To Hell and Back With Robert Downey Jr.

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Actually, Downey's got more than a few of those twitching phantom limbs. For the most part, he's stopped telling stories about his time in jail, but at parties, he sometimes can't help himself, because "jailhouse stories really bring the house down." He knows that's not good – "It's the sociopath using his trauma as currency" – and has vowed to stop. The same for how he behaves on TV talk shows, out of habit always coughing up some offhand lilting reference to his traumatic past, even when the host doesn't, just to get a few yuks. "Bad form, self-deprecation, another character flaw," he says. He also says that he's looking forward to a time when his past becomes parenthetical and isn't talked about at all, by anyone. He says he sees such a day coming. He says, hopefully, "There seems to be a bit of erasure happening."

No doubt such a thing would be nice for Downey, his teenage son and his wife, but for the rest of us, it'd be a real shame. Part of the miracle of Downey is his past. Without that back story, much of the drama of the present is lost. Take the recent but already legendary tale of how Marvel initially didn't think Downey would work in Iron Man. In fact, according to director Jon Favreau, it went much deeper than that: He was told by Marvel that "under no circumstances are we prepared to hire him for any price," after which Favreau had to call Downey and say, "Look, I fought, I tried, I did what I could, it's a pity and a shame, but unfortunately it's going to stop here." Downey said, "With your permission, I'm going to hold out hope" – a statement of faith that inspired Favreau to redouble his efforts and eventually led to the screen test that got Downey the job.

Faith rewarded: It's a beautiful thing, almost enough to make you weep. At the same time, though, it's a little cornball and a little too mythoheroic Hollywood pat. It's also the kind of thing that makes Downey extremely uncomfortable, mainly because he knows that he hasn't, in fact, been reborn yet. It may happen. But at the moment, he's still somewhere in the birth canal, drifting along, amazed at what's going on inside and around him, and sometimes quite alarmed.

"I have to say that when things turned for me, there was an inclination, an impulse for revenge that was fucking palpable," he says. "Palpable. Though it had nothing to do with any particular person, it was really kind of alarming. I hadn't been aware of having a vindictive bone in my body. But once all that water of being hugely self-destructive went under the bridge, to see that what's left is this fucking dark shit, this capacity for random revenge, well, it's just so weird. It's weird, dude. It's weird. Life is weird," he says, correctly, of course, but for him maybe more than for most.

Forget that his dad introduced him to pot as an eight-year-old kid. It was the early Seventies; they were living in Greenwich Village; the father, Robert Sr., was an avant-garde filmmaker who made the seminal underground film Putney Swope; the mother, Elsie, an actress; and that's how it goes, the pieces to be picked up later, the dad full of regrets, which is how that goes too. But life among the Downeys was passingly odd anyway. At age five, Junior went to work for Senior in a movie called Pound, playing a puppy who is on the verge of being gassed. His big line, which he spoke with an actorly lisp: "Have any hair on your balls?" Two years later, in a religious parable called Greaser's Palace, he had his throat cut by God and then watched as God repeatedly struck down his mom, who was also in the cast. "It could have been too much to expose him to," the father mused a while back. "It was traumatic for him to see that kind of violence. He didn't comprehend that everybody comes back again."

At home, the father would stir his iced tea with an upside-down hammer and at the dinner table pretend to read the mind of the family terrier, Sturgess, to great uproarious effect.

They never stayed in the same place long. They moved from Manhattan, to Queens, to Manhattan again, to London, to Manhattan again, to New Mexico, to Los Angeles, to Connecticut and to Woodstock, New York, with the parents separating when he was 13. In all that time, his mom has said, she never once saw her son happy: "I've never seen Bobby happy – really, really happy. . . . I've never seen him enjoy life. He enjoys lives."

The mom is German and Scottish. The dad is Jewish and Irish. The dad was born with the last name Elias but changed it to Downey to get into the Army when he was underage. The son once toyed with the idea of going mono-name. He would move to China and call himself Elias, only that. "I thought that it would be such a shocking, significant and incendiary rearrangement that it would also rearrange my fragmented psyche," he says. Instead, he stuck with Robert Downey, despite the last name being a kind of twitching fictional phantom of an identifier.

One of his directors once said, "Even Robert doesn't know who he's going to be from one moment to another." One of his co-stars once said, "He's an ever-changing thing." And Downey himself once said, "I was a sober nonsmoking vegetarian once, and I was never so miserable in my whole life. There was nothing, nowhere to go. . . . No blood? No smoke? No sniffy-sniffy? Why go on?" And he also once said, "I'm not fucked up or anything like that."

In 1981, when he first lived in Los Angeles, the other kids in his high school figured that since he came from New York, he had to be a tough guy. Aiming to please, Downey began cruising Santa Monica on his bicycle with a knife tucked into his sock. In his early days as an actor, he wore spats and ascots. For a while, he wore lacy, frilly things, too, even during his youthful seven-year courtship of Sarah Jessica Parker, his first real girlfriend. Once upon a time, he also talked about a tendency to make out with guys. "A lot of my peer group think I'm an eccentric bisexual," he said. "That's OK. Being relaxed about sexuality is something you're born with."

So there's all that and lots more, bits and pieces of stuff, colorful dots in a colorful pointillism, all in the past, not the present. Surely it adds up to something. Surely it means something. But if you ask Downey, he's pretty much at a loss. "I always find it hard to convince myself that I'm figuring out anything from before," he says. And as to his so-called bisexuality, he now says that he made it all up, that it's just one more fiction he went by. "It was manufactured. I didn't have an identity. I was playing around. I expressed it. I grew up in the Rocky Horror Picture Show world, where even my butch friends turned out to be androgynous on Saturday night. I mean, I was altered for 20 years. I got the ball, and I ran with it. I never said I ran the right way, but what is the right way when you're looking at an overall season? It got me here."

Again with the squishy and semi-permeable. He's like that a lot. About his abilities as an actor, he used to say, "There's no one that can act better than me. There's no one that will go places that I will go." Today he calls this the bleating of "an egomaniac with an inferiority complex" but then feels compelled to add, "even if at times it were true." It's a fun approach to explanation, however, and probably says more about the heart of Downey than any direct statement ever could. In a way, he's too evocative, complex and conflicted for direct. It's like he says about his faux-black Australian actor character in Tropic Thunder: "And there I am, in kind of a mask, voicing the voice of an aspect of what I've become, or an aspect of what I could well become, or an aspect of what I've become and not become aware of yet." In the end, you have to take him as he is, where he is, and go on from there.

"My identity now?" he goes on from here. He thinks about it for a while. Then he says, "My identity was written on the wall by ancient and formidable guides and forces. The best thing I can do is keep my hand out of it."

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