Actors, agents, directors, executives, rappers — none escape unscathed in Ben Stiller’s Hollywoodfarce Tropic Thunder. Controversiessurrounding the film may account for its relatively unimpressive box office debut this past weekend, and reviews have been mixed. Regardless, the film did did topple The Dark Knight in its second weekend, so you have to give it some credit.
Now re-imagine Tropic Thunder for a moment, from a different perspective. You’re Brandon T. Jackson, and you’ve been cast to play rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino. With relatively little experience (you played Junior in Roll Bounce), you now find yourself working with Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jack Black. Now what’s your reaction? Give it some credit? More likeAwesome, man. Jackson, 24, participated in a round table with college journalists, and here’s what the newcomer had to say:
How did you get the role?
I auditioned, like, 15 times for Ben [Stiller] and it was crazy, because I didn’t get the role at first. Dreamworks was like, he’s just too young. They didn’t believe I could do it as far as, not my talent, but they didn’t think it would look right, a [then] 21-year-old next to all these 40-year-olds. So they hired the other actor and I guess it didn’t work right. I got a call from Ben like “Hey, uh, would you like to come do the movie?” They gave me the part, I flew to Hawaii and next thing I know I’m working with Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Stiller and Jack Black. It’s been crazy ever since.
What was it like being on set next to the guys like that?
The tough thing was being the odd man out, being the freshman, ’cause this was like my comedy grad school. I was the youngest and the blackest on the set — the real blackest — so it was different because I would talk about different things. I’m coming straight from the young hip-hop world, not even the older hip-hop world, to this, where I’m just like, “You guys see the new Lil’ Wayne video?” And everybody’s like… So it was weird, but when I got used to it and started getting around and seeing how everybody moved it became comfortable. I was hazed a little bit, but it wasn’t that bad.
Who was the primary hazer?
Ben and Robert. They would play games. It was things where they don’t believe you can do it, but you got to show them you can do it. Just little stuff. The weirdest thing is Robert would stay in character the whole time, even off camera. Ben would yell cut and he’ll still be going “Ima go to the trailer and get some chicken and barbecue sauce, wanna come with me brotha?” One time he showed up late and he was like, “You know how we always late.”
Since this is a movie about actors, how much do you think that you were playing yourself? Or did you feel you had similarities to your character at all?
My energy’s kind of the same, but at the same time it was different because I kind of became the voice of reason. Everybody was going crazy and I’m like, “We gotta stop.” It was kind of one of those things where I saw a different side of myself. It’s definitely different. I’m really used to kind of hitting the punchlines all the time, just punchline, punchline, but this was more developing character outside of just the fast-talking guy.
Did you like that?
It was uncomfortable at first, but I began to like it once I saw how it was being played out, and once I saw it in the screening.
What did you learn from working with such established comedians as Jack Black and Ben Stiller, being a comedian yourself?
I learned that… if you’re white you can do anything. (Laughter) I’m just playing. I learned that these guys are freakin’ geniuses and they work very hard and they stay working hard and they make it look easy. And it’s not. So I have to figure out how they have the time to do this, is my question.
How did you feel about Downey’s character? Did you see the satirical nature of the role?
I did feel like I was the one justifying the movie because without me, without my character, we would have been shut down. There was a scene where Robert was supposed to say the N-word, and I had to say, “No Ben, we gotta cut.” Remember the scene where Robert hugs me and does the whole, “It took a whole lot of trying to get up that hill?” It was written for him to be like, and I’ll say it, so you can hear how it sounds, “N—–s always gotta be n—–s.” It’s funny, but it would have got such a shock. Especially right now with what we’re going through with Barack and Jesse and all this other stuff. It would have been such a shock that they probably would have shut the movie down. Or they would have just cut the scene. I said “Ben, we can’t say this man. For real, it’s gonna get shut down.” So we kind of had a team huddle and I was like, “You know what’s funnier? What if I said it and he corrected me and went into some jargon, like the speech. You get the older black man speech. Let me be the young rapper and you be the Bill Cosby approach where you’re like “You all gotta stop being such and such.” So it actually worked out being one of the best scenes in the movie, I think, personally.
You played a rapper. Did you model your character off anyone in particular?
Ludacris, Lil’ Wayne and Nelly. And Diddy, especially Diddy.
Why should people see Tropic Thunder?
Shit is funny. Best two performances of this year: Robert Downey, Jr. and Heath Ledger. One’s in blackface, one’s in whiteface. Oscars, both of them.
If you could have any kind of role in 10 years, what kind of role would you want to have?
Ten years? In the next five I want my Money Talks, Chris Tucker-type, “Beverly Hills Cop” role. I want to be the “Beverly Hills Cop”-type dude for our generation. Nick Cannon done effed it up for all of us because he wasn’t funny in Underclassman. Sorry! I take comedy very seriously. When something’s funny it’s amazing, when it’s not it’s just sad. To watch my idol [Eddie Murphy] do Meet Dave, I just wanted to cry.