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Robert Downey Jr Opens Up About Wearing Black Face For 'Tropic Thunder'

Gettyimages | Kevin Winter
By Zachary Holt

In today's social and political climate, the past use of 'black-face' is undoubtedly condemned, despite the situation and circumstances it was used in. People forget that Robert Downey Jr. wore black-face several years ago in the film, Tropic Thunder. However, the circumstances in his case were a little different. He was an actor portraying an Australian actor portraying an African-American in a film. Essentially, a movie within a movie. Recently, though, Downey Jr. got a chance to open up about his thoughts of wearing black-face on the Joe Rogan podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.

Downey Jr. Explains How He Got the Role in Tropic Thunder

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In the 2008 film, Downey Jr. plays the role of Australian actor, Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Academy Award winner, who undergoes a controversial skin pigmentation procedure to comprise the role of Staff Sergeant Lincoln Osiris, an African-American in the movie within a movie.

While not simply black-face, as the pigmentation covers his whole body, it still raised some questions, although the majority of people found the role comedic. Downey Jr., first shared with Rogan how he got the role. "When Ben [Stiller, the movie's director and star] called and said, 'Hey I'm doing this thing,' I think Sean Penn had passed on it or something like that-possibly wisely," a nod to the controversial nature of the character.

Mixed Feelings About Accepting the Role and Further Implications

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At first, Downey Jr. thought it would be a good idea, as he could intersperse it between Iron Man and his next film project, but then quickly had a change of heart. "' I thought, 'Yeah... I'll do that after Iron Man.' And then I started thinking, 'This is a terrible idea; wait a minute."

As soon as he shot down the idea, he sat and thought on it. "Then I thought, 'Well, hold on, dude, get real here, where is your heart?' And 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."

Downey Jr. Couldn't Turn Down Working with Ben Stiller

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The possibility of working with the genius of Ben Stiller was not something that he could turn down, though, no matter how controversial the movie could potentially be. "Ben, who is a master artist and director, probably the closest thing to Charlie Chaplin that I've experienced... he knew exactly what the vision for this was; he executed it." he said. "It was impossible to not have it be an offensive nightmare of a movie, and 90 percent of my black friends are like, 'Dude, that was great'."

And while he was excited to work on this film with Stiller, he still had a moral compass and some reservations. "There's a morality clause here on this planet. And it's a big price to pay, and I think having moral psychology is job one. So sometimes you've just gotta go, 'Yeah, I effed up.' Again, not in my defense, but 'Tropic Thunder' was about how wrong that is. So I take exception."

Film Receives Scathing Reviews, Stiller Defends It

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Rogan then proceeded to ask the actor if he had heard any concerns from others around him, to which Downey Jr. replied, "My mother was horrified... 'Bobby, I'm telling ya, I have a bad feeling about this.' I was like, 'Yeah me too, Mom.'" Even his wife had some concerns, but she ultimately thought the film was brilliant.

When "Tropic Thunder" was first released, The Los Angeles Times had a scathing review of the character that Downey Jr. played. "I just can't imagine any circumstance under which a blackface performance would be acceptable, any more than I can imagine any circumstance under which the use of the N-word would be acceptable."

However, Stiller went on to defend his casting of the role and what its purpose truly was. "In the context of the film, he's playing a method actor who's gone to great lengths to play a black guy. The movie is skewering actors and how they take themselves so seriously."

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