Downey is well known in Hollywood as a brilliantly amusing personality, and he certainly lives up to his reputation in person. Over the course of a three-hour conversation, he is solicitous, manic, hilariously profane and often unexpectedly self-revealing, as when he says about tabloid culture: “I'm happy to watch someone on a rapid decline. To me it's like watching a really distorted version of Animal Planet.”
Talking about Zodiac is ostensibly the purpose of today's interview, but the actor parades through numerous other subjects along the way. Take his martial arts regimen, for instance. He practices something called Wing Chun kung fu, which was codified in the 18th century by a Buddhist nun, and credits the discipline with keeping him physically and emotionally balanced. But he also notes that the martial art puts him in touch with his “butch” side—apparently a matter of some concern to the man who flaunted his sexual ambiguity to play a wonderfully fey book editor in Wonder Boys. “I was so proud when I got my first black eye [while sparring],” he says, launching off on a tangent about how his father, experimental filmmaker Robert Downey, created in him “emasculating” insecurities as a boy. “My dad was in the army. And my dad was a boxer. And he always seemed like a really formidable guy to me. And then what did I do? I went to acting camp.”
“Butch” is also a word he applies to Mel Gibson, one of his screen heroes, oldest friends and most loyal supporters. When Downey's career was at a low, Gibson cast him as a writer confined to his hospital bed by a biblical case of eczema in the 2003 film The Singing Detective. At the time, Downey couldn't even get an insurance bond because of his history of self-destructive behavior, and he would have been virtually unemployable if Gibson, Detective's producer, hadn't personally vouched for him.
Considering their history, Downey is understandably evenhanded when asked about Gibson's 2006 drunk-driving arrest and anti-Semitic tirade. “What occurred, in my estimation, was that somebody was caught in the act of being an imperfect human being,” Downey says, noting that his father, who changed his surname from Elias, is Jewish. “He was one of the first people to call and offer the hand of friendship,” says Gibson of Downey. “He just said, ‘Hey, welcome to the club. Let's go see what we can do to work on ourselves.’”
Downey rails against what he views as self-righteous criticism that Hollywood heaped on his friend. “I really didn't know that we had 8 million morally sound people in this town,” he says sarcastically. “Wow, I really didn't know that. I guess I've been dining at the Ivy with, like, living saints.”