SPOILER WARNING – This post contains spoilers for Tropic Thunder.
Tropic Thunder is a hilarious movie. Aside from that, it is a movie that explores a lot of interesting themes about the movie industry, and the idea of what it means to be an actor. I explore in this two part essay (in excruciating detail) all of the layers of meaning in Tropic Thunder that I personally have found.
Each of the characters in this movie plays a different type of ‘actor’. Between them, there is a range of expression of the ‘self’ versus the ‘role’ and those two concepts mean different things to each character. This information is revealed gradually about each character as the layers of the plot unfold. The layers of plot are discussed further in part 1 of this essay.
I will first talk about Kirk Lazarus and Tugg Speedman. The difference in how they approach their roles as actors is essentially the core dichotomy of the role versus the self. Kirk Lazarus embodies the role, and places more importance on the role as the path to true artistic expression. Tugg Speedman embodies the self, placing importance on the self as a path to true artistic expression. The difference in their character calls in to question the whole premise of the movie, the true self and true experience versus the job and the spectacle that is acting. As an actor, where do you draw the line between who you are, and who you act as? As an audience member, how to we interpret these different modes of expression in terms of acting as an art?
Kirk Lazarus – The Man Behind a Mask
An actor who loses his sense of self to his work.
At the beginning of the movie, Kirk Lazarus is set up to be interpreted as the ‘best’ actor. He is able to completely ‘become’ his role, and thus is praised for his art. In a conversation, Tug Speedman says “When I was playing the character”, and Lazarus corrects him saying “When you WERE the character,” showing that for Kirk, it is not enough to just know a character, one must BE the character in order to successful portray the role.
Kirk Lazarus is the type of actor who is trying to literally be a different person, and thus puts aside his own self. He is so good at it, that he literally loses his sense of self, and is a different person the majority of the movie. He is literally lost in his work. He becomes so wrapped up in his role that he forgets who his ‘self’ is.
Kirk Lazarus is the first character to fully realize the weight of their situation when they are stranded in the jungle. He easily sheds his role as an actor and enters the real-life situation. The interesting thing though, is that even though he KNOWS that they are not in a movie anymore, he is still in his role. His sense of self has become his role.
When Kirk Lazarus is confronted with this fact, and he is forced to find his true self, find who he truly is, he can’t, because he is so lost in his role that he does not know who he truly is. His sense of self has become alienated from his actual self. This is exemplified by the scene in which he says he thinks he “might be nobody”. This type of acting, while truly effective as an art form, seems unhealthy, and leads to the types of alienating mental problems that Kirk Lazarus touches on in the movie.
Kirk Lazarus’s character growth in this movie is in learning to balance his sense of self with that of his role. He goes on his own Spiritual Journey and is reborn as himself, his self, and his now free to explore that role in as much depth and detail as he has explored every other role in his career.
Tugg Speedman – The Seeker of Enlightenment
An artist trying to find themselves through their art
Tug Speedman approaches the art of acting differently than Kirk. His quest in acting is not in trying to be someone else, but in trying to find his own self. He is trying to use his acting to do discover something deeper about himself, because that is how he believes he will become a better actor. Good art strives to uncover something about the artist themselves. By creating and experiencing his movies, he hopes to understand more about himself. He says to Kirk that “He wishes he had had a director like this” before. In his career he has always been searching for this type of experience from acting, an experience that will truly test him as a person.
Tug Speedman is trying to understand a character rather than BE a character. He is trying to understand what it would be like for HIM to be in someone else’s shoes, and thus react in the same way that someone else would. While initially, this is interpreted as a weakness in his acting, we find through the movie that it is actually his strength. It makes him a better, healthier actor.
In this movie, Tug Speedman’s character growth is in a spiritual journey to uncover his true self. (Interestingly, though comical his journey has several of the typical characteristics of a real mythological Spiritual Journey. But that is a different discussion.) He goes through a real-life traumatic experience and learns more about himself. This is shown in the reflection of the beginning and ending scenes, where he is running to the helicopter. In the first scene, he is acting, and he does almost the same thing in the second scene when he is not acting, showing that he really is a great actor. He had the self awareness to do the same thing while acting as he would in real life. Only this time, he is able to cry. That was the barrier of his self that he overcame during the events of the movie. He has succeeded in his quest to uncover more about himself, and thus, become a better actor in the process.
Kevin Sandusky – The Type-Casted
The type-casted actor as an artist
Kevin Sandusky is representative of the type of actor that is typically type-casted. These are the types of actors who play the same type of role over and over. They are also often the type of actor who are in real life very similar to the characters that they play. So why do we love them? If acting is interpreted as the art of pretending to be someone else, the type-casted actor can be understood to not really be ‘acting’ at all. Their own personality and that of their characters are so similar that it can be argued that there is very little relative effort to what they do.
This is the type of actor who, like Tugg Speedman, uses acting as an expression of the self. Unlike Tugg Speedman, this type of actor is not necessarily striving for enlightenment through acting. This type of actor is either already content with their understanding of themselves through acting, or has already reached that level of self awareness that Tugg Speedman strives for. These actors are comfortable and confident in themselves, and their self. And that is why we love them. We see in the actor, and the character, a level of self-assuredness that we are drawn to.
This is also why Kevin Sandusky does not seem to go through as much relative character growth through the movie as any of the other characters. He was already confident in who he was, and had no need for a ‘real-life experience’ to teach him who he was.
Jeff Portnoy – The Strangled Artist
The Struggle of an artist unable to express themselves
To pull back a moment, the Jeff Portnoy character was the most difficult for me to dissect. His character’s analysis is probably the shakiest, but I believe I have been at least slightly successful.
Similar to Kevin Sandusky, Jeff Portnoy is the type of actor who has been type-casted into a specific type of role. Unlike the Kevin Sandusky character, Jeff Portnoy is NOT comfortable in who he is. The role that he has been type-casted into is not a representation of his self. Because he has been type-casted and pigeonholed as an actor, he has found frustration in not being able to accurately express his self through his acting.
As an artist, this frustration in being unable to express himself has led him to unhappiness and drugs.
Jeff Portnoy’s character does not necessarily go through growth in this movie, but the audience’s interpretation of him does. At the beginning of the movie we only see a pampered, drug addicted fart-joke actor. As the movie progresses, we begin to see more of his true nature, his true self. When he asks Kevin if he can hang back for the mission, we initially believe it is because he is a coward, because that is our understanding of his character. But the reality is that he wants to stay back because he knows he would relapse if he went with them. He is actually a character with lots of depth and strength.
Alpa Chino – The Pretender
The struggle of a person whose life is itself an act.
Unlike most of the characters, Alpa Chino is not just an actor as a job, he is an actor in his life. He has a ‘public image’ that he feels he must maintain, and his life is all an elaborate act to maintain that image. His character flaw is not that he does not know himself. He knows who he truly is. His character flaw is that he does not feel free in life to be himself.
Alpa Chino undergoes personal growth in this movie not by learning how to be a better actor, nor by finding out who he truly is. His growth is in learning to have the strength and conviction to BE who he truly is, to tear off his role as an actor not just as a job but in LIFE. We see that he does this by asking out Lance at the end of the movie. Allowing the public audience to see his true self, and not just his acting self.