I Am Sam director reveals Ben Stiller called Sean Penn to warn him about Tropic Thunder gag

Stiller’s action film poked fun at Hollywood’s more ridiculous traits

Roisin O'Connor
Friday 31 December 2021 12:25
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I Am Sam trailer

I Am Sam director Jessie Nelson has recalled how Ben Stiller apparently warned her and actor Sean Penn that he was including a joke about the film in his own movie, Tropic Thunder.

The 2008 action film took several swipes at Hollywood, including self-serious method actors and money-spinning franchises.

In one scene, Robert Downey Jr’s character delivers a speech that points out how actors seeking critical praise by playing certain roles that can end up being problematic.

“Never go full [R-word],” he tells Stiller’s character about the best way to win an Oscar. “You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember, went full [R-word]? Went home empty-handed.”

In a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Nelson said she remembered Penn receiving a heads-up from Stiller that the joke was included in the film.

“Ben had called Sean to warn him and tell him,” she said. “I understand the cynicism of ‘Oh, if you do a movie about a disabled character, you’re gonna win an Academy Award.’

“But in truth, how many movies are actually about the disabled community? There are so few. But yeah, people are allowed to razz it and make fun of it however they want. Once you do a movie, you’re kind of out in the world.”

As THR points out, I Am Sam was in fact a success, grossing nearly $100m (£74m) at the box office and picking up an Oscar nomination for Penn, plus SAG Award wins for him and his young co-star, Dakota Fanning.

However, the reviews were mostly negative, with Variety calling it “an especially insipid example of the Hollywood message movie”.

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