Downey's Aquarian trippiness and his meta-mega conceptual answers to basic questions (of his unexpected emergence as today's pre-eminent interpreter of oversize iconic roles, he says, "I love it when the least likely blank becomes a blank, because it reminds me that things are not as prohibitive as I think they are when I'm in neutral") make him hard to interview in any conventional, structured way, but they also make him a joy to bullshit with. Downey has the kind of mind whose doors of perception are always unlatched, open to all sorts of farfetched possibilities. He's fascinated by the fringes of science and conspiracy – whether there exists a language of birds, for instance. Or what the military's really been up to at Long Island's Brookhaven National Laboratory, where, Downey says, researchers have been conducting secret experiments to provide "supersoldiers" with an apparatus capable of generating "three levels" of cloaking: "Hidden," "Invisible" and "Gone." Does Downey really believe such out-there stuff or is it, in his words, a fanciful "hydroponic sonic" amusement? That's unclear and probably irrelevant. He's a mental omnivore. He'll eat almost anything, ideawise, or he'll at least chew on it. What he swallows is another matter. That's partly because the psychedelia springs from a common-sense-filled, well-informed, experience-tempered and morally solid soul. In fact, he's something of an old-school hardass.
Does he think drugs should be legalized? No way, not even marijuana, which he calls "the biggest ambition crusher of them all" and bemoans as a singularly "insidious" substance because it's widely regarded as benign. "Pot, for me, is, just take the sharpest table, round out the corners, and then keep wondering why you keep gouging your knees on it. Because you see it as something different than it is."
He also has surprising views on prison life, whose depictions in the media are "two-dimensional," he feels, and overemphasize its supposed brutality. From 1999 to 2000, Downey was an inmate in a California state prison due to his infamous repeated failures to zero out the board narcoticswise during the mid-to-late Nineties. "When the door clicks shut, then you are safe," he says. "There is nothing aside from a rogue correctional officer that can do you harm if you have the right cellie. You are actually in the safest place on Earth. Safe from the intruders. From anything that might thwart the mortal coil." As long as you don't buy dope in prison: "If you follow those impulses, you are going to be very indebted to someone who is too much of a public-safety threat to even just be in jail."
But Downey's most old-fashioned opinion of all concerns the greatness, creativity and transformative vitality of Los Angeles. He won't hear a word against the place, or against the entertainment business. "In and of itself," he says, his voice firm and formal with municipal patriotism, "it is, as titled, a city of angels." People who view L.A. more cynically and come to it thinking they'll beat the odds – the unfavorable odds that have beaten others like them – are doomed to lose, he says, and have nothing to blame for their eventual failures but their negative preconceptions. "I love a bit of bitterness, but if you want to immerse yourself in a situation where your bitterness can be fully and calculably justified, welcome. Come here and see if now you are just in a different part of the casino."
The sun, a pale diffuse blur behind the clouds, has fallen almost to the horizon. It's cold on the beach, and Downey pulls his hood tight and wraps his arms around himself. The talk dies down and our attention shifts to a peculiar little drama that's been going on all afternoon a few yards beyond our chairs. Downey's husky aide-de-camp, a guy named Jimmy Rich with little room remaining for new tattoos on his ink-covered beefy arms, is squatting amid a litter of wires, batteries and instruction booklets, preparing to launch a model rocket. Why? No explanation. Maybe it's a courteous attempt to give a visiting journalist a catchy visual metaphor for Downey's trajectory from addict to superstar. Or maybe the launch is just a way to stir up the neurons of the boss, who kicked narcotics but still needs little thrills to maintain a natural buzz.
The rocket is finally ready. Downey declines to take the small control box, so Jimmy steps back from the pad and flicks the switch. Nothing. He fusses with some wires, tries again, and the tapered toy missile whooshes up in a smooth platonic arc at whose apogee the parachute opens and is captured by a slight breeze that causes the rocket to slowly retrace its course and softly land just a few feet from the spot where it left the sand.
Downey is wonder-struck by the elegant spectacle. He practically levitates out of his chair. Imagining and manifesting amazing outcomes is his bag these days. The launch was another one. Grace abounds.
"You fucking handled it, dude," he says to Jimmy.
That was Day One, Venice Beach. Many spiritual principles were discussed, many theories of self-overcoming were advanced, the brilliant nonsense term "vaginal parfait" was coined, and all ended well, with the lovely, on-target landing of a nifty toy projectile that seemed to embody the movie star's charmed new life.
Day Two was a bit messier.
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