Robert Downey Jr - Man About Town
Robert Downey Jr has been appearing in films since the age of five, when he played a puppy in the underground movie Pound, directed by his father Robert Downey Sr, a pioneer of independent film-making. More than 60 films later, we have watched Jr’s career reach greatness, teeter on the edge of disaster, and rise again to stratospheric heights.
I first met him back in 1992, at a party to celebrate Chaplin – in which he gave a starring performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination and a Bafta Award for Best Actor. Nearly 20 years on, he is taking on the role of another treasured English icon – Sherlock Holmes.
What’s the appeal of playing quintessentially British figures? Does he have a special relationship with Britain? “In some ways, maybe,” he says. “I’m really lucky that a couple of decades ago Lord [Richard] Attenborough put me in a favourable light here, playing such a beloved character as Charlie Chaplin. I’ve done several films here since, and then I think people enjoyed how the first Sherlock movie turned out.”
It’s almost as though we Brits have adopted him. He can even launch into weather chat like one who is Blighty-born. When I ask how he is enjoying London, where he has been finishing filming Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, he starts with what I suspect to be gentle mockery of our meteorological obsession.
“Well, first of all I can’t believe the weather lately… Everybody is out wandering the streets with no particular purpose just because the sun’s out. People are quite joyful about it. Most of the time, though, I think you have to be a little tough to live here, with the relentless weather and all…”
So what makes Sherlock Holmes so tempting that he is willing to brave the English climate once more?
“What I love is the quality of Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing,” he answers without hesitation. “In movies or literature, the quality of the writing transports you into the hearts and minds of the characters. Holmes is a national treasure – I just love that some people at certain times have actually thought that Sherlock was a real person. That’s a testament to Doyle’s genius. And I love how the ensemble of characters works together.
"The producers and Guy [Ritchie, the director] and Jude [Law, co-star] and I got together and tried to have it feel like an extension of what we think a brotherhood is; the bickering and miscommunications are part of something that aspires to something higher. I love Watson because he’s ‘us’, and then Holmes is this extraordinary archetype. We’re trying to create the feeling of what it’s like to read one of the stories, which includes the fights and so on, because actually in the original literature they were pretty handy with their fists.”
It’s clear on-screen that they’re having a lot of fun, and the chemistry with Law’s Watson is a treat to watch. "One of the things I like about Jude so much – aside from the fact he’s so talented – is his work ethic and his ability to contribute on every level. I’ve never found another actor like him in that way. It all started in Claridge’s back in the day – he was walking down the hall to meet me and I noticed all the women of my team were loitering in the hallway for no good reason. He has several appeals, I’ll put it that way.”
Larks and laughs are as much a bond between the two stars as the relationship between their characters. When I ask Jude Law how he feels about working with RDJ, he enthuses: “I am still so excited and delighted that the film gods have slung Robert and I together as partners. As his sidekick on-set and off, I would follow him anywhere because I know I would eat well, laugh a lot and he would continuously raise the game.”
Guy Ritchie, meanwhile, describes RDJ as the perfect actor to step into Sherlock’s shoes: “The character Sherlock Holmes is unique – there’s really no one else like him. I needed an actor who was charming yet arrogant, boyish yet genuinely tough, someone who exuded experience yet had not compromised his heart or humanity. Enter RDJ.”
Robert Downey Jr is modest about his acting, however he remains universally acclaimed as a great – by the public as well as his peers. He is one of the special few – Marlon Brando, Daniel Day-Lewis, Mark Rylance, Robert de Niro, Sean Penn… – who completely inhabit the characters they create, and are brave enough and free enough to let the character lead the way. RDJ commits himself fully to every role he plays. “Maybe it’s sad,” he says through self-deprecating laughter, “but I don’t really think of myself as an actor, any more than someone who loves flying thinks of himself as a commercial pilot.”
How much did his parents, Robert Sr and actress Elsie Downey, influence his approach to acting? “My dad was a primary and singular influence on me. His wit and take on things, his resilience and his strange optimism while complaining are also a big part of me. But my passion for the craft came from my mom. She was my dad’s muse and when they were making all these underground maverick films in the ’60s and ’70s – and she would play 17 characters in the course of a year of shooting – I always felt that what she was doing was bringing herself to bear. It seemed like she just floated naturally in and out of that performance art, cutting-edge movie-making she was doing with my dad.”
The bohemian artistic atmosphere RDJ breathed as a child seems a far cry from Hollywood blockbusters like Iron Man, the movie franchise that has made him a household name for a new generation. Not only has the role of Tony Stark boosted his popularity (and bank balance), it has also had a remarkable effect on his physique – RDJ is particularly taut and toned these days.
“I love that it’s the 21st century, because we have so many choices about how to keep your body adaptive,” he says. “I’ve done my share of Bikram yoga, I’ve lifted weights until I was so stiff and my arms looked so huge I thought it was worth it. But nowadays everyone says what’s best for the body is the minimum effort required. So I’ll go to the gym, but rather than crazy lunges and holding plank position and dripping sweat, I’ll do a sequence called Guarding the Eight Treasures, which is a very esoteric Taoist sort of Qi Gong [an ancient Chinese spiritual and physical exercise similar to Tai Chi].
“I might not break a sweat but I’ll get more and more relaxed. But the main thing is, no matter how much work you do, how much of it is ego and how much dedication, at the end of the day how you look has most to do with your diet – which is tough because everywhere you turn now in London there’s a great new restaurant you want to try or a great old restaurant you haven’t been to yet.”
I wonder if, while walking around London, he has noticed the Big Issue sellers? As he dons a distinctive red Big Issue vendor’s jacket for our cover shoot for this issue, I ask if he feels any connection with the people who make their living by selling the magazine. Robert Downey Jr left high school at the age of 16, moved to LA, and with nowhere to stay camped out for months in a friend’s garage, unbeknownst to the friend’s parents. Luckily he was not to be near-destitute for long as his acting career took off, but his well-documented relationship with drugs in later years very nearly destroyed him.
Considering how close Robert Downey Jr was to the edge, the significance as he dons a distinctive red jacket for The Big Issue photoshoot is not lost on him. “The Big Issue is something that America would do well to replicate,” he says. “It’s so easy to be abandoned by the system, or given a number and managed by the system, and I think it’s that middle ground where there’s dignity and self-esteem, where there is hope. The people selling it are not asking for a handout.
“You have a product. You’re essentially in sales, and you’re on the street, kind of door-to-door, person-to-person. I know that it’s reputable. To me the main thing is you’re being useful, you’re offering something.”
While there are many reasons why people become homeless, according to a 2010 survey by the homelessness charity St Mungo’s, nearly two-thirds of rough sleepers have drug and alcohol problems; nearly half are ex-offenders or have been in prison. As an addict who has been jailed for violating drug laws, how does RDJ feel now about how society approaches people struggling with those addictions?
“I’m not necessarily for decriminalising drugs,” he says. “I think drug use is a very individual issue. Whenever the system gets too liberal, certain groups of people will take advantage of that. And whenever the system gets too stringent, people who arguably have a real disease can’t get a fair shake and get caught up in the system. Politically speaking I don’t really have a point of view, but my intuition tells me that the big missing gap is what happens from the time you’re sprung until you’re well and a productive member of society. The places that get it right are where the emphasis is on after-care.”
It’s inspiring that Robert Downey Jr is happy to talk about his past problems, perhaps because they are so categorically behind him now, even if Jude Law playfully resurrected – on stage at this year’s Oscars – the infamous Wonder Woman Incident, involving a girl dressed as the buxom superhero, a lot of drugs and a police bust in a hotel in 2000. He strikes me as a man so comfortable with himself, with the good and the bad, that he isn’t at all crippled by regret. He has moved on, learned from his younger self and is now having the time of his life.
He is married to film producer Susan Levin and they are expecting their first child together next year, a brother or sister for his teenage son Indio. How is he approaching fatherhood the second time around? “Well, first of all I think most guys are idiots, because there’s been a couple of times even in the past week [when] I was so busy thinking about myself I forgot Susan was pregnant.
"So largely I think the male of the species is at a distinct disadvantage not to have that epic reminder of one’s closeness to the cosmos. We struggle, we have to find other things to do. I’m really happy that I’ve sired one guy who’s grown up and is a young man who I admire and is a good person. I guess I’m thinking – how can I do that again?”
One thing I’ve noticed many times in the Downey family is the level of communication between them. Those guys really talk. Maybe that is the legacy of Robert Downey Jr’s recovery from addiction, a reaction to having cut himself off from really connecting with people for so many years. “There are so many challenges nowadays, communication has to be almost more than one could ever imagine or tolerate just to stay ahead of the curve. And one thing I’m sure of is the more you show up and are there for your kids, the more likely they’ll actually listen to what you say.”
As well as producing a child together, Robert and Susan also work together in their production company, Team Downey. It’s not an overstatement to say the partnership quite simply saved Robert Downey Jr’s life. But does it ever get too much for them both, I wonder, living and working with each other all the time?
“Anybody who knows me knows how fortunate I am to have her, which is why our company is so aptly named. There’s nothing I’ve ever enjoyed more than the sense of being on a team and part of a team, and I’m happy to follow and I’m happy to lead. To me the idea is that I’m a worker amongst workers – that’s where I’ve always found my comfort.”