Robert Downey Jr. is a worldwide icon thanks to his role as Tony Stark / Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that road to success was a long winding one. Downey was in the midst of a major comeback when Iron Man dropped in 2008, and that same year he also jumped into the comedy world with a starring role in Ben Stiller's blockbuster movie spoof, Tropic Thunder. Downey starred as Australian Oscar-winning actor Kirk Lazarus, who made the controversial choice of putting on blackface to play an African-American Vietnam soldier named Lincoln Osiris. In 2020 it's crazy to think that a major actor would do blackface in a major studio film, and apparently, Downey's mother that as much when he took the role.
A recent segment of the Joe Rogen Experience podcast featured a discussion between Rogen and Downey about whether or not you could still make Tropic Thunder today. Naturally, the subject of a studio approving a blackface performance came up, and that's where Downey revealed his mother's initial horror to the role:
My mother was horrified," Downey tells Rogen. "[Mimicking his mother's voice] 'Bobby I'm telling you, I have a bad feeling about this.' I was like 'Yeah me too mom, but uh anyway-- how are we?'"
Rogen presses the matter by asking Downey the next logical question: what was the reaction the first time he showed up on set in blackface. According to Downey:
"All the night before... I was like 'Well, here we go.' And I think I had six lines that day, but I knew that there was going to be choppers; there was going to be squib fire; there was going to be choreography... it was going to be cacophonous. And the only thing that mattered to me was 'What's my action?' My action as an actor in this movie is to know what I'm doing, even if what I'm doing is insane. So I ran those six or eight lines I had a thousand times lying in bed... And so the next day I was free to enjoy myself and not be struggling to wonder what it was I was supposed to be doing. And then that's what it is, you know: it was one little mosaic after the next... and it was just a piece of work I was doing. And I cared about doing it as professionally and as honestly as I could."2comments
There you go kids, that's veteran actor speak for 'I did the job, didn't question it in the moment. Hoped it all worked out.' And really, that sentiment is one actors arguably have to put their faith in with every performance. It's hard to knock Downey's performance, as he deftly navigated the satirical tightrope of playing an actor who is so obtuse and egotistical, he doesn't realize how offensive his behavior really is. The added challenge of playing a black caricature who is meant to be a caricature (and having the audience go for that) was a level of performance control that should be commended.
The larger point of this JRE discussion is that Tropic Thunder is a type of movie that could never have been made in today's outrage culture, and the satirical role of Kirk Lazarus / Lincoln Osiris would certainly have ignited Film Twitters' SJW wing. The fact that Downey not only got away with his blackface role, but was embraced as a highlight of the movie, is a feat that ended in the 2000s, when comedy and satire were still revered as protected forms of free speech. Don't expect to see the likes of it again.
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