and that was my favorite place!
EI: For that last movie?
RDJ: “That last movie.” A little family movie called f***ing Iron Man. [Laughs]
EI: What is that? [Points to something on the table]
RDJ: I don’t know. [Laughs] Just things I need.
RDJ: Well, as evidenced by the branding on the front. I don’t know. My groomer ordered something and I said I’ll have one of those. So it’s whatever he got… I can get him in here or we can talk about the movie... [Laughs]
EI: How are people responding to the satirical aspects of your character?
RDJ: Sometimes I find out more when I’m doing press on something, because that’s the time for inner thoughts and to be retrospective. So the feedback I’m getting is overwhelmingly that it’s entertaining and well done — not offensive and all that. It felt that it was something dangerous and risky but executed in a way that wasn’t embarrassing or inappropriate for the audience. I don’t really think anything should be above satire.
EI: Paul Robeson comes to mind. Did you have anyone in mind when you portrayed the “black” side of your character?
RDJ: I actually didn’t, no. I love Paul Robeson. The only reason I thought Kirk Lazarus should be Australian was because the first trailer — where Kirk Lazarus is playing an Irish guy — I thought, “What kind of stretch is it for an Irish guy to play an Irish guy?” So that’s kind of how that came about. And then I was thinking about people I’ve admired and seen throughout the ages who aren’t American like Colin Farrell or Daniel Day-Lewis or Russell Crowe. And then there’s an older group of people. So I guess the great thing is that it’s open to interpretation. I honestly didn’t really start with an idea in my head. I think you get more that way.
EI: Do you use 'method acting' yourself?
RDJ: I guess so. Method acting is a blanket statement. There’s no kind of acting that isn’t method acting. Even not having a method is a method of sorts. Mine is just really streamlined, which is I’ll just take what works. And what works for one part doesn’t work for another. What works one day doesn’t work the next. But I love both. I learned so much about externalization from Richard Attenborough, by the end of Chaplin, if he said I need a tear, I could ask, “Out of which eye?” [Laughs] And he could tell me.
EI: Speaking of Chaplin, you recently suggested that Ben Stiller was a successor of the Chaplin legacy…
RDJ: I don’t want to set him up to have to deal with repercussions of that. I’m just saying, from what I heard about people who worked with Chaplin, at the time of my experience working with Ben, it struck me at a certain point that I was seeing somebody work the same way he did. Very exacting and very free. So there was all this drive toward looking for something really subtle, and it could be maddening to people around him, but obvious when it was achieved.
EI: In reference to a line you said to Ben Stiller on MTV…
RDJ: [Laughs] The funny thing is we were doing all these bits, and we were doing advance press and we were bringing a range to Tropic Thunder. So whenever we were doing it, I would automatically come out with it. My character of Robert Downey, Jr. was the person who was: “Screw you and I’m in a big hit.” And Jack Black’s character of Jack Black was, “Hey guys, can’t we all get along?” And Ben’s thing was, “Screw both of you; it’s all about my movie.” So basically, that was like our writers’ meeting. Ours was like: “You’re that guy, I’m that guy, you’re that guy” — that’s how you can start writing something. If you just start thinking about, “Well, what can we say that’s funny but not rooted in ‘I’m this color, you’re that color, you’re that color, now let’s blend…’”
EI:Back at Comic-Con, you guys were talking about who is more geeky, you or Ben?
RDJ: Clearly Ben. He has memorabilia. He’s a little embarrassed about it too, because there’s something about him that actually is an unrequited leading man. In a different universe, Ben Stiller could have been the action hero and Tom Cruise could have been the comedy guy. You know what I mean? But not in this universe. So yeah, he’s a geek.
EI: What about you?
RDJ: I think everyone is at a certain level. I’m just glad that the “geek” has been raised to a different status than he or she was in the past.
EI: How does it feel to be in this place of your career now, especially with the success of Iron Man?
RDJ: I think the real lesson is success and feeling good are not the same thing. Because I felt great when I had other good going on in my life. [Laughs] And there’s a lot of middle management, like my position relative to the industry right now is kind of like a low level politician, where there is just so much glad-handling and so much stuff. “Well, what is your policy?” I was like, “Right, policy!” Some of it is tiring. I guess, more than anything, it’s just kind of comforting to know that, for this next little period of time… I always feel if you come out and do well, actor or actress, in a big hit movie and you’re the lead, you basically have about 18 months. Eighteen months to squander it and ask, “Oh my God, what was I thinking? I thought I’d do a little art movie and then I wanted to develop this play.” And pretty soon nobody knows your name again.
Or you want to capitalize on that, because right then everybody’s head is nodding and you get them to agree to things — to sign deals or get them committed to being in a certain relationship with you. Then 18 months down the road, let them be the one saying, “What was I thinking? God damn, he hasn’t had a hit in three years and I’ve got to do this movie!”
EI: Do you remember the people who weren’t supportive of you?
EI: Or have you forgiven them?
RDJ: I probably forget more recently than forgive. I’ll run into someone and then later I’ll remember, “Oh yeah, what a prick!” [Laughs] But come on, dude, everything’s good. It’s gross, but there’s something about fame or success or a lot of money that happens around something. Being successful creates this really fuzzy barrier where it’s like forgiveness is somewhere in there. It’s weird. It’s kind of like having a super power. I guess it’s the same way I feel when it happens to somebody else. But ultimately, when I’m feeling really super happy about something, whatever the object is isn’t really the object. I’m creating this projection. I’m going, “I’m so happy because of that!” And it’s always a bit of an ego trip.
Sometimes people come up and say, “Robert, I really need to let you know I was always thinking about you. I always knew that you’d beat it because I was praying for you.” And I just sit there and go, “Okay, you’re really happy and somehow or other I figure into this, because I need to know how happy you are.” I’m not saying people are going, “God I’m so happy for you,” and I’m going, “Whatever, that’s your shit!” [Laughs] But there’s an element in there. People are creepy. I know because I’m creepy, too. [Laughs]
EI: Do you get better in dealing with life with age?
RDJ: I guess so. Then again, I know people in their mid-50s who are doing the dumbest stuff they’ve ever done today. So I can’t call it. But there’s also this weird thing — people rooting for you. It’s this great thing. It’s palpable and you can feel it. But I don’t understand why anybody would be rooting for or not rooting for anybody.
It’s that same way if you watch a football game, and there’s no reason to watch the game if you have no vested interest in it. So whether you pick this team or that team, sometimes it’s arbitrary. But sometimes it’s like, I think that team’s going to win so I pick them. Or, that team never wins and, because of who I am, I’m hoping the underdog wins. [Laughs] And it says so much more about the person than the teams or the game or the sport or the Super Bowl, or any of that stuff.
EI: And you’ve seen it all throughout your life and career?
RDJ: No. If I’d seen it all, I would need a chair. [Laughs]
EI: When does Iron Man 2 start production?
RDJ: Iron Man 2 I’m starting at five o’clock. [Laughs] I’m doing this and then me, Jon [Favreau] and Justin Theroux, who wrote Tropic Thunder, will have another big story meeting. This is great because now we have Justin, truly an eccentric guy, Jon, wunder-geek genius, and me there going, “No! Hold on a goddamn minute; I’m playing Tony Stark!” And Jon’s just like — [makes a grumbling sound]. That’s lunch. [Laughs] So basically it’s us and then Kevin Feige and Jeremy [Latcham]. There’s like five or six people and Jon’s assistant Karen, and we’re all sitting around this table [Laughs], and we go, “We have hundreds and hundreds of dollars entrusted to us. We have to go make the movie.” It’s just really crazy. It’s going to be fantastic.
EI: Everyone seems to show up in everyone else’s film lately. Suddenly you’re another part of that circle.
RDJ: I’m part of the circle. I’m just another jerk in the circle. [Laughs]
EI: What’s your take on the new version of Sherlock Holmes you’re about to film?
RDJ: Sherlock Holmes starts October 6th. And my take is, if you’d asked me how I was going to portray Kirk Lazarus [Tropic Thunder], I would have told you a whole separate set of things, so I’m waiting. The first day, I’m like this. This is the weird part, I think, for any of us. You have some creative endeavor, and you got it, and this will be your piece to write. This is your gig and you go, “Okay, come on, help me out here… I have some ideas and I know kind of how I want it to look. It’s starting to form now.”
But when things are unconscious before the inspiration comes, it’s like I’m looking at it in my mind: Is this a donkey? No, it’s a Master Lock. No, it’s not a Master Lock, it’s a dragster. No it’s not. I don’t have a grasp on what it is yet because I have yet to receive instructions from my “muse.” [Laughs]
EI: Will they keep the classic costume of Sherlock Holmes?
RDJ: You mean the hat and the pipe and all that? Screw that! [Laughs] I don’t think that’s even in the book. But I don’t know. What I know is Guy [Ritchie] and I to do something that mirrors what audiences expect nowadays. And what they expect is not to have some rehash that’s so true to form. They want to see what made you directing this better than somebody else. And why should Robert get this, just ‘cause he’s hot now? What actually is he going to bring to the role? For a lot of people, it’s their favorite literature. I’ve run into a lot of really smart, cool folks who are religious about it.
EI: There’s going to be another comedy version being shot at the same time as yours.
RDJ: Whatever. They need to shut that other one down. That’s all I got to say.
EI: How did you feel looking at yourself in Tropic Thunder in that makeup?
RDJ: Well, every look was weird because Kirk Lazarus is this kind of Aryan-looking freak from Australia, and sometimes I’d look and go, “If I had blonde hair and blue eyes, I could have such a different career.” And I’d be there in a tux and say, “Well, I’m not,” and I’d take those eyes out. And then I’m looking at myself again and I’d be turned into this beautiful black man, and I’d be like, “Good morning!” Then I’d go out and play him for awhile.
EI: What’s the story behind the line about the alley and the refrigerator and Burbank?
RDJ: I got so into my character that they found me trying to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in an old refrigerator box in an alley in Burbank. That’s far out.
RDJ: I think it was Ben and Justin’s.
EI: How important has it been to have your family’s support — your wife’s?
RDJ: Oh, I don’t need that. [Laughs] She’s in London because she’s producing Sherlock Holmes with Joel Silver. She’s with Guy Ritchie and they’re out at the estate in the country or wherever, and there’s like no cell service and I think I’m really independent.
Then I couldn’t reach her for a couple of days. She actually called me and I said, “I don’t even know why I should talk to you right now.” [Laughs] Oh, it’s so good. The right relationship is such a beautiful thing.
EI: Did Iron Man score you any cool points with your son?
RDJ: Not really. It worked for a minute, like right when the movie first came out, and now I’m just the guy driving him around. It’s kind of like, “Can we go pick up Johnny?” And I’m like, “Yeah, alright.” “Do we have to go back to the house? Or can we see a movie?” Then I say, “I’ll just take you to a movie and I’ll come back and get you.” And he’ll go, “Okay, can we have pizza first?” I’m just a drone — a drone that did a movie.
EI: Do you still have time for your music?
RDJ: I’m thinking about kicking that back up. I also don’t want to spread myself too thin. I have Tropic Thunder commitments, The Soloist comes out, then Sherlock Holmes coming out next year, and Iron Man 2 after that. I don’t mind flooding the market for a minute, but I want to give myself stuff to look forward to, and I’ve always had this idea for this musical that I want to shoot as a film. I haven’t really finished any aspect of it, the story or the music or anything yet. It’d be a really bad time to suddenly super-impose my passion project on the movie-going public.
EI: Ben’s passion project, Tropic Thunder, 20 years in the making, was about getting back at all those actors who did those fake boot camps?
RDJ: I don’t know that my passion project is starting with a vendetta [Laughs], but I’m glad you said that because this stuff takes time.
Paramount Pictures' 'Tropic Thunder' is in theaters now.