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.
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