Hollywood loves nothing more than a rags to riches story. Or in the case of the highest paid movie star on the planet, a riches to rags to riches story.
One of the finest young actors of his generation in the 1980s, Robert Downey Jr showed us some very dark sides of the modern male in Less Than Zero (1987) and Natural Born Killers (1994) as well as dramatic chops in the late Richard Attenborough’s acclaimed Chaplin (1992) and comedies like Chances Are (1989), Air America (1990) and Soapdish (1991).
The mid to late 90s saw a dip in his cinematic cachet but a phenomenal rise in his profile in gossip rags. Very visible court appearances accompanied episodes like driving like a madman down Sunset Ave, his car loaded with drugs and a .357 magnum, and climbing into an LA family’s house to fall asleep in the bed of their 11-year-old son.
Fast forward a decade or so and the 49-year-old star virtually kick started the Marvel universe in Iron Man (2008), enjoying a $75m payday thanks to the stunning success of The Avengers (2012). Now a Hollywood player with more power than he’s ever had, Downey and wife Susan (through their production company Team Downey), sheperded family dramedy The Judge to the screen, and Moviehole.net met the star in LA to talk about the film.
In a mark of his professionalism and star quality, the world later learned Downey Jr’s beloved mother had passed away only days before, yet he still met reporters, joking and answering questions about his work and family.
In your early career you were known more for drama, since you’ve come back in a big way you’ve been known more for comedy. Is there one you prefer?
Well, I’m a very multi-faceted.
I guess you could call this a drama. I think this is kind of a heart-breaking movie. I read the script and start weeping, and Susan would be like ‘are you crying reading the script again? You better pull yourself together. I don’t want to see you being that actor crying in every scene in the movie’. I was like ‘calm down. I know what I’m doing’.
But the film is exceptionally entertaining because there’s the trial that he takes on with his dad. There’s a trial going on in his personal life back home with the missus, and there’s the actual trial in Chicago that he ultimately also loses, maybe on purpose. And then there’s the trial between [Billy Bob Thornton’s character] Dickham and him, where Dickham is coming after the wrongs he’s done before.
But it’s so great because there’s always wit in these exchanges. And if you know lawyers who are out for each other’s throats and you actually recorded the conversations they have with each other, there are always these moments of compassion and hilarity. They just kind of take a break from their conflict and then go out and have it out again.
And that’s I think is the real achievement of The Judge. It has such a wit to it and such moments of wisdom and humour.
Sometimes you develop movies and get a script and say ‘why doesn’t this pay off? How much have we paid this clown? Nothing that we said pays off. Nothing on these opportunities. There’s no conflict’.
And we got the script and it was like a Swiss watch. If you take out one thing you lose something else that’s really important. If it goes any other way than the way it goes, it doesn’t have the same message, I just think it’s fucking great.
Your character can see through people quickly and get to their vulnerabilities. Why do you think you get so many roles like that? Is that something you can do?
Hank can’t see himself which I think is kind of interesting though, you know what I mean? Any lawyer who winds up losing their professionalism to the point where they’re asking questions about their childhood to someone who they’re defending, I’ve never played anyone like that.
I was asking [director David Dobkin] ‘are you sure Hank would do that?’ He goes ‘this is the whole point of the movie’. Hank has ceased to care about whether he wins or loses anything. He doesn’t care what happens. He doesn’t care if he gets disbarred. He just needs to know this one thing and he gets the answer but the answer’s not satisfying. Nothing that happens for him until the very end of the movie is satisfying at all, and that’s when basically nothing has gone his way.
It’s about fathers and children. How did you relate?
I would do scenes with the girl playing Lauren, my daughter in the movie, and then she’d go off with her folks and then I’d go home and I have a little 18 month old son, he’d just sit on my lap and I’d rock him to sleep.
But he’d be onto me so he would just pretend to be asleep or whatever. And then I’d be like, ‘maybe I can get up now’ and he’d start crying. So I’d sit in the dark for an hour and a half wondering why he’s not asleep. Because he was tired. And then I went downstairs and Susan would be like ‘about this scene tomorrow’.
How was it producing for the first time?
You just have to be nicer. You can’t produce a movie and just think about Hank. It doesn’t work that way. My focus was on everybody.
Take Vera [Farmiga] – to me she’s the heart of the movie. Part of producing this movie correctly is making sure it keeps coming back to this home base of first love. She has to be everything that’s beautiful about where he’s from. So we had to just keep working on that.
And when you want to keep a bunch of people who are away from their families you want to try and keep them, I don’t want to say happy but you want to try and keep them looked after. I’m used to just going to my trailer and saying ‘all right, here’s what I need. Everyone else take care of themselves’. So it’s nice.
Another theme in The Judge is legacy. What would you like your legacy to be?
What I love about people who are icons in Hollywood is you find out all this shit about them – ‘Oh she was a bitch. Oh my God. She was so cheap. I’d like people to think about me like that one day, a stingy, mean, lesbian.
No. I don’t know. It’s funny, I’m almost 50 but I just kind of feel like I’m actually growing up a little bit so I would have to get back to you on that.
You backed out of writing a memoir. What happened?
I did. I realised that if I wrote it, it would be what I was talking about for the rest of my life – ‘Now on page 74, these are your words, you said…’ And also as it turns out I was with Susan and she had a steady job so I didn’t need the money.
The big argument scene with Duvall during the storm was amazing. Talk about finding the emotional core of that.
Dobkin set it up so that we were shooting – impossibly – in two directions at the same time. Not only shooting in two directions at the same time, but like doing this weird choreography that was 100 percent set.
The crew, the operator, sound guy and the makeup people were all kind of like ‘they’re like UFC fighters’. We just did it.
And he’s so honest, at one point I thought ‘it’s real, is he mad at me about something besides the scene?’ and we’d finish it and he goes ‘in Texas they’ve got these ribs…’, and I realised we were okay.
Then there’s the very heavy bathroom scene.
That was the easiest scene we shot because there was so much anticipation about it? It was very technical, there was a special effects guy with a tube that’s going down his ankle asking ‘can we do a poop test?’
A lot of the scenes in the movie were just about finesse, otherwise you have two guys together and if one scene feels like the next then the movie suffers.
So I think the biggest hurdle was to make sure that every scene really had its own frequency and to know when it was appropriate to have a little bit more lightness or humour or connection. Actors who play a part like this, they just want to come in and just scream for 120 pages. And you have to really modulate it or it just feels amateur.
After all your success it seems you could choose any role you want now.
Thank you. I couldn’t agree more.
But are you looking for anything specific?
Well I’ve learned a lot from the missus. Which is probably why I keep getting her pregnant. I just like her. And she’s a very, very organised person and she’s a very calculating person. She literally studies traffic patterns to get from here to where we live. And I go ‘you’re excited about this, aren’t you?’
But when it comes to what we want to do next she goes ‘I don’t know. It hasn’t been made clear yet. It depends on what speaks to me, it depends on what’s it like when this little girl comes’. So we might decide the kids need a little more stability so we’re not doing that project or we’ll wait till later.
But as far as the type of projects, I’d be happy to just make movies with her forever. But I also don’t want to be so exclusive that I deny you more opportunities to see my work.
Tell us about the Pinnochio project you’re producing and starring in as Gepetto.
It will be my finest hour. It’s about this wood carver who’s so fucking miserable. Yeah, we just started developing a version of a post-war Italy and a guy who’s family used to have a theatre but he never performed in it or anything like that. He essentially kind of loses his mind one night and starts carving this thing. And it doesn’t really look like anything but he starts relating to it. And then it slowly starts to take on a life and shape. I think it’s going to be really good.
We’re seeing themes of redemption and rebirth on your movies lately. Any reason?
Well, I certainly don’t mean to be repeating it. But I like that stuff. And then once in a while you have A Wolf of Wall Street where nothing is redeemed. I was like ‘God that’s kind of great’. I’ve never seen a Martin Scorsese movie where there’s no repercussion for anything that anybody does wrong. But I certainly don’t like things that are just nihilistic, I just want to make movies that are entertaining.
Does a film like The Judge give you something different from all the Marvel and effects work?
I guess so. Honestly I thought it was just doing Susan a favour. I thought ‘alright she’s really passionate about this’ and then I realised by the end of it it was just a very cathartic, necessary departure for me.
Because you tend to want to be what you think people want you to be. It’s such a pitfall, and I’ve seen it happen to other folks and I see how easy it is to just fall into what the easiest expectation is.
There was a time I was doing both comedy and drama, something that was really kind of tragic, something that was a biopic, something that was kind of an action movie with Mel Gibson about Vietnam [Air America] and then a movie about like soap operas with Whoopi Goldberg and Sally Field [Soapdish]. Some things were very commercial, but I had a grab bag of stuff I liked doing before anyway.
The character’s also about breaking out of narratives that he creates for himself and other people. Can you talk about doing that in your own life?
Sure. You just have to survive the narrative because the narrative has such a weight of its own, you know what I mean? It’s like being in a bad relationship. You just have to wait until he moves out or gets arrested or something? You just have to wait until that asshole’s finally gone.
Ultimately, I just want to put my head down on the pillow at night and not be like in a bad space of myself. I don’t want to be in conflict with my missus. I also don’t want to be one of those people who has a little bit of leverage in the industry and tells people ‘you’ll do what I tell you to do’. If you give someone who’s kind of fucked up a little power it’s such a damaging thing. And most everybody is a little bit fucked up.
What’s it like when your producer is also your wife?
It’s interesting because you have to be sensitive to the story you’re telling and you have to be sensitive to the person you’re living with at the same time.
She’s really bright but the nice thing too is she just really understands me which I suppose couldn’t have been easy. She really knows how to get what I need to be able to work, so I figure it’d be kind of rude if I wasn’t nice to her too, seeing as how she’s so great.
But you know, sometimes you go home and you feel like you really didn’t nail a scene or whatever. She’d say ‘oh, I’ll tell you if it’s no good’ and I realise she has this power over me, like she’s going to let me know if I’m talented or not.
But that’s just all games and we try to get the game playing done in the movies and just have a real friendship and love for each other.