With “Iron Man” arriving in theatres this week, the writers, actors, and director responsible for Marvel’s latest big-screen adventure met with members of the press over the weekend for a series of roundtable interviews in which CBR took part. We published earlier our latest interview with director Jon Favreau, and we bring you now Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy behind the mask. The actor gave an amusing though sometimes confrontational dialogue on the mythology of “Iron Man,” his workout regimen, and the virtues of improvisation, all in his inimitable stream-of-consciousness manner.
Downey greeted reporters with a cheerful “How are we?” before settling into his seat. Or, not settling, as the actor was constantly in motion -- not nervously, but seeming to seek the most comfortable posture and never quite finding it.
The interview began with a comment about Downey's superhero physique and roguish charm. The actor leaned onto to the table and considered his words. “I thought, you know, I was 41 when I was cast. I turned 42 while we were shooting the desert escape sequence, and I turned 43 a couple of weeks ago. After a certain point things just seem to click along pretty quick. So I decided to make a bit of an intervention on myself to see if I could actually get in shape. When you’re in your twenties, you train for six weeks and you look good for the next six years. Now I train for six months and I look for up to six minutes. So the math is getting really interesting too.
“But as far as [the roguish charm], I think it was just being more still and being able to hold that idea of what is evocative to me, what is sexual in people regarding women and stuff, is when there's an ease but there's also this ability to hold your space. And, you know, I had a lot of help. [Director] Jon [Favreau] really made this character with me.”
Asked whether he was a fan of comics, Downey answered, “I think so, yeah. I don't qualify as a comic book enthusiast, but I remember seeing Iron Man like at Schwab's, and the same thing with Spider-Man and this and that. And I was like, oh, cool, is that a robot or whatever?”
On the subject of adapting comics to film, Downey said he believes in sticking to the source material as much as possible. “It's funny to me, we have all this reference material and sometimes the first people say, ugh, you don't need that,” he said. “But people have been tweaking on this character for forty-five years. I think everything that's of value is probably right there. I wasn't entirely correct, because we have to bring ourselves to bear, and if there's 'accomplishment' and 'Iron Man' to be used in the same sentence it's that Jon and I really created this third thing which is Tony Stark and we really talked about it and we really treated it like it was kind of wildly important. And it is.
“I don't think you get a lot of shots at doing something like this, where you might get a chance to do a couple [sequels]. And everyone's watching. I'm here talking to you people, and my friends are watching. I've been on the other side of that where you're doing press for people about a movie you hate, and you know they hate, and, you know, why are we fucking here?”
Given the Downey’s seeming affinity with Tony Stark, there was a question about what appealed to him about the character. “What it is about the mythology of a genre picture like this, that I thought could be fun and cool and maybe wind up turning into more than just another paycheck, was just that his superpower is his mind,” the actor said. “His superpower is his ability to invent, and I think that that is something that all of a sudden makes it applicable to every man, woman, and child who will see it, because we know -- I love this phrase -- they say there's nothing more serious than a child at play. And I know that that's true for me, and I think that everyone has their thing.
“I ask around, I kind of make it my business to ask someone, when you're following your joy what is it? It tends to be one of several things, but it usually has to do with tinkering with no particular aim. Or a hobby that is not a hobby at all, it's a complete spiritual endeavor for that man or woman, or that kid. And I think that ultimately that's what saves [Stark’s] ass, in that simplest form of the story, his ability to create out of desperation or create out of loneliness or create out of industrialism or create out of patriotism.”
For all of Tony Stark’s charm, though, he is a bit of a womanizer and a rogue. Was there a concern that Stark would not be a likeable protagonist? “The conversations I've heard throughout my illustrious career, where it's all like 'we've got to make sure he's not' ï¿½" well, what do you know what we have to make sure he isn't? What about the story?” Downey stated. “The story takes care of that, he's got such a rude awakening, he gets his ass kicked so hard. And then how do you show a transition?”
Downey explained what was important was to show that a character had changed without changing him completely -- Stark is still a playboy, but he becomes a playboy with a righteous cause. “He can't come in and go, 'Pepper,'” Downey huffed with heavy, melodramatic breathing, “'we have got to -- I want a press conference!' He does want a press conference! He wants a cheeseburger. He doesn't know what he wants. He says 'press conference’ because he knows he going to do something but he doesn't know what, and he gets nervous.
“Anyway, I just think that audiences, and myself as a movie lover, you forgive a lot. Look at the movies we love, and look at the kind of schmucks and bitches people are before the turn, before act two, before the resolution, and you never want them to change so entirely because part of the aspect of that is that aggression, or that drive or that wit is what comes to bear at the end. And from the little I know about storytelling it seems kind of useful.”
Asked about the much-storied improvisation that shaped “Iron Man,” Downey laughed before launching into an anecdote about Stark’s romantic interlude with a reporter. “In that scene with Leslie Bibb, one of my favorite things -- we had to cut it out. But we go on the bed and she's all pissed off, and I wanted to say 'let it all out, let it all out, I know you hate me.’ And Jon [Favreau] was like, 'you're talking enough. Stop, you can't improvise everything every time, just shut up and let me do this scene. We got two hours, dude, I got five shots,’ or whatever. And I was like, 'oh alright.’ So we roll off the bed, and one of these takes she just went like this,” Downey said, bringing his fist back in a punching motion, “and she clocked me in the jaw. And you heard, through the body mics, 'pop.' And I was like, 'Ow!' and then I laughed so they took the laugh from after the thing.
“I always think that you can go further, and at the same time my sensibility and the sensibility that Jon has is so sophisticated and so able to say, hey, that's a cool moment for you and that's a cool moment for adults but that's not something kids want to see. He was always like checking and balancing everything.”
Downey continued by joking about the hard time he and Favreau gave the writers, who had to keep up with constant changes to the script. “[Mark] Fergus and [Hawk] Ostby, we put those guys through their paces. They would come in and be this, and then da da da, and she says 'take out the trash.' I was like, take out the trash? You got a better line than that. [But] it's the first big laugh in the movie. I was riding these guys all the time. These poor guys.
“There's this scene which is a weapons test, in the beginning where he goes 'Is it better to be feared or respected?' I wrote that line. No, 'better to be feared or respected' was one thing, then I suggested 'is it too much to ask for both?' and we wrote that down. Jon says, 'we have to talk about the missile. Not your ideas.' I said alright, we'll talk about the missile. With that, 'this is the Jericho missile, it's the first line of my proprietary…’ He goes, 'is that correct grammar, proprietary?’ 'Yes, I know my grammar. Proprietary Repulsor Technology, I go. Period or you got more to say? Period. Okay. I say, 'The best weapon is the one you only have to use once.' Jon wrote that, and I said 'that's how Dad did it, that's how America does it' and he said 'don't say that!' I go, I'm going to say that. 'That's how America does it...' He goes, 'where do you end that?’ I go, 'and it's worked out pretty well so far.'
“We're writing all this down on this huge cue card and Matty [Libatique], the poor Director of Photography’s out there going, 'I've got eight minutes of light. You're killing me!' So we're doing this hodgepodge, we put it up on this piece of corkboard, I go to do it and Matty the DP goes, 'I can see his eyes moving.' I go, 'cut!' Propsï¿½"sunglasses, please!
“So much of this film, and I think when people who enjoy it say you can kind of sense it, like the puppies are just being born and put in your hand.”
Since “Iron Man” is certain to appeal to kids as well as adults who enjoy a good summer blockbuster, Downey was asked which of his previous movies would be appropriate for younger viewers. “I would start in the order that I started making films, so that by the time they get up to the weird stuff” like “A Scanner Darkly” they would presumably be a bit older, Downey said. “That's something I should probably spend more time thinking about. I would probably start with the kids seeing 'Shaggy Dog.' So I just contradicted myself.”
Downey had a lot of praise for his co-stars Terence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow. “Terence is fantastic, and we really, really got close playing these guys who were really close, and it's been a really interesting thing. Because, you know, you tend to think you're making friends because you're working with them, and then there's people you really feel a brotherhood with and he's one.”
This relationship helped Downey and Howard develop their (again, much improvised) rapport. Explained the actor, “That scene on the plane, we were just saying things like, you know, what do you want to say to your friend? And I said, I think he's gotta get him drunk on the plane! He's **got** to get him drunk on the plane! And Marvel guys were like, 'Tell him to go and lift some more weights' or whatever. 'No, he's gotta get him drunk!’ They're like, 'The Department of Defense says you get an airman drunk and then you go to an air test he'd be fired.' Well then, how long is the flight from here to Bagram, how long is the flight to Afghanistan? 'Fourteen hours.' I said, 'Twelve hours bottle to throttle, he can make it! As long as he drinks really hard for two hours and then stops.”
“And Gwyneth is absolutely crazy about me,” Downey said, agreeing with a comment about the on-screen couple’s chemistry. “It's rare that that happens. Sometimes you think [of a co-star], she's hot, she's smart, she's cool, and then you get on set and she's just a toxic wench, and you're like, I can't believe I have to spend the next two months with this bitch. Gwyneth was a very corrective experience for me.”
Downey was less than amused at Iron Man’s leaked cameo in the upcoming Hulk film. “I went and did a scene for two hours which they're going to run like during the end credits of 'Hulk,' and everyone's like 'so, your role in Hulk...' I did it as favor to these guys at Marvel really, and now I have to talk about it every fucking day! But they're smart. Because what they get is you're saying 'Hulk' while we're talking about 'Iron Man.' So they know what they're doing, they got you.”
The actor also had little patience for boilerplate questions. Asked which super power he would want and why, Downey leaned in near the reporter and pointedly but still in good humor rebuked him for the question. “How do you feel about asking me that question?” he said. “You’re a smart, educated guy. You've probably got some really good ideas in your head. Let me answer that one by not answering it: statistically, women want to fly; men want to be invisible.
“But here's my one, in case you're asked for a sound bite you'll get it: my superpower would be the ability to be able to go through an entire press day in four seconds.”
It should be noted that the super powers question was not posed by CBR News.
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