Robert Downey Jr.'s Weird Science of Acting

There's a madness in his method

Robert Downey Jr.
Tri-Star Pictures/Getty Images
Robert Downey Jr.
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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.

The First Cut Is the Deepest
People always ask me what it was like to grow up in my family. It's as if your family is in the construction business. Except try and imagine it being like an avant-garde construction business. You can't say, "My dad's a builder, maybe you've heard of him," because nobody's heard of him, except he's done some weird, bizarre building somewhere.

And just like construction families probably bring their kids down to help them clean the grounds or something, that's what it was like in my family. It just seemed like part of my day was "Dad isn't into the child-labor laws, but he wants to have an eight-year-old get his neck slit by God in Greaser's Palace, so you're in the movie."

I was pissed. I wasn't into it.

What It's Like to Be the Son of a Director
I quit school in eleventh grade. I said to my dad, "Can I tell my counselor that I'm quitting?" He said, "Either show up every day or quit, whatever you want. Do something productive." I said, "Oh, thanks, Dad." So I went to school, and my theater-arts teacher said, "Are you going to be around for Romeo and Juliet?" And I said, "Well, I don't think so. I think I'm going to clear out my locker right now and quit school."

So I went into my counselor's office, and she was like "Oh, Robert, if you stay through the summer, you can make up these 600 credits, and you can spend your whole summer under fluorescent lighting, and then, well, you might be able to get into your last year of high school." And I said, "I think I'll just quit instead." She's like "Oh, we'll call your father about that." She called my dad, and he's like "Sure, whatever he wants to do, as long as he gets a job and is productive." And I said, "I told you so," and walked out of school.

Attitude Is Everything
I was a busboy in New York – there's nothing that beats serving Sting peppermint tea – and I was auditioning for everything. But I had a bad attitude. Like, for instance, I went to meet Robert Conrad for a TV show, and he was like "How do you support yourself when you're not working as an actor?" I said, "My spine." He didn't like that. He's like "Good afternoon, Mr. Downey." So then I said, "Well, I won't say, 'My spine,' anymore. I'll say, 'I'm a busboy, and I'm so earnest, and I'm really interested in doing this fucking miniseries about your self-indulgent fantasies.'"

For the Weird Science audition, John Hughes, who was supposed to be real hip at that moment, said, "So you want to run the scene with the guy before you do it?" I said, "No." Went in. Read the scene. I rocked. And John Hughes is like "Hey – I found another one."

For The Pick-Up Artist, I went into Toback's office, and I lay down on the floor. I was like tired or something. And I just started saying whatever I felt like saying.

When I went in to audition for Mussolini: The Untold Story, with George C. Scott, I still had purple dye in my hair from Weird Science, and they're like "Oh, I . . . I don't think so." And I was like "Yeah, right, guys." And then I read one scene, and they said, "Oh, great. Great. That was really great! Read the next one." I was like, you know, "Nah, I gotta go." My vibe told me get out of there and make them think. So I left, and they called that day – "Oh, you were so magical."

It doesn't matter whether or not you can act. If you can go into a room and make these sweaters want to have you around for six or eight weeks, that's what'll really get you a job.

The Price of Fame
I've learned that ten 14-year-old girls could definitely kill me if they got excited enough. It's weird. You go, "God, she's got a good headlock."

The Perils of the Press
They hated me in Johnny Be Good. The Los Angeles Times crucified me. They said I sounded like Pee-wee Herman emerging from a coma. I had stopped returning my fan mail, but now I'm gonna start again, now that Johnny Be Good came out and no one cares about me.

And What Is Your Personal Philosophy, Mr. Downey?
Tofu is the root of all evil. And there's only one thing that can change a man's mind, and that's a modified Uzi with an extra-long clip.

Does the Brat Pack Really Exist?
I really don't know most of the other guys. I mean, I know they're all there, and I read about what they're doing, and they read about what I'm doing, and when we meet each other, we say, "You're great!" "Oh, you're great, too!" if we mean it or if we don't mean it it's about "What's your quote [the fee for a film]?" "What's your quote?"

Wouldn't it be great if instead of doing films, all these young actors were all doing summer stock together? Like Matt Dillon stage-managing Jacques Brel?

The Price of Success
Material pleasures can make you happy. Or on the other hand, they can make you so much more depressed. Like I love my car. It's a BMW L6 635 CSI with a racing-engine suspension. Black with white interior. But I left her for a week, come back, and the battery's totally dead. Fifty-two grand on this baby – with a discount – and it won't start. If I had a Hyundai, I could have come home six months later and it would at least start. Might not have a hand-stitched interior, but at least I could travel.

Those Who Can't Do, Teach
I'm a real prick about acting coaches. I have nothing to learn from somebody who's never made it as an actor himself. Then I wind up feeling bad for the guy. Maybe he's a fucking drunk, and he's saying, "It's like this." No, it's not like that. Or if you get into a method. "Am I sensory?" "Oh, my sense memory." It's like you're always working at this big plateau to be able to say six words on camera and then walk to your next mark. Fuck it, man.

You've Gotta Have Faith
I've kind of freed myself of the vices that would definitely have ruined my career. Like, you know, drugs and arrogance and driving too fast. But I've got a lot of blind faith in myself. That's why I say this self-indulgent phrase, "There's no stopping me." Or at least that's what I say if the production manager's getting on my case about being late. I say, "Look, man, there's no fucking stopping me. And pretty soon the studio's going to say, 'Who would you like to be the production manager?' and I'll say, 'Not this fucker.' So you better get off my dick."

This story is from the May 19th, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 526: May 19, 1988
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