The Tao of Robert Downey Jr.

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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.

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