Robert Downey Jr. (October 12, 2014)

I arrive at Robert Downey Jr’s four-storey headquarters in Venice, California. I use the word headquarters for many reasons. Firstly – there’s a sense that team Downey is running to change the world, taking on interesting projects with verve and enthusiasm. Secondly – it’s far too spectacular to be called an office.

Downey is wearing a T-shirt and sweats. He is fresh from the gym. He is a mixture of calm and perky. He tells me the building used to belong to a British photographer and as we wind our way upstairs past various warrens and the workforce, he shows me his son Exton’s playroom which used to be ‘the playboy suite where the photographer would take all of his models and then they would shower in the opaque glass shower room.’
Upstairs where there used to be a swimming pool it is now a sundeck, pillows and day beds, a kitchen and a dining area where Downey’s chef Charles makes us a wonderful lunch as healthy as it is exquisite – avocado, seaweed, heirloom tomatoes. ‘Did you like the movie?’ Downey asks, with only a hint of nervousness.
I did like it. I laughed. I cried. I loved the Downey/Duvall chemistry. Duvall hid everything on the inside and Downey threw out every minutiae of feeling.
The Judge is the first team Downey production. (Downey stars and his wife Susan is at the production helm). A radical contrast to all things Iron Man and The Avengers. It sees Downey – who it is said is the highest earning actor in the world reputedly collecting between $50 and $75 million per movie – returning to the style of acting where he first started Off-Broadway. It is dialogue driven, a story about coming to terms with his life via its emotional history and clashes with his father. It stars Downey as an ambitious, clever lawyer, a chancer who is a master manipulator of the law and Robert Duvall as his father the judge, upstanding, harsh but fair. The man with whom he has an impenetrable rift.
It was a powerful and emotional script. What drew him to it? ‘I wanted to make it so that we couldn’t think about doing any other movie but this. I was the only fixed element of the casting.’ He pauses toying with a piece of teriyaki chicken. ‘These days I hear things like “We’re going to have a chemistry test between so and so and so.”’
Has he ever done a chemistry test? ‘I think they weren’t calling it that then.’ It’s true that he had to audition for Iron Man. The story of his own life reads like a superhero transformation. Downey was always brilliant but troubled, self-destructive. He was in the news with various drug charges, even a stint in jail and in 1999 a term at the California Substance Abuse Facility Center.
He came back in 2003 with a brilliant portrayal of The Singing Detective, a movie for which the only way he could be insured was due to the generosity of his friend Mel Gibson. After a number of well received movies including A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and A Scanner Darkly. He came back into mainstream lovability with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But Iron Man of course was the big comeback, the fanfare, all singing and all dancing. The Downey that everyone loved.
‘A chemistry test is something to try and find the thing that (Gwyneth) Paltrow and I have in Iron Man. It’s something where you have to think this movie is going to work because of you two.
‘I’d seen Duvall in a movie called Get Low and I thought wow. I want to be able to hold down a movie for an hour and a half then have a five-minute monologue at the end that is actually the highlight of the movie. He’s a powerhouse.’
Indeed, there’s already talk of Duvall getting an Oscar nomination for The Judge. It’s a movie with deep emotional resonance for many people, especially those who may have a strained relationship with a parent and enjoy the catharsis of a way in to mend a rift. I wonder if Downey found inspiration for his performance from his relationship with his father Robert Downey Sr, an underground film maker who when they were growing up on the East Coast often included Downey Jr in his work. He made his acting debut at the age of five playing a sick puppy in the absurdist comedy Pound (1970). And then at seven appeared in Greaser’s Palace. His mother Elsie Ford once played 17 different characters in the movie Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight.
I remember him telling me that once when he was young and broke and needed $2 his father wouldn’t give it to him. He said at the time that he respected that and it helped make him who he is. That had shocked me.
‘I’m glad I was feeling so expansive at the time.’ There’s a pause and a raised eyebrow lost in thought. ‘My father was trying to make a point; that there’s no handouts. I think there are elements in any father that are similar and others not. Duvall doesn’t have any kids. Isn’t that interesting?’
Did it take him back to his childhood and parents? A pause. ‘Everybody got something out of this shoot for some reason. I don’t know why it’s so cathartic for me to speak about it. The first thing I learnt in acting class at Santa Monica High School was that you have to have an aesthetic distance from what you are doing. And then my buddies at Strasberg’s were all telling me how they were vastly growing as artists. But what I learned at high school seemed very practical. You are a liability if you’re out there turning the role into therapy. And by the way I know some people who need to do this. Everything has to have deep resonance for them. But no. I was there dressed in a suit and dressing like a dad and if you’re with good professional folks it’s really easy to create a false reality.
‘Susan was there with Exton. Charles was there (his chef). So I’d be sitting with the food and rocking him to sleep. More than any movie I’ve ever done I think this is good. I can’t wait to see it with an audience again. I’ve never been in a movie where so many people had something to tell me right after they saw it, how and why it impacted them. And I really appreciate that. I think there’s been some pixie dust on this project. We all would get emotional talking about it. And although I wasn’t thinking about my dad it’s almost there like a wave, like that sound machine that puts kids to sleep. This movie allows you to feel safe and entertained.’
What is even more strange about this movie is another way that art has imitated life. The starting point for the movie is when Downey’s character must take the trip back home for his mother’s funeral.
‘Because of what just happened recently it’s very much an art imitates life movie.’
Downey’s mother Elsie Ann Ford died just three days before our interview. He shows me his desk which is placed opposite his wife’s desk. Susan’s is full of work in progress. On his desk is a black and white picture of his mother in a check 1950s dress and a nipped in waist. Her eyebrows are slightly vulpine and arched and her dark eyes pierce out of the photo frame. His eyes are her eyes. He nods that he was a lot like her.
He doesn’t want to talk about her. He says, ‘That’s what’s called a boundary.’ He wrote it all down in a moving tribute about how she dropped out of college and moved to New York with dreams of becoming a comedian. She met and married Downey Sr and had two children and worked in her husband’s movies. The marriage fell apart. Her acting career already suffering due to her alcohol addiction. Downey Jr lived with her and her boyfriend Jonas Kerr who became a second father in a two room five storey walk-up in Manhattan. She finally got sober in 1990.
“When I strived to have the kind of success that eluded her my own addiction repeatedly forbade it. in the summer of 2004 I was in bad shape. She called me out of the blue and I admitted everything. I don’t remember what she sang. I haven’t drank or used since.”
His tribute continues: “My ambition, tenacity, loyalty, moods, grandiosity, occasional passive aggression and my faith, that’s all her.”
Elsie moved to Los Angeles to be with Downey and to be a grandmother but was plagued by health problems. She suffered a cardiac arrest in March and was put on life support. Her wish was to be left to die if there wasn’t a reasonable chance of recovery. She came back from that completely lucid, then had a further set of seizures. She was 80 when she died.
He ended his tribute saying, “If anyone out there has a mother and she’s not perfect, please call her and say you love her anyway.”
Today though he didn’t want to go there. You don’t get the sense of him hanging on by a thread, desperately holding himself together. He is the same sparky, personable, loveable self, but he is one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Death brings me on to life. Does he have a name for his baby girl? ‘No. With Exton it was really easy. I asked Susan do you have any eccentric uncles and she said, “Jay Exton Turner.” And we looked up Exton and it’s a town where a bunch of roads cross,’ he says enthusiastically.
What about his first son Indio, 19? ‘Indio is a town on the way to Palm Desert where Coachella happens.’
Indio was recently arrested on drugs charges. Is he doing okay? ‘I suspect he is. He’s in treatment. He’ll be home soon. He and I are extremely close. He’s a musician. He’s putting a new band together.’
He is resolutely bright when he talks about Indio. If there’s an apple and tree conversation he’s definitely not going to be having it.
‘I’ve noticed in journalism recently some changes. People pass away and the next minute somebody’s asked me what I think. It’s actually I just heard that and I’m trying to process it.’
He goes on to give various examples. Afterwards I realise it’s all about his mother.
The Judge though, very much asks many questions about the father son relationship. Downey Sr perhaps gave Downey Jr too much free rein. It’s often been written about that he introduced him to smoking weed when he was just a kid and in general they lived a very bohemian existence.
‘Yes, maybe too much free rein. The other thing that’s happened in the last couple of years is that people admit to me who had the same counter culture upbringing as I did, that they rebelled against it by becoming squares. They rebelled by becoming materially successful in a way that’s very above board.’
It’s hard to imagine Downey, who at one point seemed like the poster boy for rebellion as dreaming of being square. He is after all a man of great extremes, complex but at the same time easy going. He is now 49 and enjoying the regime of a marriage that is on careful and strong foundations. These days he enjoys boundaries.
‘I don’t think I aspire to it intentionally because I didn’t think I had a shot at it. I thought I deserved it but it probably would not happen. But from day to day my perspective changes.’
Downey’s life of course is constantly changing. The major catalyst to that change has been a strong woman who loves him. A producing partner that is also his wife Susan. She is about to give birth to their second child, a daughter. His own family unit is pure strength.
He tells me that he has been involved in helping organise a retrospective of his father’s underground movies and he will come out to California for the screenings. ‘I nudged it along because he will come out and it’s a great way to see him and talk about stuff. But in many ways Paul Thomas Anderson has been a better son to my dad than I have. He dropped off this little manila envelope of interviews he’s done with him when they were taking train rides together and there’s also a shot of my dad in a Life magazine, he’s probably about 30-years-old, he’s wearing a pea coat and a cowboy hat and it says “Robert Downey makes vile movies.”’ He laughs.
‘It’s interesting when you’re old enough to take a new objective approach looking at your parents, frame them in a way where you are actually taking yourself out of the equation and just look at the things that are true about their life.’
Is he close to him? ‘Medium close. But that’s 100 per cent because of distance. He’s a diehard New Yorker and I like LA.’
So while The Judge absolutely pivots on the father/son relationship, its aftermath sees Downey involved in creating a retrospective of his dad’s films.
So maybe The Judge did open some psychological doors? ‘Maybe,’ he says, still thinking. His eyes fix you but you can see wheels turning. ‘When I was in New York I would go to the cinema with him and the move would start and my dad would be “Let’s go. This is bullshit.” I walked out of more movies than I saw because my dad would deem that what they’d done he’d already seen and it was no good. So I just assumed that if my dad said so, he’d be the one to judge because he’s a movie guy. People say that his movies are revolutionary.’
Richard Attenborough was also a father figure to him and his recent death was a great loss. He talks about their last meeting. ‘I went to see him and Sheila. I was a little apprehensive so I brought Guy Ritchie with me. I felt like I had some closure and stuff to do. They were in an assisted living facility. When Beauvoir Lodge wound up being sold I felt they had no idea what the future would hold. I never thought there’d be a time when Lord and Lady wouldn’t be in the Lodge.
‘When I was doing The Avengers sequel I was staying in Richmond so I could pass by. If we got invited to Beauvoir Lodge, A) It meant we were going to have a lot of fun; B) We’d see his art collection. And there’d always be interesting people there. I didn’t know my last time would be my last time. I thought I’d be back again. But you never know when the last time is, do you? He was the greatest.’
Attenborough directed him in his first Oscar nominated performance Chaplin. Was he a nurturing director? Perhaps more nurturing than Downey Sr? ‘My dad is actually very affectionate, although nurturing is the wrong word. I definitely felt given the lifestyle he had making underground movies without a budget, he was kind. They went out of their way to have some sense of normalcy. And when I’m being intimate or snuggling with my kid I remember that I learnt that from my Dad; lots of saying I love you, lots of tucking into bed.
‘Attenborough was very different.’ He mimics Attenborough’s voice. ‘Darling… When it came down to who was in charge or who had authority he would put me through my paces. But less than anybody I ever knew he had no judgement on my glaring character defects.’
Downey falls into being hard on himself easily. It’s just something he does automatically and when I point it out he says, ‘OK. I don’t have any anymore…
‘But there was a minute during Chaplin before we started shooting where I thought he should let me rewrite the script. And I told him as much and I said you should come over because I’ve rewritten the script with someone you’ve never met and he was really pissed off.’
Why did he decide to rewrite the script? ‘We’re talking about the point of view of a scared shitless 26-year-old who was about to do something that was going to define him one way or another. There is nothing more entertaining than an actor who hasn’t started shooting. Anyway, Lord Attenborough was really f****** haughty about it and from the first day of shooting he worked me like a rib. I realised I would be going where he said, doing what he said. The working hard was fun. I really like harmony. I don’t need to get into spats with people. There was just that one and then he was sweet again through the whole thing.’
The Judge was shot in small towns in Massachusetts and that was resonant for him. ‘There was a time where we lived in the middle of nowhere in Connecticut near East Hampton. We lived at the end of a dirt road. We were only there for about two years and then we were in Upstate New York in Woodstock.’
‘Next up I’m developing a very absurd and heartfelt version of Pinocchio that I’m crazy about. It’s live action and I might play both Pinocchio and Geppetto. I like mainstream movies that are completely off the wall.’
I wonder if that’s how Downey sees himself; both mainstream and off the wall. It seems to fit. Iron Man made $582 million, and the franchise has grossed over 2 billion at the Box Office was certainly mainstream yet he imbued the character of Tony Stark with an uncommon amount of flair, verve and vulnerability.
Is there going to be an Iron Man 4? ‘Not that I’m aware of.’ Is that the end of Iron Man? ‘Not that I’m aware of.’ He just appears in Avengers movies? ‘Avengers was another opportunity but they’re not talking about Iron Man 4. I was kind of bombed out to tell the truth, but maybe they’ve got bigger fish to fry and I trust their overall vision. The funny thing about these genre movies is you’d think they were national secrets.’
The Avengers movie in 2012 was one of the biggest grossing in box office films in history at $1.52 billion, and while Downey was certainly ready to return to the more traditional character acting, I’m sure he’s very protective of Tony Stark. He often refers to the weekend when he auditioned for Iron Man as the weekend that changed his life entirely.
‘I’m sure that there’s an end game, a plan of how to wrap up the whole phenomenon.’
Does he get a little jealous when there’s another superhero movie, another Spider Man or another Bat Man? He pauses: ‘Honestly the whole thing is just showing the beginning signs of fraying around the edges. It’s a little bit old. Last summer there were five or seven different ones out. I feel that they are critiqued by a different metric to any other movie.’
Surely that metric is box office? ‘Right. But also they are more forgiven because they operate on a different frequency. It’s like a bunch of really good dancers and you’re looking for the one who keeps changing her leg warmers. They make a lot of money.’
Iron Man has made him a lot of money. ‘Yes, I’ve done very well.’ It’s such a lot of money, is it real to him? ‘It’s funny how quickly you can get used to radical changes. Also if you’re raised with a poverty mentality nothing is going to change it. I do know some really stingy billionaires. I come from such a generation of hand to mouthers.’
Is it hard to adjust? ‘Right. But the nice thing is if you have ten pints of ice cream in the freezer and it’s night-time you go I’m not really feeling it for ice cream. If you don’t have any you’re craving ice cream. If you’ve got plenty of ice cream you’re not going to eat it and think there’s never going to be any more. There’s not the kind of famine psyche, you know. There’s a whole generation of kids who have had to stomach this privilege and try to individuate in spite of it.’
Does he worry that having too much money could have a bad effect on his children? Does he go along with Sting who said recently he wouldn’t be leaving any of his money to his children? ‘Anything Sting says I agree with,’ he says grinning.
It turns out that Downey is a huge Sting fan. Trudie Styler produced the movie A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints (2006) in which he starred. ‘Sting is so authentically himself even though he’s always changing. He might say now I’m in my medieval phase. I’m only playing medieval instruments. I’ll let you know when I’m done.’
I don’t get the impression Downey is particularly materially driven. I think he always has wanted to do the best possible job. ‘I want to make a movie that’s commercial and the studio will not lose money but I want to do something that feels like a departure.’
He says that he’s talking about a Sherlock Holmes III and how he hopes to return to London. He does a very funny Guy Ritchie impersonation. And he speaks of Jude Law with great love.
‘There isn’t anybody I’d rather be figuring out fight choreographies or how to sell a moment with. He is like my acting wife. Totally trustworthy, technically and intellectually sound.’
How about his actual wife? What is team Downey really like? ‘She’s a really good den mother and I really like being under her wing when we’re working. I bring in other people that are a little bit complicated and she sorts them out. She always knows the really cool venue or what people to bring together, who will get on with whom. No one feels like they’re not invited. It’s so emotionally healthy. I have never met anyone who can be so cut and dried about things yet is able to say things in a way where people’s feelings don’t get hurt.’
He says he is looking forward to taking things at a slower pace –
fewer projects, more family time, especially with his new baby daughter about to arrive. He is about to leave for a short promotional junket.
‘I guess I’m self driving,’ says Downey. Does that worry him, that a driver isn’t on hand? ‘Not at all. I’ve got a little convertible number, a promotional vehicle from Audi and I love it. As long as they want me to drive them I’m going to be seen driving them.’
Is there anything that he loves to spend money on and anything he hates? ‘I love spending money on gifts. I hate spending money on a septic system in my house. They run the pipes away from the house and then the house stinks more than it ever did after you spent all this money on it. I hate throwing good money after bad.’
I have been drinking bottles of raw tea which I’ve never seen before. Downey loads me up with several more bottles to takeaway. He is just a generous guy.

Robert Downey Jr – April 20, 2013 (The Times Magazine)

Robert Downey Jr strides into the Santa Monica beach front hotel room, hugs me hello and starts to pace around the table. He is wearing a cream lose knit sweater with a thin T-shirt underneath, soft grey elephant chords, neatly manicured facial hair. His eyes round puppy dog saucers.

He’s wiry . A body hard from work out. The eyes swivel and dart, they don’t want to miss anything. He talks fast, sometimes at tangents, but he talks as if whatever he has to say has to be expelled from him, an urgency and a passion.

He is carrying a tiny black suitcase. He flips it open to reveal Chinese herbs and other such pills. He is still pacing and talking as he paces. I wonder if it’s a ritual. Then he opens his mini-suitcase. Telling me he’s got nothing to hide. He wants me to see all his pills. He is dedicated to being as healthy as possible

Now one of the most sought after and richest actors on the planet, reputedly earning £31 million from his last movie The Avengers alone. He is the star of the money minting franchise Iron Man and also the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes franchise which has grossed more than $1 billion. It’s interesting to consider just how spectacular his success has been when many predicted he would not survive, not just in the industry but be alive at all.

We are here to talk about Iron Man 3 where he reprises his role as the eccentric but brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man. It is perhaps the most psychologically complex in the trilogy so far as Stark feels he must answer the question does the man make the suit or the suit make the man?

A similar line of questioning Downey must have asked himself. From 1996 to 2001 he was arrested various times on drug related charges. Rehab didn’t work. He trespassed when on parole. He had to do time in jail.

During that time though he never delivered less than 100 per cent on set and always turned up on time, even getting a Golden Globe in 2000 for his stint on Ally McBeal.
Iron Man 3 director and writer of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black, said that, ‘Tony Stark/Iron Man is the story of a true American hero. Robert Downey is the American hero. Someone who is passionate, sometimes misguided, sometimes pompous, a genius and a one time drunk.’ He says it with an affectionate smile and adds, ‘People don’t just come out of jail and become possibly the biggest actor in the world.’

Downey’s trajectory is one of Hollywood’s most fascinating and traumatic tales. He was always a great actor. How did he miss that Oscar for Chaplin? He swapped the red carpet, the fancy hotel suites, for a jail cell. Took it with grace; took it like he knew he deserved it; he chose to feel grateful not sorry for himself. Following his stint in jail, he was uninsurable. His friend Mel Gibson paid his insurance for The Singing Detective, after which he met Shane Black for the first time who directed him in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

He had to audition for the first Iron Man, gruelling but he did it. He survived without moral censure to become loveable again where so many others couldn’t and haven’t.

What is it about Downey? His charm, his cleverness, his ability to make anyone laugh. All of that of course. But essentially he’s utterly loveable. Those big eyes when they look at you with their mix of playful and sad win you over every time. Also he never complains.

He is about to be 48 (April 4) and has perhaps become the man he never thought he’d be; living in a lovely house with a lovely wife called Susan and a cute baby called Exton.

Iron Man/Tony Stark has brought him financial contentment, but he brought to Iron Man edge, vulnerability, an ability to be iron hard and emotionally soft. The vulnerability draws you in, to the character and the man. This is the man who opens his little suitcase and lets me see his little pills, all of his insecurities.

‘I love Tony. I love Iron Man. I love the character, the people I get to work with. Will there be another? I don’t know. Do the audience want more? I am fortunate, I don’t have to overstay my welcome. I don’t say things like I feel this is my brand and I really need to influence the way it goes I don’t. I am married, I have a kid, I have a real life without cameras rolling.

‘How would I feel if someone else played Iron Man? Well, my ego would suffer. It would be smashed. But maybe that would be the best thing for me. I hate seeing people’s egos suffer. I hate it when people have to learn those painful lessons of humility.’

He says this with a permanently raised eyebrow, an ironic wink at himself. His ego of course has suffered, and when his life fell apart, ‘I think I have a good amount of humility in the bank, and as long as I don’t create a need for more humility I’ll be around.’

‘There is something very humbling about playing a character that may be somewhat of an extension of yourself. It’s a meditation in character defect.’

Tony Stark is a know all, a show off, someone who constantly learns hubris hurts. Finally we have sat down. I wonder if he had to circle the table a certain number of times otherwise something terrible would happen? He doesn’t answer that specifically. He doesn’t answer much specifically. But he answers with rawness and heart.

‘Rituals are very important as long as you don’t become dependent on them. We are always growing and developing spiritually and we always have different needs for different devotions and different prayers. I started off with this prayer: Can I please just play baseball? Can I just be on a team and maybe if I get on a team I can hit a home run…

‘My spirituality has more to do with maintenance than achievement now. Maintenance is three times harder than achievement.’

He says he is fine to see other people have a drink at a restaurant, but if a waiter asks him if he would like a glass he says, ‘No thank you. I have plans for Christmas.’
He has referred to himself as a Jewish Buddhist. Intense martial arts workouts have meant the endorphin high has replaced the drug high and his relationship with his wife Susan Levin, who he met when she was a producer on Gothika, has given him emotional calm.

‘Stability, intellectual peer, and monster sex machine. And she runs the show. She has strength and realism and is someone who is unscathed by her first dozen years of experience.’

Their son Exton was born just over a year ago and Downey talks excitedly about him. His secret to a happy marriage? ‘Realising that two people become a third thing. I take on some of her characteristics and she takes on some of mine. It’s like having a full length mirror in front of you all day long.’

Downey seems to relish the idea of checking in on himself. It’s as if he enjoys being hard on himself. Shane Black says that after working together on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ‘we felt like kindred spirits. Robert doesn’t change with a big budget. We still had the same kind of meetings hashing things out, trying to get to the heart of what scenes are about. Yet there’s a little kid inside him.’
Downey says, ‘I love everything he says. For sure there’s a kid inside. I’m not sure what kid. Some kids like a rough and tumble atmosphere. Some need to know they’re very safe. Some are too coddled and some aren’t loved enough.’
You wonder briefly if he ever felt loved enough as a kid. Robert Downey Sr was an avant garde film director. Downey Jr played a puppy in one of his movies Pound.
His mother was an actress comedian and his parents divorced when he was 13. Downey is chewing hard on his Nicorette gum. The last time I interviewed him he smoked at the same time as eating tuna tartare. ‘It’s the best. What’s awful is smoking cigarettes.’

Tony Stark has nightmares. What keeps him awake? ‘Pretty much every night I put my head on the pillow, unless my wife is mad at me, which is not very often, I’ve got a clear conscience. I’m happy. Whenever you have a new opportunity or a new relationship, for me it’s a new baby, these instincts come out. Protective instincts.’

Was he worried about reprising the success of Iron Man? ‘I know when you have this much, I don’t want to call it pressure, let’s call it money on the table from a major corporation that has Mickey Mouse hand towels in their planes, there is a huge expectation. You have to perform at a certain level and you have to hit a lot of marks. By that I don’t mean doing it by numbers, you just have to do it.

‘They trusted me. They trusted me to go to places where he needed to go and sometimes be quiet, and in case you haven’t noticed I like to talk. I’m getting better at not having to hear my own voice as often and I think that’s a positive affirmation for the future.’

Does his success feel like revenge on the people that didn’t want to insure him? ‘No. I know certain people say creative capacity is based on revenge. It’s really not true. I have mellowed although I still have fire in my belly. I’m a firm believer if you are not on your side why should anyone else be, why should a studio be?’

Is it really easy for him to have faith in himself? ‘As I’ve gone on I’ve become much less falsely confident. The missus said to me, “You’re a bright guy and when people say these nice things about you, you quickly agree with them. There is part of you that was raised in a very abstract way and you paid a high price for some of your weaknesses, and there’s a part of you that’s making peace with everything going as well as it has”.

‘As you mature things unravel. You start to address them. For me the process of maturing was very dirty, uncomfortable and embarrassing, but necessary.
‘I have often been my greatest impediment in moving forward and being gainfully employed. This (Iron Man) is not the most important thing but it’s given me an incredible amount of leverage, and I’ve got that leverage without having to sacrifice my enjoyment.’
Halfway through the shooting a stunt went wrong. ‘I did a wire jump. I didn’t want to rehearse it. I don’t know why. We shot so many stunts I thought maybe I’m impervious. I’m 47-years-old, what kind of moron says I don’t’ need a safety harness I’ll just jump. The next thing I know we have to shut down production for six weeks. I really yanked my ankle. It hurt. Everything was a mess.’
Does he feel like a superhero in real life? ‘Absolutely not. I mean I did, but not any more. I did for that five seconds and then I was in hospital.’
Downey loves to bring intensity to a character. Maybe he just does it naturally. Offloads some inner turmoil. Certainly Tony Stark is a more complex superhero for everything Downey’s given him.

‘Am I that intense? Maybe it’s unmanaged anxiety. I think I’m calming down. Maybe that makes me more capable of playing these tense people, very wired and agitated.’
Is he happy at the moment? ‘I am embracing the possibility of happiness. There are certain things I want to say I can’t control. I decided I didn’t need to rehearse a dangerous stunt. I did a jump that busted my ankle and I couldn’t believe that had happened to me, but why not me? In a way it was the best thing that could have happened. It gave me time to think about the movie and time to see what we’d already shot.’
There’s something in Downey’s headset that’s ruthlessly optimistic. How could anyone think a painful twisted ankle was a good thing? But that’s why he has survived so much worse.

‘And now I have a set of understandings about my physical limitations. I had trained hard. I was in fantastic shape. I was convinced that I would not be injured.’
He believed in his own superpower. ‘I know. It’s embarrassing. It was hubris. That’s what it was. Oh God, not hubris again.’
‘Do I think I have an inbuilt destruction mechanism? I don’t know. I don’t know how much I’ll be doing this sort of thing because a I have other interests and b it’s inherently dangerous and c I’m having a very nice run.’
So you want to quit while you’re ahead? ‘Right. I look at people’s careers. I look at the choices they’re making. I look at what the studios are doing. I look at who’s watching them. Then I think oh, they’re twisting this up a little.
‘Me and the missus started a production company and I don’t want it to be one of those companies that develops things into oblivion. We’ve had in a script from a guy who lives in St. Louis who’s a headhunter. He’s turned in the best script that we’ve ever come across. It’s about a lawyer and his judge father. I’ll play the lawyer.’
Robert Duvall is set to play the judge father. So he will be revisiting a father son relationship? ‘Yes. The first image I ever had of a superhero in my lifetime was when I saw my dad in a Superman T-shirt with long arms. The judge needs to be a mountain of a man. My dad and I get along well but there’s a certain amount to be explored there.’
Interesting to say he gets along well. Wasn’t there a time when he was desperate for money and his father wouldn’t give him any? ‘Yes, but he was right. He was trying to prove a point. He tended not to give me a hard time, but that time I think he was right.’ Downey called him broke and homeless and asked for money. His father refused to help. ‘If he hadn’t said go and get a job, get it from friends, I might never have discovered my ability to hustle and that life wasn’t a handout.’

His father also helped him discover a liking for smoking weed? ‘Yesss.’ He puts on a faux embarrassed face. ‘It was all great but the price was so high. It’s a different generation, a different set of understandings.’
‘It’s the same with chocolate cake. If you like chocolate cake and you know a really good bakery you have to ask yourself if you are willing to pay the price of getting jacked up on sugar. I don’t want my cheeks to be all puffy if I am shooting a movie or a cover so I’m not going to eat that chocolate. If you’ve ever lost the ability to make that decision, you realise that when you get that ability back it’s the most precious and glorious thing you can posses.
‘There have been some times recently where I’ve been eating ice cream. I discovered a great ice cream company. They have cookie dough and mint chocolate chip. I’ve gone in phases where I’ve banished them from the freezer and then they find their way in and I’m secretly delighted. I’ll do several nights in a sustained carpet bombing of my colon. I’ll do it for a couple of nights and then I’ll leave it. It amazes me if you have a dependency for something if you get away from it for long enough you can return to it. But I would never do this with drink or drugs. Ice cream and cake. Nobody should fully give up. Just pick a couple of days a month where you can get down and dirty with it. You still pay a price.’
He delves in his little suitcase. Each of the Chinese formulas are designed to do something different. There’s also sunglasses and wet wipes and more Nicorette gum. ‘The supplements are if I’m feeling low in energy. I have an acupuncturist and many secret weapons. I train with martial arts. I am brown belt. I don’t do it every day. Some days I stay at home so I can see the boy.’
The boy Exton is an Aquarian. ‘I had an Aquarian girlfriend once. I’m not sure how that translates to baby boys. We are not in touch any more. She got mad at me for something that was probably my fault. She felt very strongly about it. Even if you have evidence to the contrary, if someone feels very strongly about something it’s always best to assume they are right.’
Before the current Mrs Downey he was married to actress Deborah Falconer after a six-week whirlwind romance. They were married in 1992. They had a son, Indio, now 19. The marriage broke down after Downey’s repeated trips to rehab and jail and ended in 2001. The divorce was finalised in 2004.
Before that he had an eight-year relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker. He told me once that he never left anyone. ‘I’ve only ever been left. They made that decision. They were never abandoned. Abandonment is something I’ve experienced.’
I don’t think he likes to dwell on the past. He’s very much in the present. He likes to brim with enthusiasm not weighed down by regret. He is not abandoned now by any means. He seems nurtured.
‘The missus and I work incredibly hard to stay current with each other, to be kind to each other, to ignite each other when we can because if you’ve gone out and done your day and she’s done her day and you come home exhausted you need to try harder. You don’t want to be just co-existing. I don’t want to be too tired for her.’
The promotion tour for Iron Man 3 is a juggernaut involving Beijing, Seoul, Paris. ‘We have a two week rule. We are never apart for more than two weeks. We have another Sherlock coming up, or at least we’re going to write a script and see how it turns out.

‘We’ve got very strong relationships in Britain. I love London. When we did the first Sherlock we learnt a lot about British people which is if you’re doing something difficult don’t just grind the monkey till the wheels come off, be civilised. Offer everyone cheese. Always chat for a little while.
‘The last time we were in London with Sherlock the missus was pregnant and that’s when we got very British. She said, “I can’t be on set with you unless you are behaving like a gentleman the whole time”. And since then we have sought to bring the same sort of energy and civility to whatever we do.’
Does he prefer to love or be loved? ‘I prefer to love although I’m getting better at the other. I’ve allowed myself to be loved up for a good five years.’ You can’t help wishing him that for many years to come. Robert Downey Jr strides into the Santa Monica beach front hotel room, hugs me hello and starts to pace around the table. He is wearing a cream lose knit sweater with a thin T-shirt underneath, soft grey elephant chords, neatly manicured facial hair. His eyes round puppy dog saucer eyes.

He’s wiry . The eyes swivel and dart, they don’t want to miss anything. He talks fast, sometimes at tangents, but he talks as if whatever he has to say has to be expelled from him, an urgency and a passion.
He is carrying a tiny black suitcase. He flips it open to reveal Chinese herbs and other such pills. He is still pacing and talking as he paces. I wonder if it’s a ritual. Then he opens his mini-suitcase. Telling me he’s got nothing to hide. He wants me to see all his pills. He is dedicated to being as healthy as possible

Now one of the most sought after and richest actors on the planet, reputedly earning £31 million from his last movie The Avengers alone. He is the star of the money minting franchise Iron Man and also the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes franchise which has grossed more than $1 billion. It’s interesting to consider just how spectacular his success has been when many predicted he would not survive, not just in the industry but be alive at all.

We are here to talk about Iron Man 3 where he reprises his role as the eccentric but brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man. It is perhaps the most psychologically complex in the trilogy so far as Stark feels he must answer the question does the man make the suit or the suit make the man?
A similar line of questioning Downey must have asked himself. From 1996 to 2001 he was arrested various times on drug related charges. Rehab didn’t work. He trespassed when on parole. He had to do time in jail.
During that time though he never delivered less than 100 per cent on set and always turned up on time, even getting a Golden Globe in 2000 for his stint on Ally McBeal.

Iron Man 3 director and writer of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black, said that, ‘Tony Stark/Iron Man is the story of a true American hero. Robert Downey is the American hero. Someone who is passionate, sometimes misguided, sometimes pompous, a genius and a one time drunk.’ He says it with an affectionate smile and adds, ‘People don’t just come out of jail and become possibly the biggest actor in the world.’

Downey’s trajectory is one of Hollywood’s most fascinating and traumatic tales. He was always a great actor. How did he miss that Oscar for Chaplin? He swapped the red carpet, the fancy hotel suites, for a jail cell. Took it with grace; took it like he knew he deserved it; he chose to feel grateful not sorry for himself. Following his stint in jail, he was uninsurable. His friend Mel Gibson paid his insurance for The Singing Detective, after which he met Shane Black for the first time who directed him in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

He had to audition for the first Iron Man, gruelling but he did it. He survived without moral censure to become loveable again where so many others couldn’t and haven’t.
What is it about Downey? His charm, his cleverness, his ability to make anyone laugh. All of that of course. But essentially he’s utterly loveable. Those big eyes when they look at you with their mix of playful and sad win you over every time. Also he never complains.
He is about to be 48 (April 4) and has perhaps become the man he never thought he’d be; living in a lovely house with a lovely wife called Susan and a cute baby called Exton.
Iron Man/Tony Stark has brought him financial contentment, but he brought to Iron Man edge, vulnerability, an ability to be iron hard and emotionally soft. The vulnerability draws you in, to the character and the man. This is the man who opens his little suitcase and lets me see his little pills, all of his insecurities.
‘I love Tony. I love Iron Man. I love the character, the people I get to work with. Will there be another? I don’t know. Do the audience want more? I am fortunate, I don’t have to overstay my welcome. I don’t say things like I feel this is my brand and I really need to influence the way it goes I don’t. I am married, I have a kid, I have a real life without cameras rolling.
‘How would I feel if someone else played Iron Man? Well, my ego would suffer. It would be smashed. But maybe that would be the best thing for me. I hate seeing people’s egos suffer. I hate it when people have to learn those painful lessons of humility.’
He says this with a permanently raised eyebrow, an ironic wink at himself. His ego of course has suffered, and when his life fell apart, ‘I think I have a good amount of humility in the bank, and as long as I don’t create a need for more humility I’ll be around.’
‘There is something very humbling about playing a character that may be somewhat of an extension of yourself. It’s a meditation in character defect.’
Tony Stark is a know all, a show off, someone who constantly learns hubris hurts. Finally we have sat down. I wonder if he had to circle the table a certain number of times otherwise something terrible would happen? He doesn’t answer that specifically. He doesn’t answer much specifically. But he answers with rawness and heart.
‘Rituals are very important as long as you don’t become dependent on them. We are always growing and developing spiritually and we always have different needs for different devotions and different prayers. I started off with this prayer: Can I please just play baseball? Can I just be on a team and maybe if I get on a team I can hit a home run…
‘My spirituality has more to do with maintenance than achievement now. Maintenance is three times harder than achievement.’
He says he is fine to see other people have a drink at a restaurant, but if a waiter asks him if he would like a glass he says, ‘No thank you. I have plans for Christmas.’
He has referred to himself as a Jewish Buddhist. Intense martial arts workouts have meant the endorphin high has replaced the drug high and his relationship with his wife Susan Levin, who he met when she was a producer on Gothika, has given him emotional calm.
‘Stability, intellectual peer, and monster sex machine. And she runs the show. She has strength and realism and is someone who is unscathed by her first dozen years of experience.’
Their son Exton was born just over a year ago and Downey talks excitedly about him. His secret to a happy marriage? ‘Realising that two people become a third thing. I take on some of her characteristics and she takes on some of mine. It’s like having a full length mirror in front of you all day long.’
Downey seems to relish the idea of checking in on himself. It’s as if he enjoys being hard on himself. Shane Black says that after working together on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ‘we felt like kindred spirits. Robert doesn’t change with a big budget. We still had the same kind of meetings hashing things out, trying to get to the heart of what scenes are about. Yet there’s a little kid inside him.’

Downey says, ‘I love everything he says. For sure there’s a kid inside. I’m not sure what kid. Some kids like a rough and tumble atmosphere. Some need to know they’re very safe. Some are too coddled and some aren’t loved enough.’
You wonder briefly if he ever felt loved enough as a kid. Robert Downey Sr was an avant garde film director. Downey Jr played a puppy in one of his movies Pound.
His mother was an actress comedian and his parents divorced when he was 13. Downey is chewing hard on his Nicorette gum. The last time I interviewed him he smoked at the same time as eating tuna tartare. ‘It’s the best. What’s awful is smoking cigarettes.’
Tony Stark has nightmares. What keeps him awake? ‘Pretty much every night I put my head on the pillow, unless my wife is mad at me, which is not very often, I’ve got a clear conscience. I’m happy. Whenever you have a new opportunity or a new relationship, for me it’s a new baby, these instincts come out. Protective instincts.’
Was he worried about reprising the success of Iron Man? ‘I know when you have this much, I don’t want to call it pressure, let’s call it money on the table from a major corporation that has Mickey Mouse hand towels in their planes, there is a huge expectation. You have to perform at a certain level and you have to hit a lot of marks. By that I don’t mean doing it by numbers, you just have to do it.

‘They trusted me. They trusted me to go to places where he needed to go and sometimes be quiet, and in case you haven’t noticed I like to talk. I’m getting better at not having to hear my own voice as often and I think that’s a positive affirmation for the future.’
Does his success feel like revenge on the people that didn’t want to insure him? ‘No. I know certain people say creative capacity is based on revenge. It’s really not true. I have mellowed although I still have fire in my belly. I’m a firm believer if you are not on your side why should anyone else be, why should a studio be?’

Is it really easy for him to have faith in himself? ‘As I’ve gone on I’ve become much less falsely confident. The missus said to me, “You’re a bright guy and when people say these nice things about you, you quickly agree with them. There is part of you that was raised in a very abstract way and you paid a high price for some of your weaknesses, and there’s a part of you that’s making peace with everything going as well as it has”.
‘As you mature things unravel. You start to address them. For me the process of maturing was very dirty, uncomfortable and embarrassing, but necessary.
‘I have often been my greatest impediment in moving forward and being gainfully employed. This (Iron Man) is not the most important thing but it’s given me an incredible amount of leverage, and I’ve got that leverage without having to sacrifice my enjoyment.’
Halfway through the shooting a stunt went wrong. ‘I did a wire jump. I didn’t want to rehearse it. I don’t know why. We shot so many stunts I thought maybe I’m impervious. I’m 47-years-old, what kind of moron says I don’t’ need a safety harness I’ll just jump. The next thing I know we have to shut down production for six weeks. I really yanked my ankle. It hurt. Everything was a mess.’
Does he feel like a superhero in real life? ‘Absolutely not. I mean I did, but not any more. I did for that five seconds and then I was in hospital.’
Downey loves to bring intensity to a character. Maybe he just does it naturally. Offloads some inner turmoil. Certainly Tony Stark is a more complex superhero for everything Downey’s given him.
‘Am I that intense? Maybe it’s unmanaged anxiety. I think I’m calming down. Maybe that makes me more capable of playing these tense people, very wired and agitated.’
Is he happy at the moment? ‘I am embracing the possibility of happiness. There are certain things I want to say I can’t control. I decided I didn’t need to rehearse a dangerous stunt. I did a jump that busted my ankle and I couldn’t believe that had happened to me, but why not me? In a way it was the best thing that could have happened. It gave me time to think about the movie and time to see what we’d already shot.’
There’s something in Downey’s headset that’s ruthlessly optimistic. How could anyone think a painful twisted ankle was a good thing? But that’s why he has survived so much worse.
‘And now I have a set of understandings about my physical limitations. I had trained hard. I was in fantastic shape. I was convinced that I would not be injured.’
He believed in his own superpower. ‘I know. It’s embarrassing. It was hubris. That’s what it was. Oh God, not hubris again.’

‘Do I think I have an inbuilt destruction mechanism? I don’t know. I don’t know how much I’ll be doing this sort of thing because a I have other interests and b it’s inherently dangerous and c I’m having a very nice run.’
So you want to quit while you’re ahead? ‘Right. I look at people’s careers. I look at the choices they’re making. I look at what the studios are doing. I look at who’s watching them. Then I think oh, they’re twisting this up a little.
‘Me and the missus started a production company and I don’t want it to be one of those companies that develops things into oblivion. We’ve had in a script from a guy who lives in St. Louis who’s a headhunter. He’s turned in the best script that we’ve ever come across. It’s about a lawyer and his judge father. I’ll play the lawyer.’

Robert Duvall is set to play the judge father. So he will be revisiting a father son relationship? ‘Yes. The first image I ever had of a superhero in my lifetime was when I saw my dad in a Superman T-shirt with long arms. The judge needs to be a mountain of a man. My dad and I get along well but there’s a certain amount to be explored there.’

Interesting to say he gets along well. Wasn’t there a time when he was desperate for money and his father wouldn’t give him any? ‘Yes, but he was right. He was trying to prove a point. He tended not to give me a hard time, but that time I think he was right.’ Downey called him broke and homeless and asked for money. His father refused to help. ‘If he hadn’t said go and get a job, get it from friends, I might never have discovered my ability to hustle and that life wasn’t a handout.’
His father also helped him discover a liking for smoking weed? ‘Yesss.’ He puts on a faux embarrassed face. ‘It was all great but the price was so high. It’s a different generation, a different set of understandings.’

‘It’s the same with chocolate cake. If you like chocolate cake and you know a really good bakery you have to ask yourself if you are willing to pay the price of getting jacked up on sugar. I don’t want my cheeks to be all puffy if I am shooting a movie or a cover so I’m not going to eat that chocolate. If you’ve ever lost the ability to make that decision, you realise that when you get that ability back it’s the most precious and glorious thing you can posses.

‘There have been some times recently where I’ve been eating ice cream. I discovered a great ice cream company. They have cookie dough and mint chocolate chip. I’ve gone in phases where I’ve banished them from the freezer and then they find their way in and I’m secretly delighted. I’ll do several nights in a sustained carpet bombing of my colon. I’ll do it for a couple of nights and then I’ll leave it. It amazes me if you have a dependency for something if you get away from it for long enough you can return to it. But I would never do this with drink or drugs. Ice cream and cake. Nobody should fully give up. Just pick a couple of days a month where you can get down and dirty with it. You still pay a price.’
He delves in his little suitcase. Each of the Chinese formulas are designed to do something different. There’s also sunglasses and wet wipes and more Nicorette gum. ‘The supplements are if I’m feeling low in energy. I have an acupuncturist and many secret weapons. I train with martial arts. I am brown belt. I don’t do it every day. Some days I stay at home so I can see the boy.’
The boy Exton is an Aquarian. ‘I had an Aquarian girlfriend once. I’m not sure how that translates to baby boys. We are not in touch any more. She got mad at me for something that was probably my fault. She felt very strongly about it. Even if you have evidence to the contrary, if someone feels very strongly about something it’s always best to assume they are right.’
Before the current Mrs Downey he was married to actress Deborah Falconer after a six-week whirlwind romance. They were married in 1992. They had a son, Indio, now 19. The marriage broke down after Downey’s repeated trips to rehab and jail and ended in 2001. The divorce was finalised in 2004.
Before that he had an eight-year relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker. He told me once that he never left anyone. ‘I’ve only ever been left. They made that decision. They were never abandoned. Abandonment is something I’ve experienced.’
I don’t think he likes to dwell on the past. He’s very much in the present. He likes to brim with enthusiasm not weighed down by regret. He is not abandoned now by any means. He seems nurtured.

‘The missus and I work incredibly hard to stay current with each other, to be kind to each other, to ignite each other when we can because if you’ve gone out and done your day and she’s done her day and you come home exhausted you need to try harder. You don’t want to be just co-existing. I don’t want to be too tired for her.’

The promotion tour for Iron Man 3 is a juggernaut involving Beijing, Seoul, Paris. ‘We have a two week rule. We are never apart for more than two weeks. We have another Sherlock coming up, or at least we’re going to write a script and see how it turns out.

‘We’ve got very strong relationships in Britain. I love London. When we did the first Sherlock we learnt a lot about British people which is if you’re doing something difficult don’t just grind the monkey till the wheels come off, be civilised. Offer everyone cheese. Always chat for a little while.
‘The last time we were in London with Sherlock the missus was pregnant and that’s when we got very British. She said, “I can’t be on set with you unless you are behaving like a gentleman the whole time”. And since then we have sought to bring the same sort of energy and civility to whatever we do.’
Does he prefer to love or be loved? ‘I prefer to love although I’m getting better at the other. I’ve allowed myself to be loved up for a good five years.’ You can’t help wishing him that for many years to come.

Robert Downey Jr

The word that is most used to describe Robert Downey Jr is loveable, albeit, a loveable tornado. That is what it can be like to be with him. Exhausting, emotionally rearranging, destructive, and thrilling, and he pulls you in. From his debut as a cocaine addict in Less Than Zero to his Oscar nominated Chaplin, he totally inhabited these characters. He found a way to bring them into himself and put that part of himself right out there to touch you. He always made you feel that you could own a part of him, take him home and nurture him, possibly illustrated in his best performance ever – his own life. In and out of jail and rehab, time and time again he would try, fail. It wasn’t just the normal Hollywood combo – great talent and self destruction walk hand in hand down Sunset Boulevard – because it was more human than that, and more outrageous. However, it was only ever his self he let down. Already on probation for speeding, possessing drugs and a gun, we can all both laugh and cry with him for the goldilocks incident, where he had fallen way off the wagon and staggered into the wrong house, believing it to be his own and collapsed comatose in the bed of his neighbour’s 11 year old son. He seemed at the same time helpless and not a victim, even though in court he came across an avenging Puritan judge Mira, who, time and time again, wanted to set an example by not lifting the punishment, making no excuses. During his time in jail and in rehab, there was a constant internet vigil. Websites called “To Know Him Is To Love Him” where Downey Jr was drawn as a Botticelli cherub and lavished with love poetry by fans across the world who boasted a 12 month international prayer chain. Another reason people find Downey so loveable is that he was on the edge and he almost fell over. He is the pole by which people measure themselves, grateful they could never feel things so sorely and fall apart so proficiently, but magnetized watching him put himself together again. How we all loved him raise the game of Ally McBeal, win his Golden Globe, only to be dashed again in a Palm Springs Hotel room, where allegedly, his own dealer tipped off the police. He’d been doing drugs and there was the threat of incarceration again. When we meet in the plush L’Ermitage Hotel, home of the $45 salad and a constant rushing fountain and James Woods and a puppy in the foyer, it seems a different universe. But of course, it isn’t that far apart, or even that different. Downey is all wiry limbs, agitated animation, both elegant and ungainly, raw and marinated. His body is toned and there’s no cheruby cheeks. His skin looks like it’s felt too much for one lifetime. Not that that makes him unsexy. In fact, quite the contrary. There’s a huge sexual energy about him. You could see it shining out of him even as he played Dennis Potter’s psoriasis suffering Singing Detective.

His arms were pocked like a pizza, his skin a mass of painful flakes and sores, and even as his own nightmare fears and paranoias enveloped him, you were with him. You wanted him to be saved. Dennis Potter wrote the feature length Singing Detective just before he died, as he was unhappy with the way Hollywood reworked his Pennies From Heaven into a movie. Downey is aware of carrying the heavy mantle, delivering Potter’s last and perhaps most poignant words to the world. He didn’t have a problem seeing himself as the depressed, drugged, immobilized in hospital Daniel Dark, but when the scenes intermingle with childhood memories, and he is the cool Singing Detective himself, he felt momentarily floored “Because I am not cool. I am not Bruce Willis. I am not Mel Gibson. I can’t be the guy who looks good with a gun.” No, much easier for him to be the guy that can seem to shimmer out of a thousand sores. The script was delivered to him by Gibson while he was in rehab, along with the videos of the television series which he and the other rehabees watched greedily. “Gibson said ‘Maybe it’s something we can do together’ and got in his helicopter and left. Once I wanted to do it, he said “You’re going to do the first five and a half weeks by yourself and I’m going to come in for the last three days.” Their scenes together are very intense and nurturing. “Basically, that’s how he is. He’s like a brother to me.” Gibson put up his own money for Downey’s insurance costs, which were astronomically high due to his record of instability. “I hope I’m in a position one day to be fostering that same kind of exchange and support with someone a couple of years my junior and giving something to them that I could probably have done myself. He was serious too. In some of those scenes, where he was like, ‘Do you plan to get better?’, that wasn’t just the characters. It was he and I.” And do you plan to get better? “Yeah. I was already on the way. But I don’t know if I planned it or not. What is the movie about? In essence, it’s about someone who’s traumatized by everything they needed to witness and an inability to move past your initial female attachment.” We’ve been together for about ten minutes when he looks at me right in the eyes and says “I didn’t get the movie until last week. I didn’t get it.” For him, the aftermath of a movie, like when he became embroiled with all the coincidences and similarities between him and Chaplin and he got to know Chaplin’s daughters long after the movie had wrapped, is as an important part of the process as the acting. In The Singing Detective, his wife, played by Robin Wright Penn, might be cheating on him and might have stolen his script. Or, she might be standing by him. “She’s there because she’s a principle of feminine healing energy that’s not judgmental and shows up and tries to quell that masculine boring fucking paranoid energy. What I mean is, she’s good girl and why would good girls hang around miserable assholes? No good girl would ever stay with guys like us. Any good girl would kick you to the curb. And because of that, you believe you will never attract a really good woman.” And maybe when you do, you think they’re evil? “Yes. Thank you. And that’s what happens. In the movie he’s already halfway home because she’s been showing up for him.”

And is that what happened to you? “Yes. Finally, I get it.” Downey’s love life has of course been as passionate and as volatile as it gets. He was with Sarah Jessica Parker for 7 years. It was a constant battle between her and his addictions. Most of the time, she won, but said although he was always emotionally available, he couldn’t be faithful. But it’s because of that emotionally available thing that you can’t dismiss him for it. Or at least you could if you were Deborah Falconer, the model he married after 6 weeks, with whom he’s now separated and with whom he has a son, Indio, now ten. His new girlfriend is a producer, Susan Levin. He met her on the set of Gothica. She works for Joel Silver and keeps him on a choke chain, but he says “I love it.” He seems deliriously in love with Susan. He has a separate cell phone which only she can call and a polaroid style picture of them together stuck on it. They call constantly. “Since I’ve met this girl, it’s been really weird because there’s been closure with my ex and separation from my mother.” It’s as if his investigation of female energy in the Singing Detective has brought him closure in his own life. His mother is someone who seems to have been both brilliant and unnurturing. Do you believe in that Freudian thing that all men marry their mother? “I thought if I changed the outside, I wouldn’t keep stamping repeat every cell again and again, so instead of short, Scottish, brown eyed stocky, I’ll go for tall, midatlantic, blue eyed down for the cause Amazon.” And, was it all the same thing? “Right. But now, as you can see, I’m dating a very attractive Jewish woman and I’m so glad I’ve found her. It would be hilarious to be right, but could Joel Silver be cupid?” In Gothica, he plays a doctor who is incredibly sweet. “It’s a smart movie, today’s version of The Shining in an institution, and I try to rehabilitate poor misguided and often violent sinister women.” Do you like misguided women or do you prefer grounded ones? “I’ve done my tour of duty… No. I am going for stability, intellectual peer and monster sex machine. And she runs the show. She has strength and realism and she is someone who is unscathed by her first dozen years of experience.” Are you choosing that to compliment your childhood which was very scathed? “Well it was, but I’m not a bitterball about it because we can all choose our experiences on some level. There are no victims. And if I hear one more person talk about how they are destroyed because they never got their dad’s approval… Oooh. That’s just self centred to the extreme.” Downey is very agitated because although they brought us our food – spicy tuna fish in coconut juice – he has not been brought his cigarettes. He’s only distracted from his agitation when I tell him that I had met Dennis Potter who showed up for the interview wearing polythene bags around his feet so he wouldn’t shed. Only now, he’s insatiably interested in Dennis. “At the time, I was just pretty busy trying not to go nuts. One day we’d have full body makeup and the next I’d put on this suit and have to look cool and confident, so it really took me out of my head, especially doing the singing stuff. The choreographers were like ‘You did Chaplin, you can move around,’ and I was like ‘Nooo.'” So, were you miserable? “Well I’m not right now, but that miserable guy is in there,” he says, looking like he’s going to burst out of his own skin for his need of a cigarette. “I’m tired of the faux depression thing. It’s just an excuse to take your favourite medications. What’s depressing about life, really?” he says, sending himself up. He seems to want to downplay his anxiety, his pain. The cigarettes arrive on a silver tray. When do you get miserable then? “Either not getting what you want or thinking you’re going to lose something you have. And if we got what we wanted, we probably wouldn’t want it by the time we were done eating. If ifs were gifts, every day would be Christmas, right?” Well Christmas, that is usually depressing for most people. “No. I’m ass backward. I’m going to have a great Christmas. I’m thinking of taking my gal and we might roll over to Hawaii, crash at Woody Harrelson’s estate, get butt naked.” He’s impressed with himself that he has plans for Christmas and he even has plans for Hallowe’en. “I’m going to call up one of my friends who lives in Malibu Colony so Indio can be on a little strip to trick and treat.

Do you think I should go as Dennis?” I think that might be a bit scary. “The last time I did Hallowe’en, I wasn’t entirely in remission and I picked out a costume, an off the shelf costume, and it was called Creepy Skelabones, and some people prefer to call me that to this day as a painful reminder of what is possible. Skelabones 2000.” He seems constantly hard on himself, relentlessly attacking his former self, and I wonder, does that mean he’s going to fall off the edge. “I’m not presently struggling with the idea of imagining that it would be fun or would serve any purpose to remind me that it’s it’s own world now. It’s an iron curtain country for me. It’s the past. It’s hard enough to be conscious and trust the universe. I don’t want to put myself in that lab rat condition where I’m an experiment. You know, it’s like Renee Zellweger said in that Jerry Maguire film, I choose us, meaning the family and all of that. “Do I really want to say, “I choose psychosis? I mean, there’s something to be said for it, because it’s interesting and that’s the rub. People want me to be interesting. It feels like it’s been ingrained in me, but why would I have to act out? It’s about interrupting that pattern, isn’t it?” Do you know where your pattern came from in the first place, I ask, feeling like I’ve asked a very loaded question. “Uh huh. I think there’s an inherent drive to alter consciousness and also, want to get some kind of spiritual connection. And one is socially groomed to smoke a blunt thing. Man takes drink, drink takes man. At a certain point, you are not longer of the constitution to call the shots. Can you imagine what it’s like, every day you got up, you go on a flight and the flight was hijacked. You have two chances. We’re going to let them turn us around and run us in there, or we’re going to nail them and lose us all in the Allegheny Mountains. It doesn’t matter. There’s no positive outcome regardless of what you do. It’s groundhog day in hell and there’s something really glamorous and very attractive being that very warped fucked up, oh he’s such a sweetie. Yeah, right” he says, turning a venomous tongue against himself. He clearly feels he’s played that Hollywood loves a comeback role and embraced it for all it’s worth only to lose faith in that role because he’s not really playing it for himself. He’s bored and tantalized and annoyed with that character.

That character was a little too victimy for his liking. Do you think people identified with you and felt good because they only went to the edge and you fell off so it validates their bad behaviour or addiction? “I feel like that when I see other people go off the rails. I feel I have been obligated to perform in society. You know, there I was, still drunk, but now a drooling guru status. Please. No victims,” he says, intermittently flashing me burning eyes. Bringing us back to where the pattern might have started, it is just possible it could have been with his father, Robert Downey Sr, with whom he first shared a joint when he was eight. They continued to use joints as emotional bonding after his parents were divorced when he was 13. The drugs were the connection. Downey Sr was a film and stage director who had his son once play a dog in something called Pound, bragging at the time that it was cheaper than getting a babysitter. It has been reported that his father liked to see him do drugs because he thought it was cute. Agitatedly, Downey Jr says, “That’s a misrepresentation, and a word I want to strike from the dictionary. Cute.” He says the word with contempt. “My dad was nothing along the lines of Cassavetes and Altman. Compared to those guys, back in the day, he was actually pretty conservative. He was a handsome Irish Jew and my mother was a comedian. They got caught up in it more by osmosis, but I think there must have been a genetic predisposition to drugs.” He puts his eyes heavenward in mock deification of the demon drugs and says theatrically. “‘Oh, at last, my long last love’ and we were all fucked.” Downey comes in and out of anger and calm, the theatrical relish of words and quiet analysis. “But I have to say this about the over the edge. Over the edge was not me. Over the edge was people that I have buried, people who can no longer see their kids, other people who are fighting cases now and they’re not 38, they’re 45, 59, 62. Addiction is incarnate. It can’t be stopped unless by an outside force.” Is that you, eating and smoking at the same time, I say, as he waves his cigarette above his tuna. He seems to have misplaced the matches. “Oh, no, no. Not quite. But I’m about to be smoking.” One gets the impression that the edge, whatever that might be, is a moveable line and Downey does have to be constantly aware of it and swivel and shift . He has to keep himself ultra in check.

“Yes, because every day you have to reimprint yourself. Every cell is like a comic book stamp, and for me, I couldn’t have done it without the support of very good friends. And while I participate in that ‘one day at a time, powerless now and forever’, that kind of a programme is a huge mallet that just hits the largest amount of lemmings that need to be kept off that edge. It’s not an exact science. That’s why at a certain points, it didn’t work for me. I promptly got arrested, or as some might say, rescued. But the funny thing is, the same kind of discipline and humility that you need to get over any personal power issue is the same kind of thing that you need not to have a bad reputation on the Fox lot. And that is what you use in getting over this.” It’s been a double edged sword that Downey has always delighted the directors that he’s worked with (Robert Altman in Short Cuts, Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers and James Toback in Two Girls and a Guy), won them accolades, and however unravelled he might have been, he always turned up. It might have been a tool in his recovery that he knew how to do that perfectionism, that he knew how to always get the job done. But the fact that he could get the job done and sometimes done brilliantly when he was using drugs worked against him because it didn’t give him the impetus to stop. His life has always been full of mesmerizing contradictions. The director Mike Figgis said of him that the openness that is necessary to be a good actor can be lethal in real life. In Figgis’s One Night Stand, he was the lynch pin to the movie, a theatre director dying of AIDS. He did it on one of his just released from jail spells and found it easy to inhabit that rattled psyche. Despite the fact that all these directors talk about him lovingly, he says, “I always have a personality meltdown and blame it on the director. It happened with this (The Singing Detective) and it happened with Chaplin. I was fortunate to have a very nurturing and wise person at the helm who didn’t take it personally.” He once said he wasn’t afraid of failure but mediocrity. I don’t think he has a love for any kind of middle ground. When he’s not talking in intellectually complex flamboyant metaphors showing us his brilliant mind, he’s lashing out, angry that he could ever have been a victim. He tells me he’d like to use writing as an outlet for all of this, but he’s too afraid of being criticized. He suffers from a high sense of ego and low self esteem all at the same time.

“It’s almost as if there’s a huge Jackson Pollack mural in the back of you and that represents everything up till now, you can go ahead and look at it, and you think that thing is not really representative of me anymore. But I could operate in that place, you know, that egomaniac with an inferiority complex. But I can also not. I can also recreate a different type of painting. “I heard a guy talking the other day and he said, ‘I used to have really no self esteem and I made this incredible journey to low self esteem’. Well, that’s what I did. But you know, if I was Dennis, and I really had something unmanageable, I would have rolled with it, just like he did. The Veuve Cliquot and just enough morphine to stay so you can work, and smoking whatever it was he smoked. By the way, your tobacco sucks. Benson and Hedges, ugh.” He is smoking Camels. It’s Camels and caffeine all the way. One gets the impression that the hardest part of jail for him must have been the nonsmoking aspect. That, and the horrible tear jerking moment he must have read in the tabloids where Indio, who was then about 7, said “Is daddy a bad man?” Was that made up, or was that tabloid exaggeration? “I think it was a bit of both.” I worry that Downey’s new addiction is that he likes to punish himself too much. He talks about Indio a lot, all the places he’s going to take him and the things he’s going to do with him. Every promise bearing the scars of how emotionally traumatizing it was to have their relationship so disrupted. Right now he’s euphoric that he gets to take him to school, that he gets to be a soccer dad. Are you moving towards living together with him? “We’re moving towards something not unlike that. His mum is really stable and that’s great for him, and I show up as much as I can. I had him last night and we made triple decker peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for his lunch with an Asian pear and Gatorade so his electrolytes don’t drop below an acceptable level after gym time. Saturdays are the soccer games, where he is the leading scorer in the universe. He got three out of six goals, but after he got two, he started doing a very non 20th century thing. He was passing the ball to other players. Bend it like Indio,” he says, tangibly brimming with pride mixed with relief and contentment. The jail time must have been harsh, but he tells me, “The worst was when one of the jail staff asked me to read a script about unicorns. ‘Don’t worry,’ they said. ‘It’s not your usual unicorn story.'”

Although, we both know the unicorns were not the worst torture and with typical Downey dexterity, the scene can shift. He takes my hand and places it between his eyes so I can feel the scar. “And that didn’t happen in a fight about you’re not the usual unicorn synopsis. Not was it fighting with a bunch of your brothers over a banana. See this, right above my eyebrow to the middle of my forehead to the middle of my nose? It was all split open. Just the jailhouse love tap,” he shrugs. “They were trying to muscle me into giving some sort of payoff for protection, and I said when I’m done reading the Stephen King novel, I’ll come over and we’ll talk shop. But you don’t come with that in jail, because the next thing I knew, it was on. [It being a full on blood splattered brawl] And well, it was cool after that, they didn’t fuck with me.” Because if you had admitted you needed protection, that would have been the end? “Absolutely. In prison things are so established it’s not going to matter what you do. Sometimes, everyone’s playing handball, and it’s perfect harmony. Your intuitions strengthen to an extreme and you know intuitively when something’s not right. When you’ve got 1200 guys in a yard and you can all of a sudden hear a pin drop, it’s time to get out of Dodge. The map never changes. I learned some lessons. “In a weird, way, the melee of experiences were the same as situations in Hollywood or New York or the midwest. The world is that yard. I don’t want to sound too zen about it. The first time I was in there, they brought in this guy, a minister, he came to the cell and started laying me onto the power of Christ. Out of my depths came the most appropriate word: bullshit.” He kind of howls it, even now, pressing his face up to the sky. “He turned tail and walked out. These days, I’d give him a hug and we’d break it open, see what was going on. At a certain point I decided I’m going to show a good face and develop my own philosophy.” In fact, enthusiastically, he says, “Cellies are great. If you’ve got a great celly, it doesn’t get any better than that.” And if you’ve got a bad one, it doesn’t get any worse. “Correct. But I don’t know about the bad celly experiment because the California Corrections Institution is sharp.” You mean, they match make? “Well, yes. In jails, they either have you there for six months or a year. You’re there because you’re about to catch the chain up to where you really are going to do your time, and while you’re in there, you can’t smoke and you can’t do anything. Or you’re waiting to get in your own personal 12 unit nirvana. Either way, it’s the great and possibly final road trip.

So they always used to put me with the guys that had something to hold on to. I learned a hell of a lot, stuff I can apply to my work, my parenting and street situations. I was raised in Manhattan on the street and was a latchkey kid but there are very few things that could occur now that I wouldn’t have some way of applying my jailhouse mentality to.” Do you keep in touch with your cell mates? “I do. The one I stay in touch with most is probably one of the most brilliant, introspective and selfless guys I’ve ever met, currently serving a life sentence.” What for? “Three strikes law. Details would be unimportant.” Three strikes is a Californian thing. Even if your third offence is stealing a pizzas, you get life in prison. “He calls and you press 5 and accept the charges and he is an incredible source of strength because when you’re at a place where you have to accept you’re through with money or doing all day, (it means doing life), you can be incredibly strong.” Did jail make you have a different attitude to money, as in real money? “I was able to hold onto it in the pen as well as I am in the street. (Which is not very well) “But I’m a hustler. I’ve always known how to hustle.” It certainly seems that way. Whereas a checkered record of being in and out of jail would have finished most actors, he came out first time to get one of the highest paid per episode in television on Ally McBeal, and after that he got sent back to rehab and came out to do Singing Detective and Gothica back to back. What did he think about the yards of finger wagging editorials that said Hollywood is so unforgiving? “Hell, that’s not true. I have nine lives, nine lives. I mean, any situation can change in the blink of an eye.

He has a knack of trying to credit people who perhaps really damaged him. “One of the best things my dad ever did for me was a real tough love thing. I was 17, called him from a phone booth and said I didn’t even have a token for the subway or money for lunch. He said, call your friends. I said I had and he said sorry kid, and hung up. I can’t thank him enough because I’ve been self supporting since I was 17.” I suggest that might mean ingrained in him is a kind of desperation about money; to disregard its power. It doesn’t mean anything so I’ll get rid of it and I can get it again. “I’m not sure that financial instability is the problem. It’s fear of financial instability that fucks things up.” Right now, he doesn’t strike me as someone who’s terribly afraid of that. More as a person who is redefining himself and not let any fears define him. A hard task when it’s not what you’re used to, and when the world wants to adore him for his craziness. As he’s already explained, just because you might have a mural at the back of you (the Jackson Pollock) that’s riddled with fears that define you, it doesn’t mean to say you can’t reorganize those fears.

He is fighting them and he is on a constant course of reinvention. The reason he can survive that reinvention is because he’s not only loveable, he is clearly loved. When Elton John chose him to play himself in the video I Want Love, it was a cameo of a demand. He needed love and he seemed to get it because whatever a bad boy he might have been, he is essentially absolutely loveable.


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Posted October 12, 2014 by ChrissyIley in category "articles