A truly calm Robert Downey Jr. is a rare and spooky sight to behold, but on a recent Venice Beach morning, there he was with a faraway expression and a cup of warm tea waiting by his folded hands. “So,” he said with deadpan eyes, “you want to talk about the past.”
The past is a tricky subject for Downey — he is reluctant to glorify his fire-breathing days (especially the stops in prison, rehab and Hollywood’s career penalty box), but they are a huge part of his mojo at this point, and they add the decadent wink to his most resonant sort of role: the wickedly smart guy who dances on life’s ledges.
On Friday, Downey will receive the 25th American Cinematheque Award, which honors the 46-year-old for a lifetime’s contribution to cinema. The prize will be presented at a Beverly Hills gala crowded with famous friends and Hollywood executives. That sort of fete was unthinkable a decade ago when he was dealing with handcuffs, tabloid reports and unreturned phone calls.
Now, though, the guy whose body of work once seemed to be surrounded in chalk outline has become a true franchise player for Disney’s Marvel Studios (“The Avengers” next summer and “Iron Man 3" in 2013) and Warner Bros. (“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” in December).
“There are these moments where everything goes right, and it’s that magic that you talk about,” Downey said. “The main thing is maintaining some sort of dignity and interest between those moments. But those are the moments that keep me coming back. Are they predictable? Somewhat. But are they consistent? There are so many factors.”
Downey grew up in front of a camera. At age 5 he played a character called Puppy in a trippy film called “Pound” that was directed by his filmmaking father and required the youngster to deliver a line about pubic hair (yes, you can find it on YouTube). By the early 1980s he was on Hollywood’s radar — barely — but showing flashes of the audacity and charisma that would be a hallmark.
The magic has been more consistent in recent years as the cleareyed Downey has traded his chemical romance for martial arts and a marriage of true collaboration with producer Susan Downey, who shares the Venice offices with her husband and the employees of their busy production company, Team Downey. It was there that Downey took this walk down celluloid memory lane, sitting down with a reporter and a stack of Blu-rays and DVDs of his films and, at certain points, literally laughed until he cried as he skipped through chapters of his on-screen life.
“Weird Science” and “Tuff Turf” (1985): Writer-director John Hughes made films that were a rite of passage for audiences and young Hollywood talent. “I had been in California for three months working on a movie called ‘Tuff Turf’ with Jimmy Spader and I got an audition. At that time, walking into a production office on the Universal lot and seeing Anthony Michael Hall was like bumping into Spencer Tracy at the commissary in the 1940s. He takes an interest in me and that led to ‘Saturday Night Live’ with him vouching for me and it led to ‘Johnny Be Good.’ It was big for me. My memories of it are being in Skokie, Ill., in a huge mall and dressed in cutting-edge Melrose, Maxfield fashion. Any weird stuff we did while partying the night before would be the thing that John Hughes would say, ‘That thing you did that didn’t make any sense? Do that.’”
“Less Than Zero” (1987) The disaffected youth of affluent Los Angeles get high and get low. Downey plays Julian, who is in deep to a drug dealer played by Spader. “In some ways it was the most honest work I’ve ever done even though I was nowhere near the level of depravity of these characters. The director, Marek Kanievska, ran screaming from Hollywood after the movie came out. We were making a midlevel, sensationalist, timely Bret Easton Ellis interpretation for Fox, but you would have thought he and I were on a Stanislavsky journey together. I had done some comedies, but I didn’t know if I knew what I was doing or not until this one movie and one scene in it: There’s a scene on the tennis court where Julian goes to his father [to ask for help] and the theme, for me, was ‘Will a father and son ever connect before one of them dies?’ We did it twice, I wasn’t thinking about the movie or the crew. I was just thinking about that idea, and it came through. And I didn’t forget the words I was supposed to say.”
“Air America” (1990): Downey and Mel Gibson starred as pilots flying under the radar for a Vietnam-era CIA operation, but the movie was undermined by too many creative shifts and an uncertainty of tone. “The movie got watered down. The great thing was working with Mel right before he went off and did ‘Hamlet’ and started directing. I remember him telling someone on the set, ‘I would never be a director, it’s a terrible idea,’ and three years later he couldn’t not direct. That’s kind of where I’m heading towards now. I feel it’s almost irresponsible learning what I’ve learned and having the influences and relationships I’ve had to not try to infuse that with movies more as a director.”
“Chaplin” (1992): Downey earned an Oscar nomination for portraying the Hollywood icon for director Richard Attenborough. “The portrayal was a direct result of my relationship with Dickie. He was a man, in his work as an actor and in life, of stillness and emotional fullness.... It turned into a very important lesson in externalism — a lesson I still avoid at all costs but sooner or later I will have to deal with it again. That was the whole journey of ‘Chaplin.’ I thought it was going to be about becoming ectomorphic and doing all these things to capture him — I set up this elaborate technical system with one-way mirrors in front of a TV screen with frozen frames — and it became much more about being quiet and still. That’s not easy because I’m restless and I also want to entertain myself.”
Picking up the remote, Downey skipped through scenes of the movie to locate one other “Chaplin” memory: a scene on the sands of Malibu where his character needed to spin a beach ball on his finger. “It’s windy and we’re doing rehearsals, and I just can’t do it. I look over and there’s a 12-year-old kid with a ball on the beach just spinning on the tip of his finger. I went over, ‘Just give me five minutes.’ And you know it happens like that all the time. Inspiration and education come for everywhere.”
“Natural Born Killers” (1994): Downey played doomed, pretentious journalist Wayne Gale (clearly based on Geraldo Rivera) in Oliver Stone’s black comedy. “I see it as a death-of-the-1980s movie and prophetic. I loved Tom Sizemore in it, and Tommy Lee Jones was brilliant even though he was really annoyed by me… I could do my death scene right now, I swear. It’s so great. I think in that movie we were all playing aspects of Oliver, and I think my character was the aspect that he wanted to see gunned down.... I remember … the day we filmed it. I had loads of words, and I was treating it like theater, and I was frustrated that my co-stars [Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis] weren’t supporting me. Usually I’m the one who is acting like a drunken monkey, but they were the ones that didn’t know their lines. I think I was just nervous. They did to me what I did to Tommy Lee Jones. So I’ve been on both sides of that.”
“Home for the Holidays” (1995) Jodie Foster directed and not everyone was always amused by Downey’s brand of chaos. “I was at a particularly, um, groovy point in my own development there.... I remember gassing to the point that Jodie and Holly Hunter would be like, ‘Do you mind transcending your adolescence? We’re trying to make a movie.’ And there was Anne Bancroft just looking at me. I was altered as often as not. That was the first time for that on screen. I would spin through a scene like a whirling dervish. Everyone was like, ‘What just happened?’ but I was off the set and going to lunch.”
“Zodiac” (2007) and “The Soloist” (2009): Downey played real-life California journalists in each, Bay Area crime reporter Paul Avery and then Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. “For ‘The Soloist,’ I was encouraged by [director] Joe Wright and Steve himself to completely depart from any interpretation of him, but you find that if you mine it a little bit you get a lot; it’s like electroplating instead of solid gold. With Paul Avery, that character brought a little levity telling a very dark story about, essentially, three lives that are ruined. ‘Zodiac’ was a tragedy, ‘The Soloist’ was about victory and friendship. Look, I don’t know much — unless I’m in a story meeting. I know theme is important. Internal theme, external theme: Those are the two clearest tracks you can run your train down.”
“Iron Man” (2008) and “Iron Man 2" (2010): The Marvel Studios films pulled in a combined $1.2 billion in worldwide box office and turbo-charged Downey’s career. He returns to the role in next year’s all-star “The Avengers” and 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” “The first one changed everything for me and with the second ‘Iron Man’ there were certain aspects that were dissatisfying and disappointing to me but at least they lit me right.... [The first one] was a meditation on responsibility and an exploration of how a small group of people can take a two-dimensional idea and, if the winds are right, create something that makes people say, ‘That was my favorite movie of the year.’ To me, Tony Stark’s story is a karma story and a technology story. I love a good action movie — a Steve McQueen or Tom Cruise or Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson in the right spot, and you smile and say, ‘That’s what this kind of movie is all about.’ There were two times in my life I prepared for something manically, it was this and ‘Chaplin.’ I became the expert on this guy.”
“Tropic Thunder” (2008): With several layers of irony, Ben Stiller’s proudly profane comedy got Downey an Oscar nomination for portraying a white actor playing a black soldier in hopes of getting an Oscar nomination. “I signed up to do it and then I did ‘Iron Man’ and I thought, ‘You know, I think I just buried myself. I did a movie that is going to reestablish me here in a little way and now I’m going to squander any good will I have.’ Ben Stiller reminds me of Charlie Chaplin because he could have done any department head’s role in the movie without the movie suffering — except perhaps for scoring. The other correlation I make, for me personally, is 1968’s “Putney Swope” [the race satire directed by filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.] and 2008 “Tropic Thunder.” There’s this two-generation loop. When people met my dad they were surprised he wasn’t black because the movie was so about undermining the establishment. This movie ended up being the most cathartic thing I had done in ages and one of the happiest times in my life.”
“Sherlock Holmes” (2009): With a budget under $100 million, the Guy Ritchie reinvention of the bookshelf sleuth made $524 million worldwide and gave Downey a second franchise role. “Sherlock was part of a great run. Sometimes you’re thrown heat and you can do no wrong. It’s very misleading to get hypnotized by that because it’s a state of grace. It’s something you can’t control, but you can choose to enjoy it.”
“Due Date” (2010): Downey and Zach Galifianakis take a subversive road trip through the no-fly anxieties of modern America. “I am crazy about this movie. I just love it so much. Like Bradley Cooper in ‘The Hangover,’ I’m playing an aspect of [writer-director] Todd Phillips, an uptight, anxious, controlling aspect. The missus has seen this side of me too. This became one of the most privately joyful experiences in history. It had what all of my favorite comedies have: a real emotional resonance. After this and ‘Tropic Thunder’ I feel like I’ve done the best of both worlds. What kind of comedy could I happily do now? It’s the most elusive thing for Team Downey now. But we’ll nail it.”