Robert Downey Jr interview: 'Superhero movies? They're a little old'
Robert Downey Jr on Marvel's plans for Iron Man 4, his memories of Richard Attenborough, and why his new film The Judge is his most personal yet
I arrive at Robert Downey Jr’s four-storey headquarters in Venice, California. I use the word headquarters for many reasons. First, there’s a sense that Team Downey, his production company, is trying to change the world, or at least Hollywood. Second, 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 that the building used to belong to a British photographer, and as we wind our way upstairs past various warrens and members of his staff, 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, there used to be a swimming pool, but it is now a sundeck with 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-Robert Duvall chemistry.
The Judge is the first Team Downey-produced film. (Downey stars and his wife, Susan, who is currently eight months pregnant, is at the production helm.) A radical contrast to all things Iron Man and The Avengers, it has Downey – said to be the highest-earning actor in the world, reputedly collecting between $50 million and $75 million per movie – returning to the style of acting he employed when he was first starting off-Broadway. It is dialogue driven, a story about coming to terms with his life via clashes with his father. Downey plays an ambitious lawyer, a chancer and a master manipulator of the law, while Duvall is his father, the eponymous judge; upstanding, harsh but fair, and the man with whom Downey has an impenetrable rift.
It is 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, and the story of his own life reads like a superhero transformation. Downey was always brilliant but troubled, self-destructive. Various drug charges lead to newspaper stories, even a stint in jail and, in 1999, a term at the California Substance Abuse Facility Centre.
He came back in 2003 with a brilliant performance in The Singing Detective, a film for which he could not get insured until his friend Mel Gibson stepped in. After a number of well-received movies, including A Guide to Recognising Your Saints and A Scanner Darkly, he returned to the mainstream 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 to find the thing that [Gwyneth] Paltrow and I have in Iron Man,” he says. “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 is already talk of Duvall winning an Oscar nomination for The Judge. It’s a film that will have deep emotional resonance for many people, especially those who have a strained relationship with a parent. I wonder if Downey was inspired by his relationship with his own father, Robert Downey Sr, an underground filmmaker 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, he appeared in Greaser’s Palace. His mother, Elsie Ford, once played 17 different characters in the movie Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975).
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,” he says. There’s a pause and a raised eyebrow. “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?”
The starting point for The Judge is when Downey’s character returns home for his mother’s funeral. “Because of what just happened recently, it’s very much an art-imitates-life movie,” he says.
Downey’s mother 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 Fifties dress. Her dark eyes shine out of the photo frame. His eyes are her eyes. He concedes he was a lot like her.
Understandably, he doesn’t want to talk about her. “That’s what’s called a boundary.” Later, he wrote it all down in a moving Facebook tribute, recounting how she dropped out of college and moved to New York with dreams of becoming a comedian. She met and married Downey Sr, had two children and worked in her husband’s movies. The marriage fell apart. Her acting career suffered 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,” he wrote. “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.
“My ambition, tenacity, loyalty, moods, grandiosity, occasional passive aggression and my faith, that’s all her.” 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.”
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.
What about his first son, Indio, now aged 19? He was recently arrested on drugs charges. Is he doing OK? “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.”
The Judge asks many questions about the father-son relationship. Downey Sr perhaps gave Downey Jr too much free rein. It has often been written that he introduced him to smoking cannabis when he was a child and, in general, encouraged a bohemian existence.
“Yes, maybe too much free rein. In the past couple of years, people who had the same counter-culture upbringing as I did, [have told me] 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, dreaming of being square. He is, after all, a man of extremes, complex but at the same time easy going. He is now 49 and enjoying a marriage built on careful and strong foundations. “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. 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,” he says.
Did The Judge open some psychological doors? “Maybe,” he says. “When I was in New York, I would go to the cinema with him and the movie would start and my dad would be, ‘Let’s go. This is bulls---.’ 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 [Attenborough’s wife] 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 [Attenborough’s home] Beauvoir Lodge wound up being sold, I felt they had no idea what the future would hold. I never thought there would 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, and (b) we’d see his art collection. And there would 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 Downey in his first Oscar-nominated performance, in Chaplin. Was he a nurturing director? 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 judgment on my glaring character defects.” (Downey is frequently self-depracating.)
“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 p----- off.”
Why did he decide to rewrite the script? “We’re talking about the point of view of a scared s---less 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---ing 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.
“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 has grossed more than $2 billion and was certainly mainstream, yet he imbued the character of Tony Stark with an uncommon amount of flair, verve and vulnerability.
In recent weeks, Downey has been somewhat slippery when asked about the prospect of a fourth Iron Man film. First he told a reporter that he’d only make Iron Man 4 if Mel Gibson directed; he later explained that it was a joke. He then told Ellen DeGeneres that he was "in the middle of negotiation" over the film, slightly backtracking the following day when speaking to David Letterman. "There's no plans for an Iron Man 4," he said. "There's no script for Iron Man 4, but they do have a plan and I think they're going to announce it." All of which has led to speculation that there will indeed be an Iron Man 4, but with a different actor in the suit.
He's similary cryptic when asked I put the question to him. Do Marvel have plans for 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 films in history at $1.52 billion, and while Downey was certainly ready to return to 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.
Does he get a little jealous when there’s another superhero movie, another Spider-Man or another Batman? “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 also 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 10 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?”
Does he worry that the money could have a negative impact 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.
I don’t get the impression Downey is particularly materialistic. 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.”
Downey 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 affection. “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,” he says.
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.”
Downey says that he is looking forward to taking things at a slower pace – fewer projects and more family time, especially with his baby daughter about to arrive.
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.”