Look at him standing there, a great big movie star in a great big movie, the Iron Man with nary a trace of human frailty. A scant five years ago the only time you saw Robert Downey Jr getting big play in your newspaper came when he was on a perp walk.
Yet when it came time for Marvel Studios to cast the lead for a huge franchise film, Iron Man, it bet on Downey. He is not only back in the game but at the top of it.
For years, Downey has been tagged with two shorthand references: “The greatest actor of his generation” (for his Oscar-nominated role in Chaplin) was usually quickly followed by “drug-addled lowlife” (based on multiple arrests and relapses). When it comes to that duality Downey is elliptical, but there is no mistaking that beneath all that allegorical talk there is the beating heart of a ferociously ambitious actor. Now sober, highly productive (he’ll be in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder this summer) and very much engaged as he sits in his home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Brentwood, Downey seems less surprised than the rest of us.
“The people who made this movie said they were going to screen-test some people, and I thought: ‘Well, that’s how I got Chaplin. Maybe this will work again,”’ he said. “If you’re going to spend a hundred million bucks on a movie, why not see who works?”
It doesn’t take much more than a viewing of the Iron Man trailer to sense that Downey walked on the set and said, “Yeah, I got this.” And there is a sincere logic behind his casting in this estimated US$130 million movie. The back story of genius-inventor-billionaire-arms dealer Tony Stark is plenty textured: He likes big weapons and fast women and seems to have misplaced his conscience, so it makes sense that the man who steps into both his suit of armor and his role as superhero has manifest feet of clay. After a life of squandered promise spreading mayhem everywhere, our hero has a near-death experience and finds within himself the angel of his better nature. Ring any bells?
When serious actors take on jobs involving comic books and hours in machines and makeup, they generally plug their noses and take the paycheck. Downey is having none of that. At 43, he is thrilled to be fit enough — he had spent the morning with the living room furniture pushed aside for instruction in wing chun (詠春), a Chinese martial art built on aggressive, close combat — to play a hero. He views the Big Comic Book Movie as a kind of arrival after years of lead roles in movies like The Singing Detective and The Gingerbread Man, which had cinematic pedigrees but little in the way of audiences.
“I’ve been in big movies before and never had a problem with them,” he said, munching a carry-out lunch of sole underneath a gigantic Tobias Keene painting (one of two in the room). “What is creepy and obvious is that the market was suddenly flooded with morons who thought, ‘If I’ve got US$500,000, I can make a baseball cap that has a company name on it and say I’m a filmmaker.”’
“On the contrary,” he added, “I am thrilled to have made this movie ... . I seem to have been the person who’s had to wait the longest for this kind of gratification.” He leaned forward as he spoke. “It took a while. Richard Attenborough,” he said, invoking the name of the director of Chaplin, “told me that one day your ambition will supersede all of these other impulses you have, and that will help set you straight.”