New York City—A lot of entertainers have made a few trips to the dark side. Some have survived and some have not, but few of those on either list have screwed up as much as Robert Downey Jr. and continued to be invited back to work.
In 1996, the actor—who has been quoted as saying his film director father started him on soft drugs when he was eight years old—was arrested for driving while drunk and in possession of heroin and an unloaded pistol. He was remanded to a drug-rehabilitation centre, then jailed for 180 days for violating probation. He kept doing drugs and served an additional six-month sentence at a rehab centre. He was arrested again in 2000 but was released after a few days on $5,000 bail. Over that period of time, he appeared in a dozen movies.
However, Downey Jr., who had been nominated for an Oscar for Chaplin prior to his arrests, was seldom asked to take a lead role. Filmmakers discovered that if they tried to cast him as the star of their films, insurance companies usually turned down bonding requests. Jon Favreau knew all that when he was asked by Paramount Pictures to direct a film version of the Marvel comic Iron Man, but he told them that he needed to hire Downey Jr. for the title role. It was a tough sell. “I really want to make a sequel,” Favreau says in a New York hotel room. “I spent half my time trying to get Robert cast, so I figure the next one should be a lot easier.”
It’s not hard to understand why Paramount would be reluctant to hire Downey Jr. to star in what they expect to be a superhero franchise, given his history and the fact that he is now 43 years old. You would also think that having been given an opportunity to take on the lead role in one of the year’s most high-profile films, he would play it safe. You would be wrong.
Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays the role of Pepper Potts, the amiable assistant to Iron Man’s alter ego, billionaire weapons dealer Tony Stark, says the actor was tough on the script. This despite the fact that much of it had been written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, who had just been nominated for an Oscar for Children of Men. “Jon and I would meet in Jon’s trailer and be getting ready to talk about a scene and Robert would come in and take it [the script], ball it up, and whip it against the wall and say, ”˜Fuck this. This is the worst thing I have ever read,’ and we would be like ”˜Okay’ and we would all sit down and try to rewrite it. That is sort of how we did the movie. It was kind of crazy but it was fun. We always knew where we wanted to go, but he wouldn’t say anything in the film that he didn’t feel, which I think is a testament to why he is such a great actor.”
In the movie, which opens Friday (May 2), Stark is in Afghanistan to make a weapons presentation to the U.S. military when he is attacked by guerillas. He is taken hostage and told to reconstruct a superweapon he had built for the Americans. Instead he builds a suit that will allow him to escape. When he returns to the U.S., he decides that the company should look at less destructive ways of making money and discovers that the stock market doesn’t agree. While his company’s stock plunges, he retreats to his home-based lab to perfect the prototype he made in Afghanistan.
Downey Jr. admits that he was tough on the writers but says that even though he worries that his protests could be a deterrent to his having a lengthy career, he can’t promise anyone that he won’t interfere with a screenplay. “We had great writers and they had just been nominated, and I said, ”˜Hey, I was nominated once too, so anyway”¦’ It is always a group effort, but my thing is we should be able to crunch it [the screenplay] up and throw it against the wall because we are not here to serve a legal document. I think that is going to be the problem for the rest of my career, because I know that now I don’t care who you are or what you just won or what you wrote just now. We are making a movie, and what you wrote in your fucking Biedermeier furniture in your office on the Upper Eastside doesn’t mean anything to me. If it is genius, then let’s talk about it, and if it isn’t, now we have work to do. And I don’t think genius and superhero script belong in the same sentence.”
Although he may not believe that there can be genius in a script about a superhero, he does have respect for the fans of the comic book. Enough respect, in fact, that he felt compelled to read every single issue. He says that even the people at Marvel Entertainment were surprised at his dedication to getting the character right.
“It is super-important to be faithful to the fans, because their Tony Stark is the best one there can be. But if you get new people involved, they say, ”˜We don’t have to look at those comics because we are involved in the action sequences.’ And I would say, ”˜Guys, they spent 45 years with really smart people and talented artists. Don’t you think you can give it 45 minutes?’ I am emotional about this because when we were doing Chaplin, I would say, ”˜You can’t tell his story any better than the way it happened.’ At one point on this film, I called Jeremy Latcham at Marvel and said, ”˜Can you send me over all the Iron Man stuff?’ and he said, ”˜Well, it is quite voluminous,’ and I said, ”˜Can you send all the Iron Man stuff that you have? Thank you if the answer is yes,’ and they sent it all and it took up an entire pallet from storage.”
If the movie is a hit, Robert Downey Jr. will be fulfilling his contract to make at least two more Iron Man films. And, in his mid-40s, he will have attained the heights he was supposed to have reached so many years ago. Although he makes it clear that he doesn’t really care to be a movie star and doesn’t need or want the kind of money that helped him get into trouble in the first place, he would like to be in a position to get good movies made. He says that both he and Favreau—who went from box-office success with Elf to the disappointment of Zathura: A Space Adventure—commiserated on past financial failures and were determined to make sure that if they were going to make a big film, they would do whatever it took to find a big audience.
“At what point do you have enough money, and why wouldn’t you trade that for influence? I had the big house and the dough and it felt like it was just more to manage. When Jon and I were talking about doing this together, I had just come from doing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and he had come from Zathura and we both felt that we had put our best foot forward and there hadn’t been an understanding or a machinery or a real expectation for it to mean anything, and we were really disappointed. We thought, ”˜For now, let’s do good movies that a large number of people will probably see because it sucks talking into a telephone when there is no one on the other end.’ ”