Praised for his undeniable qualities as a dramatic actor, Robert Downey Jr, long the victim of his excesses and infamous reputation, could have easily joined the list of failed stars in modern Hollywood. A former drug-addict and felon, at 48-years-old he is now one of the most respected actors in Hollywood, knighted by the mighty Marvel, which in 2008 offered him the part of the superhero Iron Man in the eponymous movie. Reprising his role as Tony Stark in the third instalment of this phenomenally successful franchise, the star reflects on his life, his career and a part that has made him, against all odds, one of the most ‘bankable’ actors in the world
When you accepted the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man five years ago, did you imagine the movies would be so successful?
I would say that there were strong signals. What worked very well with Iron Man, from the outset, is that it has a thread of realism within it. Although it is primarily the story of a group of people who use their scientific knowledge to better humanity, the scientific progress shown on screen is technically feasible. This creates a cross between fantasy and reality that, I think, was the source of its success. Furthermore, Iron Man has taken advantage of many elements that have enhanced the movie. They managed to create this bridge between the ‘classic’ superhero story and intrigues worthy of James Bond or Mission Impossible. The public has quickly grown to love the franchise because of this.
As a kid, were you a ‘hard’ child or a superhero at heart?
Neither, as a child I loved to tap dance! I had only one dream growing up: leave New York as fast as possible. I had nothing to do with the other kids around me. Nothing to do with the thugs that my father mixed with, nor with dealers in my neighbourhood … All these guys who stuffed themselves with films and took themselves for Steve McQueen… It really wasn’t my thing.
After five years of playing Tony Stark, have you noticed a change within yourself?
All that interested me five years ago was being creative enough to give my character a credible superhero air. Now I especially enjoy fencing to refine the seductive side of the spiritual character. I raise a little walk. The more the series has advanced though, the more the secondary characters take on greater magnitude. The plot no longer revolves around Stark alone. Iron Man 3 is more centered on the rapport he has with his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)… What I also like about the Iron Man team is that we mature together. This is not to say that I feel the weight of time on us, but I appreciate the idea of finding us all at the peak of our careers. We’ve all come to this franchise in our separate ways and we all amuse each other very much. The icing on the cake is that the audience follows us. That is really great.
In Iron Man 3 you reunited with Shane Black, the director of the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which you worked on together in 2005…
Yes. Jon Favreau (the director of the first and second Iron Man) and I talked a lot at the time. I followed his advice with great interest, especially since he never asked for anything in return… Ah if, one day he asked us to give him salmon and blueberries for his valuable advice, then it might be different! With Shane, we share a common passion for ‘comics’. I was delighted when I learned that he would direct this third film. It still manages to forge exceptional characters and integrate them neatly into the scenarios of an action movie. As a measure of the adventures in Iron Man, I had made a kind of list of everything that I would have wanted to see or do in a movie, but which, due to a lack of time or means, had not been possible. Without giving too much away, in the third film I can assure you that there is not much left on my list!
You either say too much or not enough!
To be honest, it is because it’s necessary that the public expect to be constantly surprised. Several intrigues intermingle. It gives them a reason to stay interested… I sincerely believe that this Iron Man one is the most moving, the most technically perfect, the most entertaining and the closest to the spirit of the comics!
With Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, you’re the proud lead role in two very successful franchises. Has Hollywood finally overcome your rebellious spirit?
Not at all. Nothing has changed in me. The Hollywood system? For me, it is secondary. I’m always the trickster that interferes somewhere and Hollywood uses that as it sees fit. In the past, I made bad movies, but always for a noble cause: my love of cinema. This is the only thing that keeps me going and is the reason that I came here today… Never try to plan anything.
Do you remember your first contract?
It was for publicity. I was panicking, I remember perfectly. The clothes I was wearing, I had borrowed from friends, and I find myself in front of this woman, who tells me what I should do and I panicked, then she tells me that it’s over, I never did anything.
You have long been famous in Hollywood for your various scandals and arrests during your career. What memories do you keep of your time in prison and in the courts in California?
I’ve never sought forgiveness or made an apology. I know it was stupid that whole damn macho side, but would I ever have been who I am otherwise? My mistakes have been made in any event…
Without any regrets?
Regrets would mean what? That I do not deserve everything that happens to me now? No, as I said: I accept everything I’ve done, everything I’ve been through, the good times as well as bad…
In Iron Man 3, you face the immense Ben Kingsley, who plays the charismatic villain Mandarin. In a genre film of this magnitude, does it allow you to fully enjoy the talent of the other actors?
Absolutely. It’s also a great motivation and a matter of instinct. The actors know how to detect the scenes where they can hold their own in a saga such as Iron Man, you’re not there to do tapestry and serve only the franchise. The arrival of Ben Kingsley in the film is a stroke of genius by Marvel. They are very strong in terms of casting and allow audacity, which quickly reveals the masterstrokes. Sir Ben is an accomplished artist, who came up with ideas that were very strong and very useful for his character and we immediately put them to use. But the biggest surprise for me came during his first day of filming: he totally let go and had fun like a five-year-old kid in a sandbox! Without his performance, I think the film would not have this color today… In fact, if you speak to Sir Ben, do not forget Guy Pearce plays an important role in the film. This guy is a national treasure – courteously lent by Australia, it goes without saying.
What is the quality necessary for any good actor?
DNA. Everything is a question of DNA. In this business, you wear it in your guts and everywhere else. It is not in the eyes, heart or mind. Everything is the DNA.
Was courage called for in Iron Man 3?
Yes. There comes a point where you’re all together on location, a great team around you, six main actors on the set… Wow! It is easier today than in the first Iron Man actually. We were very stressed at the time. Stressed, but also hopeful, excited by what we still had to prove… I have more confidence in myself now.
You’re at the peak of a nearly thirty-five-year career. A review?
I was just this kid from New York who came to try his luck in Los Angeles. I did a lot of sh*t in my life, I made a lot of mistakes too, but not for one second have I been bored. And I’ve never lied to myself.
Why is it that you always seem to have the same enthusiasm for this job?
I still continue to work with the same enthusiasm because I’m having fun. We must never forget that, otherwise you become type cast and squeezed, crushed by your schedule. I love to play Tony Stark and I think that, to be happy, one is never better served than by oneself.
Are you planning to one-day leave Hollywood?
Impossible. I love Los Angeles. I’ve been here so many years… And honestly, where the f*ck would I go?