In a podcast interview with Joe Rogan, actor Robert Downey Jr. expressed zero regrets over playing a character in blackface.
On a Jan. 15 episode of "The Joe Rogan Experience," Rogan asked Downey Jr. whether he would still be able to play his controversial character, Kirk Lazarus, from the 2008 comedy film "Tropic Thunder." In the movie, Lazarus is portrayed as an Australian method actor who, in turn, plays a black character. Downey Jr.'s role was widely perceived as controversial, given the racist history behind the use of blackface.
Speaking to Rogan, Downey Jr. admitting to having his own reservations when Ben Stiller, the director of the film, reached out to him.
"When Ben called and said, 'Hey, I'm doing this thing,' — and, you know, I think Sean Penn may have passed on it or something like that, possibly wisely — and I thought, 'Yeah, I'll do that, and I'll do that after 'Iron Man,'" the actor joked. "And then I started thinking, 'This is a terrible idea.'"
Upon further reflection, however, Downey Jr. said the role seemed to offer an opportunity to call out Hollywood's obsession with pushing the boundaries of acceptable character portrayals.
"I thought, 'Hold on, dude. Get real here. Where is your heart?'" he said. "And my heart is ... I get to be black for a summer, you know, in my mind, so there's something in it for me. The other thing is that 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."
The actor, who compared Stiller to Charlie Chaplin, said the director executed his vision for the film "perfectly," adding that it "was impossible for it to not have it be an offensive nightmare of a movie." Downey Jr. further claimed that "90 percent" of his black friends liked his role in "Tropic Thunder."
When asked again whether performing in blackface would be acceptable in today's political climate, the actor acknowledged that "having a moral psychology is job No. 1," but stressed that the film was about how wrong putting blackface on is.
Downey Jr.'s remarks almost immediately sparked a debate on Twitter, with some defending him and others criticizing him for even accepting the role.
"This is ridiculous," one person wrote in response to the Washington Post's story on the interview. "The whole point of it was a white man playing a white man that was trying to learn how to become a black man for a role ... [in a] movie within a movie. Trying to make one of the nicest men in [the] film a villain, is pathetic @washingtonpost"
This is ridiculous. The whole point of it was a white man playing a white man that was trying to learn how to become a black man for a role... movie within a movie. Trying to make one of the nicest men in film a villain, is pathetic @washingtonpost
— Mickey Stithem (@SpectralFireZ) January 22, 2020
"I mean, the joke of it WAS that it was a method actor crawling so far up their own butt that they can't see blackface is a horrible mistake," another tweeted.
I mean, the joke of it WAS that it was a method actor crawling so far up their own butt that they can’t see blackface is a horrible mistake.
— Sir Thopas (@Sir_Thopas) January 22, 2020
Others took issue with how Downey Jr. tried to defend his role.
"I don’t think the problem was with the role he played - is was used to show the absurdity/hypocrisy of Hollywood," one Twitter user posted. "The problem is what he JUST said - using “the friend argument” to justify it. That was unnecessary and showed his lack of understanding."
I don’t think the problem was with the role he played - is was used to show the absurdity/hypocrisy of Hollywood. The problem is what he JUST said - using “the friend argument” to justify it. That was unnecessary and showed his lack of understanding.
— Gimmee (@Gimmeedaball) January 22, 2020
"The old 'I'm not racist because I have African American friends,'" another quipped.
The old “I’m not racist because I have African American friends.”
— kenji555 (@kenji555) January 22, 2020