Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a pampered action superstar on the wane. His “Scorcher” series of post-apocalyptic action epics have played out, and after a desperate attempt for an Oscar® nod backfires, Speedman is counting on “Tropic Thunder” to put him back on top.
Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is the star of a popular gross-out comedy franchise called “The Fatties,” and now he’s looking to branch out, to show the world that there’s more to him than just getting laughs from passing gas.
Aussie thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the quintessential “method” actor, has won five Oscars® and is always on the lookout for new challenges and ways to transform himself for his “art.”
Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) seems to have it all. But the multi-platinum hip-hop-star-turned-entrepreneur is eager to move on up to the ranks of serious actors.
And newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), well, he is just happy to have a job.
In “Tropic Thunder,” this unlikely group of self-absorbed prima donnas come together to film an epic war movie and unwittingly wind up in a real battle.
“On the surface, the actors cast in this war movie appear to be very different people,” says the film’s producer Stuart Cornfeld. “But at their core, they’re all trying to do something different with their careers, something new, and they’re hoping this war movie will be the way they reach that next level. The problem is that all of them, except maybe Kevin Sandusky – who’s worked really hard so that he’ll do well in the film – are so caught up in themselves, that they’ll never be able to achieve those goals.”
After the studio head threatens to shut down production, frustrated British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) refuses to stop shooting and, instead, leads his unsuspecting cast deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia to complete principal photography “guerilla style.” With no assistants, entourages, or cell phones, the cast soon encounters a very real and very dangerous band of drug lords. Mistaking the actors for American DEA agents, they resolve to capture the “American invaders.”
In the movie-within-the-movie, Tugg Speedman (Stiller) plays John “Four Leaf” Tayback, the courageous real-life war hero whose memoir about his Vietnam exploits are the basis for the film.
“Speedman was the highest paid, highest grossing action star of all time,” says Stiller, who also co-wrote, directed and produced the film. “He’s completely pampered, completely out of touch. He is coming off of a few flops, including a blatant attempt to win an Oscar®. That movie is called ‘Simple Jack,’ in which he plays a mentally impaired farm hand who can talk to animals. And it totally backfires. It is one of the worst reviewed movies of all-time. Now, even his action movies aren’t doing well and he is in a really bad place. So, he needs this war film to work.”
Following Stiller’s vision of producing a genre-bending action-comedy, the filmmakers assembled an ensemble cast with actors who could pull off the comedic elements while still being believable in the movie’s more realistic moments.
For the role of Jeff Portnoy, the gross-out comedy star best known for his multiple roles in the “The Fatties” comedy franchise, the film makers had only one actor in mind: Jack Black. “Jack plays the archetypal, crazy, out-of-control comedy guy,” says Stiller. “The thing I love about Jack is that he is unique. Nobody else has his persona, his comedic vibe. He’s also committed. He took this character and embraced every aspect of him.”
“Jeff Portnoy takes things to a whole new level. Portnoy has made a career out of fart movies,” Black says. “I’ve done some gross-out movies myself, but Portnoy is at the next level above Jack Black in terms of dominating the world of farts.”
Although Portnoy’s lowbrow humor has made him an international superstar, Black explains, he now wants more respect as an actor. “Portnoy is trying to branch out and get a little more legit,” Black says.
As Portnoy and the rest of the cast get stranded in the jungle, we learn something else about him – he has a major substance abuse problem.
As Stiller observes, “You get to watch Portnoy going cold turkey. Jack naturally did it in a very entertaining way, but he also made it very believable. Being able to strike that balance is tough, but Jack totally committed to it.”
One of Black’s memorable moments occurred at the bad guys’ compound. In an attempt to rescue Tugg Speedman, Portnoy enters the compound semi-naked and hogtied, riding on the back of a water buffalo.
“I’m in my underpants strapped to the back of the water buffalo and my concern was how the water buffalo hide was going to feel against my naked belly and chest,” Black says. “Is it going to be a rough surface? Would I have an allergic reaction? But actually it was very soft, like one of those fancy tiger rugs you see in front of the fireplace in some movies. But she didn’t seem to be all that thrilled with me on her back. She gave me a couple of swats with her tail and looked around at me like, ‘I’m gonna buck your butt off!’ I could have sworn there was anger in her eyes,” he laughs.
The overly committed Australian actor Kirk Lazarus goes to the most extreme measures to realistically portray every one of his characters – in this case, having his skin surgically dyed to play an African-American sergeant, Lincoln Osiris.