‘Suck My Unit’: 15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘Tropic Thunder’ on Its 15th Anniversary

The one where Jack Black got very personal with a water buffalo
‘Suck My Unit’: 15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘Tropic Thunder’ on Its 15th Anniversary

While there indeed are moments in Ben Stiller’s 2008 action satire that are hard to swallow today, Tropic Thunder will always be the movie that swung wildly at filmmakers, actors and Jack Black’s likability. Stiller, who directed and wrote the screenplay alongside Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, has stated many times that their target was always Hollywood and the caliber of actors who think they can get away with anything if it means getting nominated come awards season. To that end, the movie parodies acclaimed war films, method acting, Eddie Murphy and an entire grab bag of Hollywood antics. 

On its 15th anniversary, here’s a look at the making of the controversial comedy that gave us one heck of an opening sequence…

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Tom Cruise Came Up With His Character

Les Grossman, the movie’s diabolical Weinstein-like studio executive, wasn’t originally in the script. Stiller sent Cruise the screenplay with the idea of casting him as Hollywood agent Rick Peck (played by Matthew McConaughey), but Cruise had other ideas. “Tom Cruise had the idea to play Les Grossman in the movie,” Stiller revealed to Esquire. “That part did not exist. (Cruise) said, ‘Well, there’s no studio executive, and that would be really fun to be that guy.’ And he had this whole idea of what the guy should look like. It was his idea to dance. And I remember when we did a makeup test, someone handed him a Diet Coke, and then he just started moving.”

Cruise explained his thinking behind the character during an interview with BBC Radio 1: “I read the script, and he had all of the characters, but the studio wasn’t there. There was a structural compression missing down on those characters, you know, that keeps the pressure on these guys that really drives the story. I was like, ‘You need the studio.’”

The ‘Young Frankenstein’ Joke

Co-writer Theroux said he “stole” a bit from the famous Mel Brooks movie. The scene in question sees Black getting tied to a tree to kick his drug habit, with him instructing the guys to leave him tied up no matter what he says. The joke is lifted from Young Frankenstein when Dr. Frankenstein insists that his people should not open the door no matter how much he screams. Of course, both characters go on to hilariously plead for their release.

Black’s Saucy Lines During the Tree Scene Sprung from an Urban Legend Involving Sylvester Stallone

“That was an homage to the urban legend about Sylvester Stallone going to his trailer with like some lady,” Black told Hollywood.com. “They were having sex in his trailer, and as the legend goes, he still wore his microphone and the sound design guy turned up the volume and everyone outside could hear. And he was like, ‘Alright, stroke the shaft, cradle the balls. Say my name.’ That’s been going around for decades.”

Stiller Came Up With the Premise Because He Was Annoyed at Actors Doing Vietnam War Movies

Stiller got the idea for Tropic Thunder while he was doing Empire of the Sun in 1987 because, at the time, as he explained, “All these Vietnam movies were being made, and my friends and I were going on auditions for these Vietnam movies, and my friends were getting them and going away to fake boot camps. It seemed like there was a time when all actors were going away to fake boot camp and talking about these incredible experiences that they had and how it really changed their lives, and there was something there that seemed funny to me. Maybe it was because I wasn’t getting parts in those movies, but I was like, ‘Oh, wow. You’re going off and getting all of that. What about people who actually go to war?’ The actors were like owning this experience as if it was like this real and incredible experience. I’m sure that it was a great experience, but it wasn’t like actually going to real boot camp.”

The Mockumentary That Was Shot Concurrently With the Film

Since the movie has a lot of nods to war films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, the filmmakers thought it’d be funny filming a “Making Of” mockumentary in the vein of Hearts of Darkness. “Justin Theroux, who wrote the script with me and Etan Cohen, he took control of this thing and wrote this fake documentary about the director (played by Steve Coogan) who basically went crazy,” Stiller said. “He took these actors out into the jungle and never returned. It’s like, ‘What happened, and what’s the story there?’ So we filmed that sort of concurrently, and Justin directed that and wrote it and did interviews with the actors while we were shooting.”

The Inspiration Behind Robert Downey Jr.’s Controversial Character, Kirk Lazarus

At a press conference where Downey Jr. accepted the ShoWest Male Star of the Year in 2008, the actor explained: “In Tropic Thunder, I play a guy named Kirk Lazarus, who I fashioned after Russell Crowe, Daniel Day-Lewis with a little Colin Farrell in there, those three guys or one guy are playing an African-American army sergeant in a very important Vietnam movie.”

He went on to explain just how nuts his character is: “In the mockumentary, as Kirk Lazarus is preparing, he went back and actually moved in with the man that the character he’s playing, who would be a 75-year-old African-American, he went in and moved in with his wife in Vietnam, so there are scenes where I’m with my Vietnamese family that’s not my family, and I decided that I should start taking the psych meds of the character that I’m playing, this African-American Army sergeant, from when he was at the hospital so I could understand his experience more, and at one point in the documentary, I explain clearly how I built the pyramids.”

Stiller was worried that people wouldn’t get why Kirk Lazarus was doing blackface. “It’s such a touchy area,” he explained. “It had to be clear: What we are satirizing is the character and his loss of identity. So we have a Black actor there (Brandon T. Jackson playing Alpa Chino) calling (Lazarus) on every moment to be perfectly clear about our point of view. We never wanted it to be okay.” 

Mentioning his own character, the actor Tugg Speedman, who plays a mentally impaired character, Simple Jack, Stiller reiterated that “it always comes back to what we are satirizing: The actors and the Hollywood system. What do you do to be taken seriously? How far do you go?”

Mos Def Was Offered the Part of Alpa Chino

The closeted gay rapper and actor character, Alpa Chino, was ultimately played by Brandon T. Jackson in the movie, but only because Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) turned down the part. The real-life rapper and actor said that he didn’t want to parody his own music and asked the writers whether they’d consider making Alpa Chino an R&B musician instead. The filmmakers disagreed, arguing that to parody Hollywood, the character had to be a rapper since it was mostly rappers who turned to acting. They also thought going after R&B artists would be “low-hanging fruit.” On top of that, Bey had already played a similar character in The Boondocks and didn’t really want to do it again.

The Film Almost Starred Owen Wilson and Keanu Reeves

Wilson was cast as Hollywood agent Peck, but the actor dropped out after his attempted suicide in 2007. Before all that, Stiller had initially wanted to play Peck himself and was considering casting Reeves to play the lead character, Tugg Speedman.

No One Knew That the Water Buffalo in the Movie Was Pregnant

Bertha, the buffalo that Black took a ride on while filming the movie, was flown in from Texas for her big movie shoot. Halfway through production, she suddenly gave birth, leaving everyone gobsmacked because they didn’t even know she was pregnant. Her baby, Little Jack, was named after Black.

“I was terrified of getting on the water buffalo naked,” Black said. “I didn’t want to do it, and then Ben convinced me it would be really good for the film. I did a lot of buffalo whispering, talking to her lovingly and complimenting her on her beauty and telling her we were going to be really good friends, and massaging her hyde. I got on her, and she was still like (makes snorting noise while shaking head from side-to-side). I had this feeling that she hated me and wanted to kill me, and it turned out that she was pregnant and nobody knew.”

The Movie Is Said to Have Kickstarted the ‘McConaissance’

Before Tropic ThunderMatthew McConaughey was starring in a string of rom-coms like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Fool’s Gold and Failure to LaunchMany believe his role in Tropic Thunder set him up for his comeback since the actor went on to star in more serious projects, including Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective.

Brandon T. Jackson Went on a Special Diet to Prepare for His Role

The actor, who was only 22 at the time, said that he ate a lot of fish and potatoes to bulk up for the role. He also got to work out in Stiller’s gym and complimented his director. “When we got on the set, all this magic just started happening from there,” Jackson has said. “It was great, man because he (Stiller) is so intense, and he knows how to get what he needs out of you. As an African-American comedian, I was used to playing more to the punch line, and he showed me how to stay within the character instead of going for the joke. It was all magic.”

Stiller Admitted That He Was So Focused on Getting Kirk Lazarus Right That He Didn’t Think of Scrutinizing His Own Character, Simply Jack

In 2020, Stiller admitted that Tropic Thunder would probably not get made today. “Because the atmosphere, that would just feel wrong,” he said. “It would be tone-deaf right now to make it. But the time we made it was very clear, in terms of for us, the idea behind that character was an actor — it was making fun of an actor who would go to any lengths to win an award. Now, I’m not saying that that’s okay to do. That doesn’t mean blackface is okay. Blackface is not okay. But it’s probably never okay. So, I have no leg to stand up and say that character is doing that.” 

Stiller explained that he showed the movie to the NAACP chapter in Los Angeles to test the Kirk Lazarus character but that he kind of lost sight of Simple Jack in the process. “And then what I got blindsided by was the Special Olympics came after me for playing Simple Jack. So I was so concerned about the reaction of Robert playing that character that I wasn’t even thinking about where we really got attacked. Which I understood too from their point-of-view.”

Stiller concluded by saying, “The bottom line is you have to be clear what your point-of-view is when you are doing comedy that is edgy, and for me, it was always making fun of actors who would do anything to get more attention and to win awards. But I am also totally sensitive to how people would react to it now.”

Filming Conditions Weren’t Always Easy

While the production wasn’t a hot mess like Apocalypse Now, filming Tropic Thunder in Hawaii came with its own challenges. “It was hot and muddy,” Black remembers. “It was not easy conditions, but that was the trade-off because when we weren’t filming, we were in this gorgeous location. A couple people got bit by centipedes, which I heard isn’t pleasant. It is like getting shot by a gun, apparently. You have to go to the hospital. I didn’t get bit. I got a bad sunburn on the first day, and I tried to blame it on other people, but that, of course, was my fault. I’m no rocket scientist.”

“The pressure got to every single person on that movie at some point,” Jay Baruchel told The Los Angeles Times. “It rained 12 times a day. There were a tremendous amount of things to worry about, from prolonged exposure to mud to the leptospirosis virus caused by every animal in creation (defecating) and having it flush down the mountain. A lot of people were getting sick. You had to cross a river out of Jurassic Park every day to get to work and then go up a mountain that was like something out of a cartoon.”

Jay Baruchel’s Blu-rays Scene Was Improvised

Stiller said that Baruchel would often talk about assorted geeky stuff on set and that he just decided to film the actor doing it in character. “He would talk about this whole HD versus Blu-ray DVDs and what the difference is and the pixel rates, and he’d go on these rants while they’re trekking in the jungle,” Stiller explained. “He drives everybody crazy because he just keeps talking and talking, and so he gave us a lot of material.”

The Sequel Idea We’ll Probably Never See

During an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Black, Stiller and Downey Jr. came up with a sequel idea that, honestly, sounds like a blast.

EW: Last question: What’s Tropic Thunder 2 going to be?
BLACK: (Pauses, then stabs a finger in the air) Arctic Lightning! It’s the opposite of tropic — arctic. You twist it. You flip it.
STILLER: (Laughs) What, like the guys get sent up to the North Pole to do a Thing type of movie?
EW: Or to make a movie of the Ernest Shackleton story, maybe.
STILLER: Yeah, the Shackleton story!
BLACK: Oh my God, that’s a great idea.
DOWNEY: Would I actually be playing an Arctic animal then? Like, a narwhal?
BLACK: (Shaking his head) But you can’t really do a sequel to this.
STILLER: Yeah, you can’t on this one.
DOWNEY: (Smiling mischievously) Hold on. Let’s see the numbers. If the numbers come in like we’re expecting, we can at least talk about it.


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