ROBERT DOWNEY JR REVEALS ALL ABOUT HIS REMARKABLE COMEBACK BACK
A sober, healthy and happily married Robert Downey Jr tells Chrissy Iley that the road to maturity was ‘‘dirty, uncomfortable and embarrassing . . . but necessary’’
ROBERT Downey Jr strides into a Santa Monica, California, beachfront hotel room, hugs me hello and starts pacing around the table. He is wearing a cream loose-knit sweater with a thin T-shirt underneath and soft grey elephant cords. He sports neatly manicured facial hair; his eyes are round puppy-dog saucers. They swivel and dart, as if he doesn’t want to miss anything.
He is carrying a tiny black suitcase, and he puts it on the table and flips the catch. He is still pacing, and talking as he paces. I wonder if it’s a ritual.
Then he opens the case, telling me he’s got nothing to hide: he wants me to see all his Chinese herbs and other pills and says that he is dedicated to being as healthy as possible. He’s wiry. A body hard from working out. He talks fast, sometimes at tangents, but he talks with an urgency and a passion, as if whatever he has to say has to be expelled from him. Finally, we sit down. Downey, who has just turned 48, is one of the most sought-after and richest actors on the planet, earning a reported $50m alone from his last movie, The Avengers. He is the star of the money-minting Iron Man franchise — the third instalment of which has just opened — and the two Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes films, which together grossed more than $1 billion.
It’s interesting to consider just how spectacular his success has been when, not that long ago, many predicted that he would not survive — not just in the industry but literally.
Back in 1996 Downey was arrested for possession of heroin, cocaine and a .357 Magnum handgun after speeding down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
It was to be the start of a five-year run of mayhem and arrests for drug possession that included a three-year prison sentence (though he served only a year) at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran.
Astonishingly, after his release from there in 2000, he joined the TV series Ally McBeal as Calista Flockhart’s love interest, won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor in a TV series and was nominated for an Emmy.
But the success didn’t clean him up. Less than a year after his release, before even the end of his first season on the series, he was arrested in Palm Springs for possession of cocaine and Valium after police searched his hotel room.
In April 2001, while he was on parole, he was arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs when police found him roaming around barefoot in Culver City, just outside Los Angeles.
He was written out of Ally McBeal; Mel Gibson cancelled a planned stage production of Hamlet in which Downey was to star.
In July 2001 he was again sent into drug rehabilitation and put on probation for three years. When he says, talking about being clean, that, ‘‘ My spirituality has more to do with maintenance than achievement. Maintenance is three times harder than achievement,’’ you understand why. His addictions nearly cost him his career and might have cost him his life.
Now, clean, toned, Downey has a decade of unbroken success behind him. He has referred to himself as a Jewish Buddhist. He puts his new-found emotional calm down to his eightyear marriage to film producer Susan Levin, while the endorphin high from intense martialarts workouts seems to have replaced the drug high on which he was once so dependent.
‘‘ 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,’’ he says, offering a rather cute, good-living Californian take on his situation. ‘‘ 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 possess. I’ve 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. And then I’ll leave it.
‘‘ It amazes me, if you have a dependency on something, if you get away from it for long enough, you can return to it. 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. But you still pay a price. I would never do this with drink or drugs.’’
He says he is fine watching other people have a drink at a restaurant, but if a waiter asks him if he would like a glass, he replies, ‘‘ No, thank you. I have plans for Christmas.’’ He delves in his little suitcase. Each of the Chinese formulas does something different. There are also sunglasses, wet wipes and 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 is the son, Exton (born a little more than a year ago) he has with Levin. The couple met when she was a producer on the 2003 ghost story Gothika, in which he starred with Halle Berry and Penelope Cruz. They married in a Jewish ceremony in New York in 2005.
‘‘ Stability, intellectual peer and monster sex machine,’’ is how Downey describes his wife. ‘‘ And she runs the show. She has strength and realism and is someone who is unscathed by her first dozen years of experience.’’
His secret to a happy marriage is ‘‘ 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.’’
Before the current Mrs Downey, he was married to actress Deborah Falconer. Following a whirlwind romance, they wed in 1992 and had a son, Indio, now 19. The marriage broke down after Downey’s repeated trips to rehab and jail; their divorce was finalised in 2004.
There was also a seven-year romance with Sarah Jessica Parker, who was 19 when they met on the 1984 film Firstborn. In 2006 she recalled, ‘‘ Fairly early on in our relationship, he told me he had a drug problem. I was stunned. I did not recognise the signs. I thought, ‘ Well, I’ll help him.’ ’’
Downey 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 an enthusiasm that is 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,’’ he says. ‘‘ 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.
‘‘ 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.
‘‘ You don’t want to be just coexisting. I don’t want to be too tired for her. We have a two-week rule. We are never apart for more than two weeks.’’
This must be harder than it sounds. The bankable but unpredictable star of 1980s and early 90s hits such as Less Than Zero, Air America and Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) is
now Hollywood royalty. His role as Tony Stark, the brilliant but eccentric industrialist who uses technology to save his life and builds an armour suit to become Iron Man, is the latest in a career that has seen him tackle as wide a range of characters as any screen actor. Iron
Man 3, which is produced by Disney, is perhaps the most psychologically complex in the trilogy as Stark feels he must answer the question of whether the man makes the suit or the suit makes the man.
So was Downey worried about the pressure of reprising the success of Iron Man and its sequel? ‘‘ I know when you have this much, let’s call it money on the table from a major corporation that has Mickey Mouse hand towels in its planes, there is a huge expec- tation,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t want to call it pressure. You have to perform at a certain level and you have to hit a lot of marks.
‘‘ They trusted me to go to places where he [Stark] 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.
‘‘ As I’ve gone on, I’ve become much less falsely confident. 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. Iron Man has given me an incredible amount of leverage, and I’ve got that leverage without having to sacrifice my enjoyment.’’
Shane Black, director of Iron Man 3, says that, after working together on Kiss Kiss Bang
Bang in 2005, ‘‘ We felt like kindred spirits. Robert doesn’t change with a big budget. There’s a little kid inside him.’’
Alas, that little kid inside Downey might have cost him his career in a rather different way to the drug-taking of the past.
Halfway through filming Iron Man 3, a stunt went wrong. ‘‘ I did a wire jump. I didn’t want to rehearse it. I don’t know why,’’ Downey recalls. ‘‘ 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.’’
So he doesn’t feel like a superhero in real life, then? ‘‘ Absolutely not. I mean I did, but not any more. I did for that five seconds and then I was in hospital.’’ He believed in his own superpowers? ‘‘ I know. It’s embarrassing. It was hubris. That’s what it was. Oh god, not hubris again.’’
Certainly, Stark is a more complex superhero for everything Downey’s given him. Downey has a playfulness, but he loves to bring intensity to a character. Maybe he just does it naturally, offloading inner turmoil on the job?
‘‘ Am I that intense?’’ he asks. ‘‘ 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.
‘‘ The missus said to me, ‘ You’re a bright guy. 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.’ ’’
You wonder if he felt loved enough as a child. Robert Downey Sr was an avant-garde film director. At age five, Downey Jr was a puppy in his movie about a dog shelter, Pound, in which humans played dogs. His mother, Elsie, was an actress-comedian and his parents divorced when he was 10.
He gets along with his father now, but in his late teens when Downey was starting out and was broke and homeless, he called his dad asking for help. He refused. ‘‘ 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 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 to discover a liking for smoking marijuana? ‘‘ Yesss.’’ He puts on a faux embarrassed face (he has said previously that he was an addict by age eight).
‘‘ It was all great but the price was so high. It’s a different generation, a different set of understandings.’’
There’s something in Downey’s mindset that’s ruthlessly optimistic. He tells me that twisting his ankle during the making of Iron
Man 3 was the best thing that could have happened, because it gave him time to ‘‘ think about the movie and time to see what we’d already shot’’.
He and ‘‘ the missus’’ have started a production company, Team Downey. He insists that theirs won’t be ‘‘ one of those companies that develops things into oblivion’’. A headhunter from St Louis has ‘‘ 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.’’ (The project is some way down the line, with Robert Duvall due to play the judge.)
So he’ll be revisiting a father-son relationship? ‘‘ 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,’’ says Downey. ‘‘ My dad and I get along well, but there’s a certain amount to be explored there. The judge needs to be a mountain of a man.’’
Then there is also the possibility, he says, of another Sherlock — he and Ritchie are in the process of developing a potential script.
‘‘ We’ve got very strong relationships in Britain,’’ Downey says. ‘‘ I love London. When we did the first Sherlock we learned a lot about British people, which is if you’re doing something difficult, don’t just grind the monkey ’ til 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.’’ Before that, though, the latest in the Iron
Man series is rolling out across the world, adding more millions to the Downey bank account. ‘‘ Tony Stark-Iron Man is the story of a true American hero,’’ says Shane Black. ‘‘ Robert Downey is the American hero. Someone who is passionate, sometimes misguided, sometimes pompous, a genius and a one-time drunk.’’ He says this with an affectionate smile, then adds, ‘‘ People don’t just come out of jail and become possibly the biggest actor in the world.’’
As for the man himself, essentially he’s utterly lovable. Those big eyes, when they look at you with their mix of playful and sad, win you over every time. Iron Man has brought Downey financial contentment, but he brought to Iron Man edge, vulnerability, an ability to be iron-hard yet emotionally soft. The vulnerability draws you in to the character, and the actor.
This is the man who opens his little suitcase and lets me see his little pills, all of his insecurities. ‘‘ I have mellowed but I still have fire in my belly,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m a firm believer, if you are not on your side, why should anyone else be?’’
Robert Downey Jr with his Iron
Man 3 co-star Gwyneth Paltrow, main picture; with wife Susan Levin at the film’s premiere last month, top; as Tony Stark in Iron
Man 3, above; and leaving a Malibu court for jail in 1997, left