A sober, healthy and happily mar­ried Robert Downey Jr tells Chrissy Iley that the road to ma­tu­rity was ‘‘dirty, un­com­fort­able and em­bar­rass­ing . . . but nec­es­sary’’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

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