Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man. Over the last seven years, the 50-year-old actor has played Tony Stark in six films (the Iron Man trilogy, an appearance in The Incredible Hulk, and a pair of Avengers films, the second of which, Age of Ultron, comes out May 1). When I meet him in the basement of a posh Santa Monica hotel, he is wearing a slick, slim-fitting suit, a pearly-white smile, and a perfectly groomed goatee. It takes a solid second or two for it to register that he’s not in character. And that is sort of the point: Part of the genius of Downey’s run as Stark is how, in some ways, the actor has become indistinguishable from his onscreen superhero persona.
This is harder to accept for some than it is for others. On one hand, Downey is arguably the biggest movie star in the world. And he’s a pretty damn good one at that — with a blinding intellect, convincing action chops, and an uncommon sense of sarcasm for someone so freaking famous, he elevates even the most average material to rather entertaining heights.
On the other hand, Paul Avery is not walking through that door anytime soon. For a certain strain of movie fan, seeing Downey achieve and maintain the status of Biggest Movie Star in the World is a bittersweet proposition. It means one of the most gifted actors of his generation is spending most of his time as one of two characters, acting as the engine for two of Hollywood’s biggest franchises. Since 2009, Downey has starred in eight movies, and he has played Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark in all but two of them (Due Date and The Judge).
It seems almost churlish to wonder what could have been with Downey, especially when it at once could have been so much worse and in many ways is hard to imagine being much better. Here we have a man who emerged out of the grips of addiction to become a global celebrity and icon. He has gone from infamous to famous. His life, quite frankly, was saved. And now he’s a superhero. So what if it doesn’t look like he will turn up in Good Night, and Good Luck–size films anymore?
I met with Downey in early April to talk about the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, his career outside of Iron Man’s suit, turning 50, and what it’s like to have Steely Dan playing at your house during your birthday party.
You can listen to an audio version of our chat below.
The text version of this interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
I saw this thing on RollingStone.com, written by Donald Fagen—
It’s a tour diary because they’re going to go play Coachella — Steely Dan are. And he says, to warm up, they played the 50th birthday party of a rather well-known actor with the initials RDJ.
It was … I still only have vague recollections of it, because it was such a mind-blowing affair to see. I can’t even describe my affinity for Steely Dan, Fagen and [Walter] Becker, and each and every person that’s ever played on any of their albums.
It’s the easy/hard listening. Reading some of your past interviews — and this could be a false narrative — it seems like at one point, maybe before Winter Soldier, like turning 50 was a deterrent to keep doing Iron Man, and then somewhere around there it becomes a catalyst.
You buy that at all?
I enjoy your false narrative. Let’s go with it. There’s always a resistance as you approach imaginary boundaries. And sometimes they can be accelerators. To say it’s just a number is to be one of those people who has contempt for things they’re afraid of. To a certain extent … it certainly meant something to me on Friday. I think it meant something on Sunday. During the day of [my birthday], we were just getting ready to go host this experiential … kind of retro-futuristic vibe we wanted for this party —
I think Nehru jackets were mentioned.
Yeah, it kind of reads like Steely Dan liner notes.
[Laughs.] While that particular integer is incorrect, it does speak to the larger requirement list, [and] there were many quote-unquote requirements. Anyway, what I forgot was that I was going to have the experience too. I think because I’m married to a very effective, loving woman who’s also a producer, often times we feel like we host these things — whether they’re for one or the other or both of us or something else — and that we kind of realize afterward that we were actually in the experience too.
But going back to Steely Dan. There’s nothing like seeing Becker verbally improvise along something, where you go, “I know they’re going to go back into the song; I know they’re going to hit that beat,” and it’s so cool. And also when Fagen walks out after the band is kind of prepped, just by playing level-11 jazz fusion, you’re just like, “Oh my god.” And then he steps out and sits down at his electric keyboard. I also noticed, too, that when you’re that … there are people who want to be hip and want to be cool. And then there are people who have ceased any attachment to that and yet they are so, to their core, that.
I think in the same piece, he mentions that he’s never actually heard AC/DC, and that he stopped paying attention to popular music in ’72, which I really like.
As you keep making these films as Iron Man, the way you talk about it, you’ll talk about your own life, and you’ll talk about these movies, and the vocabulary will kind of intertwine. There’s cave imagery that comes up in both …
Do you feel like these movies have become something that transcended a business choice?
Right, no, where you’re knocking, I don’t know where the knob to that door is. I know that it opens by itself, and I step into it sometimes, but it’s not that I can’t distinguish my personal reality from my career. There’s a … there’s some constellation that is this experience, this planet … let me put it this way: I ran into Keanu Reeves a dozen years ago. He just got back from shooting the first Matrix, and I said to him, naively, “Hey, man, how’d that go?” He was like, “I’ve been on another planet for nine months.” And I was like, “Uh, OK, how’d the shoot go?”
But once I saw it, I was like, man, I didn’t know. Once I saw the movie, any question I could have asked him was answered in that answer.
Mine has been more of a slow-burn version of that. It was a business and a creative thing, it was a personal thing, it was an intuitive thing. And now it’s become, I don’t know, I think it’s like a national product.
It is. It is like an American export.
Maybe it had something to do with some of the stuff that happens cinematically with Winter Soldier and pushes what these movies can do a little more, and it seems like there was a renewed interest after that.
Renewed interest, and also Guardians of the Galaxy, because I know all the men and women that are behind making all these movies. It really is, it’s such a team sport, and the fact that I’m kind of like … the glint coming off my tooth for the Colgate smile, it just made me realize that every personal achievement usually has a thousand faces. Now, I don’t want to be one of those guys, [fake crying] “Man, my te-am-mates.” You know? To me it was more of a kind of “aha.”
I wanted to burn through some of your older movies before I saw you, and I got stuck on Zodiac, which often happens when I start watching Zodiac.
2005–07 is such an amazing run.
Do you think it’s an amazing run? You do two of the best movies of the last 15 years there.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Zodiac.
You kind soul. And look, I was just … Mama needed a new pair of shoes. At the same time I was getting into this groove — I was kind of getting into a pre-groove, and sometimes the pre-groove is better than the groove.
That’s an interesting Steely Dan way of putting it.
Right? Again, to me now, it’s a period piece. I know that a car isn’t a classic car for 25 years, but I’m telling you, my birthday on Saturday is now … there’s so much going on right here and now. And what’s going on between promoting this and starting Civil War, and just all the stuff, and a new baby, and turning 50, I’m so kind of in forward mode that it just seems like my data is just automatically, spontaneously dumping itself out the back. Which I don’t have a judgment on, I just find it curious.
Do you mean you’re not nostalgic?
It means that if I want to get the squelch going, if I want to get out my Cobra C.B. and start looking for what channel that’s on, I will find it. And if I listen, I can tell you everything that’s occurring. But just to dial back there, I mean, it was funny … I look at where Jake’s [Gyllenhaal] at now, and I look at what he’s done with his craft — and he was damn good then. And I look at [Mark] Ruffalo and I, and if somebody had come to us when we were shooting Zodiac and said, “Hulkbuster, huh?” We’d been like, “What!?” “It’s what the fans want, the Hulkbuster, man.”
I’m just humbled by how interesting life can be. I was raised in a generation where you were supposed to say, “Nothing’s interesting except the club I’m going to.”
When you are doing non-Sherlock, non-Stark work now, there’s not that many at-bats. I know there’s Yucatan, and I know you guys bought the Black Mirror episode “Entire History of You.”
How hard is it to walk away from, or turn down, or not be able to do something like Inherent Vice or Gravity that is somebody else’s bag, that they’re working on, because you’re focused on the stuff that’s going to come through your shingle?2
Um, yeah, but I want to remain open, because I also know that typically there’s many more instances of individuals who are pretty flexible and thoughtful making themselves an island without meaning to, just because it’s convenient. And also because it’s just kind of where your interest lies.
I’m really fortunate that, first and foremost, I’m friends with PTA [Inherent Vice director Paul Thomas Anderson]. And he is so much more than a filmmaker. He’s just someone that you go, “If I could spend a big chunk of every day with this guy, then I’d be a better person.” So, that’s great. He and my dad are pals. The three of us are going out to dinner tomorrow. That, to me, is as exciting a moment as … not just being front and center [gestures to the surrounding cameras and Avengers posters in the room] … but Steely Dan is playing my birthday party? [Laughs.] It’s like the LCD lyric, “Daft Punk is playing at my house.”
So “PTA Is Coming to My Dinner”?
Yeah, and we’re having a six-top.
What did you think of what Joaquin Phoenix did when you wound up seeing it?
(A) Nobody should have done that movie besides him, and (b) Paul was never really thinking about me for it, and it’s not because he’s cryptic. It’s because they have a Scorsese–De Niro thing. At this point, I’d be happy to offer Mr. Anderson any and every film I do from now on. I love watching what they do.
We were just meeting with an investigative mythologist named William Henry, who was in town doing a couple of episodes of Ancient Aliens, and who has written dozens of books, all of which I’ve read, certain of which figured into what I was harping on everyone about when I got into the first Iron Man. Terry Rossio, who’s just a rock star writer, and William Henry and myself are at some Malibu restaurant, just kicking it. We have an outline, there’s been a draft, we keep moving forward, but trust me, it’s gonna happen.
You mentioned in a different interview that the story development process is an aphrodisiac for you.
It’s also its own buzzkill, because the process is the process. We turn in a draft of Pinocchio, and there’s something about just turning in a draft — very well received — which in and of itself is very much a bummer. Because you know, via their notes and all the things … you’re always just trying to get up a facsimile of what your initial impulses were about something. Again, thank god for Susan Downey. She speaks Klingon, and she can really walk me through this multilevel chess game that is actually getting your hopes, thoughts, and intentions … It’s just an odd game of Operator. And sometimes you need to have it be a complete mess for a really long time.
What’s it like playing Operator in what is kind of uncharted territory? We always think about these things in terms of trilogies, in terms of Star Wars, Empire, Jedi. Now you’re going into [parts] five, six, seven years into the future, actors you haven’t even met yet who will take on these roles. Is that exciting? Scary?
I mean, I’m sure it’s a little bit of everything. I think also, when you’re looking at the back nine of your own mortal coil, you can only get wrapped up in so many things, because life does not require my participation. It’s more a carpe the heck out of the diem, and pay attention. And also, you know, at this point, I feel like I’m an honorary board member for Marvel and Disney.4 I feel kind of like a comanager—
Like creative equity.
I guess so. I’m not even the person who invested whatever you might have called creative equity back then. When you’re involved in hit-and-miss illusions, it’s such a strange and hilarious thing to actually be able to go back and really take any ownership over it. But I do know that the conditions that create that equity are pretty … they’re markedly different from project to project, but there’s the Tao of how to be of benefit. And a lot of it is staying out of the way, and realizing that the wave gets really big, and sometimes it’s not your wave. And when you’re up on it because your board didn’t slip out, and maybe you do a couple of hot dogs, because you’re supposed to. It looks good.
I don’t know. I don’t want to say I’m humbled by it. I just want to say that when you look backstage at the world of these massive creative entertainment endeavors, it’s like when Jacob climbed up the ladder, and he came back down and they said, “What’d you think?” and he said [quivering whisper], “Terrible.” By which he means awesome.