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."
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."