The New York Times Interview: Robert Downey Jr. Talks Oppenheimer and More.

Robert Downey Jr.s Post-Marvel Balancing Act

“This summer,” Robert Downey Jr. says, “is the battle for the soul of cinema.” Like a lot of things said by the actor, who co-stars in the thriller “Oppenheimer,” directed by Christopher Nolan and opening in theaters on July 21, that statement was delivered with a soupçon of knowing sarcasm, but there’s truth to it. In a cinematic season dominated by series, superheroes and pre-existing I.P. all aimed at the widest-possible market, whether there is still a theatergoing audience sizable enough to sustain the work of a highly individualistic, highly ambitious director like Nolan – whose latest is a three-hour epic focusing, among other weighty themes, the moral dilemmas faced by the title character, called “the father of the atomic bomb” – remains an open question. (In the film, Downey plays Lewis Strauss, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and the chief antagonist of J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy.) As if that weren’t enough, the film also represents a career reset – famously not the first – for Downey, who in June premiered “Downey’s Dream Cars,” a docuseries in which some of his classic cars were refitted to be more eco-friendly. It has been an awfully long time since the 58-year-old has shown up in a big movie playing a major part that wasn’t Tony Stark (a.k.a Iron Man) or other would-be franchise material. “You start to wonder,” says Downey, a rollicking and digressive talker, “if a muscle hasn’t atrophied.”

Even though Christopher Nolan is a marquee name, a movie like “Oppenheimer” isn’t exactly a guaranteed box-office slam dunk. Then consider that in the light of a show like “Perry Mason“, which your company co-produced and which everyone seemed to like, but that wasn’t enough to keep it from being canceled. So from where you’re sitting, do you feel as if you’re able to make sense of the business right now? Since my ship came in in 2008, when “Iron Man” had that big weekend, I have been a self-described expert on the ways of the world of creativity and commerce. It’s not that the playing field changes – it’s that it morphs into something that you can’t even really call a playing field anymore. It’s a kind of mosaic of what it was moments before. If I am running a major streamer – which sounds like a big No.1; how serious is it if the mind immediately goes to peepee? – anyway, you look at the budget, you look at the numbers and it comes down to a spreadsheet.

But know does knowing that affect your choices about what to make? You just go, “Welcome to the Thunderdome,” I think it has been great in that we can all say that not one of us can entirely hit our ass with both hands right now, so let’s just keep doing what we believe is the best course of action.

Have you talked with Tom Cruise about this competition between “Mission: Impossible” and “Oppenheimer” to be on more IMAX screens?1 Nah. Like I said, it’s Thunderdome out there. Everybody’s trying to do what they can. There’s a scramble going on, and what a glory to behold.

Robert Downey Jr. in “Oppenheimer.” Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

If there is, as you said, a battle going on for the soul of cinema, do you feel any ambivalence about having such a key part of the Marvel movies, which pretty much ate Hollywood moviemaking? If you’re talking about adjusted for inflation, the biggest movies of all time, “Gone With the Wind” and “The Ten Commandments” are there. I’m sure that in the years those movies came out, there were probably films that you and I would agree were a better representation of what cinema can be. I did not have the luxury of wondering what the longer-term repercussions of coming in as a second-tier superhero for something that was going to build out into a cinematic universe would be – and it didn’t matter, because I had a Super Bowl ring on each finger while this debate was being contested with much heat. The other side of it is that I was raised in a family2 that rebelled against the idea of a summer blockbuster having any merit and thought that the films that were preferred viewing that year weren’t any good, either. So coming from that other place, entering the box-office-weekend-dominating place, then going into this spot now where I’m happy that I’m in this quality product – I’m happy that I regained my connection with a more purist approach to making movies.

Is it right that you’re remaking “Vertigo”? We are certainly looking into it. You know why?

No, but that seems crazy. Exactly! Not even risky. Advisable ridiculous to even consider. Great, let’s look into it! First of all, who would our partners be in it?3 Love them, respect them. Second of all, let me reread the original synopsis. I think we can do better. [Laughs]

God bless. I’ll tell you why. I have been rock climbing before and gotten stuck in that panic freeze, and if not for the sheer embarrassment, I would have asked to have been hoisted off that rock. I lost my confidence in my positioning, the drop was too far, my body reacted. It wasn’t fight-or-flight; it was freeze-and-about-to-faint. I’ll never forget it, and it made me think there are cinematic devices that have yet to be fully utilized that I think would provide an experience in trying to say, “What does it feel like to be psychologically silly with fear over something that should be manageable?” That might be entertaining.

Downey on “Downey’s Dream Cars,” Max

But you’re obviously in a phase of your career, post-Marvel,4 in which I assume, you only have to work when you want to. You’ve also got plenty going on outside acting.5 So how do you decide what movies to do? At this point, you’re not doing it for the money. Were you ever doing it for the money once your baseline needs were met? Probably not. Did you think it was about money and prestige? Probably fron the time I was a teenager until that illusion dissolved in front of me, leaving me in a depressive state. But then there’s the why: I don’t know why I can relate to Lewis Strauss so much, but I felt like I was meant to play this role, and I knew I’d be in capable hands.
“Oppenheimer” has been a bit of a demarcation for me.

Why? I finished the Marvel contract and then hastily went into what had all the promise of another big, fun, well-executed potential franchise in “Dolittle.” I had some reservations. Me and my team seemed a little too excited about the deal and not quite excited enough about the merits of the execution. But at that point I was bulletproof, I was the guru of all genre movies. Honestly, the two most important films I’ve done in the last 25 years are “The Shaggy Dog,” because that was the film that got Disney saying they would insure me. Then the second most important film was “Dolittle,” because “Dolittle” was a two-and-a-half-year wound of squandered opportunity. The stress it put on my missus6 as she rolled her sleeves up to her armpits to make it even serviceable enough to bring to market was shocking. After that point – what’s that phrase? Never let a good crisis go to waste? – we had this reset of priorities and made some changes in who our closest business advisers were. And that whole time, my dad was passing away, and as an avoidance mechanism, I decided to send crews over and get his thoughts on his winter years, and that turning into “Sr.,”7 probably the most important things I will ever do, which was being able to become part object and subject within a piece of “content.” Which is what it was but to me it was meaningful. Then old Chris Nolan calls, and getting to see the spartan, almost monastic way he approaches this art form, it was like going to the other side of the moon, So I guess my answer to your question is, I’m a dedicated martial-arts student, and it is great to spar with someone who is more dangerous than you.

Downey with his son Exton Elias and father, Robert Downey Sr., in “Sr.” (2022). Netflix

Do you remember when that money-prestige illusion dissolved for you? About two weeks after me and Jon8 and Kevin9 were pumping fists at Giorgio Baldi, in the private room, and the numbers kept getting bigger for the first weekend of the first “Iron Man.” It was gung-ho, masters of the universe until I went to bed on night 13. I must have processed out all of the projection that had been on those external markers of what I should feel great about. I went into a k-hole.

How come? That drive that had been built up by being the kid on the other side of the fence – there was no longer a purpose for that. The water broke on what had seemingly been this unrequited things. But what was requited? You realize you still have grief about a, b or c, or a not particularly irrational fear that d, e or f could happen. These external goals – there’s only so much space in the hard drive to function, and it was all geared toward getting this thing, and then when you meet it, it just goes, OK, big shot, can we get back to the process of unpacking a lifetime of experiences, fears, hopes, desires?

In that decade=plus when you were mostly doing Marvel movies, did you have any concerns about what effect that might have on your acting? I say that as someone who thought you did amazing work with Tony Stark. But you did play the same role for a long time. Yes. A hundred percent, and I knew there was a point where Chris Nolan was endorsing, let’s work those other muscles, but let’s do it while rendering you devoid of your usual go-to things.

Downey in “Iron Man” (2008). Paramount via Everett Collection

What are your go-to things? It’s the fast-talking, charming, unpredictable, blah, blah, blah, or as mu very close friend Josh Richman, a character actor, used to say, I made my bones playing “Milo, the offbeat buddy,” And Milo, the offbeat buddy, better be offbeat! Just to connect this back to “Oppenheimer”: In doing a bunch of research on Strauss, I connected it to my own grandfather been a contemporary of his. Robert Elias, whom I never met, was in the U.S. Army, self-made guy. There’s a cool simile between something he was involved in and how Strauss probably felt about Oppenheimer. This grandfather helpded do the glass for the Chrysler Building, and the Chrysler and the Empire State were vying to be the biggest. So I was thinking, how can I make Strauss’s competitiveness with Oppenheimer personal, and it was: Look at that building over there that’s no better than mine getting all the shine! I don’t think there’s another human being alive that can’t admit to having fallen into the vagaries of comparison. I also relate to, for reasons in a part of my life that I don’t discuss with the press – the recovery stuff10 – the amount of service that was involved in Strauss’s life and the dedication to an ideal. There’s always going to be variances in opinion, but I had an easy time making a case for why this individual was right.

I respect that there are things you don’t talk about in interviews, but can you make the connection for me between Strauss’s sense of service and your own? I’m not following? I’m saying that doing the right thing for the right reasons gives you an advantage in spirit. For instance, my son is in Little League. He also thinks I am his personal P.T. masseuse. I’m like, “Dude, I love you, but do I really have to give you another foot rub?” Once I get past that and realize, yes, I’ve had a long day but he’s probably had a longer day – there’s this sacred moment when he’s already fallen asleep and I’m still doing my shiatsu moves on him and you just feel right-size. You are getting so much gratification from this process of putting yourself in this position of service, and no one’s keeping score. That is something that I learned as I was tunneling my way back to being a functioning member of society, one teaspoon of dirt at a time. And looking at Strass, I saw that he was a guy who had his nose to the grindstone and was a civil servant for decades. I have something I can relate to.

The tunneling-your-way-back line is reminding me of something I wanted to ask about: I watched this 2004 clip of you on “Oprah,” about a year after you got clean, and the subtext of the interview is that you were bad and now you have to convince everyone that you’re good – which is a dynamic that showed up in so many old TV appearances and magazine articles about you. I’m curious to know how you understood the public’s expectations for how a celebrity is supposed to behave in order to earn redemption. I remember with great pride that I was able to even address something like that in a public forum. Yeet it would irk mme deeply. It felt strangley punitive and unnecessarily humiliating. The challenge, though, is, yeah, so what? [Expletive] what you’re going though. Can you show up for this? There’s a great story about this guy – this would never play nowadays – he was in one of his last Zen trainings, and he was told to go to the lingerie section at Lord & Taylor and just stand there until women felt uncomfortable. It’s this idea of purposefully putting yourself in a situation where you will feel judged. The only difference between that misguided aspiring Ze master and me is I didn’t sign up to have that kind of experience. But once you’re there, you gotta roll with the punches. I am close with people right now who have gotten caught up in this iteration of the pendulum-like nature of culture deciding who is and isn’t OK. It is baffling. But yeah, shock, self-damnation, feeling exposed, feeling disabused of any progress you might have made – we’ere also talking about me in my 40s and 30s and there’s something great about pushing 60, which is I still have many of the old defects; I just know them so well. They’re like telemarketers. It’s like “Come on, guys.”

Downey with Holly Hunter in “Home for the Holidays (1995)

What advice are you giving to people you’re close with who the culture has decided are not OK? I feel a bit fugazi when I’m trying to apply the metrics of the ’80s, ’90s and the early aughts to what’s occured in the last five or seven years, but I think there’s usually a two-year turnaround on sinking to the depths of the Mariana Trench until you get back up to the surface. You come up too quick, we know what happens. There are many points in a comeback or being seen in a favorable light by your peers that, I’ll speak for myself, I wanted to happen sooner than it did, and I felt victimized by the timeline. But mankind’s greatest challenge is to be still. Stay on the bus. The scenery’s changing, You don’t get to decide where you get off the bus. The driver will let you know when you’ve arrived at your stop. But that’s that intolerable thing of how will I know when this nightmare is over?

How do you know? Because you wake up.

During that period when your offscreen life was so chaotic, you took a bunch of roles that had an element of daring to them. Whether it was “Chaplin” or “Heart and Souls” or “Natural Born Killers” or “Black and White.11 Maybe “The Sympathizer”12 is a return to that; maybe in a way, “Oppenheimer” is, too. But post-comeback, you seemed to step away from those riskier parts. Was there a connection between living a wilder live and pursuing risker parts? Or maybe it’s having a more stable life and wanting more stable parts? That element of risk: Is this something that is relatively low or mid-degree of difficulty? Or is this something that to fail at is to be walking between two large buildings – what was that guy’s name?

Philippe Petit.13 Thank you. Or is a sweet Petit moment? I never intentionally started saying, “Let me do something that feels like a little more low-hanging fruit.” I would just be in varying stages of self-deception, where I could say, “Oh, I can make this huge stretch” but really it’s more of the same. It was not a rude awakening with Chris Nolan, because all those memory banks of, I should probably be off book for these 80 pages of dialogue. What? We don’t need to d that anymore! Shut up! You can do this. What if your brain has gone jelly-numb from all of your conspicuous consumption? As it turns out, it all has gone nowhere. It was confirmation that very little atrophies when you get shaken out of whatever version of complacen cy you might have been in.

Downey and Marisa Tomei in “Chaplain” (1992). Carloco Pictures, via Getty Images

How much does it matter for you to be able to personally relate to a character in the way that you related to Lewis Strauss? Actually, let me ask this question using examples from your career: In “Two Girls and a Guy,” there’s a scene where your character is looking in the mirror excoriating himself, and it’s easy to watch that and assume the self-loathing on display was being drawn from your own life. But then there’s something like “Home for the Holidays,” where you give this totally relaxed, charming performance. In both cases, your life at the time was a mess. But did one or the other performance feel truer to you? Hold on, let’s get this straight: “Home for the Holidays,” for me, is the most relaxed performance in the history of cinema, brough to you courtesy of black-tar heroin. “Two Girls and a Guy,” those were Toback’s14 loose words put together in his assessment of this character’s self-damnation, but it ends with a clown. I learned a lot from that one take. That was an end-of-the-day, we’ve got a mag of film left, here’s a dumb idea, and yet I learned as much from that as anything I had ever done up to that, with the exception of “Chaplain.” It’s that Spencer Tracey approach15 – stand there, be honest – with a little undercutting at the end. It was a gauche way of trying to express that – but I was relatively young.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is how much your preferences tend to be rooted in your personal experience. Because, unlike with a lot of other actors, I have no idea how important being able to personally identify with a character is or isn’t for your approach to acting. I’ll say this: I don’t know! I did “Less than Zero,”16 with a director, Marek Kanievska, who understood what I didn’t, which is, we’re doing something incredibly artistic: This guy is a mess and probably going to get worse, but he’s not a bad as the character he’s playing. Can he have an experience whereby it may spare him years of untold agony? The answer was no, but it was a question worth asking! Then I had other characters in other things where I put on a mask, and in putting on the mask, I am free to subject the screen to ny unconscious dialogue, which I find hilarious, engaging and wrought with bad-clown energy. Then there’s things that feel kind of in the sweet-spot. I had an experience in Pasadena on “Oppenheimer” where we were doing a driving shoot and it’s me and Nolan and Hoyte17 the D.P. and this driver, ande it’s all been set up and we had to address something on the car. The right or something wasn’t right. At one point, Nolan was like, “I’m going to step out – here, take this,” and he put a mag of film in my lap. I was brought back to that first time I was really on set with my dad18 – the smell of film – and it was almost like in the five minutes that I was sitting there he gave me back my cellular dignity as someone who belongs in the position I found myself.

Downey with Jami Gertz and Andrew McCarthy in “Less Than Zero” (1987). 20th Century Fox, via Everett Collection

At the beginning of the conversation, you referred to “Sr.” as “content. “I’m guessing you wouldn’t use that word to describe “Oppenheimer.” So what’s “content” and what’s not? Pull out the list, and I’ll tell you yes or no.

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” No content.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron. Content.

“U.S. Marshalls.” Debatable.

“Back to School.” Not content.

Do you have a Rodney Dangerfield19 story? Oh, yeah. The first time I went to meet him, he opened the door of his apartment wearing a terry-cloth robe. The belt for the robe undid itself as he was opening the door – so the first part of Rodney Dangerfield I ever experienced were his kiwis. It was unadulterated joy from that moment. “Come on in. You mind if I smoke some [expletive]?” “Nope, that’s not going to be a problem, Rodney.” Another time, we were shooting a scene, and he said: “Watch this. ‘Oh, my ankle! Ah, [expletive]!” That was on a Thursday. Three-day weekend. Honestly, let me tell you why I used that word “content.”

Yeah. “Sr.” is so personal, but to everyone else it was a piece of content that they could have chosen to click on and watch or not.

How’s that different from anything else you do? Whether it’s a movie or “Downey’s Dream Cars” or your business ventures, you put things out there and people engage with it or not, right? Because it’s way for me to let myself know that just because this may be the most important thing that I ever commit to a data card on a camera, doesn’t mean it isn’t [expletive] content to everyone else. You know, there’s part of me that thinks I should be a writer or an entrepreneur or I could blah, blah, blah. But then I think about it and go, I’ve made peace with what I am at my core: There’s really only one thing I’ve ever been any goddam good at. So to keep imagining that I’m going to suddenly transform into this formidable multihyphenate? I’m just starting to not buy my own hype. It’s about: Can I feel good about what I’m doing? OK, yes, then I’ll feel good about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity fron two conversations.


1 Puck, a business newsletter focusing in part on Hollywood, reported on the behind-the-scenes jostling for space on IMAX screens this month, when “Oppenheimer,” Cruise’s “Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” and “Barbie,” are all vying for theatergoers’ dollars.

2 Downey’s father was the underground film director Robert Downey Dr., perhaps best known for his satirical comedy “Putney Swope” (1969). His mother, Elise, was an actress who also appeared in Downey Sr.’s work.

3 The creator of “Peaky Blinders,” Steven Knight, has been tapped to write the script, pending the resolution of the W.G.A. strike. Davis Entertainment and Paramount are set to co-produce along with Team Downey.

4 Downey first played Iron Man in 2008. He portrayed the character for the final time in 2019.

5 Including the Footprint Coaliion, a venture-capital company focusin on environmental tech that Downey co-founded, and Aura, a digital-security firm in which he’s an investor.

6 Downey’s wide, Susan Downey, was a co-producer on “Dolittle.” The couple are founders of the Team Downey production company. “Perry Mason” was another of their productions.

7 A 2022 documentary, produced by Downey, about his father and their relationship during the latter’s final years.

8 Jon Favreau, director of “Iron Man.”

9 Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios

10 As you probably already know, Downey dealt with severe addiction issues, multiple related arrests and a period of incarceration, until getting clean in the early 2000s.

11 In “Chaplain,” Downey offered a touching, detailed rendition of the great early film star (which earned him a best actor Oscar nomination0; in “Heart and Souls,” he played a man inhabited by the souls of four different dead people; in “Natural Born Killers,” he gave perhaps the most gonzo performance, as an amoral Australian tabloid TV journalist, in an exceptionally gonzo movie; and in “Black and White,” he has a scene in which he makes a pass at a perturbed Mike Tyson.

12 Downey is playing multiple parts in the producer and director Park Chanwook’s adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The series, which is co-produced by Team Downey, is slated to arrive on Max in 2024.

13 That’s the Frenchman who, in 1974, famously walked between the World Trade Center towers on a tightrope.

14 James Toback, who has directed Downey in three films. In 2017, Toback was accused of rampant harassment of women. He has denied the allegations. In 2022, 38 of those women filed a joint lawsuit against Toback in New York.

15 This is an allusion to, and somewhat odd paraphrase of, a quote often, though not definitively, credited to Tracey: “Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” I’ve heard Tom Hanks use a similar line and also credit it to Tracy, though Hanks rendered it as “Learn the lines. Hit the marks. Tell the truth.”

16 Downey delivered an acclaimed performance as Julian, an affluent young drug addict, in this 1987 adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel.

17 The cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has workd on multiple Christopher Nolan flms.

18 As a child, Downey acted in his father’s films.

19 The stand-up comedy legend was the star of “Back to School” (1986), in which he played a middle-aged businessman who returns to college to help his son.

Original article at The New York Times

This article has been reproduced for archive purposes. All rights remain with the originating website.

Author: Cider

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