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Ben Stiller: Early Role Spawned 'Tropic Thunder'

It's a movie about making a movie: Actor-director Ben Stiller says he first had the idea for the war-movie parody Tropic Thunder way back in 1987, when he played a small role as a prisoner of war in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.

The inspiration: "the fake boot camps" many of his actor friends went through as they prepared to shoot one war movie or another.

"It sort of became a staple," Stiller says. "They'd go off with some military adviser and have two weeks of camping out, getting shot at, learning how to shoot their guns and pretending to be soldiers.

"There seemed something ironic to me about the idea of actors ... [who'd] come back and talk about that experience and talk about how it changed their lives."

In Tropic Thunder, in theaters now, actors filming a Vietnam War epic in Southeast Asia get caught up in a real war with gun-toting drug smugglers.

Stiller stars in the spoof as Tugg Speedman, a fading action-franchise star (think a younger Sylvester Stallone) who's desperate for a box-office smash.

He also co-wrote, co-produced and directed the film, which pokes fun at Hollywood excess and the lengths to which some actors will go in search of authenticity.

Stiller talks with Renee Montagne about a real-life controversy surrounding his movie and elements of the film-within-the-film — from Robert Downey Jr.'s role as a white actor who goes to great lengths to play a black man, to the film's running joke about a cinematic flop in which Stiller's character played a mentally challenged man.

That last bit has inspired protests from disability-rights groups.

Says Stiller: "Obviously, our intent was never to make it offensive. To me, it was really important that it was clear that we were satirizing the actors in this movie, and the lengths that actors go to ... playing roles that they shouldn't play, or going further than they should in wrongheaded moves to gain credibility as an actor."

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