Robert Downey Jr: Back From The Brink by Paul FischerExclusive Robert Downey Jr/The Singing Detective Interview at The Sundance Film Festival.
It hasn't been the easiest lives for Robert Downey, arguably one of the mostintensely charming and charismatic actors of his generation. At the SundanceFilm Festival for the world premiere of his latest film, The SingingDetective, most of us who saw it agreed on two things: One, a second Oscarnomination is a distinct possibility and Two, portraying a character withhallucinatory alter-egos could well be a case of art imitating life. PaulFischer tried to dig beneath a complex psyche amidst the wintry chaos ofSundance.
It's hard to know what to make of Robert Downey Jnr. On this, his secondappearance at Sundance, the world's foremost independent film festival, theactor knows that he'll be asked about a past littered with second chances,drugs and prison. He doesn't exactly skirt the issues, but as he incessantlyplays with his Sundance badge, he is full of uneasy energy, bouncing off thewalls like a child and handing out napkins imprinted in the form of hundreddollar bills, not to mention aimlessly singing 'Office Krupke' from WestSide Story. That's just for openers. So it stands to reason that attemptingto get a straight answer out of Downey is a challenge. He hates the ideathat The Singing Detective is his comeback film. On that prickly question,he quoted an inspirational speaker who, he said, told him "the bigger thesetback, the bigger the comeback." "Nowadays, any time you can complete onething and move onto the next thing, the board is washed. You suck again," hesaid. "Or still suck. Everything's a comeback. I think it's becomeincredibly tenuous and kind of precipitous out there. You can't rest on yourlaurels."
The Singing Detective marks Downey's return to the big screen since hisvarious arrests for drug use and possession. Based on Dennis Potter's TVseries, Downey stars as Daniel Dark, a bitter, misogynisticpsoriasis-sufferer, covered in a collage of painful flaky skin and sores,whose symptoms and sentiments are a symptom of a painful past and childhoodmemories. Drugged and immobilized in hospital, he fantasises about thehard-boiled detective novel he's written, scenes of which intermingle withchildhood memories of his own unfaithful mother, and with reality.Characters suddenly slip into lip-syncs of 1950s popular songs [in theseries they were from the forties]. It was a part that Downey was born toplay, he agrees, following his latest West Side Story rendition. "It alwaysseemed like I grew up on that stuff, you know what I mean? What else wasthere if you're like 14, and wondering what you are going to do with therest of your life, all 6 years of it," he says, while his eyes dart aroundthe room like a cat ready to pounce at any moment. The fantasy-drivenaspects of his character remain super cool, debonair and confident. Downeysays he was never anything like the coolness that song-and-dance characteroften personifies. "You know what, I was a mess," Downey concedes. A messwhile making the movie he adds. "You're kind of like Bobby Darren andnobody's kind of like Bobby Darren because he was way, way out there, youknow? But when I saw it, when we were sitting there watching it, you know,all of our bitching, lamenting and character assassination was really fornothing. It turned out all right."
After his frequent absences from the public, Downey seems unconcerned as tohow audiences will react to him at this point. "You know what? I'm no longeranxious, because I've seen it with an audience of more than a dozen lastnight [at the Sundance premiere] I think it's what it's supposed to be."Part of what Singing Detective is 'supposed to be' is a film about a guytripping. That old art imitating life thing. The question had to be asked.In playing a guy hallucinating, Downey responds to the question in a kind ofself-mocking fashion, though with Downey, you never know. "You mean, this is trippin' man? You know what's so funny? Most of the timeI was kind of in and out of awareness or consciousness. Those are kind oflike transitions, where, you know, let's keep the cameras rolling. Okay, nowwe're going ahead to Scene 24 where you go...uh, sticky betrayals. So let'stighten up the lens. It was kind of like a lot of that stuff, in and out,and all that was like it was the transition time of the day. I mean, theyhave to do that to make everything come together, you know? So, I rememberevery day and every set-up of this film, and yet watching it, I was kind oflike 'Shit, how did we do all that?' We did all that, all because of ourproducer fellas, and particularly Mr. Gordon our director, who really kindof got their Swiss watch on before we started and figured out how we weregoing to make it all fit."
Perhaps one of the elements that enabled Downey 'make it all fit' was hisperceived ability to relate more to a character 'trippin' following theactor's own drug-related experiences and what he had gone through, concedingthat he'll never really know. "But would it be easier if I thought BettyFord was simply a president's wife as opposed to some Mecca of Minneapolis?Actually, I never made it to Betty Ford but I think that anybody couldcorrelate with anything."
At 37, the older but wiser Downey is determined to pick his professionalprojects carefully. While he has been absent doing time and dealing with aplethora of inner demons, in terms of his now revitalised career, the actorcheerfully insists that "I've become a picky little bitch." He has been inshowbusiness now for some 25 years, was nominated for an Oscar for Chaplinand while some may be wary about working with an actor with so troubled apast, that doesn't prevent a reflective Robert Downey from taking anythingthat comes his way. His sobriety has made him choosier about work. "You knowwhen somebody says something like, well I'll give you something like SingingDetective, you really want to be careful in following up, like that kind ofactual planning and just stirring things with your career. I've neverbothered to do that before. I'd throw the script across the room and go 'Whydo they keep sending me this horseshit? I'm not without talent' and then Iwind up'."
The Singing Detective may put Downey back on track, but he remains somewhatphilosophical about how Hollywood will continue to take him, post-arrest."Shit, I don't know you know? I've always been a fella who put most of myeggs in one basket and then take a dump in the basket but I really don'tknow," says a wistful Downey, fiddling with an unlit cigarette. "I mean, I'ma little older, I'm mildly wiser, and I think, what I have noticed is thereis a direct connection between how things go with me and society's posterboy need and so I figure I can relate to that too. I need to keep thingsreal black and white but it's like I try not to be really happy in my skinsand with my work. I always want a higher challenge and I'm always down for agood hard time, whether that has to do with visiting serious institutions orvisiting various studio lots."
Perhaps Downey's intensity in taking on a role is what allows the actor tomask those troubled demons of his. Now, returning to professional acclaimwith this film and a slew of announced projects, Downey thrives on the work,and deals with fame and his recent infamy with a sly sense of humour. "Ithink I've been lucky, being my frequent appearances on Court TV havebrought to me another level than just the actor guy," he said. "There's nopedestal thing happening. I'm very tangible to people because my fallibilityis my forte."
Downey can now afford to look at his past transgressions and realise thatthere is a reason why Hollywood has forgiven him for his stint behind bars."When I was doing various stints in the pokey, people would say to me,'Dude, the only difference between you and me is you got caught.' The onlydifference is that I created situations in my own bottoming-out or crises,and I sought to reach out and act out in a way that was scary to the public,and very, kind of like, let's see, why don't I dress for arrest? Maybethat's my way out of here, you know, and that painful anticipation haspassed." The actor adds "I am less of an insurance risk than anybody whodoes not have a Geiger counter going on what's up with them and theirproclivities. After all, it's not like I'm a guy who would go and sneak onein like I'm under the ridiculous illusion that I can control this chemicalcompound past a certain point. The truth is in the piddle, and I'll piss atthe drop of a hat. I don't care any more. Whereas other people might be kindof like, aren't you a little moody today and might be on their way to thissuper bottom out."
Downey's participation in Singing Detective had as much to do with his closefriendship with Mel Gibson as the quality of the material. It was Mel whooptioned the Potter script and who insisted that Downey do the film. Therelationship will continue. Downey confirmed that he will do the new Mad Maxfilm if asked, that he hopes Gibson will eventually direct him as thattroubled Dane Hamlet and that he has put aside the pain of his past tocontemplate on a future rich with possibility. As the last time he was atSundance, he arrived with his father who had directed him in 1997's HugoPool; it was fitting to finally ask what lessons he has learned from RobertDowney Snr. "Well he laid the boots to me in the driveway because I brokethe antenna off the rabbit." Always leave 'em laughing is Downey's motto.
The Singing Detective opens July.