The cast of Tropic Thunder

Comic recruit invades Tropic Thunder

(L to R) Robert Downey Jr., Jay Baruchel, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Brandon T. Jackson.

Brandon T. Jackson’s breakout role in the larger-than-life war movie send-up Tropic Thunder almost didn’t happen.

The 22-year-old Detroit actor-comedian revealed he auditioned for the role of hip-hop impresario Alpa Chino “at least 13 times” but was overlooked and the part ultimately went to someone else.

But then Ben Stiller, the film’s director, co-writer and star, came calling.

“The other actor they cast wasn’t giving them what they wanted so they called me,” said Jackson, in Toronto recently to promote the flick.

“And I was [out], looking at gas prices go up, broke as hell and I get a call from Ben: ‘Do you want to do Tropic Thunder, I figured out you’re the one for the part.’ I was like ‘Stop playing with me, Ben. You already said no.’”

A self-described class clown who was discovered at 17 following a short set at the Laugh Factory, Jackson has been steadily working the comedy circuit at home and abroad (recently yukking it up at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival) while balancing a bourgeoning acting career that has included his own sketch comedy special and a part alongside Bow Wow in Roll Bounce. But Tropic Thunder marks his first introduction to mainstream audiences and it’s an impressive way to say hello.

Sharing the screen with heavy-hitters Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and Stiller, not to mention Canadian Jay Baruchel, Jackson and company play a group of self-absorbed actors who find themselves in the middle of a real war while filming a doomed Vietnam War epic. Throw in bloated egos, raging drug addictions and the all-too-real possibility of death and you have a movie-within-a-movie that isn’t afraid to satirize all things Hollywood with a knowing wink.

Snagging a role in a big-budget summer film with elite members of today’s reigning kings of comedy would be intimidating to any up-and-comer but the affable Jackson took it all in stride, choosing instead to focus on his craft, and dismissed the notion of nerves.

“I just wanted to bring my show to it; bring the hipness to it. There was a place for me in the movie and I just wanted to make that voice stand out as much as possible.”

And stand out he does. Jackson approached the character of wealthy rapper and entrepreneur Alpa Chino—whose patented products include a beverage called Booty Sweat and Alpa Chino Chinos— with an interest in his personal progress.

“Alpa Chino, the rapper, and Alpa Chino, the person, that’s what I had to figure out. Taking the character development from the beginning, just caring about Booty Sweat, to becoming a real person. And that’s what I had to work through,” said Jackson. “At first I was the craziest one, the wild rapper who didn’t give a crap but they wanted to give me a more rounded view of character and I worked on it with [co-writer] Justin Theroux.”

Jackson’s Chino proves to be a fitting sparring partner for Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-baiting Aussie actor, whose dedication to his role involved controversial pigmentation surgery to portray a black sergeant. In fact, some of the film’s most memorable small-scale laughs come courtesy of Jackson and Downey Jr.’s quick-witted quips.

But despite their obvious on-screen chemistry, Jackson reveals he did have initial hesitations about a white actor portraying a black man.

“I was reserved at first but then again I was like Robert Downey Jr., Chaplin—let’s go. Then, when I saw him do it, that’s when I was amazed—this guy is really taking it to the next level.”

And, Jackson discloses, Downey Jr. showed extreme commitment to the role, opting to stay in character for the duration of the film to everyone’s surprise and amusement.

“It was outrageous to watch. I’m looking at an actor that really feels he’s black. My mom got on the set and started talking to him and she was like, ‘Oh, it was nice talking to Don Cheadle,’” Jackson chuckles. “He just stayed black. He’d say he was going back to the trailer to get some ribs and listen to Kanye West.”

Jetting off to a tropical locale to film a big-budget action-comedy flick may sound glitzy but Jackson’s quick to point out that despite filming in Hawaii, the stand-in for the remote Southeast Asia setting where the bumbling thesps struggle to stay alive, the experience was anything but tranquil.

“It was grueling, tough. We had wild pigs all over, mud everywhere, up to the neck. But at the same time, it tested you to see how far you could go. A lot of working out, a lot of eating, a lot of getting bigger. It was a man’s movie!”

And when those men just happen to be Hollywood A-listers with over three decades’ worth of acting experience among them, you’d better be on your game.

“It was a struggle to keep up with the endurance of it,” Jackson said, in reference to the amount of on-screen improvisation. “Keeping different approaches coming and at the same time figuring out where the scene is going and where the magic was going to take us.”

With a summer blockbuster added to his expanding resume, Jackson will no doubt be presented with more opportunities, but he remains adamant about not jumping into any new projects without due consideration.

“I’m working on writing and producing. I want to do a drama and be an all-round actor and I don’t want to do things that just have a colour barrier on it. I want to do a story that’s for everybody, not just a black man’s story. It’s all about pacing yourself, though, that’s why I’m not in a rush to do my next thing. I’m giving myself a chance to learn about myself and the business.”

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