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‘Tropic Thunder’ Writer Justin Theroux on ‘Simple Jack,’ ‘Iron Man 2,’ and Stupid Actors

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Over the past decade, actor Justin Theroux has long been a quiet player on the indie film scene, adding his slightly whiny charm to movies like The Baxter, Broken English, and Mulholland Drive. Lately, though, he’s been even more accomplished behind the scenes, directing last year’s Dedication starring Billy Crudup, being asked to write the upcoming sequel to Iron Man (!), and collaborating on the script for this week’s Tropic Thunder with Ben Stiller and Etan Cohen. The other day, Theroux spoke to Vulture about war movies, the Simple Jack controversy, and why Iron Man 2 won’t be anything like The Dark Knight.

So the movie is pretty over-the-top. How did you and Ben Stiller decide when to draw the line between funny and…
Heeeere we go. I know what’s coming. [Laughing] I can see ten minutes into the future!

Well … I was going to say, between the funny and the totally ridiculous.
Neither he nor I are fans of cruel humor. Like the kind of humor that just makes people feel shitty. We’re very careful when we tee up our subject, which was Hollywood and actors here. So obviously Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), as sort of the most risqué character, was the one we were most careful with. There’s nothing funny about African-American jokes, but there’s something very funny about actors playing African-Americans when they’re white. We wanted to do a send-up of those Method actors who become anorexic and dysmorphic when they get parts, you know, live the role, pluck bald spots out of their hair.

Have you met lots of crazy Method actors?
Yeah, and weirdly, without naming names, the most have been in television, which is the most ironic thing ever. Television actors are always striving to be a little more on point, so there would be times when I’d be doing, like, your average show, and there’d be people in character at lunch, and you’d be like, “Knock it off! Cut the comedy! It’s really just a cop show. It’s not going to change the world if you break character at the craft-service table.”

Where did the idea for Downey’s character come from?
Believe it or not, all the characters came first from watching war movies. That was the blueprint. In war movies, especially lesser war movies, there’s these horrible stereotypes of, like, the fat guy who’s too slow and gets everyone killed, and the southern guy named Dixie, and the 19-year-old black kid from Detroit, and they all have terrible names like Fats or Motown, or the Jewish kid’s named … Brooklyn! There’s this perfect cross section of our fightin’ boys! So that was a first step — who would be the funniest group to exploit? And then we also felt like, well, what’s the worst cast we could possibly come up with to fill those roles? We knew any craven studio head would want an Oscar winner, an action star with major box-office clout, the comedy gross-out guy, the rapper.

Nick Nolte is really the perfect guy for his role — did you always have him in mind for it?
Oh, totally, it was like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Nolte for this?” And same thing with the cinematographer actually, John Toll, who did fuckin’ Thin Red Line. We were having a meeting about shooting the thing and were like, “Why don’t we get John Toll, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” And then we did get John Toll!

Of the fake movies in Tropic Thunder, do you think a Hollywood studio would actually make any of them?
I think honestly they’d make all of them. That was the joke — it’s going to be really funny when they make all these movies for real. If it was given a good writer and director, all these movies could be made. What’s so funny is that they’re really not all that far from the truth.

Okay — I now have to ask about Simple Jack
God bless him. Well, that came out of the same place the others movies came from — what length actors will go to to get critical acclaim or comedic credibility or whatever. So we thought about having a set piece built around an actor who’s failing in his career and thought if he did a movie about a mentally impaired guy he’d win an Oscar and breathe new life into his career. And he does it clumsily and terribly — not unlike reality, I might add. There are MANY films we’re lampooning there, and TV movies included, just a bunch of movies we found completely outrageous.

The actors in the movie are all pretty much idiots. How stupid are actors in real life?
In real life? I mean, for the most part, actors, especially the ones I like — my friiiends — are great, but there are actors who actually start to believe they’re as intelligent as the scripts they’re mimicking. And sometimes that’s true. But there are also actors who should never go off book. There are plenty of actors who are brilliant people, and plenty who should not be allowed on talk shows.

You’re writing Iron Man 2, right? Given the success of The Dark Knight, are you tempted to make it darker than the original?
There’s no temptation whatsoever. You know, I tremulously went and watched The Dark Knight myself, but it’s a totally different movie, like, you know that Tom Cruise movie where he played the race-car driver? What was that movie called … anyway. It’s like comparing that movie to Talladega Nights — it’s two totally different animals. We have a leading man who can sort of relish being a cad, and that’s a fun character to write for. We feel like we’re in the clear. —Rebecca Milzoff

‘Tropic Thunder’ Writer Justin Theroux on ‘Simple Jack,’ ‘Iron Man 2,’ and Stupid Actors