How the brilliant but tormented rebel defeated his demons to become Hollywood's badass superhero
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."
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 Luck; Zodiac) 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.
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?"
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."
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.