To Hell and Back With Robert Downey Jr.

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Has ever a Hollywood creature been so far down – down as in a year-in-a-state-pen down, fending off killer cellmates and guards bearing scripts about unicorns – and risen so far in such a short time as Downey? It's a miracle, is what it is, worthy of major signage the entire length of Sunset Boulevard. On the other hand, the whole redemption thing is pretty much toast at this point. It's been trotted out on Downey's behalf nearly every other year since his drug-bedeviled career first took off. In 2000, for example, he resurfaced after one of his more major debacles and almost immediately was signed to the cast of Ally McBeal, where he boosted the show's ratings, received rave reviews and was positioned by almost everyone as a man redeemed, whereupon the cops collared him once again, and all the redemption hoopla got filed away for next time. And so it's gone. But one of the great, remarkable things about Downey is that you can, in fact, always count on him for a next time. It's like some grand divinity has awarded him 100 shots in a row at salvation. He once said, "What's amazing is, no matter how much I fuck up, it keeps straightening itself out." And he's right. That's exactly how it's worked. And you know what another amazing thing is? Unlike today's crop of wayward movie stars, he's never once worn out his welcome. It's always good to have him back. It's always good to see him. He projects such good-natured, easygoing bonhomie that to greet one of his returns with anything less than wide-open arms would seem cruel beyond measure. And so, once again, he is in our midst, riding high and fighting the good fight to stay at least a few steps ahead of the void.

It's morning in L.A. now, clear skies, no rain, some wind, little heat. At a California-modern home in the Brentwood section, toward the terminus of a cul-de-sac road, up in one of the bedrooms, Downey has risen off his Tempur-Pedic pillows, sleepy-headed, naked and free, wobbled into the bathroom, thrust a toothbrush into his mouth and taken a leak. Downstairs, he whips up breakfast for the boy, Indio, whom he sometimes calls "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and sometimes, with great fondness, "little prick," as in, "My entire life is a love note to this little prick!" He dabbles an exact amount of maple syrup into a bowl for the boy, pours Kashi on top, prepares a cup of tea for him too, lightened with nonfat half-and-half, sweetened with a squirt of agave. He goes to the boy's bedroom, where the boy still sleeps. He beseeches him, "Please let your feet hit the floor." They do. Then they don't. Downey can feel the heat rising in his cheeks and leaves before it can get the better of him. Downstairs again, he ponders the strawberry jelly. Why is it here? He hates strawberry jelly. Why is he paying for something he hates? Here's why. His wife and kid love it. And then, halfway through the traditional browning of the kid's spelt toast, he stops what he's doing and decides to look out for number one. He makes himself a triple shot for a nice caffeine jolt and settles down at a table to read the morning paper.

Several hours later, he will describe how he's able to make this transition: "I behaviorally model someone who's having a morning that may, in some way, loosely be centered around their own desires."

It's a curious way of putting it, and it makes you wonder how much of what else he does might be derived from someone other than himself. It raises the question: If Downey isn't himself much of the time, then who is he? It's a slippery thing, and Downey is a slippery guy. He'll say, "I'm really, really rigorously honest," and then two beats later say, "Honestly, I can tell you that for the most part I don't lie." For the most part, it's hard to know what to make of that, except that he can be a little squishy, a little neither here nor there, a little semipermeable, which maybe is an actor thing, a drug-user thing or a jailhouse thing. But if you ever want to get to the heart of a guy like Downey, it bears watching, the full extent of it and what it might mean.

Now he's out the front door and racing with the kid to school, a little pissed off that he's already 15 minutes behind schedule, then racing back home again for his daily Wing Chun kung-fu lesson. In the old days, he was more likely to steal out the front door solo, cop, return, do the whatever and say hi to whomever, with no one the wiser, all in 45 minutes flat. These days, that's 45 minutes he doesn't have. His kung-fu teacher puts him through a strict and rather brutal regimen that leaves him panting. After that, he takes his daily shower, dresses again and heads for his Bentley to go see his agent at the CAA building.

He's not allowed to smoke during the meeting at CAA, so he chews up a tab of Nicorette and parks it in his cheek, where it remains until the talk turns to upcoming release dates, new opportunities and strategies, and the vastly improved size of his salary (current reported asking price: $12.5 million), at which point he starts chewing furiously and with great resolve. Once the meeting is over, he drops downstairs and steps outside to enjoy his first real cigarette of the day. He's tired. So much is pressing in. The other day, his wife wanted him to go to a hospital to see friends who just had twins. His first thoughts were "Hospitals? Virus? Friend? Epidural? Exhausted? Parents? Inundated? Husband? Tired? You want to what? Leave them alone. Leave me alone. I don't want to do anything that's numinous to me, nor less than evocative. I just don't want to do anything." This led to a strenuous series of negotiations that ended with him happily holding a newborn baby named Madeline in his arms. His wife knows how to deal with him. She's a vice president at Joel Silver's production company and no soft case.

One evening at a party, for example, he was supposed to be living it up; instead, he was studying a message on his BlackBerry with a frown. "It just never ends," he said to Susan. "Basically, what it says I've got here is a whole new invented Tropic Thunder press day." He started reciting the lineup but she cut him short. "Let me tell you," she said, putting her hands on the table. "You can complain all you want, but it's Ben, and you're going to do it. So if it feels good to build up a lot of resentment and rage, fine. But with all due respect, it's not that big a deal. You're not performing surgery during each of those events. You're standing there fucking looking hot." He sighed and rested his head on her hands, hibernating there for a good five minutes.

"I'm still not human, and this past year has been part of a humanization process," he says in the shadow of the CAA building. "My fear of things. That there's nothing to be scared of anymore, like bugs and viruses, all that tripped-out neurotic shit that isn't the way I operate anymore, but that's a twitching phantom limb. I differentiate myself by my eccentricities, and when I am not being heard, I will act out. But I'm changing, even though my conscious mind is oftentimes resisting, and then it becomes a matter of just how much do I want to resist?"

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