EXCLUSIVE: When I pull up to the home that Robert Downey Jr and his wife and producing partner Susan share in Malibu, there are the trappings you would expect from the house owned by Hollywood’s best paid actor. The small fleet of cars, all tarped; the expanse of Pacific Ocean viewable from most anywhere on the grounds, a small staff that runs the house. But there are also the mischievous aspects you expect from Downey. There is that wooden blocking dummy in the barn that has raised bruises a plenty as Downey spent the last decade closing in on his black belt in the Chinese martial art Wing Chun. There’s the bright yellow front door that is as cheery and inviting as the spacious interior. The rooms are adorned by an undoubtedly pricey artwork collection, but there is nothing show-offy; the bathroom, for instance, features a medley of framed photos, each artfully depicting moviedom’s more memorable action scenes that involve a chainsaw.
Downey’s expressive eyes widen when Susan enters a room filled with the creative guys who think they’ve finally cracked his next new star vehicle; Yucatan, a heist pic Steve McQueen created for himself, revived after The Great Escape star’s writings and diagrams were found in a trunk long after he died. Susan is eight months pregnant, and that bump is so modest that I note when my wife was eight months pregnant with each of my kids, I’d gained more weight than has Susan. I have visited Downey many times over the last 15 years, for two Playboy interviews, a cover that launched Details Magazine, and some others. A big difference between the actor in those uncertain times, and the confident star/producer I see now, is Susan. A tough cookie who came up at Silver Pictures, she is a centering influence, and Robert clearly adores her. We are here to talk about The Judge, the first film that came out of the Team Downey lab at Warner Bros, and one that gives him an opportunity to match his considerable skills with the legendary Robert Duvall. As usual, we try to at least spend some time on that film, but Downey’s electric wit sends us through all the other fascinating things going on in his busy life at an age most men begin to slow down.
DEADLINE: The cover of Vanity Fair pronounces you Hollywood’s highest paid star. What’s that mean to you when you read it?
DOWNEY: Well, let’s look objectively at what it really means. It is a temporary fact, but it is an accurate one, I think. I haven’t actually sought to discredit the fact.
DEADLINE: Who can blame you? It would be like demanding a retraction to the headline, Robert Downey Jr has the biggest penis in the history of Hollywood…
DOWNEY: And you wouldn’t do that, unless Milton Berle was being exhumed by his family estate to contest the matter and you had to prove it. I’ve been thinking about how to process surreal information like this, how much merit it has and how it shapes an exterior perception that defines who you are. And even whether it’s healthy to have too much of a dialogue about it. I don’t know if in 1974 anybody would have cared what you were making, or if that would have made it onto the cover of a publication if the subject was Al Pacino or someone like that. Speaking of Pacino, I envy that relationship, with Johnny Depp, who made great friends with those three or five guys, Pacino, Brando, Jack Nicholson…I wish I could have that moment meeting them saying, ‘We’ve got to have dinner.’ That to me would mean more than reading some salary figure. Let me answer the question because it’s something that has been on my mind. I always think part of success is being able to replicate results, taking what is interesting or viable about yourself as a professional person and seeing if you bring it into different situations with similar results. So there is some part of you that feels like, yes, and it’s going to stay this way, mother fuckers, and the other part of me is like, is that the metric by which I want to measure my success? It never has been, and it creeps me out in a way because there’s something so seductive about it. Also, I’m at what can be a bit of a turning point as far as opportunities to do this or that. Different roads lead to different results. And finally, because I wasn’t raised in the dough, how much money is enough money? Well, it’s enough if you can ensure to not have things taken away from you in an embarrassing way.
DEADLINE: I can imagine the existential struggle. All those years, even when you didn’t have two nickels to rub together, the phrase ‘the greatest actor of his generation’ always cropped up, and when the talk came to Oscars after Chaplin, there was a feeling of inevitability. Then you become Iron Man and the discussion is commerce and industry and we might forget that great movie you made with Robert Altman, getting paid $75, but learning so much about your craft. The Judge feels like an attempt to meld both those things; quality on a bigger, mainstream studio level. How much of that explains why you and your producing partner Susan devote so much time to crafting vehicles, when you could sit there and wait for the next big script to hit your doorstep?
DOWNEY: Well, the next big job I think is always overrated because you’re leaving it to a choir of essentially strangers who cannot understand where your…it’s not really the moral compass, more like where your heart and your gut tell you to go in any one moment. You are making decisions every day. Is it this way, that way? I just want to narrow things down a little bit. And by the way, I’ve come to like industries, and it has been really easy for me to have a warm, fuzzy feeling about Hollywood right now.
DEADLINE: Those industries also don’t last for actors…
DOWNEY: The thing that just keeps crossing my thought sphere is that adage, this too shall pass. So I ponder, what kind of man am I when you look at that first fact you mentioned about my position in the industry right now? I understand reversal of fortune; that usually has come through my own hand, but you know you live life on life’s terms. All this just has me thinking about things that have nothing to do with movies or money, honestly. So I have to be thankful for that magazine cover because it has been a dark, scary Ghost of Christmas Future question in my mind. That’s really what it was.
DEADLINE: You asked it, what kind of man are you, then? To borrow a Marvel line, with great power comes great responsibility. How do you spend this currency, this clout that comes with star power?
DOWNEY: With great…if you want to call it power..comes great inevitable depletion, loss, and absence of power. It’s going to change into something else, and that’s the only thing that I’ll be able to have some sort of hand in with what Susan and I are trying to do. But honestly, there’s some part of me that thinks what I have been through is like a Twilight Zone episode where you could write your own headlines and they would become true. Now, for me, I might have added a couple things, like maybe sexiest country star, but not a lot else.
DEADLINE: Last time you and I sat together for a Playboy Interview, you expected this leading man run would end at 50, followed by supporting parts and producing. Not to lather your bum here, but you look more like a leading man in The Judge than ever. You’ve kept your hair, you’re in shape, you’ve now got this George Clooney blue chin deal working for you. How do you feel about that prediction now, when you are nearing 50 and this only seems to be escalating?
DOWNEY: Right. Yeah. I did have a little bit of a change of heart recently where I thought, there’s this odd thing that happens to men and women when they’re given great opportunity. Some part of them that thinks it’s déclassé to not reject it, that that’s part of how you exude some sort of humility as you just self-deprecate or say that you have plans when it withers, sooner than later.
DEADLINE: So now you don’t believe it’s going to end soon?
DOWNEY: I think of it more like this: if you were rescued and put on a lifeboat and found yourself on Fantasy Island, why would you want to leave?
DEADLINE: Well played.
DOWNEY: I think I just never wanted to be the creepy guy where people say, why do his leading ladies keep getting younger and younger and why do they think he’s so hot even though we know that the girl who’s playing this part actually has a handsome boyfriend? Anyway. But then again, I don’t even know what a leading man is, nowadays. I think it has always been someone who can carry a story. I also think about how much easier it was to remember on this last Avengers that I’m 20 years older than pretty much everyone there. That’s pretty much the cast. Ruffalo and I are a little closer in age and maybe Spader has a couple years on me, but you know what I mean.
DEADLINE: So, during those group action scenes, you become aware that those cracking joints you hear are yours, and not those of Chris Hemsworth?
DOWNEY: Well, hearing the cracking of my own bones on Iron Man 3, I finally came out of what can only be described as a five year flight of fancy where I thought, if Sherlock Holmes can do this, it means I can. If Tony can jump from one part of a scaffold to the other and not bust his ankle, well then let’s do it two or three times and go to lunch. Looking back, I’m surprised and really embarrassed that some middle aged guy was thinking like that. And I honestly don’t think like that presently. But I also know that it could happen again, this bit of a hypnosis that would make someone think that way. There’s also this weird thing, where I wish somebody could just come in and tell me what is really going on when people so identify me with a character like Tony. Or sometimes the smarter, younger gals they look at me and they speak with an American accent and I’m Sherlock to them.
DEADLINE: Did something specific happen that made you realize that in fact you were not Iron Man?
DOWNEY: Yeah. I was doing a wire jump, and Shane Black, who I adore, came on and said, “We’re going to try to get this before lunch.” I’d been sitting around all morning, and I got up and I put on my boots and walked out, and put on the wire and said, “Jump to there?” We were in North Carolina and there were these stairs that I had to get up to get up to the floor where the bedrooms were and I busted my ankle. For some reason or other I took off the boot, whatever I did, I got to the top of the stairs and I tripped, and kind of and banged it on something and hit the ground. Right then, Susan came around the corner, she goes, “All right. Are you finally going to accept the fact that you’re injured and that you’re not a kid. Just look at you on the floor there. Look at you!” And she kind of kept walking through the kitchen and I was just lying there on my side, and it is just throbbing and I just started laughing. I was like, Jesus Christ. Why is it always that you realize things when you’re lying there, resplendent on a wood floor, writhing in pain?
DEADLINE: Tom Cruise is a little older than you. How is it that he’s scaling skyscrapers a hundred floors up in Dubai in Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol?
DOWNEY: You know, everybody always gets injured, and then it just depends on what really is your wheelhouse and what’s the tradeoff and what you are willing to do. I’m still down to doing all kinds of stuff. I think the main lesson for me was that I momentarily ceased to take the precautions that I’ve taken every other time, and obviously what caused it was a psychological point of view that I had that is just not realistic.
DEADLINE: I’ve got five years on you and a 24-year old daughter who I’m begging for grand children. You and Susan have a young son and you are a month away from having a daughter. Your back nine seems so much more interesting than most guys your age. Does the chaos keep you young?
DOWNEY: Well, Duvall said something that he had heard from somebody about how an older guy needs a younger woman to blah, blah, blah, and there’s a little space between Susan and I. But who knows? I have a really solid partner who is pretty easy on the eyes, and there are all the trappings. I mean, look, we’re still dealing with someone who… my previous instincts were so out of bounds and there were so many of them and they all had to do with what is the next inappropriate way I can take advantage of this situation. So I am actually feeling pretty comfortable, being rooted in what’s really a pretty mundane personal life and I recoil as though from a hot flame from things that might threaten it. But you’re right. Having the promise of this little girl that’s coming in November, you just go my God, it’s just such a blessing. I didn’t set out for it to be this way, that right before I turn 50 I would have a little daughter. So this is all way outside me doing any planning.
DEADLINE: This was the other thing I noticed about Vanity Fair. That past self you mentioned, the one that goes further into the rear view mirror with each passing year, you still freely discuss him. You mention that search for the most inappropriate thing, but all those times we met in the past, it feels like you don’t give yourself enough credit for being a decent guy, who had a problem. Maybe that humility is why you’ve come out the other side, and you’re here.
DOWNEY: Okay. Sure.
DEADLINE: I mean, it’s not like you were looking to do things at people’s expense.
DOWNEY: No, right. Yeah. I wasn’t taking hostages or doing anything crazy. But you know what I’m saying.
DEADLINE: You need to be mindful and humble.
DOWNEY: Oftentimes I’ve seen people get to a certain level of notoriety, or their bank account hits a critical mark and it’s like…well, the same thing that opened our conversation, about where you’re in a position where you can delegate how to utilize whatever influence you have, and there are some who will just indulge some primal kind of… you know.
DEADLINE: I do. Maybe empathy and humility lead to growth, hubris and narcissism stunt it. I came here to ask you about The Judge. What’s better than seeing two great actors like you and Duvall mix it up? Can you verbalize how you and he found your mojo in this movie?
DOWNEY: The first prerequisite is respect, and he needn’t be all that familiar with me or my so called great body of work. I made it my business to earnestly let him know that our respect for him was going to be unmatched in any previous experiences over the last bunch of years. Part of this had to do with when I was prepping to play Chaplin. I was steeped in this idea of Hollywood and how at least on the surface there were protocols. People so revered Chaplin in his old days even though some people had not had such a nice time working with him. It didn’t change their opinion of him. Bobby surprised me. He both has the stature of one of our great American actors, but he also is someone who’s just interested in kind of chatting, and he likes the things that he likes. But about other things like working, it’s like talking to my dad about God. You just don’t do it because he is in his own way very deeply spiritual and what protects that is he doesn’t talk about it. He connected to it through his life experiences and his work, and Duvall is that way with his work. I realized quickly he didn’t want to do a lot of actor talk. He wants to jump in and let it happen. I often felt I was there to assist him as he led the scene in the right way because I trusted him. But I also know there’s a cooperative aspect that never gets better than just pretty good unless there’s real cooperation.
DEADLINE: There’s a key scene in a bathroom where an estranged son sees the desperate physical problems a stubborn father hides from his boys. There is piss and shit all over the place, along with shame, anger, and sympathy. How did you, Duvall and your director David Dobkin make that scene so memorable?
DOWNEY: By the time Bill Dubuque handed in the script that Nick Schenck started, it was pretty much a Swiss watch. The way Bobby works is, he could improvise all day but what he really wants to do sometimes is just stay in the moment and use the words as a springboard to what’s going to happen. That was the kind of scene where, if I was the one who was going to be standing there naked, covered in excrement, I would read the script and say, the great version of this fits well in the movie, but the unprotected version of this, with people who I don’t really have a history with, well they could think it’s great and I would know it’s not working that it was this gratuitous, embarrassing, graphic misfire. So what I did notice on that day, though, once any of us feel like we’re safe to be exposed, we’re suddenly very relaxed. That day on set Duvall was having a ball, and all this anticipation over this big moment for The Judge and Hank was me worrying. We were so focused on just you know, the visual effects person going like, we’re just going to run this tube down your leg and then we’ll paint it out later, and I’m like, oh fuck, dude, please don’t let this turn into a technocratic meltdown, and I was like, get this fucking tube out that we’re going to fix in post anyway. Can’t we make fake poop? Just get out. But I also think at that point we’d been shooting long enough where he was holding court. He would tell you a story about the Texas Rangers, and there was no reason to start rolling, because we wanted to hear that story. It also indicated that he was letting everyone else feel comfortable.
DEADLINE: What’s the most intimidated you felt in the presence of a great actor?
DOWNEY: George C. Scott. It was Mussolini: The Untold Story for NBC. It was a miniseries.
DEADLINE: I didn’t even remember that one.
DOWNEY: Me either. Gabriel Byrne and I played his sons, Virginia Madsen played his mistress.
DEADLINE: How did you win him over?
DOWNEY: I don’t know that I did. I just didn’t want Patton to shoot me with his 45.
DEADLINE: How much of the appeal of producing is setting up chances to work with great actors?
DOWNEY: I guess there’s part of that, but I’m sure you know this as well as anyone, the casting process is the most ludicrous thing where the DNA comes together. You think of a person to play a role, someone else becomes available, or somebody surprises you. I always think that rather than back into an idea because you are thinking about who you want to work with, you’re better off telling cool stories and then watch casting fall into place. But I will tell you officially that as of now, I would rather not do a movie without Vincent D’Onofrio, ever again.
DOWNEY: He literally is like the big brother I never had, and he is just so talented. He is nothing like his character, Glen. There is not a moment of Vincent D’Onofrio in that character. There are aspects of him in it but he is a masterful guy. So honestly almost every project that I think about moving forward I think, what’s Vince going to do in it? Same thing on another level for Jeremy Strong.
DEADLINE: He played your younger brother.
DOWNEY: His character Dale is this very simple guy, and Jeremy is an extremely cerebral, intellectual, evolved, multifaceted guy. I love my brothers.
DEADLINE: You could see that in Toronto. Vincent was rocking that Full Metal Jacket shaved head, which was a little intimidating to those who saw his work in that Stanley Kubrick film.
DOWNEY: He’s the Kingpin. We were finishing The Judge and he they offer him Jurassic Park and then he comes back with that haircut and says, I’m doing Kingpin now. Those Marvel guys, they really know how to cast smart.
DEADLINE: When you played Iron Man the first time for Marvel, your portrayal of this existentially tortured superhero was as fully realized as anyone who has done one of these films. We’re in Oscar season. What should Oscar voters consider before they immediately sweep those superhero performances to the side as they usually do?
DOWNEY: Nothing. When Chris Reeve was Superman and Michael Keaton the first Batman, I never would have believed how dominant this genre could become, with intrigue, suspense, family. I have no beef with the way anything goes down. I was gob smacked when I work up one morning and heard, “You’re nominated for Tropic Thunder,” and I was like, “Huh?” If someone really takes a risk, it doesn’t get dismissed. That’s what happened when the Oscar was won posthumously by Heath Ledger, who did one of the definitive villain performances of all time. But it really has to be exceptional in defining everything we previously knew about the actress or the actor.
DEADLINE: I’ve read you said you won’t do Iron Man 4, though it seems smart business to keep that franchise character beach head even just for Avengers installments. But you’ve made your fortune, and you’re an artist. What is your relationship with Iron Man, going forward?
DOWNEY: That’s all being talked about on a bunch of different levels right now. To me, it comes down to what’s the half-life of people enjoying a character? It’s different on TV, where you expect the longevity over seasons while movies get a two or three year break. Marvel keeps stepping up its game, and I appreciate the way Kevin Feige and all the creatives there think. They are as in the creative wheelhouse as any great studio has been at any point. So it becomes a matter of, at what point do I cease to be an asset to what they’re doing, and at what point do I feel I am spending so much time either shooting or promoting these films that I’m not actually able to get off the beachhead and do the kind of other stuff that is good for all of us. Each one of those movies is spread over two years and some people fit other things in. But I’m not 42, I’m turning 50 and now I’ll have two small kids instead of one grown one, and eight Team Downey projects with people who are imagining I’m not just spending Warner Bros’ money out of vanity, but that I’m taking it seriously. It all has become this thing that has to be figured out. It has come to a head, right now, where the points of departure will be.
DEADLINE: We have written often, suggesting that Mel Gibson be given another chance in Hollywood, after atoning for the regrettable things he said. Awhile back, when studios were reluctant to hire you and there were exorbitant insurance premiums, he put you in a movie, took care of all that and helped you when you needed it. As Hollywood’s best example that not giving up on a talented person can result in redemption, can you make a case for why he should be back directing and starring in movies again?
DOWNEY: Well, first off, he has changed so much. Nobody should make a case for somebody who just wants forgiveness but hasn’t changed, but he’s a fundamentally different guy. I think it was just the very worst aspects of somebody’s psyche being treated as though they were the blanket statement about a person. But honestly we are talking about a competitive business and it all comes down to this: because he is so gifted as a story teller and a director, I don’t know that he requires some sort of mass forgiveness. He has changed, but at the same time he’s still Mel. He and I are so similar in so many ways. He really, honestly is the first to admit his character defects and also is just a great, great collaborative guy. I always say too that if you want to judge a man or a woman then look at their kids. He has the healthiest, happiest, most productive kids you could ever meet or know, and I’m fortunate to be friendly with several of them. He did a lot right, and there’s stuff he taught me about parenting that didn’t sink in at the time but have proven to be true. We’re writing this thing right now, Yucatan…
DEADLINE: That’s the project Steve McQueen developed for himself.
DOWNEY: Yes, and I’m like, God, if I could find a part for Mel. But he also likes to do his own thing and sometimes he goes out of his way to do the unexpected. Sometimes with these things, it becomes a matter of time, and is seems like it’s getting a little bit old to hold a grudge.
DEADLINE: True, but the year he made Apocalypto, I didn’t see a better movie and he was ignored and hasn’t directed since. Marvel badly wants Iron Man 4 and you’ve said you aren’t doing it. How about the idea you’ll do that movie if Mel directs it?
DEADLINE: Is that our headline?
DOWNEY: Why not? That movie would be bananas.
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