Robert Downey Jr. : The Father of the Man
Remember when Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t a movie star? Twenty years ago, Downey was a talented actor. But he was also a train wreck. He made more headlines with his substance abuse problems and subsequent legal issues than he did with his movies. By that point in his career, Downey had been on the cusp of movie stardom for over a decade. But it kept eluding him.
For the cover story of the June 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, Downey was interviewed by director James Toback with whom he has made The Pick-Up Artist and the soon-to-be-released Two Girls and a Guy. Downey was very frank in discussing his career set-backs and how directos (including Toback) frustrate him.
The notion of originality is constantly being ballyhooed in Hollywood. But as everyone knows, originality is an unknown quantity that’s almost always more trouble than it’s worth. The great, creaky system of Hollywood movie/moneymaking doesn’t deliberately stamp out originality (that would take clear thinking); it mostly ignores or accidentally rolls over on it. Which does and does not explain something of why Robert Downey Jr. isn’t a giant movie star.
Downey is unquestionably an original. He’s also widely regarded as an actor of literally immeasurable talent. Still, he’s never done a brilliant film. He’s only been brilliant in some of the good (Soapdish), interesting (Natural Born Killers, Chaplin, Short Cuts) and terrible (Less Than Zero) films he’s been in. Those people who care about quality in Hollywood have spent a decade shaking their heads over Downey-sometimes in awe at one of his performances, sometimes in wonder at his failure to break through, and sometimes in fear and frustration at the drug problem that threatened last year to eclipse talent and charisma as the source of his greatest celebrity. Now having spent years making all sorts of movies and struggling to grow up to his own gifts, and having created his own family, including son Indio, is Downey ready to emerge as a fully adult actor? To be great in a great film–and perhaps to become the movie star he once seemed a sure thing to become?
Writer/director James Toback, whose roots go back to the most extraordinary stint of originality-tolerance that modern Hollywood’s seen–the ’70s, in which Toback himself wrote and directed the classic Fingers–knows what gives with Robert Downey Jr. He worked with Downey years ago on The Pick-Up Artist, and saw then Downey’s potential for dealing with aspects of experience that are far outside the range of any of his contemporaries. For the low-budget, extremely personal, the-’70s-weren’t-for-nothing independent film Two Girls and a Guy, Toback wanted only Downey, and Downey signed on for a short, ultraintense shoot with costars Heather Graham and Natasha Wagner. At the end of shooting, Toback sat down with Downey to talk about the many-layered collaboration they’d been through, and about his unusual star’s approach to acting, creativity, fatherhood, sonhood, Hollywood, money, sex … Well, read for yourself.
JAMES TOBACK: Your character in our movie, Blake Allen, is charming, enjoyable, entertaining, brilliant, witty, musical, lonely, compassionate, duplicitous, contradictory, slippery. When I asked myself who could play him–
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: –You came immediately to the conclusion of Leonardo DiCaprio.
JT: [Laughs] Yes, but he wasn’t available so then I thought of you.
RD: I think what happens is that you develop certain connections with certain people. If you’re lucky you converge at the right time. You run into a person when you need to. Like when you showed up at the cast party for the Saturday Night Live I hosted and said, “Are you ready?” We hadn’t spoken in what, three years? And I knew you meant you had a movie for me and I said “Yes” to myself before you even told me what it was. It was totally intuitive. And that set the tone for how we’ve worked together. When we were doing a scene, once I’d given you what–
JT:–what you thought I wanted–
RD:–[Laughs] exactly–I was free to let my spirit go. Over and over in the movies I’ve made, that’s the risk directors have promised me I could take, but this is the first time I’ve actually been allowed by anyone–including you on The Pick-Up Artist–to do it.
JT: I’m a slow learner.
RD: Don’t you think a director should give an actor the chance to hang himself? It’s the only way original stuff has a chance to come out.
JT: Some actors, like you, are great at it. Other perfectly good actors don’t know what to do when they’re let loose.
RD: Even if you give them time?
JT: Time is an unaffordable luxury on a film.
RD: We had all the time we needed on this film and it was by far the shortest shooting schedule I’ve ever heard of.
JT: We got lucky.
RD: I think it’s more than luck. I think that actors subconsciously reward a director with their best and fastest work if they’re given respect, trust and free reign.
JT: Actors in general or you in particular?
JT: How do you feel about the erotic scene in Two Girls and a Guy?
RD: Well, it was certainly a first for me. I’ve made over 20 films and altogether they’ve included four kisses, an obscured blow job in Less Than Zero, and nothing else I can remember.
JT: It’s not as if you haven’t been asked to do it because you look like Lou Costello.
RD: I have to admit that sometimes if I’m watching something that’s sexually explicit I cover my eyes because some part of me still thinks it’s shameful.
JT: No kidding? Give me an example.
RD: Well, watching what Heather and I did was very unnerving to me.
JT: That may be because you were in the scene.
RD: Heather was in it and she didn’t seem at all unnerved. It’s strange, because I’m certainly not a prude. By the way, I found it interesting that you didn’t describe this scene specifically in the script. We just sort of decided what was the right way to go.
JT: I don’t think sex is an area where you can tell actors what to do. If it’s not something that comes naturally to them it will feel false and embarrass everyone.
RD: It’s odd, though. People are always saying, “Why can’t they just suggest it, we know what it’s like.” But when there’s a brutal hit on the mobsters in Last Man Standing, we don’t just hear that from outside. No, you see guys blown up at the dinner table.
JT: Sex is the only area where everybody says, “Wait, let’s pretend it’s radio.”
RD: What I loved about the erotic scene in Two Girls and a Guy is that it’s quite specific, but it actually reveals very little flesh. You know why I love Peter O’Toole so much?
JT: When I asked you 10 years ago who your favorite actor was you said Peter O’Toole.
RD: You bet.
JT: Why do you love him so much?
RD: Because he expresses a self-assurance in his sexuality without having to lay an organ on anyone.
JT: What other actors do you particularly like?
RD: Malkovich is a genius. I saw him in a play in London that was one of the greatest things I’ve ever witnessed.
JT: What play?
RD: I forget what it was called. [Laughs]
JT: Anyone else you like whose work you can’t remember by name?
RD: Leonardo Di-hummmmmm.
JT: You know, I know him very well.
RD: I know you do. I’m kind of angry that you’re friends with him, too.
JT: People compare you two and say he’s the new you.
RD: He scares me.
JT: He shouldn’t. You and Leonardo both have talents that I’d say are beyond almost everyone else near your ages. But even though you share certain qualities– wit, intelligence–
RD:–Don’t say he’s in a league of his own. I’m not prepared for that. [Laughs]
JT: Looking back to when you were Leonardo’s age, how do you see yourself in relation to your own generation of actors?
RD: I thought I was somehow outside my generation of actors. There was the “Brat Pack” and a couple of other guys, and then there was me. I thought The Pick-Up Artist would give me a chance to have a real career, and it didn’t turn out that way. When I did Chaplin I thought, “Well, this has got to do it!” But it still didn’t happen. It still hasn’t happened. It really pisses me off. But I have to say, I haven’t been in a film that’s been a … a hit. And I guess that’s the game.
JT: Any other actors you want to mention?
RD: Christopher Walken. I saw him on this Actor’s Studio program on TV last night, and almost everything he said I identified with 100 percent. Including when they asked him what his favorite word on a set was and he said, Lunch. He’s a great actor. Why is it that someone who’s as good and as versatile as he is–let alone that Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire said that he was a good tap dancer–isn’t a major player?
JT: Strangeness of physical appearance.
RD: That’s what Walken said, and that’s what I think is going to be different. Someone like Chris Walken, the real cream of the crop, is going to be able to assume a power position in this industry if it’s going the way it seems to be going.
JT: What’s different about film in America today from the way it was when you first started making movies?
RD: Movies are better now, more personal. I think the idea of the auteur is coming back–not self-conscious “art,” but film as a way of saying something personal and intense. I’ve seen movies go from being an actor’s medium to a producer’s medium to a director’s medium.
JT: Which it was in the ’60s and ’70s when your father, Robert Downey Sr., was in a vanguard group of American filmmakers.
RD: I want to get on that bandwagon.
JT: You’ve been in some of your father’s movies, including the upcoming Hugo Pool. What’s it like being directed by him?
RD: It enables you to say “I gotta get out of here early today,” and know that every effort will be made to allow you to do so.
JT: Why might you want to get off early?
RD: To play with Indio.
JT: The father lets the son go to be a father to his son?
RD: You bet. Indio’s happy when he can spend continuous time with me. It shows up in his expressions. If you love someone he can spit in your face six times and you can still laugh.
JT: Does Indio expectorate in your direction regularly?
RD: Absolutely. He thinks it’s quite funny. You know what he asks me every day? “Dad, do I have a diaper on?”
JT: To which you reply?
RD: Check it out and see for yourself.
JT: Do you talk to him as if he were an adult?
RD: To a fault. I have to remind myself that he’s been on the planet for only 1,200 days.
JT: What do you feel more like, a father or a son?
RD: A father.
JT: Your father strikes me as the sort of parent who observed his son with curiosity instead of trying to mold him into some personally preferred shape.
RD: That’s true.
JT: And that’s your way with Indio?
RD: I’m happy to observe, but I have high expectations.
JT: Does he look to you for approval?
RD: Constantly. Just as I always looked to my dad. I always liked amusing him. I still do. Which raises a point about working for my dad as an actor. I’m always looking for the approval of my director, but with my dad I know I already have it.