Josh Rottenberg
August 10, 2008 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The summer’s unlikeliest superstar enters the room carrying a black case full of herbs. No, not those kinds of herbs — those days are long past now. These are the kind you pick up in a health-food store. ”My nutrients,” Robert Downey Jr. explains, settling into a chair in a suite in Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons hotel. He opens the case, pops some type of nutritional supplement into his mouth, and then pulls out a pack of cigarettes. Ben Stiller shoots him a wry look. ”Do you see the contradictions?” Stiller asks. ”Is there a syringe in there, too?” Jack Black flops onto a couch and erupts with laughter.

The three amigos — who have honed their comedic rapport over the past few months with bits on the American Idol finale and at the MTV Movie Awards — are here to discuss their action comedy, Tropic Thunder, a deliriously satirical smashup of Platoon and The Player about a big-budget war movie gone horribly awry. Directed and co-written by Stiller, the film chronicles the misadventures of a group of self-absorbed actors who, while attempting to film a Vietnam epic, inadvertently stumble into a real-life battle with a heroin cartel. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a dim-witted action star. Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a drug-addled comedian best known for his highly flatulent Fatties franchise. And, in a high-wire performance that tests the limits of some racial taboos, Downey is Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar-winning Method actor who undergoes a skin-darkening procedure to play the black Sgt. Lincoln Osiris — and then clashes on the set with his African-American costar, rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). Rounding out the cast is a nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise, who makes a startling cameo as a profane studio exec.

Though hardly as troubled as the production it lampoons, Thunder, which opens Aug. 13, still took years to reach the screen and nearly stepped on a few land mines along the way. Stiller — directing his first film since 2001’s Zoolander — cooked up the premise way back in 1987. But it would take years of on-and-off work with collaborators Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen to get the screenplay into fighting shape. ”It was one of those projects that was like, Are we ever going to make this movie?” Stiller says. Once shooting finally began last summer in Hawaii, the film quickly hit a snag. Owen Wilson, who’d been cast as a slick Hollywood agent, dropped out following an apparent suicide attempt. Within weeks, Stiller (who had earlier considered casting Keanu Reeves in his role of Speedman and playing the agent himself) hired Matthew McConaughey to take Wilson’s place. With a budget reported to be north of $90 million, Thunder could be the most expensive R-rated comedy ever — and Stiller commanded the shoot with the discipline of a drill sergeant. ”Ben is a stern dude,” says costar Nick Nolte. ”When he gets stern, everyone picks it up a notch.”

War is hell, and comedy ain’t a cakewalk either. Put them together and it’s a wonder Stiller, Black, and Downey survived to tell the tale.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This movie mercilessly ridicules the self-important aspects of acting. Ben, you were telling me earlier that there’s nothing actors love more than to sit around telling stories about other actors behaving like jerks.
JACK BLACK: But not in an interview!
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Literally, I once heard an actor say, ”This whole process — us trying to shoot this scene — this is garbage. We need to put on animal masks and get primal with each other, and then we’ll understand who really has the status in this scene. I’ve got the masks.”
DOWNEY: I remember looking at this dude and going, ”You brought animal masks? You honestly think your, like, improv summer-stock idea is going to break it open for me? We’ve got money on the line. I’m not going to put on rabbit ears and figure out who’s king of the forest.”

NEXT PAGE: ”What blows me away is how quickly someone who’s new to the industry can go from being, like [breathlessly], ‘Whoa, what? I have my own trailer?! Oh my God, you guys, this is insane!’ to [smugly] ‘But I deserve it.”’

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