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:
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:
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:
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.
Robert Downey Jr. can currently be seen in Dolittle, and his upcoming movies include All-Star Weekend and Sherlock Holmes 3. Keep up with what’s hitting theaters later this year with our 2020 release schedule.
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