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.”
Downey practices Wing Chun kung fu.
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.”
Downey credits martial arts with putting him in touch with his “butch” side.
Though The Singing Detective bombed at the box office, it provided Downey the fingerhold he needed to pull himself back into the game. He's had parts in 10 films since—Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Good Night, and Good Luck and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints among them—although he admits that he's had to accept “half as much and work twice as hard” as he did before his 2001 spinout. Still, he puts a bright cast on his lowered prospects. “The amount of effort that it took in a way is its own reward,” he says. “Because it's been this f---ing crucible that I honestly would not wish on an enemy. But it really suited my own journey's purposes just fine.”
Zodiac is the kind of mainstream major movie that Downey needs to cement his comeback—a calling card to top-drawer casting directors. But it remains to be seen whether the public will be as interested in watching him succeed as they were in seeing him fail. Or even if Downey can bring the same gritty contradictions—the same edge—to his work now that he's a happy man. He certainly seems to think so. “My edge is sharp,” he promises.
And his collaborators seem to agree. Fincher calls Downey “one of our beloved talents,” while Jake Gyllenhaal, the film's primary lead alongside Mark Ruffalo, says that he was “psyched” to hear that he'd be working with Downey. “I knew it was going to be a master class,” he says.
Downey's character, Paul Avery, is a newspaper crime reporter covering the Zodiac serial killer who terrorized San Francisco in the Seventies. Brilliant but hard-living, he composes his stories in the local bar and gets fired when he makes a drunken spectacle of himself in the newsroom one morning. After that, he basically floats away on a cloud of pot smoke: Downey has only a few moments of screen time in the second half of the film.
“If a character is going to disappear halfway through the film, you give it to the actor who's going to leave a mark,” says Fincher, “so people will miss him when he's gone. Paul Avery is the most mercurial character in the movie, and I knew Downey would just kill him.”
Downey's boozy performance would seem to cut a bit close to the bone, but the actor says playing a character caught in an addictive death spiral did not induce a sense of vertigo. “Drinking and drugging aren't a part of my life anymore,” he insists. “It just became a technical endeavor.”
With his gray hairs and squint lines, Downey comes off as a battle-hardened veteran alongside Gyllenhaal's dewy ingenue. Which makes it all the more remarkable that now, at this stage in his career, he's about to don a superhero suit. To say he's excited is an understatement. “I have f---ing nerd-gasms about this type of stuff,” he enthuses. Iron Man is a billionaire named Tony Stark who, after a terrible injury, makes himself a mechanical bodysuit and goes out to save the world. Downey considers the role a sort of gift from the universe now that he has reached a point in his life where he can handle it. Still, he is grateful that the $100 million production will be shot entirely in California, allowing him to stay close to his wife and the rest of a support network that includes a shrink, a sensei and assorted healing therapists. “Once you have that support, you know, why would you fare as well without it?” he asks. “It's like, you know, if you become a more effective engine, you need more maintenance.”
As he talks, Downey grazes on a healthy-looking feast of greens and brown rice served in takeout containers (on an Hermès tray), and at the end of the interview he offers a quick tour of the house, as if to prove that he has nothing to hide. In the kitchen, he points out a photo of himself and “the missus” with President Bush and the first lady. Upstairs, he shows off his nondescript bathroom (the house is leased, and it shows) and even reveals his wife's meticulously color-coordinated closet. (Susan Downey, whom Robert met in 2002 on the set of Gothika, is executive vice president of Joel Silver's Silver Pictures and has produced such films as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and House of Wax.)
The very last stop on the tour is the master bedroom, where on the fireplace mantel Downey has assembled a personal shrine. Surrounded by candles, there's a Sioux peace pipe, a picture of his son, Indio (from a previous marriage, to actress Deborah Falconer), pieces of Buddhist statuary and, at the center of it all, a model of Iron Man, dressed in a prototype of the costume he will soon don. In a mock-defensive voice, Downey explains that the shield-shaped emblem on Iron Man's chest, which looks a lot like Superman's S, will certainly be changed so as not to be so reminiscent of that other “much, much less important superhero.”
Asked how much input he had on the costume, with its rippling muscles and bulging codpiece, Downey pulls a face that says, Let me level with you, kid.
“To tell you the truth, I have primary input,” he deadpans, with an arched eyebrow to emphasize that every bulge beneath Iron Man's heroic costume is real. “You might say I'll be filling the role.”