‘War may be Hell but Hollywood is even worse.’ So declared the New York Times in their review of Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller’s satirical comedy that was met with an equal mixture of accolades and controversy upon its release in the summer of 2008. The tale of a group of egotistical actors attempting to make a war film in Southeast Asia, echoing the troubled production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, the movie was more a statement of the absurdity of the entertainment history than it was a commentary on the futility of conflict. And as each of the fading stars attempted to steal the spotlight amid a real-life battle with a heroin cartel, pressure from the studio caused further turmoil for an already-exhausted cast and crew. Even as the reality of their situation slowly begins to consume each of them, the true antagonist of the movie would be a powerful and unscrupulous executive called Les Grossman.
The world loves a Hollywood disaster. An overly-ambitious motion picture with an over-bloated budget, a superstar with aspirations beyond their limits and a box office failure in the making, the media revel in the pretentious, self-destructive nature of Tinseltown. For the characters of Tropic Thunder, the movie represented the opportunity to prove their worth as serious actors in an industry that demanded nothing short of blood, sweat and tears. For its lead Tugg Speedman, he was desperate to escape from his fledging Scorcher action disaster franchise and prove himself as an Academy Award-worthy artist; for Kirk Lazarus, a performer known for his dedication to the craft, he had undergone a controversial medical technique to die his skin in order to portray an African-American; and for comedian Jeff Portnoy, his highly-publicised struggle with drug abuse had left his career in jeopardy. For all three, the Vietnam War movie, based on the allegedly true story of veteran Four Leaf Tayback, was a trial by fire, one that would prove to both themselves and the world what kind of men they really were.
Each of the central characters were exaggerated extensions of their real-life counterparts. Ben Stiller had launched his career as a comedian on the small screen before launching his directing career in the mid-nineties with the twenty-something drama Reality Bites and the comic thriller The Cable Guy. In the role of Portnoy, Jack Black had struggled through a decade of supporting roles before first finding fame as one half of the music duo Tenacious D before finding success in a succession of comedies that begun in 2003 with School of Rock. Having earned numerous awards earlier in his career before succumbing to the pitfalls of Hollywood, Robert Downey Jr. had recently enjoyed something of a comeback with the Marvel blockbuster Iron Man and, having gained a reputation as an actor that fully immersed himself in his roles, the character of Lazarus echoed the eccentricities that an actor such as Downey Jr. may have employed.
Yet central to the conflict of Tropic Thunder was the production’s escalating tension with its Los Angeles executive producer Les Grossman, a force of nature whose lack of compassion forces its novice director Damien Cockburn to take drastic measures to extract authentic performances from its stars. As the cast are abandoned in the jungles of Vietnam and hunted by mercenaries, Grossman watches over the disastrous production from the comfort of his Hollywood office, an unforgiving eye scrutinising every move that Speedman and his associates would take. Ever since the horrors of the Vietnam war reaches the television screens of the American public in the late sixties, Hollywood has been obsessed with documenting the experiences of the young troops and their hopeless struggle against the Viet Cong with John Wayne’s The Green Berets leading the charge for subsequent masterpieces such as The Deer Hunter and Platoon. But even as Cockburn attempts to accurately portray the horrors of war, the horror of Hollywood bears down on them.
My friends and I were going on auditions for these Vietnam movies
‘I had the idea for the movie twenty years ago when I was doing Empire of the Sun in 1987, because at that time that’s when all these Vietnam movies were being made,’ Stiller told First Showing on the genesis of Tropic Thunder. ‘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. 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 owning this experience as if it was 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.’
Every movie production has an executive who financed the picture and with an escalating budget come more demands and less tolerance from the studio. And the adversary in Tropic Thunder would be Les Grossman. Conceived in the earlier drafts merely as Studio Head, by September 2006 numerous rewrites had resulted in a new characters entitled Todd Green, later undergoing numerous name changes before its three authors, Stiller, Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux eventually settled on Les Grossman. A balding middle-aged man with unkempt stubble and an out-of-control ego, Grossman was the epitome of every negative attitude that both the public and industries had against powerful men and while the producers of Tropic Thunder could have approached such intense actors as John Goodman for the role, Ben Stiller instead offered the part to the most unlikely of candidates: Tom Cruise.
By the time that principal photography commenced on Tropic Thunder in July 2007 Cruise had reached something of a crossroads in his career. He had been a major star and heartthrob ever since his breakout role Risky Business more than twenty years earlier and while he had starred in an array of blockbusters he had also turned to serious roles with the Vietnam war biopic Born on the Fourth of July and the courtroom drama A Few Good Men. But soon his personal life began to have negative impact on his screen persona. While his Mission: Impossible franchise finally gained momentum with its third instalment, the actor’s devotion to Scientology that threatened to derail his popularity. The filming of his Second World War thriller Valkyrie encountered difficulties when the German defence ministry refused to allow producers to shoot in their country due to their star’s religious beliefs while his much-publicised marriage to actress Katie Holmes became a permanent fixture of the media.
Cruise had continued to remain a box office draw, however. Mission: Impossible III may have failed to gross as much as its predecessors but other recent endeavours, specifically the Steven Spielberg science fiction thriller War of the Worlds, proved that he still had a devoted fan-base. His name alone had guaranteed to attract audiences but the 2001 drama Vanilla Sky had demonstrated his willingness to play against type. And so the opportunity to portray as a sleazy and abusive studio executive was too tempting to rest. ‘I’ve known Ben for many years. We were watching a film and I said, ‘What are you working on?’ He said, ‘I’m working on this film Tropic Thunder,’’ recalled Tom Cruise to BBC Radio 1. ‘He said, ‘Would you mind reading the script? I’d like to talk to you about it.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I read the script and he had all the characters but the studio wasn’t there. There was a structural compression missing down on those characters, that keeps the pressure on these guys, that really drives the story. I was like, ‘You need the studio!’’
When initially approaching his friend, Stiller had envisioned Cruise in the role of Speedman. Although Cruise had avoided sequels until Mission: Impossible II had been unleashed in 2000 he had still enjoyed success with a variety of action movies, whether it was the 1986 classic Top Gun or the futuristic thriller Minority Report. Cruise may have avoided the struggles at the box office that Speedman had endured, Stiller felt that he could have embodied the ridiculous nature of the action star to perfection. But while Cruise was impressed with the script, he had refused to fully-commit to the project and it was only when Stiller took his suggestions on board and returned sometime later with a reworked draft that Cruise finally embraced the opportunity.
‘We originally wanted Tom to play the lead, Tugg Speedman. Ben was going to play the agent,’ claimed producer Stuart Cornfeld, whose prior work with Stiller included Zoolander and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. ‘Tom read the script when there was no Les Grossman and said, ‘I think you need another villain other than just the twelve-year-old drug king. What about some greedy pig studio executive who really represents the gross part of Hollywood?’ We did a draft that incorporated that character and Ben gave it to Tom. Then, the frequency of our discussions slowed down. Tom Cruise is a busy guy. Ben decided he was going to play Speedman and then he got a phone call from Tom, who said he just couldn’t get the script out of his mind.’
According to various sources it was Cornfeld that provided Cruise with the inspiration for what would become Les Grossman, a dominating figure that provoked fear among those that worked under his command. By the time that the actor had completed reading Stiller’s latest draft he had already created the mogul in his mind. ‘I read the character and I went, ‘Okay, this is fun. Do you mind, Ben, I want to play this character?’ I said, ‘I want to have fat hands and I want to dance,’’ admitted Cruise on the outrageous interpretation he intended to explore. ‘He looked at me and he’s like, ‘What?!’ I said, ‘No man, I want fat hands and I’m gonna dance!’ He said, ‘Are you sure? Can’t you just look like you?’ I said, ‘No, no man, I’m sorry, I don’t know how else to play this character.’’
Even if Cornfeld had been the starting point for Cruise, the character of Les Grossman slowly evolved throughout pre-production to incorporate elements of other notorious producers, even shamed executives such as Harvey Weinstein, particularly with his inappropriate comments towards female employees. While the fictitious cast of Tropic Thunder were too pre-occupied with their own idiosyncrasies to be concerned with the demands of the studio, both the ill-fated Cockburn and Speedman’s long-suffering agent Rick Peck would be forced to endure the abuse of the hostile Grossman. His willingness to sacrifice Speedman in order to claim insurance would prove just the lengths that the powerful businessman would go in order to reap financial rewards. The life of the actors may have been in the hands of the heroin manufactures that hunted them but the true villain of the movie was Cruise’s Grossman.
To make him completely unrecognisable as himself
And while he had a clear idea of how he would perform the role, there were other technicalities that had to be taken into account if Les Grossman was to be brought to life. ‘That was the big challenge on Tropic Thunder, to make him completely unrecognisable as himself,’ revealed make-up artist Michèle Burke, who first worked with Cruise on the 1994 horror picture Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. ‘Les Grossman is this overweight character with all this hair and he’s bald and Tom is none of those things. There was also more pressure on me doing the Les make-up, too, because Tom told me early on, ‘You’ve got fifty minutes to apply this thing,’ because he hates being in the make-up chair. He always does stuff like that to me. All the time.’
With the image of Grossman finally created, it was then time for Cruise to demonstrate his take on the character to the producers. While he had evolved from Todd Berlinger to Phillip Green, Grossman had now become the antagonist of the story and one that every other character had to fear. And thus this would rely on how he would choose to play the role. ‘I did the make-up test; we’ve tested the fat hands and the whole look,’ he explained to critic Ali Plumb. ‘So we’re doing the wardrobe and there’s no music playing. I said, ‘Look, just let me do some moves for you.’ So I started working, just kinda moving like that. He called me and he was laughing. He picked out the music and added this thing together. He was pissing himself. He sent it to me and he was like, ‘Okay, I get it!’
Cruise may have drawn in the audiences with his looks but he would relish any opportunity to play against type and prove his diversity. And with Grossman he finally had the chance to take a character to the extreme. ‘I made the fat suits for Tom Cruise. He was all for the more ridiculous, the better. The suit went from his neck all the way down to the ankles,’ detailed Aida Caefer, whose subsequent work would include the British creature feature Attack the Block. ‘It’s a cotton jumpsuit that goes right on the skin and then we start attaching layers and layers of muscles and fat and custom pads made out of foam and wiggly-jiggly beading from the inside of a pillow to mimic the fat movement. On top of it is another layer that ties everything together and when you put it on, it looks like skin. We had to make three suits. The character moved around a lot and he was so soaked in sweat that we had rotating suits for him’ one in the morning and one after lunch.’
While Downey Jr.’s controversial performance as an egotistical actor wearing ‘black-face’ had drawn attention to the movie, upon its release in 2008 the main talking point of Tropic Thunder proved to be Les Grossman. The character became so iconic that barely three months later a spinoff motion picture was announced in which Cruise would reprise the role from a screenplay by Michael Bacall, whose recent success with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World had brought him to the attention of Paramount Pictures, the distributor of Tropic Thunder. ‘Les Grossman’s life story is an inspiring tale of the classic human struggle to achieve greatness against all odd,’ claimed Stiller in a mock press release. ‘He has assured me he plans to quote, ‘Fucking kill the shit out of this movie and make Citizen-fucking-Kane look like a piece of crap home movie by the time we are done.’ I am honoured to be working with him.’’ While the movie failed to materialise Cruise would make several appearances in-character as Les Grossman, appearing in a series of MTV Movie Awards videos that saw the merciless executive in meetings with such rising Hollywood stars as Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. In one inspired short, Grossman appeared during Cruise’s iconic dance scene from Risky Business, abusing his younger self.
While Tropic Thunder received near-unanimous praise for its witty commentary and outrageous set-pieces, arguably the centre of attention was on Cruise and his despicable alter-ego. ‘Arguably the funniest part of Tropic Thunder is an over-the-top profane cameo by Tom Cruise, who plays megalomaniac studio head Les Grossman,’ said the San Francisco Chronicle, while the New York Times declared, ‘Hands down the most noxious character in Tropic Thunder is Les Grossman, the producer of the movie-within-a-movie, who’s played by an almost unrecognisable Tom Cruise under a thick scum of makeup and latex. Heavily and heavy-handedly coded as Jewish, the character is murderous, repellent and fascinating, a grotesque from his swollen fingers to the heavy gold dollar sign nestled on his yeti-furred chest’