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Tropic Thunder - Ben Stiller, Jack Black & Robert Downey Jr interview

Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BEN Stiller talks about writing, producing, directing and starring in the action-comedy Tropic Thunder, while his co-stars Robert Downey Jr and Jack Black offer some of their insights into his process.

The celebrity trio also deliver more pearls of wisdom at the Tropic Thunder press conference, including how Downey Jr is going to help Stiller land a double Oscar and why a young Ben Stiller once made Steven Spielberg very angry…

Q. This is the first film you’ve directed in a good few years. What was it about this particular story that made you want to take on the dual roles?
Ben Stiller: I’d actually been working on the script for this probably since Zoolander. We had a first draft going back to 2000 and something. I’d spent years working on getting the script to the place where I thought it was ready to go. About three years ago, we got to a draft that we felt pretty good about and we did a read through of it and that helped. It was really just working on the script and doing other things. There are a few projects I’ve been working on for a while but this was the first one that I felt was ready to film.

Q. The trailers at the beginning of the film are a particular joy. Were there more of them?
Ben Stiller: No, that was it. That was the limit of our creativity. We basically wanted to be able to set up the characters in the movie, so since the movie is about actors and the main characters are movie stars, it was a really unique way to be able to set up who these guys were.

Q. Were you tempted to write some false scripts for each one? I mean, I’d like to see some of those films…
Ben Stiller: Yeah, it was fun to do those. Obviously, it’s such a specific type of humour and I think everyone loves trailers. It’s fun to make fun of trailers. But it really was uniquely set up for the movie. At the end of the day, when you do have trailers in front of a movie and you know that you’re coming after other real trailers at a certain point you have to be able to start the movie. So, it was actually interesting to figure out… to see it and see how it played out because there’s only a certain amount of time that an audience will sit around until the story kicks in anyway.

Q. This is a comic book geek type of question. Did you cast Tobey Maguire in the Satan’s Alley trailer so we could see Spider-Man and Iron Man flirt?
Ben Stiller: No, that was totally something that just happened. Actually, Tobey was a last minute replacement for that. He did us a big favour and it was one of those situations where the last minute replacement ends up being better than anybody’s first choice. We were very lucky that he came in. He was going to do another movie, he literally had two and a half hours, but he was nice enough to come out and do it after I pitched it on the phone. But then, of course, the idea of Iron Man and Spider-Man hooking up was the icing on the cake.

Jack Black: The baby would be so powerful… a spider robot!

Ben Stiller: Who would birth it though?

Q. How much did you know of Steve Coogan’s previous work and do you think he can follow in the footsteps of other successful British comedians working in America, such as Ricky Gervais?
Jack Black: He is a legend… the underground comic community all knows… there’s a secret community of comedians and everybody knows in that circle. But I’d say that most people in the US aren’t clued in to who he is yet.

Robert Downey Jr: He told me about his forthcoming one-man show and it sounds like it’s going to be pretty great.

Jack Black: What’s that?

Robert Downey Jr: I can’t tell you. It’s something we shared. Ben worked Steve Coogan like a rib. When he was there, I’ve never seen someone under such undue pressure. If you notice at the beginning, he’s at the centre of every shot, and if you notice the opening sequence has 375,000 shots that Steve Coogan was at the centre of. 375,000 × 200 takes… do the maths. This man was the most consummate gentleman I’ve ever worked with.

Ben Stiller: I’m a huge Coogan fan. I’m never good at predicting what will go over with an audience, or not. But I just think he’s a brilliant actor and I loved working with him. I think I did so many takes with him because I had so much fun working with him and he gave so much. I’ve been a fan of his since the Alan Partridge days. I hope that an audience catches on to him in that way because he’s very deserving of it. He’s a really, really funny guy and I hope to keep working with him.

Q. What are your favourite and least favourite war movies?
Jack Black: I’m going to go with Apocalypse Now. It’s kind of obvious and I know everyone’s going to say that. But it’s because of what’s his name? Who’s that actor – the fat bald guy… Brando! And the worst one… shit, I don’t want to say it.

Robert Downey Jr: My favourite is Paths of Glory. My least favourite I’m thinking but I’m not saying.

Ben Stiller: I don’t know… I really liked Platoon a lot. Just because I remember the first time I saw it I was so affected by it. I think it’s the iconic Vietnam war film. It’s obviously such an authentic film in terms of where it came from and Oliver Stone’s experience.

Jack Black: Apocalypse Now has the funny part in it where Robert Duvall comes out and sniffs the napalm. That’s the only one that has a little psychedelic comedy. So, I win I’d say.

Q. Tom Cruise gives a great scene-stealing performance. Was it his idea to look the way he did, and dance?
Ben Stiller: It was sort of a collaboration – but he was totally into it and it sort of evolved. We were doing the make-up test and he had this idea that he wanted to have really big hands in the movie. I thought it was a strange idea when we first talked about it, but then he actually had these hands made and I thought: “Wow, that’s actually great.” I wanted to have him be bald.

So, we started working on the look and did a few make-up tests and during one of those he started dancing. He started doing a little move that sort of felt to me like the gofer in Caddyshack. I thought it was really funny so I had him keep doing it. He did this whole dance during the make-up test with no music playing, but then we went back into the editing room and put some music to it… and based on that we wrote all the dancing into the movie. I just enjoyed it and thought it was really funny.

Q. A theme that’s recurrent in a lot of your work is vanity and people being taken down a peg or two because of their vanity. Why is that a recurring theme? And why did you choose to parody the war genre?
Ben Stiller: Well, when you’re doing a comedy and you want to somehow satirise people who are taking themselves seriously, I think the most serious genre is the thing you’re going to get the most out of. If you’re trying to satirise a comedy, it’s hard to do that – it doesn’t really work as well. But I love the war movie genre and I’m a fan of all those movies that are part of what this movie is. So, that’s why that’s there. As for the vanity thing, I never really thought about it that much but I can understand that there was that theme through Zoolander.

Robert Downey Jr: Quite often, vanity has a lot to do with trauma and low self-esteem, so why don’t we talk about your trauma? Let’s talk about war films and the film you wanted to be in…

Jack Black: Oh man, this thing is really taking a turn for the dark!

Ben Stiller: There was no trauma there… I mean I had a small part in Empire Of The Sun. It was one of the first jobs I ever had, which was a great experience, and I got to sort of be around a large-scale war movie and see what that was. I had a meeting with Oliver Stone on Platoon and I had a bunch of friends that were in Hamburger Hill. I heard a lot of stories from them.

Jack Black: Come on, dude, tell them about the trauma… the whole thing is about the trauma. It’s what started the movie, right? The trauma on the set of Empire Of The Sun!

Ben Stiller: Um, there was no trauma. Well, there was one thing that happened. In Empire Of The Sun, I had a really small part and there was one shot where a 10-year-old Christian Bale was coming out of the weeds or something, and he’d gone to catch a pheasant… but it was a really long shot, a five-minute steadi-cam shot where it ended up with him coming into the barracks and all the way through and got to the end where we were. But I screwed up my line at the end of the shot. I had like line, which was my only line in the whole movie, but I screwed it up and went: “Oh shit, sorry.” There was like silence and Steven Spielberg was by the monitor and I just heard: “What? What?” I said: “I’m sorry, I screwed up the line. I guess we should stop…” And then he said: “You never cut! You never stop!” And he got upset and got mad at me. He was like my idol at the time.

Jack Black: You were basically a glorified extra and yet you had cost Spielberg millions of dollars…

Ben Stiller: Exactly and I realised that’s why you never yell “cut”.

Jack Black: And there was a 10-year-old Christian Bale laughing under his breath at your misfortune.

Ben Stiller: He’s still laughing.

Robert Downey Jr: There were entire weeks where Ben Stiller never yelled cut.

Ben Stiller: But it’s nice that it came around that Steven’s company, Dreamworks, ended up making this movie.

Q. Did you have any real actors in mind when creating Kirk Lazarus because it came across to me like a cross between Danny Glover and Russell Crowe…
Robert Downey Jr: [Looks stunned] Separated at birth… Well you know, I’ve got people I admire. Lincoln Osiris just came because I had a phoner set up with Ben where I was supposed to let him know that I was actually working on the character. But I was actually doing Iron Man so I [puts on thick accent] said anything to keep him happy. He said it was great but I didn’t know if he was just cajoling me because he knows that I get uptight. And then when I was thinking about Kirk Lazarus, I was thinking about Colin Farrell, Daniel Day-Lewis and Russell Crowe’s great. It’s an amalgam.

Ben Stiller: I think they were all amalgams. We didn’t want to get too specific with being one person because I don’t think it’s funny. We wanted the characters to be their own people, but they’re obviously influenced by all these people too. It’s part of what the movie is.

Jack Black: I wasn’t really channelling any other actors. Robert’s character is always acting, even when we’re not filming he’s still in character. My character is just going through heroin withdrawal, so I just sort of focused on that. I wasn’t thinking about any other people.

Q. Will you be doing a serious movie for Oscar now, perhaps on Bosnia?
Ben Stiller: Um, no.

Robert Downey Jr: There’s the story about the famous Siamese twins… I forget their names because it’s irrelevant. It’s the story that’s important and I’m going to direct Ben in it. He plays both the Siamese twins. We’re working on make-up tests where we’re going to conjoin him to himself. He’s going to play both heads, both brothers. It’s going to be a big tech job, kind of like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, except there’s two Buttons. He helped me to score in the comedy department, so I’m getting him two Oscars.

Jack Black: One of the heads is a supporting role?

Robert Downey Jr: But we’re going to be inhibited by the Siamese twin coalition who will bring some additional awareness to the problem.

Ben Stiller: Don’t call them Siamese twins… they’re conjoined twins.

Robert Downey Jr: I’ll be doing a cameo as a Siamese cat. We’ll be doing a crazy sequence where Ben, as the conjoined twin, plays a few jokes on me as the cat to see which one of them is the funnier. In one of them, he pees in my food dish and the other one ties string all around the room, so when I run in and bounce off the walls I just freeze there and I’m really confused. In that way, I’ll have found a way to get Ben two Oscars… one for dramatic and a Globe for comedy or musical because one of the conjoined twins likes to tap the boards a little bit…

Jack Black: That might win something… not an Oscar!

Read our review of Tropic Thunder