Fresh off the news that his latest $175 million budget film Doolittle is projected to lose $100 million at the box office, Robert Downey Jr. stopped by The Joe Rogan Experience podcast and talked about donning blackface in Tropic Thunder.
In the 2008 Ben Stiller-directed comedy, Downey Jr. plays an Australian-born actor named Kirk Lazarus who becomes so method that he undergoes "pigmentation alteration" to portray a black character. The concept alone should give anyone pause, and Downey Jr. recalls his mother being no different.
"My mother was horrified," Downey Jr. said. "'Bobby, I'm telling ya, I have a bad feeling about this.' I was like, 'Yeah me too, Mom.' When Ben called and said, 'Hey I'm doing this thing' – you know I think Sean Penn had passed on it or something. Possibly wisely. And I thought, 'Yeah, I'll do that and I'll do that after Iron Man.'"
After being all in on the role, Downey Jr. started having second thoughts, but those concerns were eventually erased by some logic that's problematic to say the least.
"Then I started thinking, 'This is a terrible idea, wait a minute.' Then I thought, 'Well hold on dude, get real here, where is your heart?,'" he remembers. "My heart is…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, just my opinion."
Downey Jr. later said that while the satirical Tropic Thunder was always going to rub some people the wrong way, the response to the movie was overwhelmingly positive, and this included the reception to his use of blackface.
"[Ben] knew exactly what the vision for this was, he executed it, it was impossible to not have it be an offensive nightmare of a movie," Downey Jr. said. "And 90 percent of my black friends were like, 'Dude, that was great.' I can't disagree with [the other 10 percent], but I know where my heart lies. I think that it's never an excuse to do something that's out of place and out of its time, but to me, it blasted the cap on [the issue]. I think having a moral psychology is job one. Sometimes, you just gotta go, 'Yeah I effed up.' In my defense, Tropic Thunder is about how wrong [blackface] is, so I take exception."
Downey Jr. received an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Tropic Thunder. He didn't win either award.