The Summer of Downey?
On Friday, “Iron Man”—easily one of the smartest, most satisfying comic-book superhero movies since Tim Burton’s first “Batman”—opens across America. And Robert Downey Jr.‘s the guy: As playboy industrialist Tony Stark, a billionaire inventor who transforms himself into an awesome armor-plated crimefighter, Downey puts the iron in irony. He’s cool, he’s tough, he’s weird.
Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Leslie Bibb
(Marvel Studios; US theatrical: 2 May 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 2 May 2008 (General release); 2008)
And at the other end of Hollywood’s most lucrative season—after a May, June and July full of sequels, franchises, and star-studded, special-effects-laden “event” pictures—Downey will show up again, in Ben Stiller’s buzz-aplenty Vietnam War-pic parody “Tropic Thunder.” If you’ve seen the trailers, you know what Downey’s up to in the Aug. 15 release, and it’s extreme (and extremely funny): He’s playing an Australian actor playing an African-American GI, in blackface.
“Those are the two biggest genres around,” says Jon Favreau, who lobbied for Downey in “Iron Man,” and directed him, too. “If you could make it in the superhero action genre and you can make it in comedy—those are the locomotives driving Hollywood right now.
“It’s so nice to see Robert go from the guy that I had to plead the case for to get everybody to sign off on him, and now he’s one of the hottest names in Hollywood.”
Downey, who had to audition for “Iron Man,” thinks it’s nice, too.
On the phone in Paris last week, midway through an “Iron Man” tour that has taken him to Australia and Korea, the 43-year-old actor—and former parole-violation poster boy—was happy to talk about his turnaround.
“Without taking myself too seriously, there’s just sort of a focus that came in,” says Downey, who points to 2005’s noirish “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” as the project that got him to start straightening up his act—an act infamous for its drug busts, fistfights and DWIs.
A highlight reel of Downey’s badness? A 1996 arrest for DWI, heroin and firearm possession. A 1998 fight with another inmate in L.A. County jail. Drug rehabs. Drug relapses. Hired for the hit show “Ally McBeal.” Fired from the hit show “Ally McBeal.” He couldn’t even land parts in films—Woody Allen wanted to hire him, for one—because insurance companies saw him as a risk.
Downey’s second wife, producer Susan Levin, who worked with him on “Gothika” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” gets credit for turning him around.
“It strangely also corresponded with me becoming a bit of a martial-arts devotee,” he adds, “and a bunch of other stars lining up just so. You know, being in a great relationship ... and deciding to behave in a slightly different way and really go for the gusto.”
Downey put a plan together in his mind, he says, and found support from his “missus,” his management, his friends.
“I know at the end of the day that it’s very much like how Lance (Armstrong) feels when he wins a Tour de France,” says Downey, who does a little road cycling of his own. “It’s not like his team comes up there and grabs the trophy from him, but if they did nobody would be too surprised, because it really is the team that wins.”
Gosh and golly.
In “Iron Man,” which begins on Afghan battlegrounds and which costars Jeff Bridges (the scheming business partner), Terrence Howard (the trusty friend), and Gwyneth Paltrow (the leggy gal Friday), Downey looks buff and believable as a party-hearty tycoon. His Stark Industries supplies high-tech weaponry for a world at war, and part of what makes the $186 million Paramount picture so successful is that it serves up expensive toys and spiffy special effects (and pole-dancing stewardesses on Stark’s private jet) but still manages to preach (a bit) about the insanity and moral corruption of the military-industrial complex.
Like Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man,” it’s also one of the rare superhero-comic adaptations that doesn’t try to hastily dispense with the “origin story.” How Tony Stark becomes “Iron Man” is part and parcel of the film.
“There’s a definite plus and a minus to doing an origin story,” explains Favreau, who’s climbed the directing ladder from “Made” to “Elf” to “Zathura” to this.
“The minus is that it often feels like two movies just stitched together. But it does give you a tremendous character arc to play, whereas sequels tend to find the character much as you leave him. They don’t change much.
“And as a filmmaker, your best friend is character arc.”
And for Favreau, his best friend is Downey, too. “He wasn’t the most obvious choice,” the director says of his star. “But from the minute I met with him, I really cottoned to the idea of him playing Tony Stark, and people who knew the books know he’s really spot-on as far as what his attitude is, and his subversive sense of humor. Iron Man has always been a hero that ran against the grain. Even among a pantheon of heroes that are all sort of quirky, he stands apart from the rest.”
For his part, Downey says he simply showed up at a meeting with the Marvel Comics movie people and Favreau. “We started talking about `Iron Man,’ and I quickly convinced myself that it would be a great idea if they hired me. And then it was the process, the ups and downs of trying to make that happen, and then the screen test.”
Although it’s uncommon for stars of Downey’s stature to do so, he had tested for the role of Charlie Chaplin in 1992’s “Chaplin”—and received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. So why not?
“I did three scenes,” he recalls, “one of which wound up being the opening scene in the movie, in the Army convoy in Afghanistan. I definitely had a certain take on the character, and I’m also not a moron, so I knew that if I’m doubting and they’re doubting, then who’s actually on my side?
“So I decided I might as well be in my cheering section, and try to make a bunch of noise for a change, although it’s very out of character for me to do that. I thought it would be a nice piece of moral psychology and humility running tandem.”
Downey has another potential hit on his hands this year: “The Soloist,” based on former Philadelphia Inquirer scribe Steve Lopez’s just-out book, an account of his relationship with an L.A. homeless man who happens to be a musical genius and a paranoid schizophrenic. Downey plays Lopez, now a Los Angeles Times columnist, and Jamie Foxx is the homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers. The film, directed by “Atonement’s” Joe Wright, comes out Thanksgiving week.
“It’s certainly not commercial in the way `Iron Man’ or `Tropic Thunder’ will be,” Downey says of the movie, a DreamWorks production shepherded by Steven Spielberg.
“I don’t know why this happened, but I wound up for once in my life having a solid year of work in which I kind of hit the trifecta. You know: a big summer movie, another big summer movie which is also a big action comedy, and then what I would call a very, very fulfilling drama that’s also actually quite entertaining and funny, but is heart-wrenching, too.”