The Lost Roles of Tropic Thunder

Casting is one of the most important processes in moviemaking. Placing the right actors in the right roles can determine whether or not an entire film rings true. Thus, casting directors and filmmakers consider a variety of possibilities before production begins. Lost Roles is a weekly series that examines the missed opportunities — the roles that could have been — and explores how some casting choices that almost happened could have changed the film industry and the comedy world, at large.

Ben Stiller had been kicking around the idea for Tropic Thunder since filming a small part in the 1987 Steven Spielberg World War II epic Empire of the Sun, so it’s no wonder a whole bevy of possible actors went through his head before the eventual cast was set. After There’s Something About Mary made him a bonafide movie star a decade later, Stiller had the power to get the film made. He began writing the script with Justin Theroux (and later Etan Coen), and they developed the project off and on for nearly ten years before production finally began. Ben Stiller assembled an impressive ensemble cast that also included Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, and cameos from a dozens of other big names. While Tropic Thunder is expertly cast and doesn’t have any weak links, some of the original ideas are pretty intriguing.

Keanu Reeves as Tugg Speedman with Ben Stiller as Rick Peck

Stiller originally planned on casting Keanu Reeves as action star Tugg Speedman, a role he eventually ended up playing. With Reeves as the movie’s lead, Stiller envisioned himself as two-faced agent Rick Peck, a role that went to Matthew McConaughey in the actual movie.

Intentionally comedic performances are rare for Keanu Reeves these days, but some of the actors first roles are in comedies like Parenthood and the Bill & Ted films. While Reeves was amusing as a spaced-out slacker in these early parts, that’s not exactly what the role of Tugg Speedman calls for. Speedman is a fool, sure, but he’s a different than the carefree pseudo-stoner Reeves is adept at playing. Reeves wouldn’t have been able to take the character to the strange depths that Stiller does, but he would have one advantage over Stiller in this part: his status as an action star. Reeves playing Speedman would have added an extra layer of reality to Tropic Thunder, especially considering Reeves and the fictional Speedman’s careers were in similar places at the time. Both actor’s fame has mainly come from action films (Speed and The Matrix series for Reeves), and back in 2007 when Tropic Thunder was filming, they each needed a hit after a series of underperforming films. It would have been fun seeing Reeves send up his image, but, in the end, Ben Stiller was the right man for the job.

Ben Stiller played a sleazy Hollywood agent on The Ben Stiller Show, so he would have felt right at home as Rick Peck. Playing a supporting role would have allowed Stiller to devote more time to his directing and producing duties, but burying the popular actor in a small part could have hurt the film’s chances of success. One thing’s for sure: Ben Stiller’s version of Rick Peck would have been more over-the-top than Matthew McConaughey’s – and funnier too.

Placing Reeves as Tropic Thunder’s lead would have been a bold choice, especially considering the project’s already-high risk factor (i.e. Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, the film’s portrayal of mental retardation). Dreamworks may have been less-likely to hand over the $100 million budget Stiller received to make the film if it didn’t have a proven comedy star at its center. If Tropic Thunder somehow received funding and was made with Keanu Reeves and Ben Stiller occupying these parts, audiences might not have warmed to Reeves as a comic actor and the film may have failed. Depending on how he would have handled the part, Tropic Thunder could have turned into the kind of misguided big budget film it was satirizing. If Reeves had done well in the part, however, the film’s success could have brought about a resurgence in his career as a comedic actor.

Tom Cruise as Rick Peck

After Ben Stiller nixed the Keanu Reeves idea, he opted to cast himself as Tugg Speedman, leaving the role of superagent Rick Peck wide open. Stiller cast Tom Cruise in the part, which was a cameo at the time. The two had been friends since working together on Mission: Improbable, a short film parody for the MTV Movie Awards in 2000. After Cruise read the initial script, he suggested adding in a studio head character. Stiller and his co-writers reworked the script, adding in the foul-mouthed Les Grossman, who Cruise himself ended up playing.

Cruise wowed audiences as Les Grossman, with many unable to recognize him until the closing credits due to his bald cap, fat suit, oversized fake hands, and uncharacteristically gruff, foul-mouthed demeanor. Tom Cruise revived the character last year at the MTV Movie Awards in a popular series of sketches involving Grossman berating young stars, and plans for a Les Grossman spin-off film were announced shortly thereafter, with Ben Stiller’s company Red Hour producing. Even if the Les Grossman movie never makes it through the grueling development process, Cruise’s part in Tropic Thunder was still a very successful move for the actor. Tropic Thunder has been his highest-performing movie in recent years, and playing Les Grossman instead of Rick Peck has definitely been a good thing for Cruise.

Despite Tom Cruise’s success as Les Grossman, it would have been worthwhile to see his take on the agent character. Cruise famously played a sports agent in Jerry Maguire, and it’s one of his best-known roles. Tropic Thunder could have been an opportunity for him to lampoon the part, playing Rick Peck as a twisted, satiric version of Jerry Maguire. His smiley, nice-guy personality would have masked Peck’s duplicitous nature nicely, and it would have been funny to see Cruise lampoon one of his most famous roles

Owen Wilson as Rick Peck

After Tom Cruise switched roles, Ben Stiller cast his frequent co-star Owen Wilson as Rick Peck. Wilson dropped out of the project after an apparent suicide attempt, just prior to the start of production. Wilson and Stiller are always entertaining together in their frequent onscreen pairings, but I don’t know if Owen Wilson could have played Peck with the same level of sleaziness that Matthew McConaughey brings to the character. McConaughey was an unconventional choice for Peck, and he handled the role ably. Wilson has a much better track record with comedies (and movies in general), and he would have been very funny as Peck, but the character works fine with McConaughey playing him.

Mos Def as Alpa Chino

“I have no problem with having a sense of humor about it… I already did that. I think I did it to better effect in The Boondocks with Gangstalicious… the closeted gay rapper character… I think my version would have been much funnier.”

Mos Def was offered the part of closeted gay rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino, but he came to an agreement with the filmmakers that he wasn’t right for the part. Not wanting to parody the rap industry, Mos Def asked the writers to change the character to an R&B musician. Mos Def plead his case in a 2009 interview, saying:It’s hard to agree with Mos Def on this one. Tropic Thunder is a satire of Hollywood, and it’s much more common for rap stars to make the transition to acting than R&B stars. Also, the trend of rappers trying out acting is a very specific comedic target and one that is well-observed in Tropic Thunder. Mocking R&B stars seem like going after low-hanging fruit, and making this change would have been a toothless choice in an otherwise-ballsy Hollywood comedy. And to be fair, Mos Def’s brash insistence on retooling the entire character and second-guessing the accomplished comedy writers behind Tropic Thunder is a bit unwarranted.

Brandon T. Jackson, the actor who got the part of Alpa Chino, does a great job with it, and he didn’t make any requests that would have weakened the satire. Appearing in Tropic Thunder was a huge boost to Jackson’s career, allowing him to land what I’m sure was a highly-coveted role in the passing-of-the-torch third installment in the Big Momma’s House franchise. Mos Def seems to be focusing more on his music lately, but if he had taken this part in Tropic Thunder and not insisted on any script changes, appearing in the blockbuster may have opened up some projects worth taking a break from the recording studio for.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of Tropic Thunder