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[ los angeles 2008 preview issue]
[ master of the house ]
by Fred Topel Photos by Zade Rosenthal Courtesy of Paramount Pictures PAGE. 22 2008 Preview Issue
here are few actors as charismatic in their self-destructive ways as Robert Downey Jr. His trademark wound-up, dicey, real and raw personality has made him a most beloved Hollywood lead man today, despite his ongoing drug-addiction battles. Five years ago, Downey was the go-to punch line in any late-night joke about celebrity rehab. There was a point when the actor couldn’t even get insured for major film productions. But to everyone’s great relief, these days he’s shaking things up on solid ground. Currently, the clean and insured 43-year-old is still proving his incomparable talents on movie sets as the star of this month’s Iron Man. Downey is an unusual casting choice for Tony Stark – the billionaire weapons magnate who becomes Iron Man and stays alive with a chest plate that keeps his heart beating. Marvel launches the feature film with plenty of pyrotechnics to please the eye, as well as a flying metal hero that can blast any villain. The production harkens back to the days of actors honing their crafts, and studios, in this case Marvel Productions, in charge of their own work. “I remember the original Superman and Brando was in it,” Downey says. “I thought, wow, these things must be getting legit! I was already, I guess, fairly opinionated when I was seven.” Acclaimed for his work in prestige films like Chaplin and intense character dramas like Less Than Zero, Downey proves that quirky, highcaliber actors make comic book films stand out. “All my friends are doing it,” jokes Downey. “With my buddies, when you want to do stuff, they say, ‘You’re doing what, man? Shaggy Dog?’ No one’s given me any guff about Iron Man.” The actor grabbed hold of his character with his typical gusto and sharpened Tony Stark with his Downey edge. Near the end of an exhausting day on the set of Iron Man, director Jon Favreau needed Downey to walk through the Stark home and check his messages. Even in a brief shot to simply forward the plot, Downey had new lines he wanted to try; different reactions to various well-wishers leaving voicemails. This was the way it went throughout the entire production. “I come in every day and say, ‘I’ve seen this in a movie before. No offense, but if we do [it this way], I haven’t seen that,’” explains Downey. “Some of my [ideas] are so far out they go, ‘Will you just go put on your chest piece?’ I feel the onus and the responsibility to not venture into this genre without an understanding that just because it happens to have this two-dimensional aspect to it in its origins, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t go deep and it shouldn’t be an art form. I think audiences are continually underestimated. At the same time, I can go see a pretty crappy movie and love it, if it’s got a couple of things that work. I’m like a soccer coach with kids that probably shouldn’t be playing soccer.”
Back on the set, Favreau looked tired as he entered to discuss the scene with Downey. The Stark mansion was paved with brown “marble” that squeaked as Downey walked across it. The “marble” was actually just rubber, hence the squeaking. Later, Favreau said he appreciates the “collaboration,” as he called it. “I think there’s something incredible to be discovered in the moment, especially when you have actors like Robert who understand it and have been around and see themselves as shepherds of their roles,” said Favreau. “He knows more about their character than the filmmaker does, because that’s the kind of actor I hired.” The two would often have discussions that continued late into the night, or they’d show up early on the set and lock themselves in the trailer to talk about their ideas for the film. “In casting Robert, you have a much different version of this movie than you would if you have somebody else younger, less funny, less spontaneous, less charismatic,” says Favreau. “With him as Tony Stark, we knew we could hit the humor hard. We knew we could test the boundaries of likeability because he’s so charming that you could really get to the personality Tony Stark has in the books.” Some of Downey’s ideas actually required a complete re-haul of the set. In one scene, Stark gives a press conference to a room full of reporters. Downey wanted the reporters to sit down, when lights were set up for everyone at standing height. “I’m not coming in going, ‘This is all wrong! Relight!’” explains Downey. “But I will come in and say, ‘Given the time we have, we can probably get this many shots.’ Jon’s been very flexible and very fun.” Changing a film set seems like a relatively wholesome instinct for someone with more unruly habits, such as violating probations and frequently regressing into drug addiction. Even during his younger, more careless days, Downey was able to channel his wild energies into artistic pursuits. “I remember the days of Less than Zero or Chaplin where I would throw myself into this tizzy of prep for 16 hours,” Downey recalls. “The same makeup gal doing this did Less Than Zero, and she was blowing menthol in my eyes, putting latex on my lips… I was doing push-ups before the scenes and my heart was racing forever.” Real life for Downey has been the stuff of past Hollywood movies: An emerging talent in the ‘80s, quickly swept up in the fast lifestyle of drugs, building credibility only to relapse several times. Back in 2003, he actually thought he’d given his last interview on rehab. His team of publicists said that from then on, he could just claim he’s “already covered it.” Five years later, now acting the part of a comic book character who has turned to the bottle, he taunts me when I try to sugarcoat the question he’s learned to expect.
I’m like a soccer coach with kids that probably shouldn’t be playing soccer.
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[ master of the house ]
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[ master of the house]
“Just bring it, dude.” Okay, Robert, since you’ve been through addiction problems, could you relate more to Tony Stark? “I think when someone has had a fundamental change and they’re not just trying to backpedal; by the time you’ve seen the light; by the time you get out of Dodge and start doing the right thing, you really don’t relate to the person that historically people still say [you are],” Downey says. “It’s always kind of an inside game, and I forget that occasionally, but they keep writing the shit,” Downey continues. “It’s that thing, like life is 85% maintenance, and you realize at the end of your day that you spent most of the day just making sure that other people’s energy and all your own mindtalk wasn’t ruining it. Like the day plans to be good, and then you come in like CRASH CRASH CRASH trying to VROOM VROOM VROOM.” Interviewing Downey is always fun because he’ll go off on tangents more interesting than the original question anyway. This topic somehow veers off to people with worse reputations than Downey. “It’s like the guy who says, ‘If you Google me, all you’re ever going to see is that I was accused of raping those two kids on a boat,’ or whatever,” he says. “It’s like, why am I Googling you anyway? That’s a really nice headspace.” Wait a minute. This isn’t an attempt to evade the real question, is it? No, Downey eventually gets to the real story. “Well, they say the bigger the setback, the bigger the comeback. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that people take that to heart,” Downey says. “It’s kind of one of those agnostic journeys. I don’t want to be a Joseph Campbell chapter, but most everyone’s life is one mythology or another. I guess that’s why it’s there, to let you know those stories mean something. I took some hits mostly in my own making, but everyone transforms. Some of it’s just a function of age. I’m not in my twenties. I’m not in my thirties.”
to like to check out and anesthetize myself. Between the two of those, it’s like you’re not firing on all cylinders and it’s not that kind of party. It’s not a rat race, it’s a road rally for sure.” Working his way back into Hollywood’s good graces was a gradual process. Downey had to successfully complete independent films like Two Girls and a Guy, and later, The Singing Detective, to prove he wasn’t an insurance risk. For a while, the actor’s life was choppy, and Hollywood always weighs its risks against the potential rewards of hiring an actor. “I just think there’s an understanding,” Downey says. “It’s like if you want a French-speaking actor who you think is right to do your film, you understand that there will be certain communicative necessities, or whatever. It’s really just an equation. I can think of two people offhand who it never got as public as it was with me, and after a certain amount of time, [proved] the most stable people are the people who are committedly not unpredictable anymore.” New Hollywood has shown not only its forgiveness in hiring Downey for a big budget franchise, but its faith, signing him to two sequels. This could see Downey playing Iron Man until another generation of Hollywood takes over. “We wrapped this and I’m on to the next thing,” Downey says. “I’m in great shape and I have tons of energy and I have more gratitude than I can even bear to express. You could say that’s because I have something to weigh it against, or you could say it’s because I’m a grateful guy nowadays.” And for that, we’re all thankful.
They say the bigger the setback, the bigger the comeback. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that people take that to heart.
Even during the dark times, Downey still cared about his craft. It just took some growing up to teach him that he couldn’t have it both ways. He couldn’t be an Oscar-nominated actor and get arrested for possession of narcotics. “It never occurred to me, particularly after I did Chaplin, that there was this 18-month window where I wasn’t supposed to smoke bowls and watch the History Channel,” Downey says. “I was supposed to plan the next big thing. I guess it was that thing, too, of the narcissism of wanting to act like it wasn’t that important to me and I didn’t care, and also having the tendency
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