New Again: Robert Downey Jr.

In New Again, we highlight a piece from Interview’s past that resonates with the present.

Robert Downey Jr.’s life in the movie industry reads like a Hollywood script of its own: a troubled but privileged childhood, a meteoric rise to fame, and a catastrophic fall from the top. There was ensuing jail time, a brief stint on Ally McBeal, rehab, and then, redemption. Who could predict that Downey’s second wave would be so fruitful? The 48-year-old actor had never made a “blockbuster” movie prior to his incarceration, but today, everything Downey appears in—action films, comedies, or dramas—becomes box office gold. He’s garnered praise for his lead role in the Iron Man trilogy, his appearance in 2008’s Tropic Thunder, and his starring role in the Sherlock Holmes movies. 

A recently released clip of the upcoming sure-to-be summer blockbuster Iron Man 3, gives the audience a juicy action movie sequence, where Downey, as Iron Man Tony Stark, addresses his nemesis to the press, and then speeds away in his sports car. The action hero is a natural role for Downey, but most things seem to be—a look back at his repertoire reveals a vast array of genres and styles.

Twenty-four years ago, several years before he was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, the young actor had recently taken up residence in Chaplin’s old house. Interviewer Kenneth Turan sat down with the 23-year-old, already a seasoned actor, “a stone’s throw away from the Sunset Strip” for a chatty, often self-deprecating conversation that reveals a long forgotten, but still remarkably relevant side of the actor. —Hannah Mandel

Cinema Scion
By Kenneth Turan

The son of the maverick director of Putney Swope, Robert Downey Jr., at 23, is a veteran of 15 films. Kenneth Turan met with him in Los Angeles to talk about dropping out, selling out, and life on the run.

The house, pink and perfect, sits just a stone’s throw from the Sunset Strip. It’s classic Hollywood, reputedly built for one of the old legends of cinema, Charlie Chaplin. But ruling classes change, especially in the movie business, and its current occupant is one of the most sought-after new young actors, Robert Downey Jr.

Son of legendary rogue director Robert Downey (Putney Swope, Pound, Greaser’s Palace) Downey Jr. has not been shy about his work, appearing in 15 films in his 23 years, working with everyone from Molly Ringwald to George C. Scott. His performances have ranged from the startling effective, as in Less Than Zero, to the less memorable, as in The Pick-Up Artist and 1969. Still, his imitatable high-wire energy keeps everyone coming back for more. Most recently he could be seen in True Believer and Chances Are, which starts Ryan O’Neal and Cybill Shepherd.

In person Downey is an appealing combination of sweetness and nervous energy. It’s fun being young and in demand, his demeanor seems to say, but perhaps not as fun as you think. He showed me around, played with his cats and on the bright red piano that sits in the front room, said hello to Judd Nelson (ensconced in a spare room), and tried to put me at ease, seemingly all at once. Wearing jeans and a white turtleneck, he settled in to one of the upstairs rooms and began to talk.

KENNETH TURAN: What is the history of this house?

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: It was built by one of Cecil B. DeMille’s set designers for Charlie Chaplin, who lived here—or this was one of 90 places they built for him. I swear to God, you can go into a brand-new condo building and they’ll say, “Way back when, Barrymore…” It may be the same lot, but I don’t think they had track lighting in ’24.

TURAN: What position does Chances Are occupy in your body of work?

DOWNEY: Probably in the upper colon. No, it’s a nice film; he’s a nice guy, and he’s the most accessible character I’ve ever played. Now you’ll think I’m the person who’s in Chances Are, which is nice because he’s a nice guy.

TURAN: You were quoted as saying, “Cybill Shepherd taught me I don’t have to talk every minute.” Is there truth to that, or is it just something in the press kit?

DOWNEY: Well, I don’t think it was really phrased that way. I think it was more that she taught me to take my time. Because I got so used to playing characters who talk fast. In movies they take so much time setting up shots and stuff, and I understand they’re doing their ting. Some DPs [directors of photography] take an hour to light a cigarette. It’s O.K. to take your time, I’m not saying it’s all right to be self-indulgent, but that’s what you’re there for, and sometimes you feel hurried. Everything’s hurried so that you can go around and wait until they’re ready.

TURAN: Like hurry up and wait.

DOWNEY: Yeah, the Hurry Up and Wait Syndrome.

TURAN: How do you feel about True Believer?

DOWNEY: First of all, I liked the film just because I love working with James Wood, because he’s so fucking great. You learn a lot while you’re hanging out with him, but you wonder why he is so adamant that certain things be a certain way. And then you look back and you understand.

TURAN: Aside from admiring what he does, what can you learn when you’re working with someone who’s really good?

DOWNEY: Well, we were doing a scene together, and I was right on the edge of not acting but really making something happen, you know? It’s like trying to really make something spontaneous or great happen. I was saying my lines, and he was just looking at me, kind of like, You’re getting there. You’re getting there. And then I laughed because it was like masturbating. He got this weird look and cocked his head a little bit to the side, and he just reached over and fucking cracked me right in the middle of the take. And if it hadn’t been him, or if the timing hadn’t been right, I would have said, “What the fuck are you doing?” But he’s so smart, he slapped me on the side of my face that wasn’t to the camera, and he slapped me on my neck instead of my face so a big red mark wouldn’t show up. He even thought that out—I think I’ll slap Downey today.

I trusted him enough and was willing enough to learn—it wasn’t like I needed to be slapped or anything. He was saying, Here is the point where you can’t let the door close, and he put his foot in the door by slapping me, and something great happened. I don’t know if they used it or not, but to me it was a personal breakthrough because it was him saying: That’s why you’re doing what you do­—right now­—and the door is closing. Don’t let it close in the future. By putting my foot in here you’ll remember—you don’t want to get slapped again. But symbolically to me, it’s like putting the flag in the ground; it’s something monumental. You got to the top of the mountain, and now you don’t have to go back down.

TURAN: Is it true that he named you Binky?

DOWNEY: That’s because he thought I was preppy. Or because he said that I wore more silk than it took to land all the troops at Normandy. He would always make fun of me because I’d come to the set in a suit at 8 a.m. just because I bought all this shit and wanted to wear it. So he thought I was foppish, and he called me Binky. Pretty soon I’d go for lunch and they’d say, “What do you want today, Binky?” It was one of those Preppy Handbook appropriate male names. But I’m just happy because it means he liked me.

TURAN: How many films have you made? 15? 16?

DOWNEY: It’s probably less because I usually count Dad’s films, too.

TURAN: Why have you made so many?

DOWNEY: I could’ve made twice as many.

TURAN: Really?

DOWNEY: Sure. Well, there might have been some scheduling problems. First I was working because I could work. I liked doing it, and someone who I respect said to me recently, “It’s important to keep working.” Now I want to be selective, because I don’t want to be known as someone who’ll do just any film or keeps making the same mistakes. Even in the course of trying to be selective you make mistakes anyway.

TURAN: Do you have anything you regret, or is that just not your personality?

DOWNEY: My personality is to regret as much as possible. [laughs] But it depends on what mood I’m in on a particular day. Because there are regrettable things about every film I’ve been in. I’ve yet to be in a film where I’ve said, “Now that’s the kind of film I want to do.” I’ll bet when Cry Freedom was over Kevin Kline said, “Well, that’s the kind of movie I want to do.” But hardly anyone saw it, and when I met him I told him it was great. And he said, “Yeah, well, now maybe some people will see it because it’s on cable.” So I just want to be happy doing whatever I’m doing. Because they’re all going to say whatever they want anyway. I’m not going to be negative, but this business is so geared to Roman-candling people. “I’m going to Roman-candle you, and then we want to skeet-shoot you because, God, you blow up so good.” Then there are the ones who are untouchable because of their talent or because they’ve been smart enough not to let themselves get fucked over. But it’s really dangerous; it’s hard to even believe anyone anymore.

My dad is one of the people who really care and who are really objective. He’ll say: “That was good. Your work was good in that. You were trying something.” Or: “That was stupid. Why did you do that?” He gets angrier about interviews or TV things that I do than about anything else. He says: “You don’t need to do it, or if you do it, why do you talk about stupid shit? Or you say so much that there’s no mystery about you.” I always call my mom and ask her, “What should I do with this and that?”

What I want to do is work with my old friends. I’m not saying that I want to work with only the people I’ve already met, but I want to work with the people I trust and can really learn from, people who want to be catalysts for each other as opposed to: O.K. Insert Actor A here. He’ll do that because he’s done that before just as well and he can do that better here now.

TURAN: When you read first scripts what are you looking for?

DOWNEY: I’m looking for anything that doesn’t seem like the same skeleton with a different crew. “Well, this one is Raising Arizona meets Something Wild. This one is like Big meets Bigger.” I just want to do something that’s different. But then you want to be in a movie that’s good and successful. Then you gotta have 9,000 rewrites and nine directors.

TURAN: There’s an old film called Hollywood Boulevard. It’s about a studio called Miracle Pictures. Their motto is “If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle.” Given what goes on, it really is amazing if a good picture comes out of the studio system.

DOWNEY: Well, it started off as entertainment and show biz—like cheesy, cigar-smoking, high-life stuff—and now it’s turned into such big business. But I don’t think film has really been used for what it was meant to be used for. It’s such a new medium.

TURAN: Everyone knew as soon as they saw Less Than Zero that this would be the film that would establish you as an actor. Did you know that when you read the script?

DOWNEY: Yeah, but I was thinking more, This is probably going blow some minds, probably my own too. And I thought, I really want to do it right. No one likes touching those weird subjects, and I think those are the kinds of roles that I want to do, but now they don’t have to be rich kids on dope. I could do a thousand films that are easy for me to do—that’s if I don’t fall in the next year, because everyone’s about to fall.

What’s so funny is you look at all us young guys and we’re already thinking, Well, I’m going to branch out into directing, and it’s going to be this and that. Well, we’re still kids. In a way we’re locked in now, you know what I mean? It’s as if you sign a pact with the Devil. [takes on a demonic voice] “You have a big house and a black German car. Keep making movies forever.”

Everything that I’ve worked so hard for is there. Acting is the most wildly overpaid position imaginable. “How much did you make for eight weeks sitting in your trailer?” “More than the President.” It’s really silly. I want to give myself the freedom not to have to be projecting my whole life ahead. But right now the idea of dropping out of the business for five years seems like a gloomy jail sentence. It’s a businesses that can keep you young forever, or it can make you old before your time, and it all has to do with your perspective, what your beliefs are and how strong you can stay throughout it all.


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