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WAR GAMES IT WAS JUNGLE FEVER OF A DIFFERENT KIND FOR 'TROPIC THUNDER' TROOPS BY GLENN WHIPP FILM WRITER.

Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" examines what happens when a group of self-absorbed Hollywood A-listers go deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia to heighten the realism of the war movie they're making -- and end up getting more reality than they bargained for.

It's a big-budget war movie with explosions and gunfire and helicopter rescues. But the boom-boom is there to serve the humor, which is plentiful, crackling and merciless.

Stiller has been kicking around the idea for more than 20 years.

Here, he and his collaborators talk about the conceit behind "Thunder" (in theaters Wednesday), Robert Downey Jr.'s fearless tightrope act and a hilarious cameo turn that somehow manages to make Tom Cruise cool again.

SELF-IMPORTANCE AND THE MADNESS TO THE 'METHOD'

Robert Downey Jr. (Kirk Lazarus, overly committed, five-time Oscar winner who surgically dyes his skin to play a black Army sergeant): "The whole idea of actors taking themselves seriously is the funniest thing I've ever seen. I've heard people say we need to put on animal masks and improvise, and I'm like, 'We really don't. I don't need to dress up as a reindeer and you're a bear. ... Who taught you this garbage?' "

Justin Theroux (co-writer): "DVD war movie commentaries proved to be a great source of material. These guys would literally compare making the movie to going to war. Some actor would say, 'The director is the sergeant, and we're just the grunts.' No. You're actors. Nobody's going to (bleeping) die while you're making this movie."

Jack Black (Jeff Portnoy, star of lowbrow comedy franchise "The Fatties"): "Yes, the Lee Strasberg Institute of Mental Instability. I was in 'Dead Man Walking' with Sean Penn. I don't know what he was doing, but he was living the role, for sure. It was exciting to be around him. But sometimes, he would slip in and out of character, and it would get a little scary. ...

"He also got a tattoo that looked like a scary prison tattoo. That's just going too far. But, then again, he was amazing in that movie, so is it too far? I just didn't want him doing anything that, you know, would actually put him on death row."

Theroux: "The great thing about Hollywood is that nobody will ever own any of this. They won't look at it and say, 'That's me.' It'll be: 'No. That's that other guy. Isn't it ridiculous?' It's like a rubber ball bouncing off a rubber ball.

Downey: "The whole film is based on the idea that what we do on some level is offensive and who we are on some level is despicable and pathetic. Which is the truth and not the truth. But the part that is the truth is entertaining."

'THESE (BLEEPING) DUMB WHITE BOYS'

Co-writer Etan Cohen came up with the movie's most shocking gamble -- an Australian Method actor so committed (and certifiable) that he dyes his skin black for a part and then doesn't break character "until after the DVD commentary."

Stiller (director, co-writer and pampered action superstar Tugg Speedman): "My first thought was nobody would accept that. Then it was: Who could do it? It was a short list. It had to be a guy who you bought as the real deal. At that point in time, Robert was this bargain-basement steal of an actor."

Downey: "I had just finished 'Iron Man,' and initially I thought, '(Bleep) Ben Stiller.' He's going to call me up and say I want to do a great big movie with you, but I want you to have the highest risk factor and maybe put you up to ridicule and have people hate you for doing something you should have known was (bleeping) wrong to do."

Jay Baruchel (rookie actor Kevin Sandusky): "My reaction the first time I saw him? 'Holy (bleep)!' Or was it: 'Holy (bleep)!' It was something to that effect."

Downey: "I was just thinking: 'You're black. You're an Army sergeant.

You're a (bleeping) bad-ass.' I was just looking around, thinking, 'I have to take care of these people.' And, no offense, I'm looking around thinking, 'These (bleeping) dumb white boys.' So I actually got the ultimate experience of probably what some people are thinking when they're looking at me."

Baruchel: To me, everything in comedy comes from Peter Sellers. And you can put Robert's performance in that level of genius.

Downey: "Very fortunately we had (co-star) Brandon T. Jackson there going, 'I think this is cool, as a black man. I think this is funny.' Or: 'Cut this page. That's not funny.' "

Stiller: The only way we could do it was have Brandon there calling Lazarus at every turn. Brandon is saying what any sane person would be saying. His presence helped clarify what the issue was. Even to the point where Lazarus asks, 'Are we cool?' 'No. Not really. It's not really cool.' "

Downey: "This could be a really good kind of healing positive thing and say something about race relations. I don't want to put too much on it because it could just not suck. That's usually my first criteria for a movie: Could this not suck?"

Stiller: "Think about the scene with Lazarus where, because he's so committed to the character, that when he hears the N-word from a black guy, he gets offended. It's ridiculous that he's taking such ownership of the character that he's telling a black guy how he should act."

Downey: "What would I say to someone who's offended? Look, I'm offended. That's because I'm in fear about this, you know what I mean?"

MEASURE OF SUCCESS: NO FATALITIES

"Tropic Thunder" has been said to be the most expensive comedy ever made. The battle scenes ran up costs, as did Stiller's Kubrick-like penchant for perfectionism.

Downey: "I give him a lot of (grief) for it. Look, I love the guy and respect him immensely. But people were dropping like flies."

Baruchel: "One day, we spent 12 hours in frigid, still river water.

There were chunks of guava and other strange things floating around us. Everyone was getting sties and (stuff). The funny thing is, the scene didn't make the movie."

Nick Nolte (grizzled Vietnam vet John "Four Leaf" Tayback, whose autobiography inspired the film): "Ben's not going to let a scene go by easy. He's going to explore it. You'd better be prepared. You're going to think, your fifth and sixth take, you've got it nailed. No. Ben's going to go on much further ... until it's flat exhausted."

Downey: "He's not mean-spirited. He's not one of those guys that you hear about. ... But he is obsessed with the idea of delivering the best product he can."

Nolte: "Let's put this in perspective. (Robert) Mitchum told me he wouldn't work for John Huston again because Huston once told him to swim across a river in the South. And Mitchum asks, 'Well, John, are there any snakes in there?' 'Nooooo, Bob. We checked it out.' Mitchum gets halfway across and runs into a water moccasin.

"Ben would at least be honest about the water moccasins. He'd still make you swim across the river, but you'd know what you're getting into."

TOM CRUISE: 'AN ACT OF REVENGE?'

Cruise has a funny cameo as a bald, profane and very angry studio executive. It is said to have been inspired by his dealings with Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom, Paramount's parent company, among others.

Stiller: "I sent the script to Tom. I was thinking maybe he could play the agent, but he suggested that it would be interesting if there was a studio head. I thought it was a great idea because we needed to explain why nobody was looking for these guys."

Nolte: "Tom has had his fair share of trouble with studio executives. I'm sure he's very pleased with being able to state -- how should I put it? -- a certain lacking in sensitivity on their parts."

Theroux: "We wanted the guy to be as terrible and horrifying as possible, and Tom just threw himself into it. Was it an act of revenge? Maybe."

Baruchel: "I remember being at the table reading and being taken aback. I mean, he was doing it with such relish. I think he has been waiting his whole career to say (bleep) with that level of anger."

Stiller: "He wanted really big hands. 'OK, Tom. You can have really big hands.' I thought he should be bald. Then we took the hair from his head and grafted it onto his chest. (Laughs)

Nolte: "The part about the studio leaving Ben's character, Speedman, stranded in the jungle to collect the insurance money is pretty brutal -- and it's probably exactly what would happen, too."

Glenn Whipp, (818) 713-3672; glenn.whipp@dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) no caption ("Tropic Thunder")

(2 -- color) Robert Downey Jr. plays a five-time Oscar winner who surgically dyes his skin black in "Tropic Thunder."

(3 -- color) Nick Nolte plays Vietnam vet John "Four Leaf" Tayback. On working with Stiller, he says, "Ben's not going to let a scene go by easy."

(4 -- color) Sumner Redstone, left, and Tom Cruise in happier times. There has been speculation that Cruise's portrayal of a studio head in "Tropic Thunder" was inspired by his dealings with Redstone.

(5 -- color) Fellow cast members say Brandon T. Jackson helped keep it real on the set.
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 10, 2008
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