Spinning Into Control

LA Times Calendar August 28, 2005
By Mary McNamara

For years of his life, complete with very public drug problems, was a picture of chaos. Now Robert Downey Jr. says he’s too busy, and feeling too hopeful, to run amok.

There may come a time when Robert Downey Jr. can have a conversation about something other than his “comeback,” but this isn’t it. “Such a good actor,” people have been saying for years, using a tone of wistful regret normally reserved for a fat girl with a pretty face. Now, watching as Downey nimbly carries the odd and shifting weight of Shane Black’s upcoming comic-noir-thriller-romance, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, it is tempting to heave a sigh of relief and say, “He’s back.” At 40, the Hollywood bad boy has finally seen the light, cashed in the chips, realized the error of his ways and recommitted himself to the craft in which he has always shown so much promise. But it’s not that easy, because Robert Downey Jr. has never been easy. Yes, he’s alive and well and living on a cul-de-sac in Brentwood, days away from his marriage to producer Susan Levin, a lovely, levelheaded woman he met while working as opposed to while in rehab. Yes, he has been clean and sober for more than a year, with half a dozen projects (including The Shaggy Dog and A Scanner Darkly) in various stages of production. And with a movie to promote, Downey is happy to discuss whatever, the whole deal. In full-disclosure overdrive, complete with dead-on comedic timing, a not insignificant talent for mimicry, and an energy level that vacillates between high and super high.

But if you’re looking for the New Recovery Spokesman or a solemn testimonial, you need to know, right upfront, you’d do better to look elsewhere. Because Downey’s having none of that.

“For years I took pride in being resilient,” he says. “But that turned into this guy who can get hit by a brick every morning and still look kind of cute. I mean, there’s ‘ready to be ready,’ and then there’s waking up in the morning feeling like you’ve been hit in the back with a sledgehammer. But I can’t side with the pathetic huckster thing of ‘and it was made so public, how humiliating and terrible,’” he says, grimacing, falling back in his chair. “I’m no more massive or smaller than any recovering addict. You talk to guys who’ve had the plug in the jug for 30 years and they don’t think about having a drink on New Year’s Eve – they think about it on Thursday, August 6, at 7 in the morning. For no good reason. So it isn’t about ‘no more margarita parties for you, mister,’ because it was never about margarita parties in the first place.

“Here’s what I’ve learned lately,” he says, pausing, finally, for a breath. He leans forward, and suddenly there it is, the look behind all those “such a good actor” sighs. That impossible-to-dissect mixture of mischief and meaning, sincerity and truly high-grade b.s., Robert Downey Jr., all wide eyes, and self-mocking smile capturing the delicious contrariness of life as a human being.

“Here is what I’ve learned,” Downey says again. “I am very very very high maintenance. Even without being the inventor of my own impediments from this day forward, it’s still tough, it’s still chaotic. Because I am not,” he pauses and again there is that look, just for a moment, before he shuts it down with a big movie star smile, “I’m not on a level playing ground with most of my peers.”

Compact but commanding

Like many actors, Downey is smaller in real life than he seems on the screen. Maybe 5 feet 8, 5 feet 9, slender in a martial-arts-cut kind of way, he is quiet and almost unassuming; he does not occupy a lot of space, literally or figuratively. Until he starts talking. Then his face becomes the most animated thing in any room, words rattling out fast and shiny bright, like marbles from a bottomless sack, and it’s impossible to look away. Even for a minute. Because you might miss something.

Sitting in the Daily Grill – “My fiancée teases me that this is my default restaurant, but what can I say? It’s the Daily Grill; it’s fabulous” – he vamps for 10, 15 minutes, kvetching about how his 11-year-old son, Indio, is so on him to quit smoking. Again.

“He took my cigarettes the other night and hid them down a paper towel roll. Now, that’s an old tweaker move, where you stash your speed pipe so the kids don’t find it because you’re so out of it, right? He was so proud of his hiding place he had to show me, but then he threw them away, which is a complete codependent move, so I just waited until he went back upstairs and fished them out of the garbage. And that” – he holds up a battered pack of cigarettes that looks exactly as if it had been stuffed in a paper towel roll recently – “is what I’m working with right now.”

The Camel unfiltereds are not the only props; in a black backpack he carries bottles of vitamins and a pillbox the length of your arm filled with herbs and supplements, which he proceeds to wash down with gallons of caffeinated beverages. “Three or four more of these,” he says, smiling down at a large iced tea, “and I’ll be just fine.”

Even the sound of his voice is difficult to categorize – he speaks with the hard round vowels of L.A. using a vocabulary that stretches far beyond Valley-speak, while his New York origins peer through the cheerful profanity of virtually every sentence. Imagine every fourth word beginning with “f.” Imagine it strangely endearing.

He turns down the bread because he’s been off carbs for something like five years, which was hard for the first year but “then, like anything, it becomes completely normal. I see Brad Pitt eating in those movies, interesting character thing, hats off to you, man, ‘cause I know you had to ingest like five or six BLTs over the course of a few days.’ But I hear he can eat whatever he wants and he looks the same, whereas if I don’t eat the right thing I look like Sal Mineo being pulled from the East River, like I’ve been watching the History Channel for three years and eating Ben & Jerry’s. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang was perfect,” he adds, “because we shot at night and I had my [martial arts instructor] who was there, and literally every day he came at lunchtime, which was like 10:30, to train me so my energy was up.”

The Downey comeback has become quite a genre over the years. In 1997, Two Girls and a Guy provided a nice counterpoint to Downey’s first arrest (for possession of drugs and a firearm) and three years later, he pulled out a performance on Ally McBeal that gave everyone hope (until he got arrested again and fired). After a three-year sentence that involved time in the penitentiary and a rehab clinic, he started the remake of The Singing Detective and with Hallie Berry in Gothika, the latter notable mostly for the fact that he had to pay his own insurance to get hired.

Last year it continued. He got off probation, finally did Oprah and released his debut album, “The Futurist,” a collection of jazz-influenced middle-of-the-road rock whose quality was often overlooked by those marveling at his ability to sit up straight and speak coherently.

But Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, due in October is the legitimate return of the actor everyone remembers so fondly from Chaplin. Downey’s Harry Lockhart is a small-time thief who, through plot devices only a noir comic thriller could deliver winds up training to be an actor in Hollywood while tracking down a real murderer – with the aid of a gay private detective (Val Kilmer) and a cresting-the-hill actress (Michelle Monaghan).

Hapless yet goodhearted, arrogant yet full of self-contempt, Harry is a lovable loser who allows Downey to do what he does best: create a character in which contradictions live side by side in utter believability, winking at each other occasionally. Black, who is making his directorial debut, did not write the part for Downey, but you can’t tell this watching the film.

“We lucked out,” says Black.

In the parlance of the film, it wasn’t luck, baby, it was fate.

Kiss, Kiss producer, Joel Silver had taken Downey under his wing several years ago, after Mel Gibson called to say, “The kid’s clean. Help him out.”

"I had worked with him back in '83 on 'Weird Science,' " Silver says, "and we had a great rapport. But then I saw him, I don't know, five years ago at a restaurant where he was completely out of it and rude, and I thought, 'That guy is gone.' "

But bowing to Gibson and fond memory, Silver cast Downey in "Gothika," where Downey proved he could stay sober -- and where he met Levin. So a year or so later, when Levin was sitting on the sofa reading a Shane Black script and laughing, Downey wanted in. No matter that Silver had originally envisioned it as a Big Name project. "Robert would come in and read just for the fun of it, and I'd be like, 'Hey, that's exactly what I had in mind,' " Black says. Eventually the project was rethought, with a smaller budget, and Downey and Kilmer were brought on board.

"I felt like we were taking a bit of a chance," Black says. "Val has his own reputation, but as soon as we got going I was like, 'Why didn't anyone think of teaming these guys up together before?' " For Downey, the film, which was shot in downtown Los Angeles, offered a quality reentry situation in both form and content. It was a short shoot -- 35 days -- so there was zero time for messing around. (One of those days included the presence of Indio, who plays the young Harry in the film's first scene.) And in Harry, Downey had something of a soul mate.

"As quiet as it's kept," he says, "I tend to play people who are too smart for their own good. Harry is stupid about everything. It doesn't matter his heart's in the right place because everything he does to help, if he had thought it through, he would realize he couldn't have done it worse. But in the end he's OK. He's even got a real job that he can show up for, and the romance thing, well, they've got as good a shot as any."

Silver is more direct. "Look," he says, "so much of Robert's life is tied up in his missteps, in the drugs and the arrests, no way you can ignore that in the film, and this film doesn't. But it was the movie he was born to play, funny and smart, and his relationship with Val is amazing."

It also didn't hurt that Downey's asking price is significantly less than it once was. "This is a great actor who isn't expensive," says Silver, laughing.

As both Black and Silver acknowledge, the film is a tough one to market because it is almost impossible to describe in Hollywood bullet points. But then Black, who hasn't been on anyone's A-list for a while, had little to lose, and neither, really, did Downey. He says he was predictably pleased to be on the top of the call sheet for the first time in many years, and he wasn't nervous or scared or intimidated by the work or what it implied. "If you have a baby who's had colic for four months since it's been born and it's running a 104-degree fever on the day you're supposed to take the bar exam, you're not tripping on the bar exam," he says. "I had other things on my mind."

"For a lot of us," he adds, "and I include anyone in their 30s and 40s who have been around and who admit that life is super hard and super worth it, it's 70% maintenance. [Because] when it falls below 70%, you're going to start to spin. And when you start to spin you're going to have a lot of apologizing to do on a daily basis, and it's not worth it."

Getting back up to speed

HERE is something people who don't take drugs often forget: No one takes drugs because he wants to break the law, or end his marriage, or wind up crusty and homeless, or accidentally break into someone's house and fall asleep there because it looks sort of familiar. People take drugs because drugs make them feel better. And some people have a deeper need to feel better than others.

Right now Downey is keeping very busy. He stepped right off the set of "Fur" into a table reading for "Zodiac," in which he plays a reporter on the trail of the Zodiac killer, into an eight-day shoot of "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," then off to the Hamptons for the wedding. Part of this is an actor trying to get back up to speed, and part of it is a person figuring out how to live a different sort of life: If the spaces in between are where the trouble starts, then the best thing to do, at least for right now, is close them up.

"Admitting the problem is only one of the steps," Downey says, "and guess what? It isn't the biggest one. This is the recurring theme in my life, 'Double K, Double B' being the first movie I've done in like 70 tries that works from beginning to end and is innovative and fun to do.

"I was done when I was 30," Downey continues. "It just took me another 10 because sometimes it takes another 10 years. Because I have an innate inability to capitulate to clearly differing opinions. Someone says to me, 'Hey, man, looks like [it's] about to hit the fan, you better cash in your chips and get up to the room' and I'd be like, 'Yeah, man, thanks for that, but could you please go take a shower now so I can put on your shoes and take your wallet and run out to score because: I'm. Not. Done. Yet.' "

Now, he says, he is. Done. Now the light's on and he's doing the work, and the people who know him well see the difference.

"I knew it was different when he released the album," says writer Sam Slovick, an old friend. "He's been sitting on that for a while. And this," he says, gesturing to the crowd around him, "this has been a big help. A big help." "This" refers to the opening of the new home for the Los Angeles Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy. On a warm Saturday night, Downey has shown up to support founder and chief instructor Eric Oram, who for the past two years has been Downey's teacher. Oram trained Downey almost every day on the set of "Kiss Kiss." "We called him the bald Colin Farrell," Black says, which is both a nod to one of the film's jokes and a strikingly accurate physical description of the man.

Although a few of the 150 or so highly eclectic Wing Chun enthusiasts gathered in the alley off Purdue Avenue in West Los Angeles give Downey sideways celebrity-registering stares, Oram, or Sifu, as everyone calls him, is clearly the star. When his wife shows up with the new baby in one arm and a blender in the other, it's Downey who relieves her of the blender and takes it to the bar. And when Oram's 2-year-old son, unfazed by his father's status, repeatedly interrupts Oram's introductory speech, it's Downey who unobtrusively picks the little boy up and quiets him down.

The actor has been peripherally involved in martial arts for years, but he joined the academy three years ago. Before that, he says, he didn't know if he wanted to box or do jujitsu or if his year "would involve an occasional 30-day spin dry," which can make training difficult. Wing Chun, which was developed by Buddhist monks, involves as much meditation and concentration as it does self-defense moves. It also requires discipline of an interpersonal nature; while Oram's business card includes a "film & stage combat choreography/SAG" reference, he doesn't ask Downey when he'll be in for training; he tells him.

"You'll have to ask Sifu," Downey replies to a young man who asks the actor if he would like to do some training in another form of martial arts.

Oram is just one of several people on whom Downey relies now -- people who allow him to address his needs before they spin out of control.

On the set of "Kiss Kiss," he says, his needs far outstripped those of costar Val Kilmer, who is known to have certain, well, expectations. "Val may have turned in that bill for the $5,000 haircut, but I was the one with high-end demands. You know those cups, like bionic gulp? -- I needed them. Filled with green tea and Coffee-mate, or espresso and foamed milk. Whatever. I needed my Sifu and Joe from the Tao Arts Healing Center every single day on the shoot."

On "Fur," in which he plays Lionel, the "wolfman" with whom photographer Diane Arbus, played by Nicole Kidman, has an intimate relationship, there were other issues. It took him hours to get into makeup each day, which was beyond uncomfortable and made eating difficult. "You try eating a bite of curried tofu and pulling five or six 16-inch strands of someone else's hair out of your throat," he says. "At the end of the film, it behooved me to look emaciated and 'Mechanic'-like cut, and it was not a problem because on the whole shoot eating was an exercise in irritation."

To help himself prepare, he says, he asked that no one talk to him during the first half-hour he was on set. Maybe that would make him seem like a complete brat, maybe people would circulate rumors about how insane he was, but he didn't care because it was necessary.

"I knew I would suffer a personality meltdown if I didn't have the first half-hour of every day. It can't be like, 'Hi, you're here, can we get the glue on your eyelids and camera's ready, even though it's going to take you two hours to get made up, we just want you to know, we'll shoot whatever we can without you, but the camera's. Ready.' So first half-hour, hour lunch, set time when we were done, these were my requirements. Not because I'm a diva but because I can predict that I will not be OK. Two days after we're done, I'll do something stupid and [mess] up my summer while they're editing or lounging in Cape Cod or whatever. They've got something in the can, good for them, and I'm in the asylum."

The crew thought he was nuts, he says, tiptoeing around, probably rolling their eyes at his morning meditation. But that didn't matter either, because this is all part of the maintenance. "Finally, finally at 40 years old, I can say what it is I need," he says. "And it's a stupid thing, but if you're the guy who knows how to pitch, you know what it takes not to lose your arm, and if you don't ask for it, you're being irresponsible as an athlete."

What it takes, he says, is ongoing nurturing, some of which may well be "compensatory for growing up in an environment that was pretty fantastic but put me in a pretty reckless situation because I wasn't asking for guidance and it wasn't being offered except in ethereal and cool ways."

Much has been made of Downey's youth; his father, underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., famously gave his son his first film role -- as a puppy in "Pound" -- and his first joint, both before Downey turned 7. Downey refuses to blame any "socially acceptable family trauma" for his long-term affair with black tar heroin and cocaine, but a recent blast from the past did give him pause.

While he was filming "The Shaggy Dog" this year, a grip approached him and mentioned that he had known Downey as a child. "He came up to me and said, 'I used to baby-sit you when your dad was making "Pound." I know what it was like back then.' And he handed me the slate from 'Pound,' which was the first movie I was ever in, and it said '3/17/70.' So it was literally like 35 years ago and change, 35 years ago and change," he repeats. For a moment there is silence. For a moment he can't quite think of what to say next; words, so clearly part of his support team, his steppingstones through the boggy places, fail him. For a moment. "It looked like something the art department had come up with to look like a period collector's item, like Sotheby's from 'The Fortune,' " he says, shaking his head at the vastness of it all. "So lately there's been a whole sense of closure."

One big difference

IF you ask Downey what's different about this time around, he won't mention the movies or the Wing Chun or the album. Instead he'll point to Susan Levin and say "that." They've been together for almost three years, which means she has seen most of his many moods, including the one he calls Mr. Skellabones, the guy who, after sneaking away for a weekend with a bag of dope and some lame excuse, comes back, looks her straight in the eye and, when she asks how the weekend was, says, "Grrrreeeat."

"Well, it's not like we met and I put down my party hat," Downey says. "She met me, fell in love with me, then she met Darth Vader and said, 'I don't like that guy.' "

Levin has been working for Silver for six years, overseeing projects including "House of Wax" and "Gothika." Clear of eye and skin, with a wide and perfect smile, she looks more like an Ivory Girl than a Hollywood producer. And she was not attracted to the self-destructive movie star thing. "She's a Chicago girl," he says. "In L.A., usually you flash your devil card and girls are like, 'Oh, that? That's cool' or 'Shouldn't we do this out of town, go up to San Ysidro or something and get down with our bad selves?' "

Levin, on the other hand, is used to being accountable for her actions. If and when she delivers an ultimatum, he says, she's set it up so she can follow through. "It's not like that, though," he adds, "because [staying clean] can't be about the kid or the gal or anything. But it's nice to know they're serious about it." He's serious about it too, but that doesn't mean recovery is his new second career, or that he has suddenly and miraculously gotten all the answers, which he can now share with the studio audience. That's not how it works most of the time, and it's certainly not how it works for Downey. Though lately, he says, he has gotten more than a few frantic phone calls.

"It's like calling Stan Winston when you want a monster built," he says. "When my phone rings and they say so-and-so's out on one or your old buddy is back out on Front Street, screaming and crying, it's easy. And I'll pick him up and bring him where I'm going for the day, which will probably include something that may be of some benefit, but I'm not going to any intervention. Because that's another big ego trip. Best way I can be of service," he says, taking a long drag on his cigarette, "is to realize that I am still really, gratefully, happily and, until further notice, on the mend, functioning very highly and loving it, Chief."

All very mature and healthy, and yet.... And yet, the man is still human, is still Robert Downey Jr., and he can't help but reminisce about the old days and comment on the newbies.

"When I came out here at 17, 18, staying at the Chateau with Jimmy Spader," he says, "there was this understanding that everyone went completely off their rockers for the weekend, then pulled together for the work on Monday. And there was something not very genuine about that, and I had no intention of adhering to that whatsoever. It's so funny to me," he adds, "so passe, the hard-partying movie stars and starlets -- it's like demonstrating at a nuclear power plant that's already been shut down and turned to natural gas."

He does feel sorry for those who are sowing their wild oats in this time of hyper-celebrity watch. With everyone in America plugged into some bad-behavior-tip hotline, he says, a star can't complain in a Middle America hair salon without it getting back to the tabs.

Back in the day, he says, it was different. "It used to be Russell Crowe, just did 'Cinderella Man' about some guy in Jersey -- he could shoot someone in New York and still catch a pass. 'We understand, we have no problem with Mr. Crowe, and we remember when he came through here, he was very nice.' I get to marvel at this," Downey says, shaking his head again, shoulders still, face an open puzzle. "I did all my left-foot dancing before it was super-televised. If I was doing that stuff now.... " He looks down at his iced tea, takes another swig. "Now," he says, "I'm getting cranked."

Copyright - Los Angeles Times, 2005