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I AM “IRON MAN”: Robert Downey, Jr.

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
I AM “IRON MAN”: Robert Downey, Jr.
“Iron Man” opens in US cinemas May 2

In June of 2007, CBR News visited the Southern California set of “Iron Man,” the new film based on the classic Marvel Comics superhero. In what will be seen in the Jon Favreau-directed film as Tony Stark’s workshop, filled with classic cars, computers and other assorted Iron Man accoutrements, we spoke with the cast and crew of the hotly anticipated adaptation.

We bring you the first of those extensive interviews today with the Academy Award-nominated Robert Downey, Jr, who spoke to us while still in makeup, covered in bruises and cuts, with a device strapped to his chest over his heart, under his shirt. Downey of course portrays the titular hero of “Iron Man,” also known to fans as the miscreant billionaire industrialist playboy Tony Stark.

Would you agree that Iron Man, a classic superhero, is an unusual role for you?

Well, I mean, all my friends are doing it. And I remember the original “Superman” and Marlon Brando was in it. I thought, “Wow, these things must be getting legit.” And I was already I guess fairly opinionated when I was 7. I’m kind of like a nerd about this stuff, and I think there’s been this onslaught of this genre of film, but I thought this one was different enough to accommodate whatever snobbery might be unleashed on me by my peers, friends. Or just my buddies. You want to do stuff, and they say, “You’re doing what now? ‘Shaggy Dog?'” No one’s given me any guff about “Iron Man,” and it’s funny, too; a particular kind of fan likes it: really smart, highly-educated entertainment lawyers pulling me aside at a party, saying, “I didn’t really want to say this, but, dude, Tony Stark, and the Mandarin, and…” And the tie gets loose and they start just geeking out and it’s great.

You still have your makeup on from your last scene and you have a number of maybe half healed bruises and cuts on your face. Can you talk about those marks?

I can. [Tony] goes through a lot. Well, I guess it’s safe to say that he is in captivity for some time. He’s been back home, he’s had a press conference, and he’s taken this kind of energy device [opens his shirt to reveal a device that’s sitting on his chest], he’s miniaturized it, and it’s keeping him alive. But he’s back home.

Back home, I mean there’s nothing just normal in this whole film. He’s just back home – Did you see that pad [a gorgeous, multi-level Malibu estate with a 180 degree view of the ocean]? And he’s not just back home, but he’s home and there isn’t a big wait staff, and he doesn’t have a girl on his arm, and the assistant’s not around. So it’s just very kind of isolated opulence.

If you met Tony Stark, what would you guys talk about?

Well, first of all, he’d be an imposter. So we’d probably throw down right there. It’s so funny, because I think I’m old enough to have a pretty strong aesthetic distance. And I remember the days where I would just throw myself into this tizzy of craft. The same makeup girl doing this did [1987’s] “Less than Zero,” and she’s blowing menthol in my eyes and putting latex on my lips, and I was doing push-ups for my scenes and my heart was racing. And I feel like, as much as anything nowadays, it’s not like we’re phoning it in, we really care, we really prepped it, but I still try to have some distance. But it’s really almost even more narcissistic, to be talking to some department head, saying, “I don’t think Tony would….” Essentially saying what I want to do.

But if there’s ever been a character in the history of my career that I’d be happy to meld with and associate myself with, it’s Tony Stark, because it’s the coolest job I’ve ever had. And the history of it, and I got to meet Stan Lee, I took him to The Grill in Beverly Hills. And I asked, “What was the real origin of this?” And he says, “Oh, I kind of did it on a dare.” It’s interesting to see how you could take a billionaire, industrialist, womanizing hedon and somehow find a bit of vulnerability there. And also it’s interesting how this character was created at a time when there was a very strong anti-establishment, anti-military industrial complex, anti-rich-over-30 energy, so for [Stan] it was just a huge challenge. And he said they got more female fanmail than for all of their other heroes combined because there was this sense of [Iron Man] being very vulnerable and not knowing from day to day whether this very precarious device that keeps him alive and drives him but is clearly a metaphor for something else, but sometimes it’s not a metaphor, you know? If you’ve got a small reactor in your chest that’s the reason that you’re not dead in the movie, how can that be a metaphor?

We spoke earlier with your co-star Terance Howard and he described the press conference scene �” Stark’s first public appearance since returning from his ordeal abroad — and the crew had to relight the scene when you told the actors to sit down, which originally wasn’t part of the plan. What was going through your mind asking the reporters at a press conference to sit on the floor?

What was going through my mind was, I walked into the room and everyone’s standing up. I was just like, [Tony’s] also supposedly gone through this massive transformation, he’s been humbled, he’s seen things through new eyes, and I think even people who he’s interacting with, with reporters. “That’s the press, and we do our soundbytes and we do our damage control and we do our propaganda and that’s it.” And I think he’s staring to become… not an idealist, because I think he’s too educated in the dark arts of weapons manufacturing, and also his family and their legacy, to be a moron. Or suddenly be like, you know, waving flowers and joining hands to sing Kumbaya. But I think there’s an equalization that occurs. In a way, it’s not like he raises his finger and says, “We wear the purple, and everyone sit down.” I think it was just kind of making him nervous, and I thought it was a strange thing to do, and also later on they’re supposed to think that maybe Tony’s gone a little cuckoo, and I thought that would demonstrate that, even though that’s not why he did it. It’s that thing of miscommunication of intentions and ideas.

Were there any other times when you caused big reset like that?

Well, first of all, as a martial artist you want to be as efficient, effective, and use as much linear striking as possible — don’t fight force with force, there’s a lot of these concepts that everything’s like everything else. So I’m not like coming in going, “This is all wrong — relight.” But I’ll come in and I’ll say, “Given the time we have, we can probably get this many shots.”

And Jon has been very flexible and very fun, because we’re very similar. I mean, really Jon and I are creating Tony, and through that, half the lines are his, and half the ideas are mine, and you’ve got all these really great people at the top of their field who are either simultaneously exasperated that we’re having an idea. I come in every day and I say, “I’ve seen this in a movie before, no offense. But if we do this, I haven’t seen that.” And some of them go, “Would you just go put on your chest piece and earn a living like everyone else?” But more often than not, if anything, I feel the onus and responsibility to not venture into this genre without an understanding that it’s actually inhabited and enjoyed, and me being amongst these people, by very apt, bright, perceptive, and oftentimes educated in the arts people, so just because it happens to have this two-dimensional aspect to it doesn’t mean this doesn’t go deep and it shouldn’t be an art form. I just think audiences are continually underestimated.

At the same time, I love “C.H.U.D.” I can go see a pretty crappy movie, and love it. If it’s got a couple things that work. I’m like a soccer coach with kids who shouldn’t be playing soccer.

Can you talk about the wardrobe?

I love [costumer] Stan Winston and all the guys on his team. There are several stunt men, and Mike Justus and these guys, and they’re kind of like, if Jon and I are Tony Stark, then it’s me and those fellas, my stunt men and my stand in who wind up really being Iron Man, because it’s just such a massive undertaking. And we had said at first, we wanted to do as much of it practically as possible. I was coming into this, “Oh, yeah, practically, practically!” But it’s really tough. And really great, like that first time you try on the suit. I swear to God, you could put the least macho superhero looking man or woman in this suit and I swear to God for 15 seconds you’d believe any of them could destroy the nemesis and all this. So it really is the long game, it’s about how do you not have a personality meltdown in like hour seven, when you kind of feel like you’ve been tarred and feathered and covered in machine parts.

And you’re calling up every therapeutic moment you’ve ever had with friends, family, strangers, every book you’ve ever read. They’re saying, “Hey, have you read ‘The Secret?'” I’m like, “I am living ‘The Secret.'” Nonetheless, what it really is, that’s the thing. I come off doing “Zodiac” before this, and “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang” which is a movie that I really loved a couple of years before that, and “Scanner Darkly,” all these films were really kind of about character, and once in a while you got your finger cut off, or you had a bad day, or you’re wearing an ascot or something like that, so I’d really gotten used to these non technically driven movies, and as much as we’ve been able to in this, we’ve tried to feel like if Rob Altman had directed “Superman.”

How long does it take to get into the suit?

Well, I like to say that I’m the first person who’s been able to relieve themselves while wearing their suit. It was precipitous. Wouldn’t it be great if that was the rest of the interview? There was a zipper, but the zipper was still covered by a hip piece that actually had a groin attached.

Was it ever frustrating wearing the suit?

I mean, look, wearing a watch can be frustrating if you’re not in the right headspace, you know? There was a couple of days ago where they said, “You’ve been through a lot,” and this has been a really grueling shoot, but it’s also been a really magical shoot. It reminds me of reading about Chaplin in the early days where he’d go in without an idea in his head. It’s not like we don’t have a script, and one that we approve of and this and that, but you go in and you say, “How do we raise this to a level of something we want to see, or something that addresses all the different elements of these kind of films?” I’m actually starting to think that they’re a really, really high order of art, because there are so many things that you have to professionally have gone through and understood and experience to be able to not be overwhelmed by the fact that, “Now, in this scene, you’re going through something, but you’re welding, and the phone rings, and you have a relationship with your shop.”

I’m actually really comforted being here right now. You ever feel like, that summer, in that place, or in that apartment, creatively, we did every single thing we could? I wrote my best stuff, I was the most honest, I was the most disciplined. Back when you used to say, “I’m not going to just go out to eat again, I’m going to look at this cookbook I’ve had for five years and actually try to make a pasta that doesn’t suck.” And we really came in on this set in particular, because this is where so much of his work happens, and the creation of the Mark II suit and then beyond. What was the question? Oh, yeah. No, it’s fun.

What has your training process been like?

For the last five years or so, I’ve been doing martial arts. And I’m not 28, or I’m not some guy like Daniel Craig who’s already had meat packed on his shoulders. You’ve seen me in all the movies, I’m not like Mr. Buff Guy, and now I’m in the over-40 crew. So it has literally been this excruciating process of working out so hard and so often just to not look like a little pot-bellied pig. And then there’s a couple scenes where we finally got it together, and I’m liking banging on the thing, and I go, “Matty [Matthew Libatique, Director of Photography], dude, you got it?” And he goes, “No, I know what to do, man, I’ve done this.” And they light it right, and then I’m like Rubber Band Sam, and we do all this stuff. It’s like, “Yeah, man, you really look great, you’re really in shape.” And then 20 minutes later….

And you know, yoga, and eating right, and all the supplements, and sleeping right, and all the other obvious good stuff that is probably more important than working out. You have to keep your head right. It’s so easy to get spun out, and you see people who have no challenges outside of their Hollywood problems, and they regularly have meltdowns on set, or they turn into a bitch, or they say and do things because they’re under pressure, or because they think they’re something they’re not. It’s really a trip to be number one on the call sheet and doing a movie like this.

Are there any real life playboys from whom you’ve drawn inspiration?

Well, this might sound a little weird, but I’m not drawing on other things for [Tony]. I consider him to be a real entity for the most part. That works for me. And then if you had the stimuli that I do day by day — I say that with whatever I learned in Theater Arts 101, of again having that aesthetic distance so that you actually know what you’re doing. There’s no sense in getting too caught up in something, but I come into work and there’s like hundreds of people around, and without abusing the influence I have, it’s like, things are made very easy and available to me, and I see hundred-thousand-dollar cars and things, and all this stuff that, regardless of how much dough I’ve made over the years, I’ve never lived a day, I’ve never lived four seconds like this guy has lived every day. So it’s been this really kind of amazing experience to see what it would be like if you had unimaginable resources, and you had this change of heart, and then you decided to pool those resources into something that became kind of fetishistic and obsessive, but obsessive in a way that you kind of have to figure out as you go along what the moral psychology is of that. So I think it’s a very human journey.

But to continue not answering your question, I tended to actually go more to mythology and the real basis of mythology and how men and women are capable of at a certain subtle level of god making, of making themselves godlike, of clearing themselves of these earthly things and walking into a purpose or some sort of divine idea, whether it seems dark at the time or not, it’s like you can see through perception and you have this heroic experience. I could say that about single mothers, I could say that about a variety of different type of folks that I’ve known growing up.

How much of your own very public struggle with addiction has informed what you’re doing with this role of Tony Stark, who in the comics is depicted as having similar dependencies?

By the time you get out of Dodge and start doing the right thing, you really don’t relate to the person that historically people still see. But it’s like the guy who says, “You know, if you Google me, all you’re ever going to see if that I was accused of raping those two kids on the boat,” or whatever. It’s like, “I didn’t even, wait, why am I Googling you anyway?”

So my thing is, what else is attractive is, yeah, Tony Stark has been known to go bonkers and be so irresponsible that he’s like too hammered to put on the suit. And I was like, “Really?” And they’re like, “Yeah, yeah.” And I thought, “All these times when it seemed like in the atmosphere that maybe it was another one of these,” because, you know, it’s like, you’re a superhero of the week thing, and there’s so many. And I was like, “Green Hornet? No.” But the fact that Tony is so conflicted at certain points in the later years. There’s so much stuff going on in this movie as it is, that we decided not to do like the Pirandello thing. too. But I get it, I mean, that’s why, in a way, [the character’s] ideally suited for me, and I’m ideally suited for him.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s TV/Film forum.

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