The Tao of Robert Downey Jr.

Hardass, flake, superstar: The greatest actor of his generation is anything you want him to be – and an Iron Man, too

May 13, 2010
Robert Downey Jr
Robert Downey Jr. on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

Sitting in a nylon lawn chair on an empty swath of Venice Beach between the tattoo-parlor-lined boardwalk and the vacant, flat gray ocean, Robert Downey Jr. is dressed for privacy in a hooded black wool sweater and an enormous pair of bug-eyed "As Seen on TV" Blublocker sunglasses that make him look like the famous FBI sketch of the Unabomber. He wears baggy drawstring lounge pants of the sort that most men only put on when all their other pants are in the dryer and they have to answer the doorbell. The loose clothes allow the range of movement – the freedom to twist, flex, stretch, fidget and even roll around in the sand or lie on his back and gaze up at the heavens – that helps Downey, 45, discharge his roiling energy when he's on a verbal run. Sober and successful, the billion-dollar pillar of the Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man franchises is at least as vibrant and cyclonic as the old stoned and troubled tabloid cover model from a decade ago. A conversation with him is a deep-space particle storm, parentheses-within-parentheses, digression upon digression, a nonlinear but not nonsensical cosmic outpouring. Downey refuses to follow any kind of script, never quite coming into focus, always in thrall to another idea. That's the essence of his mind and spirit, and, arguably, of his genius as an actor.

"Let's do word association now," he says.

"Viral," I begin. I don't know why.

"Redundant," Downey responds. I don't know why.

"Esoteric," I say.

He pauses. "Approachable."

I draw a blank. This game isn't the jazzy Method-acting exercise I was hoping for. Maybe Downey's just tired. He's a serious devotee of Wing Chun, a kung fu discipline, but today he has been grumbling about a shoulder injury. For now, though, he's resisting taking an Advil, a reflection of his rigorous commitment to all-natural self-improvement.

I try a different tack: "Vaginal," I say.


It's perfect. It's more than perfect. It's creepy, elegant, uncanny. And it came to Downey without a pause, as though this absurd linguistic delectable – "vaginal parfait," I can't stop saying it – already existed in the collective unconscious, and he simply reached out and retrieved it.

The volleys continue but gradually lose vigor, stalling out on "remorse" and "lick." Downey, whose artistry is based on instinct – on his faith in and obedience to instinct; witness his warped blackface turn in Tropic Thunder, a performance that's like a hunch or a whim whipped up into a compulsion – knows precisely when to get back to business.

The only problem is it's tough to know exactly what our business is. Iron Man 2? Downey doesn't bring it up. Later on, when I press him, he'll say that making it was "the greatest professional lesson of my life," leaving me with the sense that "lesson," in this case, is a euphemism for "ordeal."

He'd rather stick to matters more abstract. "Let me put it this way," he says, responding to an open-ended question about his general state of mind these days, "I am in the continual process of transcending fear-based rituals." I ask him to expand, to clarify. He twists around in his chair and tilts his head, first one way, then another, then another. The adjustments never stop. For Downey, who trained long ago as a ballet dancer and still moves like one – arched spine, squared shoulders, feet planted but lightly planted, neck straight, chin raised – even thinking is a physical activity.

"Does it involve a disempowered sense of magical thinking, or am I actually in the stream?" he tells me, his manner a blend of meditative detachment and locked-on, soul-to-soul engagement as he explains how rituals he deems "fear-based" differ from all the other kinds. "Is it spontaneous or is it premeditated based on some sort of need to control?"

It's easy to shrug off such utterances as La-La Land New Age mumbo jumbo, but it's less easy when the person reciting it is such a stupendous testament to its restorative potential. Downey – the new clean-urine Downey, who's been the new Downey for so many years now that he's become the ordinary Downey – is a recovery-movement, power-of-positive-thinking, quest-for-enlightenment best-case scenario. Before day's end, I'll watch him hug and kiss his slim and trim, serenity-radiating producing partner and wife of five years, Susan. It's a real hug and kiss that exhibits real affection. I'll stand over him as he plays, through his computer, a song by his 16-year-old son, Indio. It's a real song of real passion and prowess, and Downey's absorption in it is also real. I'll observe his epicurean sipping of a fruit-infused organic soda. It's a real instance of joyful liquid refreshment. Downey not only seems stable and decontaminated, he seems buttressed and distilled.

His talk of illumination and liberation becomes marginally more intelligible once you accept that his private dialect and the hybrid cosmology behind it is a form of mental music rather than a fully reasoned system. "In the moment, if you zero out your board," he says, leaving me to assume that by "the board" he means something like a mixing board or, perhaps, the inner-mental scoreboard that people use to record their wins and losses in life, "anything is possible." In a similar vein – elusive but evocative – he describes a career phase he passed through after the years of blazing self-immolation but prior to the current era of ever-striving, perpetual self-scrutiny: "In the Joseph Campbell world of no longer being on anyone else's path, I'm out there and it's leafy and green and there's abundance, but I don't think it's amounting to anything more than survival in the jungle."

Translation, I think: He was cruising. And it bored him.

The Tao of Downey is fuzzy and enigmatic, but its principles, properly applied, seem to get results. Once he'd cleaned up and zeroed out his board, Downey prepared himself for the next stage – the dimensional phase shift that's made him what he is now, the star of a superhero sequel that's poised for one of the highest-grossest openings in movie history, the head of a growing production company (his staff answers the phone, "Team Downey") and the owner of both an ultramodern Venice office building and an Edenic multi-acre Malibu oceanview estate – by doing artistic flexibility exercises augmented by ceremonial white magic.

"Careerwise, I was setting them up," he says of the years preceding his breakthrough. "There's a little Zodiac there, a little Fincher here, some Shaggy Dog, got the insurance handled, then boom!" The boom was the starring role in Iron Man, which Downey had unabashedly been coveting. The prospect of playing a comicbook superhero not only didn't strike him as an offense against the devotion to complexity that had earned him steady critical approval and actor's-actor credibility, he regarded it as an invigorating outrage, "absolutely viable in its profanity," whose reverberations would shock him back to life – a better life. So he did some astral-plane conjuring. Before his Iron Man screen test, he built, for real, from physical materials, an "altar to the possibility of self out of "some intuitively gathered objects" that included a picture of the superhero and – it gets spooky here – "a sunstone wand."

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