Robert Downey Jr.’s post-Marvel career is already off to an interesting start.
First, the erstwhile Iron Man chose to lend his trademark snark to the bananas, ill-fated Dolittle, which starred the actor alongside a menagerie of cheerful talking animals. And then, while promoting said children’s movie, Downey Jr. appeared on every grade schooler’s favorite program, The Joe Rogan Experience. There, the actor and podcaster discussed an old role of Downey’s: Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder, a character that sparked controversy by having a “pigmentation alteration” procedure as he prepared to play a black character. Downey seemed aware that he was tackling a dicey subject—but his solution appeared to be to talk a lot without saying much of anything.
“I think Sean Penn had passed on it or something like that—possibly wisely,” Downey, as first reported by Indiewire, said about the time when Ben Stiller first approached him for the role in the 2008 film. “And I thought, ‘Yeah… I’ll do that after Iron Man.’ And then I started thinking, ‘This is a terrible idea; wait a minute.’” But then came an epiphany: “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.”
It’s unclear why Downey felt that playing a white man in blackface would allow him to “be black for a summer”—or why he thought that such a sentiment would mean his heart was in the right place. Either way, he praised Stiller, comparing the satire’s director to Charlie Chaplin, Francis Ford Coppola, and David Lean. “He knew exactly what the vision for this was; he executed it.” Downey 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.’”
“What about the other 10 percent?” Rogan asked.
“You know, I can’t disagree with them—but I know where my heart was,” Downey said. “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, it was 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! That was great!’ So, you know.”
A couple times during the interview, Rogan seemed to mourn that blackface is basically unwelcome in Hollywood these days. “I don't think you can do blackface anymore,” he said at one point. “I mean, we almost lost the prime minister of Canada because he did brownface.” Later he seemed to lament the fact that Tropic Thunder “might be the last time we’ll ever see a studio take a chance on a guy wearing blackface—and the prolific use of the word ‘retard.’”
“It’s an interesting and necessary meditation on, ‘Where is the pendulum?’” Downey offered at one point. “Why is the pendulum right? Where is the pendulum maybe cutting a little into what could be perceived as heart in the right place openness of its time? But again, I mean, 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. 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.”