Robert Downey, Jr. drops himself onto a long white leather sofa in his Brentwood, California, living room, places a tiny blue ashtray and pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes on the coffee table and reaches down for one of two elegant boxes on the polished concrete floor. Inside is a heavy object—wrapped in cloth like a holy icon—that turns out to be a photo album documenting Downey's August 2005 nuptials to producer Susan Levin. As he slowly turns the pages, the actor recites the name of every single person in every single photo: his new in-laws, his family (“See this guy who looks like he's wearing lipstick? He's my uncle Jim”), his college roommates and the celebrity guests, like Sting. When he gets to the last page, he carefully rewraps the album, puts it away and then takes out a second volume, only to go through the entire process again. “I guess we could leave these out and not wrapped up like antique pistols,” he says when he's done, conscious perhaps of how reverential the whole ritual must seem.
These days, Downey is a man whose cup runneth over—in the throes of wedded bliss, he's sober and appearing in director David Fincher's much anticipated March release, Zodiac. So he surely can be excused for fussing over the wedding albums, which, like the tangle of amulets that click together beneath his shirt, are the physical tokens of a spiritual journey that began with his most recent arrest, in 2001, in an alley in Culver City for suspected drug use. “Once you're getting apprehended by law enforcement, you're out of balance with the universe,” says Downey, who indulges in several long New Agey riffs on personal responsibility and the “benevolent energy” of the universe that he believes has helped him pull back from the brink. “I see life as a series of challenges and battles that you either win or lose.” “I see life as a series of challenges and battles,” says Downey of his rocky past.
After five years of sobriety, Downey now places himself in the winner's column, but his name is still widely associated in nearly equal measure with prodigious talent and almost unbelievable weakness. He was an old-fashioned Hollywood bad boy, someone who—well before Lindsay, Paris and Britney—could be counted on to supply the tabloids with juicy copy, so much so that at times his personal life seemed more interesting than his screen work. Since his Oscar-nominated breakthrough in the 1992 film Chaplin, his career has consisted mainly of a string of secondary roles, often charming but seedy scamps and losers. The surprise is that in March, at age 41, Downey will begin shooting his biggest-budget lead role ever—as a Marvel comics superhero, no less—in Iron Man, which will costar Gwyneth Paltrow and is scheduled for a May 2008 release. In the mythology of Downey's flawed-hero life, he has now entered a bold new chapter: redemption. “You know, I'm not the poster boy for anything anymore,” he boasts. “I don't f---ing relate to that time in my life. Because it is something that I transcended, somehow, with really a lot of f---ing love and support.”