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Robert Downey Jr.'s Weird Science of Acting

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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