Back in 2008 when Robert Downey Jr. decided to star in Ben Stiller’s parody “Tropic Thunder,” it was a different time. Now the actor is opening up to the reaction he initially received from his Black friends after playing the character of Kirk Lazarus essentially in blackface.
According to The Washington Post, the scene-stealing Lazarus is described as “a five-time Oscar-winning Australian actor who undergoes “pigmentation alteration” surgery to portray a Black soldier in the satirical film-within-a-film.”
“I thought: ‘Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll do that after ‘Iron Man,’ ” Downey said during a recent visit to “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast. But when he meditated on the risk of wearing blackface, he recalls having cold feet.
“And then I started thinking, ‘This is a terrible idea,’ ” he recalls, but quickly shook off his reservations. “I thought: ‘Hold on, dude. Get real here. Where is your heart?’ 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’re allowed to do on occasion.”
“Ninety percent of my Black friends were like, ‘Dude, that was great,’ ” Downey said of his performance, which earned him an Oscar nomination in 2009.
“Tropic Thunder” ended up being a hit and was widely applauded for the unflinching commentary it made about the self-indulgence of the Hollywood elite. And even the criticism it received for blackface was fairly mild.
But the actor’s recent reflections on his decision to join the cast quickly went viral given how it would be almost impossible to make a movie like that or play Lazarus in the same way during this current social climate. Within 24 hours of being released, the roughly 11-minute clip of Downey opening up about the movie had been viewed almost 4.5 million times.
Downey said he might not take such a role today but at the time, he was able to make a statement about how actors take themselves so seriously and the lengths they were willing to go.
“I think that it’s never an excuse to do something that is out of place and not of its time, but to me it was just putting a blasting cap on — and by the way, I think (the Wayans Brothers’) ‘White Chicks’ came out pretty soon after that, and I was like: ‘I love that! That was great!”’