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2008 was a big year for Robert Downey Jr., mainly because it marked his debut as Tony Stark, a role he’d play for the next 11 years in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, several months after Iron Man’s release, Downey was seen in the comedy Tropic Thunder, where he played Kirk Lazarus, an extremely method actor who underwent a “pigmentation alteration” surgery to play the African American character he’d been cast as, Staff Sergeant Lincoln Osiris.
Given blackface’s ugly history in the United States, having Robert Downey Jr. don blackface, even for satirical purposes, became a topic of conversation at the time, and has become even more so in the decade since. Reflecting on his time on Tropic Thunder, here’s what Downey recently had to say about why he accepted the role:
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.’ 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?' 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, just my opinion.
So had history unfolded differently, we might have seen Sean Penn as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder instead. However, it was not to be (though if you look closely, Penn still cameoed in the movie), and when Ben Stiller approached Robert Downey Jr. for the role, the latter felt that in addition to this being an unusual opportunity for him to play a “black” character, he would also be able to lampoon actors who go way too far with certain roles.
Robert Downey Jr. also noted during his interview on The Joe Rogan Experience that he trusted that Ben Stiller would be able to pull off this character approach properly as opposed to having it turn out terribly offensive. In Downey’s words:
Also, Ben [Stiller], who’s a masterful artist and director, probably the closest thing to Charlie Chaplin that I have experienced in my lifetime… if you had seen him when he was directing this movie you would have been like I’m watching David Lee… he 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. And 90% of my black friends were like ‘Dude, that was great.’
Of course, opinions are subjective, so while Robert Downey Jr. had some friends who were okay with him donning blackface in this manner, there were plenty of others who found this aspect of Tropic Thunder distasteful. As for where Downey’s head is at with Tropic Thunder now, while he acknowledges that there are folks who don’t like how Lincoln Osiris was handled, he maintains that he went into the role with the best of intentions, saying:
I can’t disagree with [the other 10%], 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 was a blasting 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.
The Tropic Thunder role would later net Robert Downey Jr. an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (his second time getting Oscar recognition, the first being for Chaplin), but he lost in that category to Heath Ledger performance as Joker in The Dark Knight. Although there were plans to make spinoff centered on Tom Cruise’s character, Les Grossman, nothing ever surfaced with that, so Tropic Thunder remains a one-and-done tale and is one of the more… interesting entries on Downey’s resume.