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To Hell and Back With Robert Downey Jr.

How the brilliant but tormented rebel defeated his demons to become Hollywood's badass superhero

August 21, 2008
Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr. on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Sam Jones

At a restaurant called Craft, in Los Angeles, near the new CAA building, outside, under sunlight, not on a couch but on the warm, warm ground, Robert Downey Jr. lights a cigarette, takes a sip of his double espresso, listens politely to a waitress extolling the virtues of the halibut, orders the halibut on her recommendation, regards her through the dark bubble of teardrop shades, remembers then what his first thought of the day was. ("Obligation is the mother of deformity") and says to her, "Look, I don't want to be an asshole here, but I've had a change of heart on the halibut. I'm now going Scottish salmon well-done." After that, breathing easier, he goes on talking, almost to himself as much as to anyone else present.

"I'm between two phases right now, pre-Iron Man and post-Iron Man, and the transition can be tricky," he says, shifting and smoking. "It used to be, I'd drive onto a studio lot, and the guard was like, 'Less Than Zero dude, I loved Chaplin!' Now it's, 'Iron Man!' It's not an algorithm anymore. It's a fixed number. Things have been zeroed out; it's the beginning of something. But right now, it's still a void, and we tend to think of the void as an abyss or a vacuum with nothing there. In fact it's a new road, and what you should do on this new road is close for repairs – close right away, because that old vehicle is not going to work on that new road. I mean, if the cosmos is a loving, healing thing that also spins real fast and erupts and does violent stuff, and if there really is some kind of order to the whole thing, then everything that's led up to this moment has to be part of it, or the math doesn't work. But in this transition phase, I really am trying to live as much like a lizard as I can. Hot, rock, sun, fly, tongue."

Robert Downey Jr.'s Weird Science of Acting

Downey tugs on the leaf-green sweater knotted around his neck and rearranges himself on the ground. His words hang in the air, atmospherically. He's got one crazy, free-floating, head-spinning way of expressing himself, and though he could say more, explain more, he doesn't. He's already moved on to some other rabbit hole and can't be brought back. That's just how his mind is. Plus he knows that we know all we need to know in order to fill in most of the blanks. It's like this. At 43, he's a witty, charming, fun-loving, mixed-metaphorically-minded, entirely off-slant kind of guy who got his start in mid-Eighties teen comedies like Weird Science and Back to School, spent a year on Saturday Night Live during its worst season ever, received his best early notices playing a doomed drug addict in Less Than Zero and then hit the Oscar-nominated big time with Chaplin, in 1992. For about 20 years, he was also a Hollywood profligate of the first water, a thoroughly doped-up Absolut-loving wastrel. And when voids loomed, whirl was king: He'd put the pedal to the metal, stopping only to get arrested while driving naked in his Porsche (1996); or to pass out in a stranger's house, in a child's bed, and wake up with medics staring at him (1996); or to spend some heel-cooling time in jail (various). About five years ago, though, he decided to clean himself up, and so far, so good. Since then, he's continued to make movies, most of them great but small (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; Good Night, and Good LuckZodiac) until Iron Man hit theaters earlier this year. And Iron Man has killed. Critics loved it, audiences loved it, ticket sales have shot past the half-billion-dollar mark, and suddenly Downey is sitting pretty once again.

"Right now, my BlackBerry is literally overloading and crashing, and the phone is never not ringing," he says, hauling the damn thing out and turning it off. "It's crazy. Like a Super Bowl. Like a landslide. Like nothing I've ever experienced."

Which really is supergreat for him. His per-movie quote has gone into the multimillions. He's moving into a different, bigger, better house. He's driving a shiny black Bentley, a gift from Marvel Studios, which made Iron Man. He's been resplendent on Leno, Letterman and The View; stellar pretending to be one of Gladys Knight's Pips on American Idol (although he hated it: "dreadful, awful, depressing, and disquieting to my integrity"); and the only debonair presenter to take the stage at this year's MTV Movie Awards. All good stuff. But there is the void to think about, and this particular void may last longer than most, because he's got two more movies coming out soon, and both of them are likely to be big.

In November, it's The Soloist, costarring Jamie Foxx, a true story about a journalist (Downey) who befriends a homeless schizophrenic violinist. But first, there's the riotous, topsy-turvy movie-within-a-movie world of Tropic Thunder, in which he stars alongside Jack Black and Ben Stiller (who also directed). In this one, Downey plays a wacked-out Australian Method actor named Kirk Lazarus who tints his skin black to play an African-American soldier in a big-budget Vietnam War movie. Downey does it just right – no offense meant, no offense taken – and he pretty much steals the show. It was, however, a part he nearly turned down. He'd just finished shooting Iron Man, and Tropic Thunder was due to start filming in about two weeks. "A lot of people do big movies back to back," Stiller said, trying to convince him. "Yeah," said Downey, "but I'm not a lot of people. I've got to be careful here." Once on board, though, he apparently went all out. "We all have our demons and stuff," says Stiller, "but I've never seen anybody get lit for the acting moment as much as him. He was in a crazy zone and totally committed to his character." So committed that he occasionally stayed black even when black wasn't called for. "We'd be watching a monitor, and he just kept going on about 'I'm going to get me some barbecued ribs and chicken,' and I'm like, 'No, man, you can't do that. You gotta stop that, for real,'" says Brandon T. Jackson, one of the only black actors on the project. "But he just kept on, and then when we were doing the scene where I get pissed off at him, all that stuff just came out there, and magic happened. I don't know, but I think in his genius he was just trying to egg me on."

Played for big, broad laughs, what the movie is really about is identity. At one point, Downey's Lazarus says, "I know who I am. I'm a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude," which is a perfect line for Downey to have to deliver, because in a sense, his own identity, and who he really is, has long been up for grabs. Only two years ago, he looked at himself and his situation this way: "I'm not an actor. It's my day job, and I learned how to hustle it really good. [But] it's a hustle. I got some fuckin' juice, man, I got some tools. . . . I learned some shit. I learned shit on the streets. It was providence, dude, and proximity to where I could get my grift on. . . . This is fuckin' gypsy heaven, dude – there's a million suckers out here."

What a great big bag of shiftless hooey.

"When did I say that?" he says today, picking through his Scottish salmon. "Was it more than three weeks ago? Puh-leaze! That guy is someone who is a foulmouthed liar who thinks he sounds really hip. As far as faking and a hustle, how could I bring I-want-to-say depth to my work if that's all it was? How could I do that?"

The answer is, it all depends on how good your grift is when you get it on. But let's give the guy a break and take him at his word. It's the summer of Downey, after many long, hard, cold winters, and he deserves it. Like his old friend Mel Gibson says, "He's ebullient and mercurial, up and down like a yo-yo, but he's grown, and he's going to move forward and conquer the world. And you know what? He's a good guy. That's what he is. He always is, always has been, always will be, no matter what kind of hot water he gets in."

It's time for him to head home now. He's got to get back to Susan, his wife of three years, and Indio, 14, his son from his previous marriage. Before leaving, however, he's got one or two things left to say. "I'm such a work in progress at the moment, it's crazy, and life wants me on edge, I swear to you," he says. "But as long as I don't forget the past, I'm cool. One must always be mindful, just like you might forget that old girlfriend who tried to slit your throat, but she's really still hot. If you remember the stitches more than you remember the pussy, you're going to be just fine."

Then he closes his eyes and is silent for a brief moment, lizardlike, steady right where he is, hot, rock, sun, fly and tongue.

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