It’s been over a decade since Tropic Thunder was released and Ben Stiller’s satirical look at Hollywood still ruffles feathers. Robert Downey Jr. appears in blackface for the majority of the movie as Kirk Lazarus, a white method actor who had “pigmentation alteration” surgery so he can play a black character in a new film. Downey dissected his controversial role on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast during which he called the whole thing “an offensive nightmare,” but noted how it put “a blasting cap” on the issue of blackface.

“When Ben called and said, ‘Hey I’m doing this thing’ and, you know, I think Sean Penn had passed on it or something. Possibly wisely. And I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that’… and then I started thinking, ‘This is a terrible idea, wait a minute,'” Downey recalled.

“And then I thought, ‘Well hold on dude, get real here, where is your heart?’ And my heart is… I get to be black for a summer in my mind, so there’s something in it for me,” he continued. “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.”

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The 54-year-old Iron Man star added, “And also Ben, who is a masterful artist and director… it was impossible to not have it be an offensive nightmare of a movie. And 90 percent of my black friends were like, ‘Dude, that was great.'”

TROPIC THUNDER, Robert Downey Jr., 2008, © DreamWorks/courtesy Everett Collection

The other 10 percent were in the offensive nightmare category.

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“I can’t disagree with them, but I know where my heart was and 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 White Chicks came out pretty soon after that and I was like, ‘I love that,'” Downey noted. (In the 2004 comedy, Shawn and Marlon Wayans play FBI agents that go undercover as white women.)

Rogan said it’s likely the last time we’ll see something like that on screen.

Actors Ben Stiller (L) and Robert Downey Jr. (R) attend “Tropic Thunder” photocall at the Kursaal Palace during the 56th San Sebastian International Film Festival, 2008. (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

“It’s an interesting and necessary meditation on where is the pendulum?” Downey replied. “Where is the pendulum maybe cutting a little into what could be perceived as ‘heart in the right place’… You know, there’s a morality clause here on this planet and it’s a big price to pay and I think having a moral psychology is job one. Sometimes, you just gotta go, ‘Yeah, I [f*****] up.’ Again, not in my defense, but Tropic Thunder was about how wrong that is.”

Downey’s use of blackface has garnered more outrage in recent years. When Tropic Thunder was released in 2008 it was Stiller, who both directed and starred in the movie, that upset some viewers. Disability groups protested Tropic Thunder over Simple Jack, a fictional character portrayed by Stiller who is mentally challenged, and the film’s use of the “R-word.”

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Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder (Dreamworks)

“And by the way, the funny thing too was all of the heat got deflected to Ben and Simple Jack,” Downey explained. “That’s what people were pissed off about. And I go, ‘Phew, great!’ But you never know when it’s going to be your time in the barrel… I’ve been on both sides of that coin.”

Rogen asked if anybody, like his agents or managers, advised Downey not to do Tropic Thunder.

“My mother was horrified,” Downey declared. “‘Bobby, I’m telling ya, I have a bad feeling about this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah me too, mom.’“

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Overall, the actor doesn’t regret making the movie.

“It was a piece of work I was doing and I cared about doing this professionally and as honestly as I could,” he shared.

The Academy took notice. Downey ended up receiving his second Oscar nomination for the supporting role.



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