Playing an action star who hasn't read his script but has an unquenchable desire for Tivo, Ben Stiller sticks a spit in the movie business and roasts it over an open fire.
With the release of this summer's Hollywood send-up "Tropic Thunder," it might seem that Stiller is biting the hand that feeds him. Functioning as both a war movie rip-off and a satire of Hollywood culture, it's not your typical summer comedy.
The movie's mastermind sat down with Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers to discuss his trifecta as director, co-producer and star of the film on "Popcorn With Peter Travers" on ABC News Now.
"Tropic Thunder" follows a pampered bunch of movie stars mistakenly let loose into a jungle with drug gangs, wild beasts and an improvised kind of wild Kabuki theater, all the while thinking they're on a movie set.
Stiller said the idea of a scathing satire on big-budget action movies first dawned on him as he was getting his first breaks in the business almost 20 years ago.
"At that time it felt like there were a lot of Vietnam films and war movies being made," he said. "As an actor I was going in on them or had friends who were doing them and going off to these fake boot camps."
In fact, one of Stiller's first Hollywood jobs was in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun."
"A few years went by and my friend Justin Theroux and I were talking about it," Stiller said. "We came up with this idea: What if we put a bunch of actors in the jungle and have them deal with a real situation. So we started the script, and then it was on and off for about eight or nine years."
In order to create a hilarious yet biting satire, it was essential to script the characters perfectly.
"We thought we would take some archetypes," Stiller said. "Like the action star [Stiller], the hip-hop guy [Brandon T. Jackson], the comedy guy [Jack Black] and have one guy who wasn't famous in the group [Jay Baruchel], who … the actor that actually wanted to be there and the only guy that actually did go to the fake boot camp. And so when they get out into the jungle he's the one guy who can read the map and is actually, you know, all of a sudden the power structure changes when it's a survival situation."
Downey's Controversial Role
Perhaps the most controversial role of the film is Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Academy Award winner whose intense method acting never allows him to break character "until the DVD commentary," Stiller said. In the film, Lazarus undergoes a procedure to "pigmentize" his skin color for his role as the platoon's black sergeant.
"That was really important to me in getting the guy to play this part," Stiller said. "You could believe that he was actually a great actor, that he was a really respected actor, and also had a great sense of humor."
For Stiller, Downey's presence was a great help in his directing of the film. He said he would often rely on Downey's acting chops to determine whether scenes were working.
The film is expected to become the second blockbuster for Downey this summer, after his early summer hit "Iron Man" catapulted him back to the top of the Hollywood A-list.
"He had two days off between the beginning of our shoot and the end of 'Iron Man'," Stiller said. "So I think he sort of had the 'Iron Man' bravado happening in his head because he just felt it, he had just come off of it."
Cruise Cameo Becomes Bigger Role
Studio exec Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), one of the film's most memorable characters, wasn't even intended to be in the movie. Cruise was originally slated for a cameo as Stiller's character's agent. Instead, Cruise suggested creating a studio head position and it was reworked into the script. Stiller and Cruise worked together to create the middle-age character that required a fat suit, fake large, hairy hands and a bald head.
Grossman will likely be remembered by audiences for his dance scene to the hip-hop hit "Low" by Flo Rida, which was improvised by Cruise.
"We were doing a makeup test and he said, 'I feel like I wanna move as this guy,' and he started doing this weird little motion thing," Stiller said. "I said, 'Keep doing that,' and filmed it. Then I got in the editing room, put some music on it, and he was dancing in perfect time to this hip-hop song that wasn't even playing."
Disability Groups Concerned
"Tropic Thunder" has already caused a storm of controversy in the disability advocacy community.
A Web site for "Simple Jack," a faux film exhibited in the movie where Stiller's character plays an intellectually challenged man, was pulled Aug. 4 amid several groups' concerns about its portrayal of mental retardation, called "intellectual disabilities" by disability advocacy groups.
"Within the context of the movie, I think it's really clear that what we're mocking are actors who play characters like this in order to further their careers," Stiller said. "It's a disability, and it's sort of common knowledge that's what you have to do to be taken seriously. I think there's something in that, that irony that is funny. And that was really the point in Robert's character, too, and that's sort of the lens we focused everything through when we were writing the script and we felt we were pretty clear about that.
"Overall, I think actors have a sense that there's a ridiculous nature to the whole thing," he said. "I felt that as long as we were clear about what our point of view was and we weren't making fun of people just to make fun, but making fun of ourselves."
It Runs in the Stiller Family
For Stiller, filmmaking came at an early age from his parents, veteran comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. "I just saw that they were really committed to their work, and it was exciting to me," he said.
His first major encounter with the film world came when his father took him to the set of 1974's "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," where his father filmed a scene with Walter Matthau over and over again.
"I saw the movie, and the scene was maybe eight seconds in the movie," he said. "I was like, 'They were there all night doing that scene and it's only eight seconds.' And there was something about it that I was just really drawn to."
That experience gave the younger Stiller a taste of the life, and he began filming Super 8 movies around the house. His famous father starred in his amateur production of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," in which he was chopped up and buried alive.
Stiller's interest in film certainly didn't end there. His groundbreaking television comedy "The Ben Stiller Show" was picked up by Fox in 1992, and although it aired for only one season, it gained a large cult following.
He soon found himself headlining major comedies such as "There's Something About Mary" and "Meet the Parents," and he wrote, produced, directed and starred in 2001's hit "Zoolander." Along the way Stiller fell into the fabled "Frat Pack" circle.
Despite his decade-long streak of success, the actor is still eager for more.
"I'd like to do different kinds of things as an actor and as a director so I hope that I can," he said. "Over the last few years it has been a lot of bigger movies and comedies and I'm ready to change it up a little bit, I think. I never expected that I would be doing movies or that people would even want me to act in movies as much so it's been an interesting few years. But I hope that I can keep on doing different things.
"You need to love the filmmaking process," he said of his drive. "It takes so much time and it takes so much energy, you have to love doing it. It's been the same feeling since doing the Super 8 movies up to doing this."
For people planning on seeing "Tropic Thunder," Stiller had one last disclaimer: "We're laughing at ourselves and the whole world we're a part of. I think we're all a part of it so we can see the ridiculousness of it in ourselves, too, I think."