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

Robert Downey Jr
Mark Seliger
Robert Downey Jr. on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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.

"Parfait."

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."

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.

The plan today was for me to meet Downey at his headquarters, a concrete modernist aboveground bunker whose main floor resembles a mellow war room manned by 10 or so casually dressed young folk who are so generationally at ease with computers and touch-screen smartphones that they don't appear to be working at all. Their mission is to advance what Downey calls "the brand." He seems to enjoy his role as an executive and to savor the lingo of modern management-science as much as the language of quantum psycho-mythology. He characterized his motive in forming his team "as trying to get an infrastructure to flex and pressure-mold to the situation."

But our rendezvous at HQ is not to be. Half an hour before I set out for Venice, my cellphone rings: "It's Downey," he says. He alludes to a frustrating morning at the office, to some sort of hassle or squabble that tried his patience, and informs me that he's on the way to my hotel. His impulsive decision to split from Team Downey endears him to me, I'll admit, because it seems to run counter, in an all too human way, to certain hard, definitive statements he made yesterday about self-discipline and maturity that left me feeling wimpy, soft, chaotic and like an all-around inferior being. "The line is the line and the way is the way," he said. Also: "I've been led to a point where nothing short of my best shot at righteous existence will do." And this one, the most uncompromising of all: "For a certain kind of individual, I believe that the way to freedom is by just shoveling irrevocable responsibility on their actions."

Downey pulls up in front of the hotel in a snazzy white Audi SUV so showroom-virginal and luminous, from its black, immaculate, dust-free tires to its clean-to-the-point-of-invisibility windshield, that it might be a special movie-stars-only model. He's alone in the car: no driver, no assistant and no fame-concealing hooded sweater. Yesterday, he was a person with a plan – help the reporter do his job, set him up with a lawn chair and a rocket launch and a picnic basket of healthy snacks – but today he's in a whatever-happens-happens mood. He's playing the Doobie Brothers on his stereo, clearly uninterested in seeming hip, and he's griping about the costly intercom that was just installed in his new house. He complains that the keypad lacks a button that will put him directly through to Indio – the feature he most desired. He complained to his wife that the absence of this button made the system useless to him, and when she urged him to settle down, he aggressively defended his prerogative to voice dissatisfaction with a flawed product that he'd paid good money for. He left the matter unresolved, he tells me, because he has a couples-therapy session scheduled for this evening. Downey reserves two slots a week – paid in advance – with a therapist he calls "the best shrink in America." One session is devoted to regular maintenance of his relationship with his wife. The other is a "floater" to be used as needed. He and Susan can settle the problem at tonight's session, he says. The prospect seems to relax him. He turns the music up.

The array of problem-solving machinery that Downey relies on to protect himself from his own weaknesses and screwups is no mere celebrity-lifestyle amenity. Not in his case, anyway. "The ramifications of a little slip are not what they used to be," he told me yesterday. "It's not kid stuff anymore." The truth is that kid stuff, for Downey, was never kid stuff. It was crack cocaine and heroin, publicized courtroom proceedings, incarcerations. His first marriage, to the actress Deborah Falconer, sunk into such misery and conflict that Downey spent his 30th birthday curled up outside on the ground in drug withdrawal while his wife glared down at him, shivering with fury. The falls were typically followed by a comeback that only rendered the next plunge steeper, scarier.

Part of the problem, strangely, was Downey's stubborn professionalism and stamina – or perhaps his pride in them. "It used to be that you could throw me out of the back of a party van onto the set, give me a tuna melt, and I could function." This ability to work while hurting "was the essence. It was my self-esteem," he says. "It's so sad, it's beautiful. It so speaks to the human condition. There's something in that, that in an adolescent way, is a version of honor."

Today, instead of expounding on the insights, regimens and beliefs that he credits for ending his long and gruesome spree, he seems compelled to refresh his memories of it. He drives up into the Hollywood Hills to show me the first house he bought after gaining a foothold in the industry, and then it's down to Sunset Boulevard to cruise past the sites of his nocturnal delinquencies, which he shared with party-hardy pals such as former teen idol Leif Garrett, whose company in bars and clubs, says Downey, "always kicked things up a notch." He recalls his fondness for metal clubs and hipper joints like the Flaming Colossus (which one of his buddies nicknamed Flemish Colostomy), and his affection for the cult band Faster Pussycat. He also recalls his empty feeling when all the nightspots closed at 4 a.m. and his sense of relief when the action resumed at noon.

Driving west, toward the coast, in the new Audi whose complicated dashboard befuddles him, he cranks up an obscure Elvis Costello tune, "The Long Honeymoon." He dreams of collaborating with Costello someday to create a musical or stage show whose details he's rather vague about and which he has yet to mention to Costello. Might happen, might not. Downey is full of such ideas and schemes, including a few fairly detailed movie scenarios, but he's saddled with a heavy schedule nowadays, thanks to his bankability, his dynamism and his seeming immunity to overexposure. Later this year, he begins shooting the Sherlock Holmes sequel. Also being filmed is a 3-D space movie called Gravity, in which he'll play an astronaut trapped on a crippled space station that he's desperately trying to repair.

As we drive up the coast, Downey explains the incident at the office that ticked him off today. It began with his decision to cancel his family's annual trip to the Coachella music festival. There were logistical reasons for his decision, but his main consideration was parental: He was taking his son on vacation to Italy soon and felt that the music-festival excursion, which would entail missed school days, was one indulgence, one luxury too many. Downey didn't want to spoil the boy. Before he was able to give his son the news, though – news that Downey knew wouldn't go down well and would require him to be firm – a Team Downey member called ahead and spilled the beans. Downey felt that his fatherly rights had been usurped, and he let the offender know it. Boss not happy.

We eat lunch at a Malibu seaside shack where Downey drinks a Dr Pepper because the soft drink is tied in, marketing-wise, with Iron Man 2 and he wants to be loyal to the cause. When the song "A Whiter Shade of Pale" drifts down from a speaker in the ceiling, he shakes his head in a moody, reflective way and tells me that it's the saddest tune there is. Why is that, he wonders? The puzzle goes unsolved. I rupture the melancholy moment by asking the inevitable question that most actors of Downey's caliber and status answer in the affirmative: Does he have any desire to direct? Not really. "What do you think I've been doing for the past five years?" he says.

A few minutes later he's pressing a button to open the gate of the house he's been renovating for the better part of a year. It's landscaped and styled to a point of flawless storybook unreality. The fruit on the trees looks hung by hand, it's so evenly spaced on the expertly trimmed branches. The walking paths are so smoothly raked and groomed and defined by such neat, unbroken edges that they look like miniature roads in fairyland. The house's interior isn't quite as polished. The rooms aren't fully furnished yet, and though they're spotless, they feel a bit austere.

"This is the worst coffee machine ever," Downey grumbles in the kitchen, trying to brew espresso with a device that makes him wait and wait for his caffeine fix while a tiny green light on its side turns on and off, apparently requesting the user's patience with some obscure internal ongoing process. "How of all the online options did I pick this one, Blinkie the Japanese Face-Fucker," says Downey. He's joking, of course, and exaggerating his bitterness, but at some level he seems genuinely irritated. First the inadequate intercom. Now this. That's when the Team member who jumped the gun and let Downey's son know there would be no music festival appears in the kitchen doorway. His comportment is sheepish, and Downey doesn't look at him as the employee tries to mend things by announcing that he's recorded, for Downey's amusement as a martial artist, an Ultimate Fighting Championship special. The boss isn't cold or scary, just elsewhere, absent, as though he's taking a nonexistent phone call.

After we drink our coffee, Downey walks me around the handsome, expansive grounds, stopping to chat with squads of gardeners who are busy clipping, tamping and digging. One of them indirectly indicates that a tractor might prove helpful in his efforts, and Downey promises to buy one for him immediately, then passes on and quips, "See? Even the infractions are on me." I think I understand his state of mind. The little never-ending burdens of being landed and respectable after being, not so long ago, lost in space and notoriously disreputable, are wearing on him slightly, just perhaps. "The problem is," he cracks, "you have to have a double franchise to afford the upkeep."

There's a Gatsby-like quality to Downey's manner as he strolls around the splendid all that he's now the master of. He's proud of the place, but in a distant way, as though he's not fully convinced of its reality. He shows me the complex of sturdy wooden corrals and thoroughly scrubbed stables that he's still deciding whether to fill with actual horses: "Maybe we'll become the equestrian type." Me, I can't quite see it. He doesn't strike me as having the disposition of the classic horseman, the sort of person who garners deep satisfaction in mane detangling, feed-bag emptying, saddle adjusting and circular trotting. Then again, he's reinvented himself before.

At the edge of the yard that overlooks the highway that runs along the coast, he finally hints at what the new house means to him, not as an impressive piece of real estate but as a marker of how his life has changed in ways that I have to imagine must sometimes strike him as majestically inexplicable. "That's where it really went south," he says, gazing at a stretch of road below us. "I used to drive by that place with a sense of distasteful, sour remorse. That's where I threw it all away because I was sick. And now I think, 'Oh, my God, me and the missus will be here until the grandkids attend our funerals. We'll always be here. We'll never fucking move from here. Crazy.'"

Speaking of the missus, it's time, Downey tells me, to head back down the coast for the therapy session he mentioned earlier when he brought up his tantrum about the lousy new intercom: "I need to explain my reaction to my wife for 90 minutes with a trained professional."

When Downey turns onto the highway in the Audi, the nagging memories and lingering traumas all pour out of him suddenly, unprompted – a caustic, comic, cathartic cascade of words and images and energies that may have been pushing against his skull all day. They emerge that rapidly, almost without volition. It's 1996 again, the year when it all finally caught up with him: not just the law, but justice in the deepest sense. And in the nick of time, the way he tells it.

"This is historically where, years ago, in a Ford F-150, right when the light turned green, and I'd just made it back from some heinous interaction with the highly toxic – you know the kind of girl where you're probably going to get arrested within 16 hours of face-fucking her? I'd met her the night before for dinner at a restaurant, she started choking on a fish bone, I had to fucking Heimlich her. I remember it as a glorious night, she said a music producer was spying on her – and I didn't care – she got mad that I was getting high, she was boundary-ridden.

"It's about noon. I'm feeling ready to go back home to Malibu. I had to be careful with the car, there's a firearm in it. I'm wrecked, I drive her back into town, she gets mad because I'm still doing what I always do. I leave her home, I guess still being spied on by the music producer. I feel fine. I get back in my car with the firearm. I just have to get home safe, and right when I get to that place back there, I gun it.

"I see this cop who'd pulled me over and given me a field sobriety test at least twice in the previous few months. He turns on his lights, pulls me over, and it was many felonies. Of course I was bailed out by my dealer's boyfriend, who brought the $10,000 in small bills, tens and twenties, and I remember when I got back home, this guy who owned a retail store – his old partner, Gary, was the greatest-looking, like an engineer-for-Seals-and-Crofts-turned-haute-couture-coke-dealer – it was the only coke that ever tasted as good as the coke I did with my dad and Jack Nicholson. . . . Here's what I remember: I get back to the house after this whole first arrest debacle, I remember that I'd had a party there before all this, with the son of a local phenom. He and his buddies came over in Dad's old Jaguar, which is so fast the birds can't get out of the way. They were like beer-and-chitlins types with money, and I proceeded to take a massive piece of fucking black-tar heroin out of one of my clown pockets, put it on a paper plate, heat up a coat hanger, do the longest fucking Reynolds Wrap tube roll in history, and get these guys so fucking gowed out – five fucking Manchurian Candidates in my living room for two days – and then I got busted. And I'm thinking, 'Where's all that great coke?' And here I was needing to anesthetize like never before. The wife has moved out, the kid's gone, my life is a fucking babyshambles, and I suddenly make the neuropathic connection that there's nowhere the coke can be but the garbage, and I fucking dig in the thing and there it is, and it's so fucking pure and so clean and there I am, in my own kitchen, cooking up some rock – no Vicodin, no Valium, nothing to take the edge off, barely a trace of fucking Absolut Citron left in the fridge, and I just go, 'This is as good as it gets right now.' I just go 'Bam!,' triumph of the spirit. And the next thing that happens, I'm in custody within two weeks for even stranger reasons, and the phone rings and it's the phenom's son and he goes, 'Hey, dude, do you have any more of that opium?' I, of course, told him it was opium. Never call it heroin, it's very taboo. But this stuff, this Mexican sludge, just grabbed you by the fucking heartstrings and tore me apart. All those years of snorting coke, and then I accidentally get involved in heroin after smoking crack for the first time. It finally tied my shoelaces together. Smoking dope and smoking coke, you are rendered defenseless. The only way out of that hopeless state is intervention."

Day Two, the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. That's how it ended. With Downey telling the truth – the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, compelled by no authority or oath but only by his own frenzied, wild appetite to go on enduring and evolving – about what happened before it (all of it) could finally begin.

This story is from the May 13th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1104: May 13, 2010