Robert Downey Jr. on His Hero's Journey (INTERVIEW)

From Hollywood struggles to blockbuster superpowers, the talented Robert Downey Jr. is a man on a mission.
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Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) in the blockbuster superhero franchise. (Photo: Courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney)

Forty-five years ago, one of the most popular and successful movie stars in the world made his film debut at the age of 5. In the film, Pound, the thespian in question – Robert Downey, Jr. – was directed (by his father, Robert Downey, Sr.) to quail on all fours, then with weary zeal to shake his proverbial moneymaker as charmingly as possible. “What you’re looking for here is someone to take you home,” the juvenile performer was guided. 

Yes, the iconic, voluble man inside of Iron Man began his professional life rather inauspiciously as a sick, canine runt, one of 18 puppies set for Animal Control execution unless some merciful stranger adopts him. 

Twenty years later and Downey, Jr. was crowned time and again as the best actor of his generation, his work in offbeat fare like The Pick-Up Artist and Less Than Zero, as well as mainstream gigs like John HughesWeird Science and the Little Tramp biopic, Chaplin (for which he was Oscar-nominated), imbued with a frenzied melancholy, doleful mania, and savage intelligence. 

Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr. in The Pickup Artist Photo Courtesy Fox

Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr. in the 1987 romantic comedy The Pick-Up Artist. (Photo: Courtesy Fox)

As anyone who waited on line, wreathed in tabloids, at a supermarket in the mid-‘90s remembers, the man who would one day be Iron Man developed a knack for cocaine, heroin, handguns, and accidentally waking up in the beds of people he did not know, landing him in rehab and prison, forcing the cancellation of several film and television projects. Downey was so deep in the doghouse in the early aughts – viewed, for all his radiant talent, as a professional hazard and an insurance liability, making him virtually unemployable – that an Old Yeller-like fate for the actor would have surprised, basically, no one.

But like the four-panel superheroes he would come to associate with onscreen, Downey – beginning with 2005’s, underrated Shane Black noir comedy, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – unexpectedly rose from presumed death, surmounting his grim ordeals and achieving an apotheosis virtually unprecedented. In the passed decade, Downey has worked not only steadily, but with almost impeccable genius, reigning over the Marvel Universe as Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) in one blockbuster franchise and chumming it up as Baker Street super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes in a second box office supernova. That’s a long way from downing Puppy Chow on camera in Daddy Downey’s low-budget flick.  

Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Robert Downey Jr. in the title role of Sherlock Holmes (2009). (Photo: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

Downey is a rare talent in Hollywood, the very embodiment of meta-fiction, inviting audiences to become as hyperconscious of cinema’s artifice as he himself cannot help but be, while also becoming completely whatever a big-screen story asks of him. In the movies, Downey is inside and outside of the moment all at once, his every cell raging with an eternal battle between intellect and instinct, Id and Superego, his aura charged with resonance, pain, ferocity, and, at last, a peace worth living for. 

With more than $9-billion of box office haul to his credit and more rave reviews to his name than any other 10 actors combined, Downey is a man on his mission. He’s lived at the edge of darkness and, finally reborn to light, he won’t need a third chance. 

When you were working through some of your personal troubles in the 1990s, it was megaproducer Joel (Lethal Weapon) Silver who ultimately rolled the dice on you as a “comeback kid,” hiring you for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Gothika. Those films kind of got things moving for you again, career-wise.

You know what? Joel threatened to drop me out a window if I misbehaved on those movies. But it was bad parenting on his part; he’d dropped me out of windows before and that didn’t stop anything!

Robert Downey Jr. Less Than Zero Photo Courtesy Fox

Robert Downey Jr. as Julian Wells in Less Than Zero (1987). (Photo: Courtesy Fox)

You were essentially unemployable for a number of years, the studio bondsman and insurance companies unwilling to cover your hiring. 

See, I have a different opinion on all of that. If you have someone – and there’s no way to prove this, except by time I guess, which I’ve definitely done – but if you have someone who is clearly done with a certain destructive type of behavior, I think they are a safer bet than someone who is a weekend warrior, the guy who might all of a sudden for the first time – having demonstrated nothing but his ability to perform well – suddenly takes a bunch of Oxycontin or something and get in his car and then mows down half the people on the boardwalk. But that’s just my opinion. But Joel Silver was a smart guy and he’s been good to me. Believe me, I wish I hadn’t been such a pain in the ass . . .

And a decade later, you’re arguably the biggest movie star in the world.

“Arguably”? Are you kidding me? Who’s bigger? Taller, maybe. But bigger! (Laughs) Look, Hollywood’s been veddy, veddy good to me. Some days it’s Palm Springs, and some days it pisses rain on me, but it’s still pretty good. 

One of the keys to your enormous success is the amount of surprise you generate within a scene, the occasionally wildly eccentric performance choices you make. It keeps an audience on its toes, but it also really draws them in. Is that technique, or simply who you are?

Well, I can get really bored when I’m working. I don’t mean to. I’m just being honest here. I get really bored. Sometimes I’ll find a director has me overdoing a scene, like the same take 40 times, so I’ll try to find a way to make it entertaining to me. What would be fun to do here? And I’ll start to do something in a take that might have nothing in it that’s relevant to the film, but you know sometimes it works. If you run out of ideas and you just go to the grab bag, sometimes cool stuff comes up. Also, I’m not above mentioning the fact that I have no idea who I really am, so sometimes that can inform a performance.

You’ve been back, working healthy, for over a decade now, and it’s been a very spectacular run. Would you call Iron Man your “big break” the second time around? 

Man, nothing’s a break for me. Not even the breaks are breaks. I’m so much more used to doing something, a lot of things, and working really hard at it. I’m not a “sit still” kind of guy. As James Spader would say, I’m a guy you invite to go “chew up the scenery,” or as Tom Sizemore would say, “I like to make faces for cash and chicken.” 

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 3 Photo Courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney

"Tony Stark, his real superpower is his mind," says Robert Downey Jr. about his superhero alter ego. "He invents. He reinvents. I think that's something that all of a sudden makes him applicable or relatable to every man, woman, and child." (Photo: Marvel Studios/Disney)

There’s that famous line from F. Scott Fitzgerald about there being no second acts in American lives. Does the last 10 years in your life overrule The Great Gatsby author?  

I think the lesson is that in today’s world you can still make mistakes and be forgiven. So yeah. Maybe. 

Your casting as Iron Man was almost as controversial as when Tim Burton dared to put Michael Keaton in a cowl for Batman, but it completely reinvigorated comic book movies. What was it that attracted you to that character? 

There’s mythology there. It’s a genre picture, and those can be a lot of fun sometimes, getting to do all kinds of stuff people think you’re crazy for doing unless you’re, like 7-years old, but I also looked at Iron Man and saw something there that was going to be more than another paycheck. I love paychecks, but I love figuring stuff out even more. Tony Stark, his real superpower is his mind. He invents. He reinvents. I think that's something that all of a sudden makes him applicable or relatable to every man, woman, and child. I love this phrase I heard a while back: “There's nothing more serious than a child at play." I know that that's true for me. If you asked me where I find my bliss in life, I’d probably say, “Tinkering, man. I like to tinker without any real aim.” That’s a spiritual endeavor. It’s the kind of thing that saves Tony Stark’s ass time and again in the Iron Man movies, and maybe it’s saved mine too. 

With all respect, there’s no way you were on the studio’s A-list to play Iron Man, not back in 2007. How did you land the role? 

I met Jon (Favreau, director) and the guys down at Marvel. I wasn’t sure why, but I was definitely ready for the meeting. While I was hanging out, waiting for them in the hallway, I suddenly realized, “Oh, were going to be talking about Iron Man today.” And I was walking along this long hallway, looking at the posters of all the other movies they’d done – most of which had done rather well – and all the video games and toys and merchandise and stuff, and I thought, “Wow, this might be really cool.” So Jon comes out and I tell him, “Look, I am the guy for this role.” And he said, “Yeah, I know that. But I don’t think it’s going to happen, man.” And I said, “Well, I think it’s going to happen, so let me know when you want me here for a screen test.” Yeah, I auditioned for that part. And I’d do it again if I had to. 

With Iron Man, you not only emerged as a box office superstar, but you also completely revamped your physical appearance. You were in excellent physical condition, which the part – a very physical role – kind of required. How did you prepare for that?

The funny thing is: I had been preparing for Iron Man for a year or so before I even knew there was going to be an Iron Man in my life. For some reason or another, I had been training really hard, just trying to get my body to a really great place, doing martial arts and all that. I was, like, 40-years old. I figured if I was ever going to try to look like I was in decent shape, there wasn’t going to be a better time. So when the part came, I was ready for it. Or I thought I was. It was a really physical role. Sometimes you train your ass off so you’ll look good in a movie, and then you find out that you were really training so you wouldn’t die. 

You’ve played Iron Man six times now. What’s the most challenging part of making those films?

The most challenging part, still, is trusting that all this crazy, high-tech gear is going to balance out with all the naturalistic ways we try to do the acting. It’s a tone thing. It’s a highwire act. Working, for me, is an athletic endeavor – I do it with my head and my nads and my heart. So putting all of the human athleticism into it in balance with all of the bang-zoom gizmo stuff, it’s like a really big science project. The algorithms can be really tricky. 

It’s kind of clichéd, the notion that playing a certain role can change an actor, but you’ve suggested in previous interviews that this has been the case for you and Iron Man. True?

What I learned about myself playing Iron Man is that if you’re not on your team, why should anyone else be? Something like the first Iron Man, that was considered out of the box for me. Way outside the box. But that’s what we are here to do: change expectations of ourselves. I’d ask you if I’m right, but I know I’m right. 

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man Photo Courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney

Robert Downey Jr. suits up for Iron Man. (Photo: Courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney)

Getting into the Iron Man costume, that’s got to be a big chore. Is make-up and wardrobe something you’re comfortable with, or does sitting still for a couple of hours every day make you a little mad?

The really typical thing would be for a very fortunate man – like myself, for example – to complain about how dire his circumstances are. Instead, I’ll say, “I’ve come to love the Iron Man suit.” Is there anyone on this planet who wants to hear me complain? About anything? 

Narratively, one of the most interesting things about Captain America: Civil War (in theaters now) is how your character’s allegiance – to his fellow Avengers or to the United States government – becomes uncertain. Eventually, without spoiling too much, he makes a decision that is devastating to a lot of people, on and off screen. How do you approach that as an actor? 

Well, it's funny. I was thinking a couple days ago how in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark is going on and on about how the government can’t have the Iron Man suit and its my private property and all that stuff, and in Civil War, it’s a full about-face: nope, we’ve gotta sign all this stuff over to the government, and we’ve gotta do it now. That’s not just a plot device. Think about it for a second. What that is, really, is the function of age, of growing up. The things you're so determined and passionate about in your 30s and 40s, when you start looking at the back nine, you're like, "Or, maybe I was entirely wrong about all of that." You don't really have the time and energy to stay as rigid. Which is a good thing for most of us. It’s definitely been good for me. 

Captain America: Civil War is in theaters now.