Robert Downey Jr. is one of the most extraordinary men in Hollywood, whose own story could well be the subject of a biopic. A decade ago, after falling in love with Susan Levin, the film producer who would later become his wife, he resurrected his career from the wasteland of drug addiction and has since become one of the most successful actors in the world. As the face of the billion-dollar Iron Man film franchise and its Avengers spin-off, the charismatic actor is living proof of the power of the Zen-like positive thinking that is the core of his spiritual renewal.
Downey’s leap into the action film/blockbuster film career grew out of his becoming tired of playing in critically acclaimed films that “no one ever saw.” Fate then intervened when he was given the chance to star in Iron Man, which earned a half-billion dollars in 2008 and gave him the bankability and prestige of his very own film franchise. Then came the Sherlock Holmes films, which gave the quixotic actor yet another studio tent pole on which to hang his hat. And finally The Avengers, which earned him a cool $50 million.
His new film is the indie comedy CHEF, directed by and starring his close friend, Jon Favreau, (who also helmed the first two Iron Man films). The film stars Favreau as a chef who swaps a successful career in a popular L.A. restaurant for a job running a food-truck in Miami, and in the process, tries to reconnect with his estranged family.
Robert Downey Jr., who turned 49 in April, and his wife Susan, 40, live in Los Angeles with their 2-year-old son, Exton, on a sprawling estate where Robert employs a staff that includes martial arts trainers, spiritual consultants, and a private chef. Robert also has a son, Indio, from his first marriage to Deborah Falconer.
STRIPLV: Robert, are you enjoying fatherhood the second time around?
ROBERT: I love it. I love being with Exton and trying to communicate with him on his level. It’s not really different from how I remember being with my first son (Indio). It’s great.
STRIPLV: Has raising your young son had any effect on your work?
ROBERT: I’ve slowed things down a bit, but I enjoy working and I know that work is the best form of therapy for me. After years of experience, I know that my mind takes me on strange trips when I spend too much time between films. It’s always been the case that when I’m staying at home and my mind is not focused on a specific project that I get into trouble. I love to work hard and I like to think of myself as a soldier who earned his purple heart in battle and is ready to fight again. I love being able to work with talented people and spend 16 hours on a film set and then travelling around the world to promote my films. It’s a very good life and work is the one thing I don’t fear.
STRIPLV: Do you feel everything has come together in your life now?
ROBERT: What’s really fascinating to me is that when I was a messed-up guy in my twenties, I could never have imagined myself as a comfortably married action movie guy in his forties, raising a young son and having this very mellow life. Of course, now I’m in the process of accepting the fact that I am that guy! (Laughs) I’ve figured out that I can still be a bit rebellious and independent-minded without being excessive and still feel that I have an interesting life.
STRIPLV: You’ve been living healthily for over a decade now. How do you keep on that path?
ROBERT: You have to learn to help yourself, grow up, and assume responsibility for your life. It’s not a simple process. I’ve had a lot of psychiatrists tell me that “you can’t do it alone,” and so I’ve surrounded myself with good people to help me remain healthy and forward-looking. My wife Susan is the foundation of that process. Thanks to her I’ve been able to turn my life around in every sense. So this is a beautiful new chapter in my life and I’ve been able to bury most of my character defects and throw myself into a space where I take pleasure and joy in basic things. Susan has given me a structure for living and we love each other as much as any couple can be in love. We’ve always had this feeling that this is the big relationship and marriage for the rest of our lives, till death do us part. We take that responsibility seriously and I’ve become a better man because of my commitment to taking this journey together with her.
STRIPLV: Was there any one turning point?
ROBERT: No. It was an accumulation of things, and a greater awareness of myself and what I was seeking. I live by certain principles and I feel I’m in the process of building a good life with Susan and being a good father. My work helps keep my focus and I pour as much of my energy into my life as I can and it all reflects back on me and that’s my way of getting high now. I don’t need anything else. I’ve reached a point where I know I can live this way, and I am deeply grateful for everything I have today. I was always chasing this elusive kind of joy or happiness when I was younger, and I was chronically unhappy. So I learned that real truth and happiness comes from living honorably, responsibly, constructively, and taking care of your family. I know, if I follow that path, I will get to where I want to be.
STRIPLV: How do you look upon the phenomenal success you’ve had in the Iron Man and Avengers films, not to mention Sherlock Holmes? Is it a form of sweet revenge against all the people who thought you were finished in Hollywood?
ROBERT: No. I’ve never looked at it that way. I’m firmly convinced that first you have to believe in yourself if you want others to believe in you, whether it’s the big studios or the public. With time, I’ve become more confident and sure of myself and that’s been of enormous benefit to me in every aspect of my life.
STRIPLV: In the Iron Man films, Tony Stark has difficulty sleeping. Do you ever have bouts of insomnia?
ROBERT: I sleep very well. When I rest my head on my pillow, I feel spiritually tranquil and happy, unless my wife is angry with me, which happens very rarely.
STRIPLV: Is your Tony Stark character in Iron Man a veiled extension of yourself?
ROBERT: (Laughs) A braver extension of myself. In certain situations I enjoy being able to engage in some bravado. When I first began getting into Tony Stark, I imagined him as having a Howard Hughes kind of boldness and arrogance. I also saw it as an opportunity to come up with a screen persona that would be a more dashing and bolder variation on my own nature. I saw him as a man with a lot of élan! I’ve always believed that you need to be ambitious in terms of your own expectations of who your best self can be. You can will yourself into becoming the kind of person you’ve always wanted to be. You can soar higher than you imagine!
STRIPLV: How close is Tony Stark to the real you?
ROBERT: There’s a lot of me in him, but he’s way cooler than I am. If I need to pick myself up and be a little more dashing in certain situations, I can channel Tony Stark. But I see the character as someone I was meant to play. When I was first offered the role, I had some long discussions with Stan Lee and I was 39 at the time. He told me that he had created the Iron Man comic 39 years ago. So Tony Stark and I were born at the same time. Now if that isn’t a sign of destiny… (Laughs)
STRIPLV: Many people have compared your screen comeback as Phoenix-like?
ROBERT: It’s a life comeback! But I love the metaphor of the Phoenix. I soared high when I first started making my mark as an actor and then I crashed and burned only to rise again. It’s classical. The only thing that would ruin things is if I crashed and burned again. But I’m too proud of my family and what we have together to let that happen.
STRIPLV: How important has the Iron Man film franchise been to you?
ROBERT: There’s no denying that Iron Man has put me in a position to many other things. I originally pursued the film because I had seen Keanu Reeves and Johnny Depp succeed with their own film franchises (The Matrix and Pirates movies) and I wanted my son (Indio) to see his dad in that kind of a movie. I wanted it to be the kind of movie you can take your kid to and explore the comic-book hero genre with a mix of escapism and intelligence. I’m also proud of the fact that I’m a leading man who can do major blockbusters and be that Harrison Ford kind of guy. It’s not a bad place to be.
STRIPLV: You’ve been earning record salaries for your work in the Iron Man and Avengers films. Are you a tough negotiator?
ROBERT: I’ve learned a lot about the business side over the years, especially with Susan at my side. Everything changed on the Monday morning after the opening weekend for Iron Man in May 2008. My economic and professional status underwent a complete revolution and I’ve tried to understand how that works and make sure I maintain that stature and momentum. Susan and I have now begun developing our own projects together and that has resulted in the film, Judge, which will be released in the fall.
STRIPLV: You’re renowned for improvising and not sticking to the script. What is behind that?
ROBERT: The goal is to make a well-written scene seem like it’s improvised. Or to come up with things that you find in the room to use that you couldn’t have known until you get into the real situation. Just try to improve things as you go along. I don’t like to pretend. I try to use things in me and translate them into the situation and the character. So it always needs to run through my own veins, in a way.
STRIPLV: Does that make it more stressful when you’re on the set and changing your dialogue as you go along?
ROBERT: No. That’s where the art enters into the process. I’m really self-critical, and I’ve found that I do better work when I’m able to innovate and take advantage of the kind of inspiration that comes under the intensity and beauty of the moment where you’re doing the scene and you’ve transformed into the character and are now speaking with his voice. I’ve worked that way ever since Jon Favreau and I did the first Iron Man together. The only thing that makes (improvisation) more complicated is when the script is so well written that I have less space and reason to innovate and depart from the printed word. But I look at the script as a Chinese menu, where I can pick and choose and make it the best meal possible.
STRIPLV: Jon Favreau has been a great friend, as well as your director on the first two Iron Man films. Was it fun working with him on Chef?
ROBERT: There is nothing I wouldn’t do for Jon. He’s a truly wonderful man and he has believed in me from the beginning. He started out as an actor and I’m happy that he’s taking center stage in this film.
STRIPLV: When you take stock of everything that you’ve accomplished to reach this point in your life, what are your thoughts?
ROBERT: I feel blessed by God’s grace.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR. – A LOOK INSIDE
“I could not have done the first Iron Man without having already mastered (Wing Chun) Kung Fu in my private life, which I was doing without any thought of how it might be of use in a film.” ~ “My martial arts training helped me on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and that was what made Jon Favreau believe I could play Iron Man, that I could do action and that I could maybe, just maybe, be a leading man in that way. Without Kung Fu, I don’t know if I would have had that self possession you need to be a leading man.” ~ “Wing Chun teaches you what to concentrate on, whether you’re here or out in the world dealing with problems. It’s second nature for me now. I don’t even get to the point where there’s a problem.”
“Therapy is an important part of my life. It’s helped me find balance and calm, and clear away the accumulated neuroses that drag you down. It cleanses your mind.”
“I love eating fine food. Being able to afford your own private chef is probably one of the best perks anyone can have in life. Just imagine being able to have filet mignon or the best lasagne on earth – whenever you want. I’m sorry, I won’t apologize for being able to eat like a king.” (Fabled Chef Ferran Adrià, whose elBulli restaurant was once considered the best restaurant on earth, recently stated that he wants Robert to play him in a movie one day.)
“I like to shake up sartorial tastes. Why wear a plain black suit all the time? I never had more fun than wearing Bavarian lederhosen while doing a press conference in Munich.”
“Being a ghost sounds like a lot of fun... When I die, I don’t want to go to heaven or hell. I want to stay on earth and haunt people. I want to be that guy who grabs your leg in the middle of the night when it dangles off the side of the bed. I want to surprise you when you’re driving alone along a dark country road and suddenly I appear in your rear-view mirror, sitting in the back seat smoking a cigar.”
“Look, even if I don’t get (an Oscar) directly, eventually they’re just going to have to give me one when I get old. So no matter how you slice it, I’m getting one.”
THE IRON MAN SUIT
“The suit suffocates you, it slows you down, but at least I had a toilet installed inside it. The last version (in Iron Man 3) was a little lighter and more flexible to wear... But there is no comfortable version, so it’s kind of like: ‘Hey, don’t you think these bamboo shoots are actually a little less rough on the cuticle until they get down to the nerve?”
THE DARK KNIGHT
“I didn’t get that film. I still can’t tell you what happened in the movie, what happened to the character, and in the end that they need him to be a bad guy. I’m like: ‘I get it. This is so high brow and so f--king smart, I clearly need a college education to understand this movie.’ That’s not what I want to see. You know what? F--k DC Comics.”
“I would never tell you the worst things that have happened to me.” (He was badly beaten up in L.A county jail where he was served a 180-day sentence for heroin possession in 1997.)
“You don’t worry about something that has already happened. You don’t need to worry about your car breaking down when you’re already on the side of the street with the hood up. Worrying is done. The hubcaps have already come off going around the corners.”
“It’s important to be respectful and kind to others. I consider myself to be a pain-in-the-ass artist who’s self-aware enough to still be tolerable. While I have a little bit of juice, I try not to rub it in anyone’s face, because it’s just disgusting. And I use the term ‘artist’ loosely.”