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July 30, 2008

Positive forecast

Metro Detroit native Brandon T. Jackson’s star continues to rise with ‘Tropic Thunder’

DETROIT — As a kid, metro Detroit native Brandon T. Jackson got his start in comedy, performing in churches and local comedy clubs and eventually hosting a radio program on 93.1 FM.

So when the 22-year-old landed a role in the summer action comedy “Tropic Thunder,” opposite more seasoned comedians like actor Jack Black and writer/director/co-star Ben Stiller, he found a great place to hone his own chops.

“I learned a lot,” Jackson said. “It was kind of like my comedy grad school.”

In “Tropic Thunder,” Jackson plays Alpa Chino, a hip-hop mogul hoping to make the leap to serious actor by starring in a Vietnam War movie opposite a cast of pampered Hollywood stars, played by Stiller, Black and Robert Downey Jr.; Downey’s character caused initial controversy because the Australian method actor he plays portrays an African-American soldier in the movie-within-a-movie.

Alpa Chino — so named because of the character’s affection for the film “Scarface,” which starred Al Pacino — plays a Detroit soldier named Motown in the movie, a happy coincidence for Jackson. While shooting in the jungle, the spoiled stars encounter real danger when they run afoul of a drug gang.

British actor Steve Coogan plays the war movie’s frustrated director, Damien Cockburn.

“The film starts out looking like a big Hollywood war movie and then quickly becomes a high-concept comedy,” Coogan said in a prepared statement.  “It laughs at itself. ... We’re kind of showing the underbelly of Hollywood filmmaking, and I think audiences will enjoy seeing how vulnerable everyone is in these situations.”

A self-confessed class clown, Jackson grew up in West Bloomfield and graduated in 2004 from West Bloomfield High School. He also spent a lot of time in Detroit, as his father is Wayne T. Jackson, a well-known local religious leader and bishop of Detroit’s Greater Faith Ministries; Jackson’s mom is the pastor there.

His upbringing goes a long way in explaining why Jackson, unlike some of his acting peers, isn’t a troubled tabloid fixture. He’s more likely to be found hanging out at home watching movies with his actress girlfriend, Shannon Kane (who’s also in “Tropic Thunder”), than causing a scene in a club.

“I’m not saying I’m the best kid in the world,” Jackson insisted. “I’m kind of a good bad boy. I’m young, so I go out sometimes. But, at the same time, I don’t overdo anything.”

Jackson was in Detroit recently to promote “Tropic Thunder,” but the visit was also a chance for him to catch a Tigers game with his siblings — he’s the fifth of seven kids.

“It’s fun, but it’s really crazy to come back here and have my family here and do the press (for the movie),” said Jackson, who now lives in Hollywood. “It’s a really good feeling.”

Jackson’s appeared in a number of films, including “Ali,” “Nikita Blues” and “8 Mile,” but he got his big movie break in “Roll Bounce,” a 2005 release that co-starred fellow young talents like Bow Wow, Nick Cannon and Meagan Good. The host and brainchild of the Teens of Comedy Tour (currently under development as a film) continues his live comedy career, and said he was considering “a lot of offers” at press time. Watching Stiller shuttle among acting, directing and producing in “Tropic Thunder” was educational for Jackson, who’d like to direct one day and dipped his toes in that water by directing several Web episodes to promote his new film.

“I always ask myself, ‘Would Will Smith do this?’” said Jackson of one of his idols. “There’s a lot of ‘mights.’”

At press time, “Tropic Thunder” was slated to open in theaters nationwide Aug. 13.

You can reach Arts & Entertainment Editor K. Michelle Moran at or at (586) 498-1047.