To Hell and Back With Robert Downey Jr.

Page 4 of 4

At dusk, Downey is on Sunset, in his Bentley, being driven by his factotum, a burly tattooed guy named Jimmy, to the Chateau Marmont hotel, the scene of many a historic Hollywood debauch. Inside, he rents a room to hang out in before heading to a party on the patio. Standing by the elevators, he runs into a semicelebrated writer who once did an exposé-type jailhouse piece on him. The writer is all smiles and hi-how-ya-doings, with a drink in his hand. The writer says, "Hey, man, congratulations on everything. Fucking great movie. It's, like, awesome."

They get on the elevator together. The writer wants to know if Downey is going to be around, maybe they could get together again.

Downey nods. "I want to say I'm happy to see you," he says, which is an odd way of putting it but OK. "Anyway, yeah, I'm still at the same numbers."

The doors open, and Downey goes to his room, where he says, "I thought that guy and I were friends, but the story he did on me . . . " He shakes his head in dismay. The story detailed Downey's stay as Inmate No. P50522 in Cell No. 17 of the F-1 building at a California state prison where he earned eight cents an hour working in the kitchen, slept on a three-inch-thick mattress and apparently struggled with his sanity. A bad time. "And now the guy's in here with his 75th fucking screwdriver of the day," Downey says, scowling, "and I'm like, 'Whatever floor you can get off on, I'll go back to the lobby, just as long as you're somewhere else. You've got my numbers, right? You can call me any time. My number is seven. Goodbye.'"

Downey looks seriously angry, and even he seems momentarily taken aback by the sarcastic harshness of his words. He hasn't cloaked them in his usual cascade of far-flung images and leaping non sequiturs. He didn't have time. His feelings hit him too hard and too fast. He spoke straight from the heart, nakedly and without adornment, in a way that he rarely does in public. But he doesn't stay in that place for long. He waves his hand, smiles and says, "Let's not bring him into this," as if to also say, "Let's not bring the real me into this, nor any real moments of doubt, humiliation, fear and betrayal that I may have suffered and that I'm so easily able to disguise and make amusing with my wit, my charm and my great actor's skills. Let's leave that stuff out. Let's pretend it never happened. Let's not even begin to suggest that it has anything to do with my true identity, my basal self. Let's move on."

And so he does, to sunnier topics. Among other things, he says that when it comes to underwear, he is in "a bit of a free-ball phase right now," and that oddly enough, his early exploits as a chronic masturbator have ended up serving him well. "I was a compulsive, serial masturbator, but the funny thing is, looking back on it, it was the best thing I could have been," he says cheerfully. "I utilized that organ and rode it for everything it was worth. I couldn't leave that little root alone, and I still very much enjoy its presence, but it's no longer a motivating factor for me. Almost always, guys want to get laid. They have a girlfriend, they want to fuck her friend. I'm not that guy. It's not like I've ever wanted to tie it off like a wart. Quite the reverse. But my union with Susan is sacred."

Just then, Susan knocks on the door. She's sandy blond and slender, and when she leans in to nuzzle Downey, he draws a finger across her cheek. He looks relieved to see her. They talk about the party downstairs for a moment, then she steps forward to say a few words about the man next to her. She says that when they first met, in 2002, on the set of Gothika, which she was co-producing, she thought he was "just weird. He still is weird. But he was very weird." Also, if she had to list everything she'd ever said she didn't want in a guy, "he fit every one of those and created new categories." So far, so good, however, even though, in bed, he does like to drift off to the sound of the Science Channel or the History Channel or Biography or the Discovery Channel, "and then there's the whole period where it was all Nazis all the time." Laughing, she says, "He's my best friend, and he drives me crazy. And he talks in his sleep."

"I do?" says Downey. "What do I say?"

"You're usually threatening somebody."

"Huh," he says, thinking it over.

After she leaves to go downstairs, a bee floats in from somewhere and begins bouncing off windows and lights.

Downey slurps on his coffee and grabs for another cigarette. He paces the room, looks outside at the enveloping darkness, sits down, stands up, sits down, the bee buzzing around. He seems a little antsy, like maybe the chance encounter with the jailhouse writer and the memories it dredged up are still working him over. He takes off his shirt and puts on a nicer one, for the party.

"At heart, I'm a soldier who didn't know how nasty and ongoing the battle was going to be and lost some people and took some hits, and I feel like now I've got a Purple Heart, and I'm back," he says finally. "At the same time, I can sometimes just feel the call of the wild. Life wants me like a Doberman about to go chase Wesley Snipes into Blade 4. I know this is the time to be in cranial planning mode. But an archetypal anxiety out there is calling me to the fucking rocks, and I don't want to have to be tied to the mast. I've got the rope. I've got the knot. But what I really should do is fucking go clean the deck or something."

Instead, he hops up suddenly, grabs a plastic bag and starts chasing the bee. Never at rest, never at home, the bee heads crazily for the curtains, then for the ceiling, then for a window, then for a wall. That's where Downey traps it in the bag. He steps outside onto the balcony and begins shuffling the bag around in the air. Ever so briefly, he hesitates, peering into the darkness and void. Then he turns around smiling, with his chest puffed up, triumphant, all doubts and fears banished and a new certainty in place. "Dude, he made it," he says. "I gave him a nice inertial push. Life's good. I saw him go. I saw him fly free." Maybe that's what happened, maybe he made the whole thing up. He is Downey. But you really do have to hand it to him. He sure played the moment well.

This story is from the August 21, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.

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