Robert Downey Jr. Opens Up About Life After Iron Man, Kung Fu Fighting and Managing a Menagierie in Dolittle
When Robert Downey Jr. was preparing for his new role in Dolittle, a movie in which he plays a doctor who lives with a house full of animals – and talks with them – he began to wonder, “How does anyone relate to this guy?” And then he looked out the window of his home in Malibu, Calif., and saw his alpaca Fuzzy looking back at him.
In addition to his wife of 14 years, Susan, and their two kids, son Exton, 7, and daughter Avri, 5, Downey lives with dozens of animals they’ve taken in over the past 10 years. There are pigs (kunekunes, a New Zealand breed), Oreo cows (with that distinctive white belt), pygmy goats, a larger rescue goat named Cutie Boots, a bunch of chickens and two cats, Montgomery and D’Artagnan. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah,'” he says with a laugh. “‘You’re completely surround by animals!'”
Today Downey, 54, ins in the Venice office of his production company, Team Downey, which he founded with Susan, 46, in 2010. He’s dressed in a classically eccentric outfit: a back brocade suit over a Bruce Lee T-shirt and a pair of black suede high-top sneakers, all chosen yesterday, he says. “I’m a guy who lays out my clothes the night before. Eliminates morning confusion.” There’s certainly nothing confusing about Downey’s career: It’s fill of iconic characters from pop culture and history, like Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chaplin and Iron Man. And now Downey is stepping into the shoes of another famous man in this month’s Dolittle (in theaters Jan 17).
The new movie is born from the classic 1920s book series by Hugh Lofting, but Downey based his Dr. John Dolittle on a real Welsh physician from 19th century Wales named William Price. He was “a very, very odd character” who was into a “neo-druidic” movement that promoted connection among all creatures, says Downey.
The new film begins after the doctor loses his wife to a tragedy, leading him to develop a case of anxiety and agoraphobia. But when Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) falls gravely ill and his help is needed to find a cure, Dolittle’s animals spur him into action because they know “it’s something he needs to do to clear up his traumatic past,” Downey says. Ultimately, he says, the film is about communication and empathy, “to seek to understand and to be understood.”
As seasons an actor as hit is, the role brought new challenges: Downey had to learn a Welsh accent for the part (“the hardest accent on Earth,” he says) with the help of a dialect coach. And he need to act with an entirely computer-generated animal cast. Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Selena Gomez, Octavia Spencer and others provide the voices of the brood, including Polynesia the macaw, Chee-Chee the gorilla, Yoshi the polar bear, Plimpton the ostrich, Dav-Dab the duck, Fleming the mouse and Barry the tiger.
Robert Downey’s Career Highs and Lows
Downey’s love of animals dates back to his childhood. “My dad always named our pets after directors… well, and one president,” remembers Downey. “So we had George Washington. The we had [Stanley] Kubrick, we had [Preston] Sturges. Sturges and I were pretty close; he was a Yorkshire terrier.”
The actor was raised with his older sister, Allyson, in Manhattan and Queens, New York, by their father, Robert Downey Sr., an actor and filmmaker, and mother, Elsie, an actress, who died in 2014. Downey was introduced to moviemaking at a young age, precociously appearing in one of his father’s films at age 5. But along with his early exposure to filmmaking cane an early exposure to drugs, as Downey famously smoked marijuana with hsi father at around 8 years old, planting seeds for his later drug addiction.
In the mid-’70s, his parents divorced and he moved to various places, from Connecticut and upstate Ne York to Southern California and back. And as a young man, he had a run of odd jobs – at a shoe store, a sandwich shop and as a busboy – while also attending acting programs and auditioning for roles.
He’ll never forget being 17 and making $140 a week performing at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York. “I’m riding around on a 10-speed bike – it was like a $107 Panasonic, I think and I could afford it ’cause it was bottom-tier. And I was listening on a Walkman to Phil Collins, just going, like, ‘Man, I’m really making something of my life here!'”
In those early years, “I had plenty of rejection,” he admits. But being raised in the city “makes you super-resilient,” a trait that kept him going. And two opposing forces – the drive he had to succeed in his career and the temptation to party – would prove to be a push and a call fro him for the next 20 years.
He did have some positive mentors during those days, including ’80s teen idol Matt Dillon. “He took me under his wing a little bit,” says Downey, who calls Dillon “one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met.” Downey also began working with other famed actors of his era, making an early name for himself in the 1980s alongside members of the so-called Brat Pack, the group of actors that loosely included Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Demi Moore and Ally Sheedy. He appeared in 1985’s Weird Science (“Anthony Michael Hall and I are still close,” he says), co-starred in The Pick-Up Artist with Ringwald, then played cocaine-addicted party boy Julian in Less Than Zero alongside McCarthy, a role that both amplified his career and his drug habit.
The next two decades brought both highs and lows. His starring turn in Chaplin (1992) earned him his first Academy Award nomination, and he had his son, Indio, now 26 (with his first wife of 12 years, Deborah Falconer); he also saw his drug addiction spiral, leading to multiple arrests, stints in jail and a state prison and stays at substance abuse treatment centers. But his determination to succeed prevailed as he hit more career milestones, nominated for both an Emmy (for his role as Ally’s love interest, Larry Paul, on TV’s Ally McBeal) and a second Oscar (for his role in the comedy Tropic Thunder). By the early 2000s, Downey got clean and fell in love, and before the close of the decade, he was offered a role that would change the course of his career: genius playboy Tony Stark in Iron Man.
How Robert Downey Jr. Became Iron Man
As a child, Downey had read the Marvel Iron Man comic books – about a wealthy scientist who builds a high-tech suit of armor and becomes a crime-fighting superhero. “There’s been two times where I’ve gone into a feverish-almost-like-a-walking dream in prep for something,” says Downey. The first time was Chaplin, in which he went full “method,” immersing himself into the character of silent-film legend Charlie Chaplin and his world; the next was Tony Stark. “It’s not so much that I related to him, as much as I just presumed that it was my destiny to build this character around all of my experiences,” he says. The film became the seed of a franchise that continued, across more than a decade, through two Iron Man sequels and spawned the entire interconnected Marvel universe and four Avengers films that culminated in last April’s Avengers: Endgame – allegedly marking the end of the series and Tony Stark’s role.
Looking forward, he doesn’t know if Iron Man will ever rise again. “The war for me is over,” he says. Now hes focused on the release of Dolittle and finding roles that can bring him that feverish excitement he lives for. “I personally have alighted to greener pastures,” he says.
One of thise pastures is his latest project, hosting a new learning series called The Age of A.I., which launched on YouTube Originals in December. In it, Downey takes viewers into some of the most transformational technology in the history of humankind, noting how “artificial intelligence” is already changing lives – and has the potential to change the world.
As Downey embarks on the next phase of Team Downey, he’s making time to tend to his marriage and raise his young family.
“We just genuinely love hanging out,” he says of his wife, whom he met on the set of his 2003 film Gothika, on which she was working as a producer. They were engaged six months after their first date and married in 2005. And they balance each other well. While he’ll be the one to get behind the wheel when they drive (“I’m giving her a break!” he insists), for anything having to do with the kids, “I defer to her,” he says. “I just wasn’t raised right, so chances are, I’m gonna have so caca take on things.”
At home, more of how they’re opposites emerges: “I’m a little more the domestic type; I could just talk to you about the drapes and recovering those chairs,” he says, pointing to the sunlit, sunken living room area of his office. “I love domestic maintenance; it just gets me off.” Whereas his wife, he says, gets too into her Team Downey to-do lists to care. “The machinations of her mind, it is astonishing – and horrifying – the sheer amount of date she is trying to process.”
Work has pulled away “the missus” today, which is what her calls her; she calls him Downey, or Rob,” he says. Some people call him “Doctor,” though he doesn’t know why, and it has nothing to do with his latest movie role. Close family calls him Bobby, and those who call him “Bob” usually have a history with Downey’s father, though “if I run into Tom Hanks, he’ll be like, ‘Bob Downey!'” As his mind zips from one detail of his life and art to another and back like a pinball machine, you can’t help but winder how he deals with the astonishing number of facts, details and data bouncing about is brain. “I don’t,” he says. “It’s like being in a hailstorm: You just put your hands up.”
To decompress from work, he and Susan go for walks, see live theater and spend time with their kids, who are home-schooled. They’ll play big block Jenga, Yeti in My Spaghetti and go for strolls along the sand to look for sea glass. Avri, the youngest, is into tumbling. Exton has been rotating through his Marvel action figures and is currently back to playing with his dad’s, but only “because he thinks I feel bad,” Downey says, laughing, “because I got, like, kicked off the team or something.” Some Saturday nights, the kids stay up late with Downey – which means that on Sundays, he’ll sleep in, work out, then do what his wife asks of him for the rest of the day, “as directed,” he says with a smile, “like an old limousine driver from the ’70s.”
Though he has gotten back into yoga, his training is otherwise singularly focused. “All I care about are Easter martial arts,” says Downey, who practices wing chun kung fu three or more times a week and is now adding weapons, like knives for attack drills, butterfly swords and sticks. But hes clear it’s not about preparing for a real fight; it’s an art form to him as well as a spiritual practice. “It’s transcendent. It’s a huge meditation,” he says. “And it just happened to be the right thing for me.”
All of it is keeping him healthier in his mid-50s than he ever was in his 20s or 30s. And if he could change anything at all about his life? he laughs. “I mean, I might need to floss more?”
What is Robert Downey Jr. reading?
12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson
What is Robert Downey Jr. watching?
“The first three episodes of Perry Mason [new HBO series starring |Matthew Rhys, coming later this year].”
What is RDJ’s favorite spot in the house to relax?
“The outside ocean-facing basket swing. It fits me and the kids in it, and the blankets. Avri sits on my right, and then Exton sits over here [on his left] and swings his legs over with his feet in [Avri’s] lao. That’s pur happy place. And then mom gets to read the paper.”
What is RDJ’s favorite snack?
“Crunchy almond butter and a scoop of blueberry jelly.”
What is Robert Downey Jr.’s favorite toy.
“I just found a Leica [film camera] that I got myself. So my newest toy is the one I forgot from 2016.”
What is Robert Downey Jr.’s guilty pleasure?
“£100,000 Bar – now it’s called 100 Grand. Maybe there was someone at the treasury department who though it was a liability: ‘Do you have change for a hundred grand?’ I like Bit-O-Honey too.”
What’s the mantra RDJ lives by?
“‘The rules are the tools.’ Which means if you’re wondering what you need to do, then have principles that you live by and use those. Don’t try to wonder, ‘Are there different rules for everything?’ The same spiritual principles apply to everything.”
What is RDJ listening to these days?
“‘Chances With Wolves,’ a curated music thing that you can get on Sonos or Spotify”
What animal would he talk to if he could?
“Probably one of the ancient ones, like a Gila monster: ‘I mean, seriously, what was it like? Did you see that asteroid hit the Yucatan? Were you trippin’?'”
Original article at Parade.
This article has been reproduced for archive purposes.