Tropic Thunder’s Brandon T. Jackson on Comedy Death Camp

The comedian thought he had signed on for a joke war movie. Well, who’s laughing now, Brandon? OK, we are.

How exactly did you end up “in the shit”?
Ben Stiller loved me right off the bat, but he thought I was too young—I was the youngest one on the set. And the blackest. Real blackest. I went in and there was this other actor who was up for the part too, a very well-known rapper. So they cast the rapper, and I’m like, “OK, I didn’t get the part. Cool. Whatever.” So two months pass, and I get a call from Ben Stiller saying, “I made a big mistake, man. Something happened with the rapper; he’s not doing what we want him to do. We really want you to come in, you’re the right dude for the part.” The next thing I know, I was in Hawaii, kickin it with Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Tom Cruise, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan. Just to be able to hang with these cowboys is killer. But, Nolte, man—you could only understand every fourth word he said.

Did you feel completely intimidated?
Oh, hell, yeah. I come from a young, hip-hop, urban world. Real young. “Young” in this crew would be, like, 32. Imagine then being 22 and African-American—it’s a whole different generation. I had to step back and learn, like, “OK, these guys got 30 ways to say one thing. Let me go back home and figure out 30 ways to say one thing.” And I would learn from Robert, figure out how he would do it, just learn all these tricks. This was my comedy grad school, straight up.

Did any of the other guys end up surprising you once you got to work with them?
I was weirded out by Robert. Let me tell you this: Robert was doing his voice for real, all the time. I don’t know if you’ve seen that scene where we like collard greens and stuff. Dude, that really happened. I was really getting mad. I was thinking, “He’s really gonna keep talking like that?”

So he was playing a guy who was always in character and he also stayed in character?
When we weren’t filming, he was still talking like he’s a black man. So I was like, “What the hell?!” Like he was really in character, and he became that thing. And I don’t know whether he was doing it to mess with me or whatever, but it got to a point where it irked me and I was like, “Fuck this.”

So what’s onscreen isn’t necessarily “acting”?
All that stuff was real. We got to a point where I’m like, “How long we gonna go on with this, motherfucker?” I didn’t know how bad blackface was until I start to research and I was like, “Oh my god, what is he doing?” But I saw that he was really just playing a black man, not doing black face. But he also wouldn’t stop going, so I said, “OK, fuck this. Let’s go.” And it comes off on-screen, and they got it, and we’re all friends now. I was with him at the Iron Man premiere. We were kickin’ it. We were chillin’.

So your character is a rapper-turned-actor named…Alpo Chino?
Yeah, it’s like he saw Scarface so much that he named his character after Al Pacino. But that’s what rappers do. They do stuff like that that doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I love people like Common. He kind of makes sense in what he does.

Were there any particular rappers that you were channeling?
I was looking at Nelly, Li’l Wayne, and Ludacris. Everyone thinks I’m a rapper now. They’re like “Do you have an album coming out?” The only way I’ll do an album is if it’s under Alpo Chino. It’s just funny to make fun of my friends, ’cause I know all these rappers. They’re gonna be like, “Oh, god”—especially at the end. But I can’t give it away.

How was shooting in Hawaii?
The Hawaiians, they’re crazy, dude. It was the first day of shooting and we’re about to blow up their island, so we were like, “Let’s get a Kahona (Hawaiian priest) ’cause there’s a lot of superstition.” And we’re holding hands on the set, and we don’t know what she’s saying, she’s like “Hoola Boolalala.” But then, the clouds start to form—I swear to you—and it starts to rain. It starts to get more intense and she’s like “Hoola Booolalalala!!!” and then she starts speaking in English. Saying, “And then, they come to our island, and then they bomb our island…” And I’m like, “Aw, hell no. She’s cursing us, man. Get this Kahona out of here!” It was crazy, man.

Although this is a parody of war movies, you still get into some serious action. Did you feel like you were in it for real at times?
Dude, so much action got cut out. I was ripped! We were working out, man, it was nuts. I did all my own stunts. When I look back, I’m like, “I can’t believe I pulled that off.” ‘Cause you’re in the muck, and it’s like you’re in Ben Stiller’s death comedy camp. It shows you what you can really do in life. And hanging with these guys, they don’t play, man. They are out-of-their-mind performers and they’re great for a reason.