Justin Theroux defends controversial tactics
The “Tropic Thunder” team always knew they were playing with fire; that was half the point of parodying war movies. But the satire isn’t sitting well with those who don’t see the humor in a white actor appearing in blackface — or with the Special Olympics, which objects to using the word “retard” to describe people with disabilities.
Co-writer Justin Theroux says what those groups don’t realize is their target is the same as the filmmakers’: Hollywood.
“Our first concern was we didn’t ever want the jokes to be on vets or war or the horrors of that,” says Theroux. “That’s where we calibrated our scopes: How do we constantly keep the jokes on actors, Hollywood and how Hollywood works?”
Toward that end, “Tropic Thunder” needles how many scripts stereotype certain characters, with much of the criticism aimed at celebrated 21st-century actors who tackle borderline-offensive roles in pursuit of awards. In the film, Robert Downey, Jr. plays self-important Australian thesp Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Oscar winner with startling blue eyes and a bad-boy reputation who’s so committed to his craft that he undergoes a skin pigmentation procedure to become black.
“We were just careful to always keep the humor where it belongs, which is on the lunacy of Hollywood and the way things are cast and the fact that that guy could get that role even today, as Laurence Olivier did when he played ‘Othello,’ ” Theroux says.
The process began by riffing on the cliches of the war-movie genre. “There’s a whole slew of bad stereotypes that comes out of those movies, especially in the more inferior films,” says Theroux. “There’s always the grizzled, slightly older sarge; the young Jewish kid from Brooklyn; the black guy from Detroit who’s always listening to some bad transistor radio; the fat guy who’s lovable and almost gets them all killed because he can’t run.”
Theroux and co-writers Ben Stiller and Etan Cohen took those two-dimensional character types and then imagined the worst possible actors to play each part. “It’s almost like reverse fantasy casting,” Theroux jokes.
“The public sort of understands that certain movies just have certain people in them. If it’s an action movie, it’s going to be one of five people. If it’s a dramatic part with a guy who has to transform and put on 50 pounds and make his hair gray, it’s going to be one of five people.” (Case in point: the recent announcement that Brad Pitt will star in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II epic “Inglorious Bastards.”)
“It’s not the riskiest thing in the world, casting huge-budget movies,” says Theroux. “It’s not like they’re giving cracks to guys out of Juilliard. What would have been shocking is if they’d said it was someone who had just done three Broadway shows in a row.”
Within that context, “Tropic Thunder” pokes fun at studio execs (embodied here by a foul-mouthed Tom Cruise, unrecognizable in bald-headed, pot-bellied prosthetics) who soothe their own risk aversion by casting in stereotypes. The “Tropic Thunder” roster includes the insecure action star (Stiller), the Russell Crowe-styled “serious” thespian (Downey), the gross-out comedian known for juvenile antics (Jack Black) and the new discovery fresh off the festival circuit (Jay Baruchel).
“Eventually we struck on the idea, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if it was an awards guy who was going so in-depth to play this part that he actually got the role of the African American sergeant Lincoln Osyrus?’ ” Theroux says.
The ensemble includes a second black character, rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who helps put the Downey-as-Lazarus’ performance in perspective. When asked why he took the part, Chino says, “Maybe I knew I had to represent, because they had one good part for a black man and they gave it to Crocodile Dundee.”
In a sense, the blackface gag is (relatively) safe since the taboo was phased out of film in the late 1930s. Riskier is the film’s decision to parody the still-acceptable tradition of films that exploit handicapped characters.
As Tugg Speedman, Stiller plays a marquee star still trying to live down an ill-advised turn in “Simple Jack,” one of those sepia-toned Hollywood fantasies that romanticize characters with intellectual disabilities. It’s a shrewd critique of an ongoing trend, one that will likely seem every bit as tacky 70 years from now as blackface looks today.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Theroux and Stiller, both successful actors in their own right, penned the politically incorrect exchange between Speedman and Lazarus. This gave them the opportunity to editorialize about the way audiences and Oscar voters alike appreciate performances like Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” and Peter Sellers in “Being There,” in which actors portray the more endearing aspects of mental impairment without going all the way. “You never go full retard,” Lazarus warns. “You don’t buy that, ask Sean Penn, 2001 (in “I Am Sam”): Went full retard, went home empty-handed.”
“Some people have been upset about that particular joke and I understand their concern,” Theroux says. “We’re not putting mentally challenged people in our scopes. Again, the focus is on the movies. We’ve seen hundreds and billions of them — some of those movies are wonderful and then there are others where you think, this is clearly someone’s vanity project, and they’re doing it for a very particular reason, and people should be just as offended at that. So we wanted to tee that up and take a swing at that as well.”
Special Olympics has been working directly with Hollywood to reeducate the public about the “R-word” in much the same way that the NAACP, GLAAD and other groups aim to eliminate hate speech from the media. The Farrelly brothers, Matt Parker and Trey Stone are known for outrageous, envelope-pushing humor, but all four have been especially progressive in their depiction of disabled characters, constantly striving to keep audiences laughing with — rather than laughing at — such individuals.
After incorporating actors with various impairments into “There’s Something About Mary,” “Shallow Hal” and “Me, Myself and Irene,” the Farrelly brothers produced “The Ringer” with the Special Olympics’ seal of approval. Parker and Stone oversaw the documentary “How’s Your News?,” which assembled an unlikely news crew of five special-needs reporters and found humor in the way unsuspecting bystanders don’t quite know how to react to people with disabilities.
But “Tropic Thunder” has a different agenda. Instead of trying to create empathetic characters, the comedy pokes fun at serious actors who challenge themselves with stunt roles. In that sense, “Simple Jack” and Lazarus’ over-the-top dedication to an African-American part are no different from the fake trailer for Lazarus’ next movie, the award-winning gay-priest drama “Satan’s Alley,” a tone-setting joke that hasn’t drawn criticism from special interest groups — yet.
“Cartoons get away with way more than live-action does,” says Theroux. “If you look at ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Family Guy’ or ‘South Park’ or ‘Team America’ — make any of those sequences live-action, and I guarantee you buildings would be burned down in some spots. I think it’s fair game if it’s in American pop culture or culture in general. Good satire is constantly riding that edge, and hopefully in our movie we get to ride it a couple times and have it understood for what it is.”