Set Visit: Interview with Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr.
When Paramount invited us down to Playa Del Rey to check out the set of IRON MAN there was great deal of speculation surrounding the film, with most of it centering on its brilliant yet mercurial star, Robert Downey Jr. Downey certainly had an impressive pedigree, but would he be convincing as a mainstream comic book hero? More importantly, would he make it through the entire shoot without melting down, hitting the pipe and crashing in some random person's bed? (Let's just say I lost more than a few bets on that last one. Double or nothing for the sequel!)
10 months and several badass trailers later, those concerns seem almost laughable. Downey looks so perfect for the role that it's hard to imagine anyone else playing it. But it wasn't that way when he sat down with a group of internet journalists for one of his first IRON MAN interviews ever (perhaps THE first, but I'm too damn lazy to confirm that) after just getting off the set. He was classic Downey: candid, self-effacing and a little bit nuts. Check it out.
Robert Downey, Jr.
What attracted you to the role? It seems like an unusual choice for you.
Well, I mean, all my friends are doing it. I remember the original Superman - Brando was in it. I thought, wow, these things must be getting legit. I was already I guess fairly opinionated when I was seven. So I don't know; I'm kind of like a nerd about this stuff. I think there's been an onslaught, obviously, of this genre of film and I thought this one was different enough to accommodate whatever snobbery that might be unleashed on me by my peers or friends. It's like my buddies, man...you want to do stuff and they say, "You're doing what, man? Shaggy Dog? Are you on drugs again?"
Have people been giving you sh*t about this?
No, no one's given me any guff about IRON MAN and it's funny, too. It's like it's a particular kind of fan likes it or...these smart, highly-educated entertainment lawyers like pulling me aside at a party and are like, "Dude, Tony Stark, man!" And then they tie gets loose and they start geeking out and it's great.
Can you talk about all the bruises and cuts you've go? (He'd just finished shooting his scene and was still in make-up.)
I can. He goes through a lot. I don't know what I can really talk about or not. Well, I guess it's safe to say that he is in captivity for some time and the fact that you've just seen a sequence where he's returning home and a lot has occurred means that obviously he has figured out a way to escape. And I don't know much about these sorts of things, but I know you can get pretty bruised up escaping.
He's been back home, he's had a press conference and he's talked to his partner in front of this kind of legacy energy device that he's in essence miniaturized, which is keeping him alive. But he's back home...I mean "back home," there's nothing that's normal in this film. Have you seen that pad? He's not just back home but he's home and there isn't a big wait staff and he doesn't have a gal on his arm and his assistant's not around, so it's just kind of like this isolated opulence, which again I think like...there was this last round of Iron Man comics, the Extremis and those very kind of graphic-y looking ones. And I remember in pre-production and stuff, without wanting to be derivative, there was this very kind of specific design. And that's what I like about anything. That's why I'm a fan of like Matrix and stuff and they're like, "Not 2 or 3." And I'm like, "Yeah. If I love it, I like all of them." I'm like the boyfriend that needs to grow up. Because if I love something and it impacts me, then I am till the wheels fall off, you know?
If you met Tony Stark on a street corner, what would you talk about?
First of all, he'd be an imposter. So we'd probably throw down right there. It's so funny, because I think I'm like old enough to have a pretty strong aesthetic distance. And I remember the days, whether it was LESS THAN ZERO or CHAPLIN, where I would just throw myself into this tizzy of prep where the "dance of the role is 16 hours" or whatever. For LESS THAN ZERO the makeup girl what blowing menthol into my eyes and putting latex on my lips and I was doing pushups before the scenes and my heart was racing forever. And I feel like, as much as anything nowadays, it's not that we're phoning it in - we really care and we really prepped it into practical oblivion. But I still try to have some distance. But it's really almost even more narcissistic to be talking to some department head going, "You know, I don't think Tony would..." -- essentially saying what want to do in the scene. But if there's ever been a character in the history of my career that I would be happy to kind of meld with and associate myself with, it's Tony Stark, because it's the coolest job I've ever had. The history of it...I got to meet Stan Lee. I took him to the grill in Beverly Hills. And I said to him, "What were the real origins of this?" And he said, "Well, we kind of did it on a dare: Could you make a billionaire industrialist, womanizing heathen somehow through this vulnerability of his own..." I'm sorry, this might be more fun.
(At this point he's handed the chest device that we wears in the film).
He said he did it on a dare to see...and also you think about it. It's interesting - roughly 30 years ago, it was a time of this very strong anti-establishment, anti-military-industrial complex, anti-rich, over thirty energy. And so for him it was just a huge challenge. And he said they got more female fanmail for him than all their other characters combined because there was this sense of him being very vulnerable and not knowing from day-to-day whether this very precarious device that keeps him alive and drives him but is clearly a metaphor for something else. But sometimes it's not a metaphor. If you've got a small reactor in your chest, it's the reason you're not dead. In the movie, how can that be a metaphor? It's like saying, "This aqualung underwater...this reed I'm breathing through..." You know?
You're known for ad-libbing. Were there times when you caused big re-sets because of your improv ideas?
As a martial artist, you want to be as efficient and effective and use as much linear striking as possible. Don't fight force with force. There's a lot of these concepts that everything is like everything else for the film. So I'm not coming in and going, "Hey, this is all wrong. Re-light." But I'll come in and I'll say, "Given the time we have, we can probably get this many shots," and Jon has been very flexible and very fun because we're very similar. I mean Tony Stark is really...I don't know how this could come across, but it's really Jon and I who are creating Tony. And through it half the lines are his and half the ideas are mine and you've got all these really great people on top of their field who are either simultaneously exasperated with the fact that we're like vetting an idea. I come in everyday and I say, "I've seen this in a movie before. No offense. But if we do this, I haven't seen that." And some of them are just so far out they go, "Will you just go put on your chest piece and earn a living like everyone else?" But more often than not...If anything I feel the honus and the responsibility to not venture into this genre without an understanding that it's actually inhabited and enjoyed -- and me being amongst these people -- by very apt, bright, perceptive and often times educated in the arts people. So just because it happens to have this two-dimensional aspect to it in its origins doesn't mean that it doesn't go deep and that it shouldn't be an art form and it shouldn't...I don't know. I just think audiences are continually underestimated. At the same time I loved CHUD. I could go see a pretty crappy movie and love it. If it's got a few things that work...I don't know; I'm like a soccer coach with kids who probably shouldn't be playing soccer.
In the scene you shot, what's going through your mind when you enter the press conference?
What was going through my mind was I walked into the press conference and everyone's standing up and I go, "Here we are. Now...bwaaahhh!" And all that thing. I was like, "Can he come in and...he's also supposedly gone through this massive transformation. He's been humbled. He's seen things through new eyes. And I think even the people he's interacting with, whoever it's for it's like, "That's the press and we do our soundbytes and we do our damage control and we do our propaganda and that's it." And I think he's starting to relate to these people as not an idealist -- because I think he's too educated in the dark arts of weapons manufacturing and also his family and their legacy to be a moron or waving flowers and wanting to join hands and sing kumbayah -- but I think there's an equalization that occurs. But still that is a little bit strange in a way. It's not like he raises his finger and he's Caesar, he wears the purple and everyone sit down. I think it was just kind of making him nervous. And it was a strange thing to do and also later on it was like Tony's maybe gone a little cuckoo. And I thought it would demonstrate...it's that thing of miscommunication of intentions and ideas.
Can you talk about the wardrobe and getting into the costume?
Yes. I love Stan Winston and Shane and all the guys on his team. There are several stuntmen. Oakley, we call one of them. And Mike Justice and these guys. And they're kind of like...again, if Jon and I are Tony Stark, then it's me and those fellas and my stuntmen and my stand-in who end up really being Iron Man. Because it's just such a massive undertaking. I mean, we said at first that we wanted to do it as practically as possible. I was coming into this like, "Oh yes, practical. Practical." I was like, cool. But it's really, really tough. And really great. The first time you try on that suit...I swear to god, you could put the least macho superhero-looking man or woman in this suit and I swear to god for 15 seconds you'd believe any of them could destroy the nemesis and all this. So it really is the long game. It's about, how do you not have a personality meltdown in like hour seven when you kind of fell like you've been tarred and feathered and covered in machine parts? It's like, "Here's the moment when you..." and you're like, "Uh-huh." And you're calling up every therapeutic moment you've had with friends, family and strangers and every book you've ever read. They're like, "Hey, have you read The Secret?" and it's like, "I am living The Secret right now." I have the entire Bodhi tree between my ears. I'd come off doing ZODIAC before this and KISS KISS BANG BANG -- which is a movie I really loved -- a couple years before that. And SCANNER DARKLY. And all these films were really kind of about character and once in a while you got your finger cut off or you had a bad day or you're wearing an ascot or something like that. I'd really gotten used to these non-technically-driven movies, and as much as we've been able to in this, we've tried to have it feel like if Bob Altman had directed SUPERMAN or something like that, you know?
How long does it take to get into it?
Well, I like to say that I'm the first person who've been able to relieve themselves while wearing this suit. It was precipitous. Wouldn't it be great if that was the rest of the interview?
How'd you do it?
It was a zipper, but the zipper was still covered by a hip piece that actually had a groin attached...anyway, suffice it to say...it was like that thing where it's like, How did that guy escape from jail? Well, he was thin. But there's a lot of thin guys in jail. Well, his head was just the right size and he got out between the bars and...you know.
Does it get frustrating wearing the chest piece all the time?
Look, wearing a watch can be frustrating if you're not in the right headspace, you know? There was this time a couple days ago where they said, "You've been through a lot." This has been a really grueling shoot, but it's also been a really magical shoot, because I shit you not: We come in every day -- it reminds me of reading about Chaplin in the early days when he'd go in without an idea in his head. It's not like we don't have a script and one that we approve of and this and that, but we go in and we say, "How do we raise this to a level of something we want to see or something that addresses all the different elements of these kind of films? I'm actually starting to think that they're a really, really high order of art. Because there are so many that you have to professionally have gone through and understood and experienced to be able to not be overwhelmed by the fact that..."Now in this scene you're going through something, but actually the boot is out and you're welding and the phone rings and all this other stuff and you have a relationship with your shop..." This is kind of why I'm so glad -- I'm actually comforted being here right now -- is, you ever feel like that summer in that place or in that apartment, creatively we did every single thing we could? You know, I wrote my best stuff, I was the most honest, I was the most disciplined, you know what I mean? Back when you used to say, "I'm not just gonna go out and eat again, I'm gonna look at the menu and this cookbook I've had for five years and actually try to make a pasta that doesn't suck." And we really came in on this set in particular, because this is where so much of his work happens and the creation of the Mark 2 suit and beyond. What was the question?
About the chest plate.
Oh, yeah yeah yeah...no, it's fine.
What has your training process been like?
Well you know, the funny thing is I was at this museum. What was it? It's gonna come to me. It's not the Mutter Museum where all the babies are in formaldehyde. It's called...ok, forget what I said, because if I can't represent it properly than it's not responsible. There's some museum in Miami and I'd gotten this little keychain and it looked like Iron Man. This was like six months before I even knew about this thing. And for the last five years or so I've been doing martial arts and then when I got the part they said, "So, do you want to put on some..." And I'm not like 28, or like Daniel Craig, who already had like a meat pack on his shoulders and then just swolled 'em up for that. You've seen me in all the movies. I'm not like Mr. Buff Guy, and now I'm over 43. So it has literally been like this excruciating process of working out so hard and so often, just to not look like a little pot-bellied pig. And then there's a couple scene where we finally got it together and I'm like banging on that thing and I go, "Mattie, you gotta," and he's like, "I know what to do man; I've done this before," and they light it right and I'm like, "Ugh," and I'm like rubber band Sam and we do all this stuff and I'm like, "Waaah," and it's like, "Wow man, that was great! You're really in shape." And then 20 minutes later, it's like, "Urrrr."
And Yoga. And eating right. And all the supplement. And sleeping right. And all the other obvious stuff that's probably more important than working out. You gotta keep your head right. It's so easy to get spun out. You see people who have no challenges outside of their Hollywood problems and they come in and they regularly have meltdowns on sets. And they turn into a bitch. Or they say and do thing because they're under pressure. Or because they think that they're something they're not. I mean, it's really a trip to be number one on the call sheet and doing a movie like this. It's always kind of an inside game -- and I forget that occasionally, but I keep righting the ship and the toggle switch. It's that thing, you know? Like life is 85% maintenance and you realize at the end of a good day that you spent most of the day just making sure other peoples' energy and all that all your own mind talk wasn't ruining what had started off...like, the day plans to be good. And then they're like, "(Makes a bunch of noises)?" And they're like, "Can we just blow some sand in your eye right before the take?" Why? "I don't know. I'm from the blow-sand-in-your-eye department." Jon? And then there's the whole thing, I mean I look at the comic books and the guy's like...we did a photo shoot the other day and it wound up going great, but like you see this picture of Tony Stark, who kind of looks like Tom Cruise except more handsome and more buff, and he's in this suit and his hair's blowing in the wind and it's curly and they go, "Can we do a shot like that?" And the hair lady's like, "We can try that," and I was like, "Let's not go Something About Mary here." And so it's been a lot of that, just like, outside issues. I'm not particularly tall and I was like surrounded by giants and I was like, "This is kinda weird..." I'm not walking around like Don Adams on boards or anything, but there are all these elements of...when I see this movie, it's like I want to believe like this guy is the guy.
Did you draw on any real-life playboys for inspiration for Tony?
This might sound a little weird, but I'm not drawing on other things for him. It's like I consider him to be a real entity, for the most part. That works for me. You know, if you had the stimuli that I do, day by day -- I say that with whatever I learned in theater arts 101 of again having that aesthetic distance so you actually know what you're doing. I mean, there's no sense in getting too caught up in something, but I come into work and there's like hundreds of people around and -- without abusing the influence I have -- it's like things are made easy and available to me. And I see $100,000 cars and things and all this stuff that, regardless of how much dough I've made over the years, I've never lived a day -- I've never lived a four seconds -- like this guy's lived every day. So it's been really this kind of like amazing experience to see what it would be like if you had unimaginable resources and you have this change of heart and you decide to pool these resources into something that became kind of fetishistic and obsessive, but obsessive in a way that you kind of have to figure out as you go along what the moral psychology is of that. So I think it's a very human journey. But continuing not answering your question, I tended to actually go more to mythology and the real basis of mythology and how men and women are capable, at a certain subtle level, of god-making, of making themselves god-like, of clearing themselves of these earthly things and locking into a purpose or some sort of divine idea. Whether it seems dark at the time or not, it's like you can see perception and you have this heroic experience. And I could say that about single mothers, I could say that about a variety of different folks that I've known growing up or whatever.
I'm sorry to have to ask you this, but...
Yeah, yeah. Don't give me all the f*ckin' preambles. Just bring it, dude.
How much of what's happened in your personal life have anything to do with what you're bringing to this role, or is it irrelevant?
Well, I think when someone's had a fundamental
change and they're not just trying to backpedal and make it seem like, "I'm
going to rehab again, and it's fine, but I'm still clubbing tonight and it
doesn't matter," or whatever, it's like friends of mine are just in a
different place in their own evolution. By the time you get out of Dodge and
start doing the right thing, you really don't relate to the person that
historically people still say. But it's like that thing, the guy that says,
"You know if you Google me, all you're gonna see is that I was accused of
raping those two kids on the boat," or whatever. It's like, I don't
even...why am I Googling you anyway? "My life has been ruined." That's
a really nice headspace. So my thing is like, what else is like yeah, Tony Stark
has been known to go bonkers and be so irresponsible that he's like too hammered
to put on the suit. And I was like, "Really?" And they're like,
"Yeah, yeah." And I thought, all these times when it seemed like in
the atmosphere that maybe there was another one of these, because you know, it's
like your superhero of the week thing. And I was like, "Green Hornet? Naah.
Green Hornet! No." Or other different ones or some of the others that have
happened where it's like, "We'd like you to play the bad guy in our
movie," and I'm like, "Yeah, the bad guy, yeah." But the fact
that Tony is so conflicted and at certain points in the...I guess it was like
the later years, with Demon in a Bottle and all that stuff...there's so much in
this movie as it is that we decided not to do like the Pirandello thing too, you
know? But I get it. In a way it's ideally suited for me, and I'm ideally suited
Whew! Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.