Robert Downey Jr.'s Weird Science of Acting

There's a madness in his method

May 19, 1988
Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr.
Tri-Star Pictures/Getty Images

It's ninety-five degrees in Los Angeles, and Robert Downey Jr. is bobbing up and down in his manager's pool. He has just flown in from San Francisco, where he is playing a recent law-school graduate in True Believers, his fourteenth film, and he is worn out. When his girlfriend, Sarah Jessica Parker, who stars in the television show A Year in the Life, dropped him off here an hour ago, he complained about his car being broken, downed half a plate of lasagna, changed out of an outsize polka-dot shirt and black trousers into a borrowed pair of boxer shorts ("Who knows where these have been?") and jumped into the pool.

"Do you have a cigarette?" Downey is now yelling to Loree Rodkin, his manager. "Yes, Mr. Downey," she says with some amusement. "Do you want me to light it for you?" Downey nods. "How's my house going?" he says. "Will the pool look like this?" Rodkin explains that Downey has just bought a Spanish-deco house that was built for Charlie Chaplin. "Because," Downey continues, jumping up and down in the water while dragging on the cigarette, "I want it to look just like this."

Rodkin picks up the lasagna plate, which is sitting poolside, and walks back toward the house. There is no point in replying; after all, Downey is only twenty-two, and when you're rich and successful in Hollywood at twenty-two, some brattiness is expected. Besides, there is something surprisingly endearing – something positively Nicholsonian – about Downey's behavior. Unlike many actors, he is not brooding or intolerably self-absorbed. Instead, he seems to be in a semiconstant state of amusement: Downey just wants to have some fun. "Have I shown you my imitation of a fish-boy yet?" he says to Rodkin's back. "Or you can watch my fucking milky-white, white-boy figure float around."

That bratty buoyancy, what one critic called "a kind of happy-go-lucky irony," is what has made Downey's work so notable, even in distinctly unnotable films. The son of the underground filmmaker Robert Downey (Putney Swope, Greaser's Palace, among others), Robert Jr. started acting when he was still a child. He quit high school in the eleventh grade and moved to New York City. From there, his career is like a connect-the-dots painting of terrible projects. There was his one-year stint on Saturday Night Live, in 1985-86, which may have been the show's worst year ever. There were films like Weird Science (the only failure at the box office in John Hughes's teenage oeuvre), The Pick-Up Artist (Warren Beatty was originally involved, though he withdrew from the project and removed his name from the credits – which tells you something) and Less Than Zero (a depressing mess). But through it all, Downey's performances were memorable. "He shrugs and bubbles his way past every obstacle," the critic Stephen Schiff has written. "Downey is unsinkable."

Downey's upcoming projects sound a bit more promising. Within the next year he will star in Rented Lips, a film directed by his father; 1969, a coming-of-age story in which he stars opposite Kiefer Sutherland; and the aforementioned True Believers, which is being directed by Joe Ruben, who made The Stepfather. Downey will have to live with his latest mistake in career judgment, Johnny Be Good, which was released to disastrous reviews and almost complete audience lack of interest. "I'm not sure I've been in a real good movie," says Downey, still bobbing in the pool. "It'd be nice to try that. I'd like, you know, to be in one of those films where at the end you go, 'Yeah.'"

Wait for the Tape
I had four weeks' work in Baby, It's You, and i told all my friends I was now, officially, a major talent and film star. And then they cut my scenes out. You don't even see me except in one scene – you see me in the background until this self-indulgent actress leans forward to try and get more camera time.

They cut all my scenes out and my friends go, "Hey, Robert – maybe it's you!" Now I don't tell people that I'm in a film until I see it on videocassette. "Are you doing The Pick-Up Artist?" "I'm not sure. I hope so, you know, unless they cut around me."

Saturday Night Live, 1985-86
They were on Anthony Michael Hall's dick to get him on the show. And so he negotiated some ridiculous contract and then also said, "Well, Robert Downey has to be on the show, too." We were friends. And so I went on an audition. I thought it was going to be like four people; instead, it's all of NBC in this room. I just went in. I was wearing a T-shirt. I took my T-shirt off and threw it on my head and started doing this character, my imitation of this guy that I'd seen at Voila, a terrible club in the Beverly Center. Voila – I mean, I'm really embarrassed to say that I've been there. It's like this Middle Eastern-type club, and now it's really passé. It was even passé when I was going there, but now it's like a memory.

Anyway, this Iranian guy was drunk and didn't know the language well, and he was talking shit to this guy, saying, "Hey, man – you don't know who I am. You'll kick my ass." I was like "No – it's 'I'll kick your ass." So I went in and started doing this Iranian for the audition, and they started laughing, and they started hiring me.

Live TV is the ultimate medium. Two hundred of your best friends in the audience, five cameras in your face, not enough time to get it together and 30 million people watching. It was like "Hey! It's Monday! Meet the host and come on out – we have no time." Lorne Michaels saying, "Don't make me look bad." You know? It's really heavy. After I left, after that first season, it got better. I don't mean by the fact that I left.

Boys Will Be Boys
The great thing about SNL was being at 30 Rockefeller Center. And having Belushi and Aykroyd's old office. And me and Michael saying, "We want bunk beds. With NFL sheets. And we want them now." And Michael was like "Man, it's gonna be great, we're gonna be buddies, we're gonna do a show together, we're gonna . . ." Then, "I'm gonna do Out of Bounds," and he left.

As for me, I was doing Back to School and Saturday Night Live at the same time. So I'd fly back to Los Angeles for a couple of days during the week to shoot the movie and then fly back and, "Live, From New York, It's a Tired Young Man!"

What's Your Sign?
Do You Come Here Often?
For The Pick-Up Artist, I didn't have to practice picking up girls. Jim Toback was directing; all I had to do was watch him between takes. He was picking up girls. Everyone thought The Pick-Up Artist must have had heavy sex scenes that were cut. Nothing was cut. Molly [Ringwald] and I only kissed once in the movie. Well, actually, we kissed like forty times for the one scene. That was because Warren Beatty was helping Toback. Beatty's really knowledgeable in a lot of areas, especially fucking. Especially kissing and making actors do something forty times.

Molly didn't mind. We both have big lips, so it wasn't like one of us was going to be disappointed. But I do sweat a lot. If I was her looking at me – this guy who's sweating like a fucking bovine reptile – I don't know if it would be all that easy for me to get hot.

But Didn't He Think The Pick-Up Artist Was Irresponsible?
People kept asking me that question. All I wanted to do was promote The Pick-Up Artist, and the press kept asking me about exalted legal and moral issues. I'm like "Come on, man, I just hope it does well at the box office." Of course it's a sexually irresponsible film, but if Aids had happened six months later, maybe the film would have made more than six bucks.

Sex in the Cinema
I'm not an exhibitionist, really, but I have no reservations, either. Otherwise, why, in Less Than Zero, would I agree to do a scene about somebody going down on some guy in Palm Springs for coke?

How Props Can Help You Understand Your Character
In my dad's film Rented Lips, which he directed and Martin Mull wrote, I play a porno star named Wolf Dangler. In most of the film, I wear fish-net underwear, and I don't give a shit. I stuffed my underwear, too. I had this huge wad of toilet paper, and I kept asking the camera guys to please just keep panning around from the front to the side. So you could see from the front angle it looked really big. But when you panned to the side, it looked so obviously fake.

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