Rahner Q&A: Robert Downey Jr. on becoming Tony Stark/Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr., star of "Iron Man," discusses the subtleties of superherodom, like Monster Garaging the Iron Man suit and busting a few moves right for the fanboys.
Seattle Times staff reporter
I had picked up the Parade mag from where I had thrown it and was looking at Robert Downey Jr.'s face while we talked on the phone.
If his renaissance weren't already complete with the outstanding "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "Zodiac," now Downey, 43, adds an invigorating spark to one of Marvel's second-tier characters that made anticipation for "Iron Man" drive the needle way up on the Nerd Richter scale.
And yet the widely-linked April 20 Parade profile, along with GQ's, Time's and ubiquitous others add another colorful line to Downey's résumé: herald of mainstream journalism's protracted death. I'd gain nothing from sucking up to Downey. It's just that their obsessive focus on his troubled past — to the near-exclusion of the work at-hand — isn't just lazy tabloid crap behind a thinly avuncular veil. It's old news.
Q: That chest-light you have in the movie is the best piercing of all time. It instantly makes wussies out of all the hipsters in our Capitol Hill neighborhood. Can you explain?
A: [Laughs.] Well, having been mortally wounded by one of his own mortars — boy, I forget what you call that. Is it called alliteration? Tony [Stark] is saved by Yin-Sen with an electromagnet and boilerplate hooked up to a car battery that keeps the shrapnel from entering his heart. He later miniaturizes a reactor design his family business had made to "shut the hippies up," to quote Obadiah Stane or Jeff Bridges. But the problem is it's not an exact science, so he needs to keep Monster-Garaging his own chest-piece or heart.
Q: Did you pick "Iron Man" because you're insecure about wearing tights?
A: [Laughing.] Look, everything has an upside and a downside. The upside is the suit's really cool. The downside is I've got like bowling-pin calves. I really could have made the most of the tights.
Q: Why did you — a Serious Actor — want to do a superhero blockbuster?
A: Because I want to do good movies and I want to do movies that people are going to see, and the good factor to me — the edge was taken off knowing that [director Jon] Favreau was doing it, because he's the only guy who I've seen as an actor and a writer before who has only made good movies.
Q: Are you or have you ever been a comic-book fan? I can tell if you're lying.
A: Of course I have.
Q: Who do you like?
A: Well I was a weirdo, so it might have been the Fabulous Furry Freak Bros., or Mr. Natural. But then there was Sgt. Rock, there was Spider-Man. Iron Man was there in the fray. I wasn't quite convinced that it wasn't a robot, and robots and pirates were both a little scary to me. Thank God I only had to not be scared of one of them to get a franchise.
Q: It looks like you really got in shape for the role. What was your regimen?
A: My regimen would be tireless strength training —
Q: I'm just messing with you. I couldn't possibly care less about that stuff.
A: Thank you. God bless your heart.
Q: There were some people who thought your past made you inspired casting for Tony Stark, who's infamous for being Marvel's alcoholic alter-ego.
A: I don't know, it kind of operates on three levels, one being "Wow, isn't that art imitating life?" And then the idea of how can you pay this [his past] off later on? And talking to Shane Black who wrote "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "Lethal Weapon" ... he said the great thing about this is you can have a scene where Tony gets frustrated, he gets hammered and he puts on the suit and goes and [Downey chuckles] flies around drunk or goes out to a bar for another drink or whatever. Anyway, it makes for an interesting scenario, I'll tell you that much.
Q: I read your recent Parade cover story.
A: Uh oh.
Q: And I admired how candid you were about your past, but I don't want to talk about any of that — except: Doesn't the sort of public media expiation that's become the American norm in recent years get kind of tiresome for you? Please tell me you're not talking to that horse's ass, Dr. Phil.
A: Oh. Jeez. Well let me tell you this: Sometimes being a human being who's sharing space and time with somebody else, you can tell what they're going to write and what you can say, but it doesn't matter because they're only going to write the kinds of things — or they're going to [ask] the kinds of questions they want answered.
So, the only antidote is to kind of freak 'em out and grab 'em by their belt and throw 'em out into the street, or to sit there and go, all right, this person for some reason only wants to talk about my past relationships — like anyone even gives a [expletive] — and to the exclusion of the project which is the reason they were invited here to talk to begin with.
The interesting part for me is that I've been a bit of an open book as a matter of course, and I'm kind of getting ready to close those books, because you just shouldn't invite just any freak into your house.
Q: Let me officially say that you don't have to explain yourself or apologize anymore.
A: Bless your heart. [Laughs.]
Q: Let's go back to talking about "Iron Man." Unlike a lot of comic characters created 40-plus years ago, he translates really well to the present.
A: Well it is kind of odd. I know things tend to be cyclical. And again it really was kind of a perfect storm that wound up having me playing Tony to begin with. And Stan Lee said he kind of created Iron Man on a dare: Could you at a time when the sentiment about our involvement in Vietnam had shifted at a time when the military industrial complex was being vilified, at a time when you mustn't trust anyone over 30, he made this guy all that and more. Strangely, Iron Man got more female fan mail than all of the other Marvel characters combined.
Q: It was the pencil mustache.
A: [Laughs.] The Bob Goulet look?
Q: What happened with Samuel Jackson, who was reported to be playing Nick Fury? (He wasn't in the film I saw.)
A: Jon has me under lock and key to keep the fanboys guessing, because right now some of them are already onto it, and some of them get going down a different rabbit hole. Suffice to say it's true that we filmed something with Sam.
Q: Speaking of fanboys, the anticipation for "Iron Man" is enormous because you guys played the comic fans like a geek fiddle.
A: Did you just say "geek fiddle"?
Q: You bet I did.
A: That's so sweet! That's really good. Again, I'll just hand it to Jon. He really, really knows our demographic, and really respects them, and it's rare that that combination of elements is the case. And they can tell, you know? And I've really been just pounding this into the ears of anyone who'll listen for the last dozen years or so, which is, in the information age the audience is so smart and so savvy that word is traveling faster than word-of-mouth and you really, really have to take it for granted that you have a sophisticated viewer.
Q: You onboard for sequels?
A: Absolutely. I don't even know what this means, but once the "tracking" came online for the people who run these numbers, all of a sudden we're being ... It was just interesting to see how excited some of the people who only get excited when, like, they — because they're real experts on this stuff, you know. And they're like, "Dude, this is the highest-testing Marvel — it's got all four quadrants, these numbers are through the roof." What it means to us is that we're going to be in a position, provided things go like they might, to ride this wave and keep trying to make a quality version of a movie like this.
Q: You're listed as appearing in the upcoming "Incredible Hulk" movie as Tony Stark. What's the deal?
A: The deal is I have a blink-and-you'll-miss-me visit into the world of Bruce Banner and that's all I'm supposed to say.
Q: You were reportedly working on an autobiography. Aren't you a little young for that?
A: Yeah, that's why I gave 'em back their money and said maybe another time.
Web exclusive: More of Mark Rahner's Q&A with Robert Downey Jr.
Q: Your nemesis: a bald, bearded and nearly unrecognizable Jeff Bridges. Did you ever bust up and think, "I'm fighting The Dude, man"?
A: [Laughs.] It was such a blast. We would be in preproduction and I'd be pulling out investigative mythology books, and I'd have just gotten back from meeting an actual rocket scientist ... and then Jeff would come in eating string cheese with like one of those panoramic cameras that the shutter kind of opens and goes all the way across the room really slowly.
And then he would take out an Alan Watts download from his iPod and he would say, "Dude, check this out." And we would just listen to 2 hours and 15 minutes of this really, really high-end philandering philanthropist philosophy. And it was something else. It was a really interesting group of people that came together to do this.
Q: There's something very Bruce Wayne about Tony Stark — who was originally a Howard Hughes type. What did you bring to him?
A: I was saying 'Well, I feel like Leo [DiCaprio in "The Aviator"] has pretty much channeled him, so there's no point in that.' And then we happened to be shooting in the hangars in Playa Vista where he assembled the Spruce Goose. So a lot of this stuff was really kind of letting it soak up through the ground into your feet.
There were so many times where I could just feel the timing for making this movie was right, and where we were doing it was kind of — I don't want to say ordained or predestined because that makes it seem like there's something inherently spiritual about filmmaking. But in this case there are those flashes. We happened to be out in the high eastern Sierras in what wound up to be the three busiest days of windstorm there in recent memory, and we were shooting the whole time. It seems like any time we needed to have 35 seconds or a minute of where the wind wasn't gusting to 70 miles an hour so we could get a take done, it seemed like it just stopped clawing at us and gave us a window.
I guess what we brought to it was, I love "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," but I just can't take myself that seriously. And I love the new take on Bond, but I think even Daniel Craig said he wanted to yuk it up a little more next time. What I did learn was I can stand there and not move, and I can throw a punch, and I can look Billy Badass for up to 11 seconds at a time. And then I gotta have a little fun.
But more than anything, I've always taken my craft pretty seriously, and what I want to do is create a character where people can feel like they're not just getting this kind of two-dimensional pixelization so that we can get back to the CGI, which is usually where I turn my brain off because I know I'm not watching anything that's real. Jon has said flat out he's not a fan of CGI, he really wanted to mix it with some animation and some mo-cap and some this and some that and we shot as much as we could practically, so there's a real kind of order of, like, we wanted to make the kind of movie that we wanted to see.
Q: How important was fan criticism and input?
A: The really strange thing is it almost seems like what we did was the most coordinated effort of plants in the history of the Internet. But the truth be told is, we busted a few moves right, and we were given feedback that that was their opinion. And we've kind of ridden that wave without being manipulated by strangers, and who will probably wind up being less than 10 percent of our audience. We gave respect where it was due, because in a way we have much to learn from people who are as dedicated to this kind of thing as we're becoming. So in a way it's an education.
Q: Diplomatically put, sir.
A: [Cautious singsong.] Thank youuuuu.
Q: Tell me about being in blackface in the upcoming "Tropic Thunder."
A: Well, when it's presented that way, certain people regardless of race or creed can be reactive. I guess that's the interesting thing about the informational age — it's so easy to treat a sound bite like it's an informational bit.
The truth is what I do is I'm in Ben's [Stiller's] movie. I play an Australian actor who's playing an African American in a very important Vietnam movie. And DreamWorks and Ben and I and the writers — and all the people who are hopefully smart and sensitive enough about these things to not do something that would be offensive or incendiary — all agreed that it was in fun.
And the people that have seen the movie — and in fact I was just talking to another journo who said he was watching "Meet the Browns" with a largely African American audience and the trailer for "Tropic Thunder" played, and it just played through the roof, and they seemed to have no problem with it at all. Which is very comforting.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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