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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Tom Cruise in 'Tropic Thunder': Not 'retarded'

August 12, 2008 |  6:07 pm

Hollywood loves buddy pictures, so it's kind of fun these day to see Ben Stiller doing some serious cozying up to Tom Cruise, who if you haven't already heard 1,000 times does a funny turn as a bald studio chief in Stiller's new Hollywood spoof "Tropic Thunder," which opens Wednesday.Tropic_2 Stiller has had his pre-release problems in recent days, notably the threat of a nationwide boycott of the film by a coalition of disability groups, who are furious over what they've called the film's open ridicule of the disabled.

In "Tropic Thunder," Stiller plays a narcissistic and not-so-bright action-movie actor named Tugg Speedman, who, in an attempt at becoming a serious actor, starred in a movie about a mentally disabled man called "Simple Jack" -- which leads to an off-color discussion with Robert Downey Jr.'s character about the merits of going "full retard" for a role in the pursuit of Oscar gold.

Stiller has claimed he's not making fun of disabled people, only actors who'll do anything to advance their careers. Few critics of the film are buying that line of argument. On the other hand, no one is complaining about Cruise's over-the-top portrayal of a nutty studio executive, who would surely do anything to advance his career as well. Stiller, who has a long history of spoofing Cruise, talked to The Times' indefatigable staff writer and man about town Chris Lee about how he got Cruise to do the part, whether it's really based on Sumner Redstone and why Tom is such a "special" person. Cruise could probably use a little extra love these days, especially after being replaced by Angelina Jolie in the Sony thriller "Edwin A. Salt." Give it a read: 

Since the early spring, when the movie began screening around town, Hollywood’s chattering class has speculated that the Tom Cruise cameo in “Tropic Thunder” was meant to dis Sumner Redstone, the combative Viacom chairman who publicly took Cruise to task for his erratic behavior and ultimately kicked the iconic actor’s production company off the Paramount lot. But over coffee in Vancouver last month, “Tropic Thunder’s” writer-director-star Ben Stiller banished the notion that Cruise’s character was based on Redstone -– or on any other studio mogul. Stiller took pains to defend Cruise’s movie-making smarts and deconstructed the genesis of the “Top Gun” star’s foul-mouthed, hip-hop dancing, type-smashing role in “Tropic Thunder.”

Q: Did you write the part of the studio boss with Tom Cruise in mind?

A: I had shown him a draft before the character existed and he really responded. Then I was talking to him about doing the agent [a character played by Matthew McConaughey]. But at the same time, I had another issue I was trying to figure out. Three days later at 10 at night I get a phone call from Tom. He had this story idea that had nothing to do with his character. The guy cares about movies and story and has a great mind for that stuff. He said, “It’s really funny but where’s the studio head? It would be really funny to see a studio head in this.” For me, that triggered something.... So then Justin [Theroux] and I wrote up those scenes. For me, it made the movie work better. Tom didn’t have any input in the actual writing, so I didn’t know how he’d respond. But he was committed to developing this character. His only thought was he wanted to have big hands.

Q: Why big hands?

A: No idea. We were sitting there and he’s like, “I want the guy to have big hands.” We did four full-on makeup tests. I really wanted him to be bald.Cruise_2  He has these piercing eyes and the Tom Cruise energy. I just thought it would be great to take away the strength of the Tom Cruise hairline. So we do a screen test and he says, “I just feel like I want to move.” So he starts doing this weird hip-hop dance and I was like, “Yeah! Keep doing that!” Full on dancing, no music. We went back and I was with the music supervisor George Drakoulias and he said, “You should put ‘Get Back,’ that Ludacris song.” So we put that up next to it and weirdly he was dancing in perfect rhythm to music that didn’t exist. I’m putting it on the DVD.

Q: Where did you two meet? On the MTV spoof for “Mission: Impossible 2"?

A: We crossed paths around time I was doing “The Ben Stiller Show.” I was doing a “Tom Crooz” impression on our show. From that point we stayed in touch. When they [Cruise and wife Katie Holmes] had the baby, we connected again through the kids and started hanging out a bit. We’ve become friends over the years.

Q: He seems to trust you to let some of the air out of his image.

A: I don’t think people give him enough credit for being as smart as he is and for making the choices he’s made over the years. If he trusts somebody creatively, he’ll go all the way. With the MTV thing he said, “I’m here. Tell me where you want to go with it. This is a new direction for me.”

Q: Why do you think so few filmmakers have tapped the “funny Tom Cruise"?

A: He’s such an iconic figure. Obviously, our culture has tapped into him as a lightning rod. You look at his work -- the guy’s done a great amount of good work over a long period of time. When you’re around for so long in such a big way, you stop being a real person to the audience. Which I think is the audience’s issue more than Tom’s. To his credit, he really wanted to be a part of this movie. He was willing to go for it. He can do comedy. He was having so much fun doing it, it’s just great to see that people get that and enjoy him in this. He’s a really special person.

Watch Stiller in action, making fun of that really special person:

Photo of Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black in "Tropic Thunder" from DreamWorks; Tom Cruise photo by Jerry Markland / Getty Images