Robert Downey Jr. could’ve done anything after Marvel. Why he wanted to make ‘Dolittle’

Robert Downey Jr. and his wife and producing partner, Susan Downey
Robert Downey Jr. and his wife and producing partner, Susan Downey, photographed on the Universal Studios backlot on Jan. 8, 2020.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“I’ve had several careers,” Robert Downey Jr. said on an early January afternoon, sitting beside his producing partner and wife, Susan, in a cavernous soundstage on the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles. “There was one career where I was happy to be working. Then there was one where I was so happy to be able to be working again. And now there’s one where I’m working — and it’s working.”

Robert and Susan Downey have been together through much of that journey — through rough times, good times and ridiculously amazing times — from the period when Robert was struggling to regain his footing after years of substance abuse and multiple stints in rehab and jail through his stunning comeback as Tony Stark in 2008’s “Iron Man,” the first in what would become a decade-plus string of Marvel superhero blockbusters.

Now, the two, who have been married since 2005 and cofounded the production company Team Downey in 2010, are embarking on a new chapter. Having concluded his bajillion-dollar-grossing run as Iron Man in last summer’s juggernaut “Avengers: Endgame,” Downey, 54, finds himself looking ahead to life after Marvel. But when you’ve already ticked off nearly every box imaginable for a Hollywood actor — promising wunderkind, “Saturday Night Live” cast member, tabloid fodder, industry pariah, two-time Oscar nominee, global superstar — what worlds are left to conquer?

“Robert is in an unusual place where, even though he’s had such a massive career, there’s such a strong association with this particular character of Tony Stark,” said Susan, 46, who first met Robert on the 2003 supernatural horror film “Gothika,” on which she was a producer. “So there’s a lot of scrutiny of: Well, what’s next?”

The answer, apparently, is talking to the animals.

In his first post-Marvel role and the latest and biggest Team Downey production to date, Downey stars in “Dolittle” as Dr. John Dolittle, an eccentric Victorian-era Welsh veterinarian who is drawn out of his hermit-like existence following his wife’s death and, with the help of his menagerie of animals, embarks on an adventure to try to save the queen of England. The $175 million film opens Friday.

For the Downeys, who have partnered on both smaller films like the 2014 drama “The Judge” and big, splashy franchise fare like the two “Sherlock Holmes” films, “Dolittle” represents a leap into uncharted territory. Directed by Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”), the film attempts to breathe new life, through touches of oddball comedy and cutting-edge visual effects, into a property that dates back to author Hugh Lofting’s 1920 children’s book “The Story of Doctor Dolittle.”(The franchise’s history on the big screen is somewhat checkered: 1967’s musical “Doctor Dolittle” flopped but, after aggressive studio lobbing, scored a much-maligned best picture nomination, while the 1998 version starring Eddie Murphy and its 2001 sequel fared better at the box office.)


The dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland) and Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.) in a scene from "Dolittle"
(Universal Pictures)

Downey — whose typically idiosyncratic take on the character was inspired by the 19th-century neo-Druid Welsh eccentric William Price — says it was never set in stone that “Dolittle” would be his first post-Marvel movie. Indeed, the film was originally slated to be released in April 2019, two weeks ahead of “Avengers: Endgame,” but was bumped back nine months and underwent extensive reshoots, with directors Jonathan Liebesman (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) and Chris McKay (“The Lego Batman Movie”) reportedly coming on to help work out what Downey calls a “really technically challenging Rubik’s cube from beginning to end.” (The film, which has received largely negative reviews, will do battle against Will Smith’s “Bad Boys for Life” and Universal’s best-picture-nominated “1917” at this weekend’s box office.)

“We’re not particularly strategic,” said Downey. “Also, release dates change all the time, so imagining that if I do this it’s going to wind up right here is like pretending you know what time a cat is going to scratch its nuts or something. I just thought: something light, something that’s enough of a departure for me where I feel challenged.”

Actor Rami Malek, who performs the voice of Dolittle’s gorilla sidekick Chee-Chee in the film, says that Downey jumped into the role with his usual spirit of embracing risk and cozying up to the unknown: “I’m not sure Robert knows exactly what it’s going to be while he’s doing it — and that’s the magic of it: the discovery,” Malek said.

For the Downeys, who have two young children together, “Dolittle” is just one of a number of recent and upcoming productions that are pushing the duo further into film as well as television. “We’re thinking about, how do we challenge ourselves and each other moving forward?” Robert said. “Is there something we could direct together? Is there a story from when Susan was in film school that I could write and she’d direct it? We want to step up our game a little bit.”

The two are executive producers of the upcoming HBO limited series “Perry Mason,” with Matthew Rhys as the 1930s L.A. criminal defense lawyer, and this week announced a first-look deal with the network. An eight-part documentary series called “The Age of A.I.,” hosted by Downey, is currently running as a YouTube Original. A quirky, dystopian series called “Sweet Tooth,” based on a comic book from DC’s Vertigo imprint, is slated for Netflix.

Robert Downey, Jr. and wife Susan
Robert Downey, Jr. and wife Susan are photographed during a day of promotion for their new film, “Dr. Doolittle.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

And a number of movie projects are at various stages of development, including a film about a real-life quack doctor who transplanted goat testicles into men to restore their virility (set to be directed by Richard Linklater), a third installment in the “Sherlock Holmes” series and a documentary about Downey’s father, the pioneering underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.

Susan Downey says that such eclecticism is a reflection of the Downeys’ far-ranging interests. “We don’t really make our choices based on, ‘Oh, this is commercially viable and fits this slot,’” she said. “We sort of just look at the whole picture of, what’s the story, what’s the journey, what’s the challenge? Does it give us the opportunity to do something we haven’t done before?”

Screenwriter and director Shane Black, who worked with the Downeys on the 2005 action-comedy “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and 2013’s “Iron Man 3,” has marveled over the years at how well the two complement each other. “I think they’re just two puzzle pieces that managed after many years and many tribulations to sort of find each other,” said Black, who credits Susan with being “part of Robert’s salvation.” “She may be slightly more practical in terms of coming from the producer standpoint, and she gives him the freedom to unleash creatively and spin out as far as he wants.”

Indeed, in sitting down with the couple, that dynamic quickly becomes evident. At one point, in talking about his preparation for “Dolittle,” Robert animatedly veers off into a discussion of how William Price drew controversy in his day not only for his nudism but for his belief in cremation — “which obviously discourages a lot of the airborne stuff that happens to decomposing flesh” — before being gently reminded by Susan that they are discussing a character in a film aimed at children. (There’s a reason Team Downey’s company logo is a nurse chasing a mental patient with a butterfly net.)

I think it might have been freeing to have that character resolved in ‘Endgame,’ so that now he can move forward as Robert. But he doesn’t shy away from the legacy of Tony Stark.

— Jon Favreau

Director Jon Favreau, who remade Downey’s career when he cast him in 2008’s “Iron Man” and later directed him in “Iron Man 2” and the indie “Chef,” says the actor’s restless creative spirit will continue to propel him as he charts his post-Marvel career. “I think it might have been freeing to have that character resolved in ‘Endgame,’ so that now he can move forward as Robert,” Favreau said. “But he doesn’t shy away from the legacy of Tony Stark. If anything, I think it helps signal-boost whatever he’s exploring and whatever he’s curious to do.”

(Amid rumors that Downey will make a cameo appearance as Stark in the upcoming Marvel film “Black Widow,” Favreau said he expects the actor to maintain his connection to the Marvel universe in one way or another. “We both feel like alumni of a university that we’re very proud to wear the ring of — and sometimes the alumni association gets a lot done.”)

As for where he will go as an actor after “Dolittle,” Downey — who earned Oscar nominations for the 1992 Charlie Chaplin biopic “Chaplin” and the 2008 comedy “Tropic Thunder” — says he’s open to anything, big or small, citing the indies “Captain Fantastic” and “Honey Boy” as two of his favorite films of the last five years.

“I wonder sometimes if there isn’t a perception about me that I’m booked for the next 30 years and if you don’t call me with the next biggest movie that will ever have been made on Earth…,” he said, trailing off. “Like I’m some middle-aged supermodel who won’t get out of bed for anything less than $1 billion.”

“After we finish every movie, he likes to tell me he’s quitting the industry and he’s going to go do theater in Rochester,” Susan said dryly.

“There are some people — and God bless them for having the wherewithal to do it — who are methodically picking, choosing, crafting and modifying what their career looks like from the outside in,” Robert said. “But it’s very hard to manufacture intuition. I do not thrive in a developmental situation. I like: ‘We’re doing this — now let’s figure out what it is.’ ”

Susan smiled at him patiently. “You certainly have a little bit of the ‘ready, fire, aim’ vibe,” she said.