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Robert Downey Jr.: The ''Iron Man'' effect

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Robert Downey Jr.
Ray Tamarra/Getty Images

If Iron Man‘s smash $98.6 million debut this past weekend is any indication, 2008 is about to get really good for Robert Downey Jr. While well-liked by critics and film buffs, and an Oscar nominee for playing the title role in 1992’s Chaplin, Downey had never experienced a substantive commercial hit (a supporting role in 1986’s Back to School doesn’t really count), in part due to his well-documented struggles with addiction.

Following the success of Iron Man, however, this year promises to be a watershed. Downey’s performance as a Method actor playing an African-American solider in Ben Stiller’s August action-comedy Tropic Thunder already has the Internet atwitter. This fall, he’ll star alongside Jamie Foxx in The Soloist, a drama directed by Atonement‘s Joe Wright, based on a true story about a Los Angeles Times columnist (Downey) who discovers a homeless violin prodigy (Foxx) living on Skid Row. Oh, and he also landed a coveted spot in one of the film parodies for the MTV Movie Awards.

EW.com spoke with Downey on his drive home following an appearance on The Tonight Show, finding out how he’s handling all the success, what he hopes for Iron Man 2, and any other plans he might have beyond heading back to his house to see his son.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you doing today? You’ve had a pretty great weekend, I would think.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: I’m verrrrry well. It’s been absolutely nutty.

When did you first realize that this whole endeavor was going to significantly alter your fame scale?
For me, there were so many different bases to run. The screen test and all that, and then [director] Jon Favreau calling me to tell me I got the job — it wasn’t even the beginning, although I’ll never forget that day. And then by the time we were rehearsing and working with the writers and playing around, I kinda had a sense that maybe we were on to something just a little bit different. And then by the time we were up in Lone Pines, shooting his escape and landing in the sand dunes, I thought, Wow, this is actually looking kinda epic and cool.… But then Comic-Con really felt like we were halfway to something that might work. And then Jon and I were doing our world [promotional] tour, and really saw an audience that was just folks. You know, when we brought it to the military base in Korea, and we saw people showing up and really digging it, I thought, Wow, we got to really start pushing hard. Then we did Europe, and then the U.K., and then New York.

Right.
But all the way throughout the world tour, Jon and I would find ourselves waking up on these super-long intercontinental flights, and we just started brainstorming about, you know, if this goes well, where might we take it? And what worked in this one, and what does the audience want to see, and how do we continue this guy’s journey? What is it about him, and what is it about the way Jon directed this movie and the way we created the character that people were so overwhelmingly excited about? So we had a lot of heart-to-hearts. I don’t know if he used the penguin metaphor yet, but we kind of felt it was March of the Penguins, and we were just trying to keep the egg warm until we got it home, to see if was going to make it through the cold winter of a three-day weekend — or a three-and-a-half day weekend, as it turned out. So, I don’t know, dude. It’s this trippy thing where we’re going into another lap [of publicity] on shows that maybe weren’t so sure they were going to have us a minute ago. Now, all of a sudden, we’re geniuses. [Laughs]

NEXT PAGE: War Machine and other Iron Man 2 ideas

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I understand you just came from shooting a segment for the MTV Movie Awards?
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Oh, well, I rehearsed that all this morning, and then we shoot it tomorrow. And then from shooting that, I go to Jimmy Kimmel, and I’m talking to you on my way back from just doing Billy Bush after doing The Tonight Show. You know, it’s real different to show a clip and talk about a movie that none of the audience has seen and nobody can be really bothered to get too excited about unless they see the applause sign blinking. But now…there were some people there [in the studio audience who had seen the movie], and it was just really gratifying to have folks saying, ”Hey, we enjoyed that, and my son enjoyed it, and my teenage daughter was crazy about it — or my wife or my husband who never likes this stuff.”

When you were brainstorming with Jon Favreau, what were the elements that you wanted to bring to the next Iron Man movie?
There’s this idea of Terrence [Howard] putting on a suit and coming back as War Machine, who is pretty iconic in the Iron Man and Marvel universe. Just seeing where it can all go, but grounding it in a very modern mythology. I see it as greatest dysfunctional family story ever told…. In The New York Post a couple days ago, [there was a cartoon] of Iron Man suited up, and he’s telling the governor even his super-powers can’t get him out of the budget problem. That was what Jon was hoping for and excited to see the most, the idea that Tony Stark and Iron Man can become part of the cultural fabric. When we heard posters were being defaced to promote political or social ideas, he just got such a hoot out of that.

A central element of Tony Stark’s story arc in the comics is his alcoholism. How much will that be incorporated into the storylines, or, at least, from your perspective, how much would you like that to happen?
Well, you know. [Pause] I think I was reading in the Times, it was saying ”Most Conflicted” — it was comparing character defects from one superhero to another. Interestingly, Tony’s Achilles heel isn’t that he boozes too hard and then he winds up becoming an alcoholic in the genesis; his character defect is narcissism. I think there’s a way to capitalize on that, and if you want to use the drinking as a metaphor to that, that’s fine. But in and of itself, I don’t think it’s any more interesting than having a superhero who has cancer. That’s why I think the mythology of these things is cool, because a Gamma Ray means a lot more than a gamma ray, whereas a non-specific urethritis can be only that. Again, I defer to Jon. He really, really crafted this thing in a way that was so smart. And, also, what I love is that kids are enjoying it. It’s important to me, strangely, in my old age, to do something that is appropriate and still entertaining and engaging and evocative, and is about more than you might expect it to be about. I mean, clearly, I’m going to have a lot more juice at the writing table than I did a few years ago.

To that end, I know you’re under contract for another Iron Man movie — do you know how far that goes? They just announced an Avengers movie for 2011, which would ostensibly involve Iron Man. Would you be on board for that?
I really don’t know. What I’m on board for right now is the ride home. I don’t want to start talking out of my league, because that would have certainly been my inclination in the past. I kind of know how to keep my teeth together a little better than I used to.

NEXT PAGE: The Soloist and Downey’s other post-Iron Man plans

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re bookending the summer with performances in Iron Man and then in Tropic Thunder. Is that a strange feeling, entering a summer knowing it may be referred to as ”The Summer of Robert Downey Jr.”?
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: I’ll take it! You know, by the way, this is my 25th year in the industry, and I’ve seen everybody else have their summer. So when it comes to the showdown, like, a screen test or a street fight, it’s probably best to punch first. But in things like this and the trajectory of anyone’s life — and mine is, you know, fair extreme in its examples of highs and lows — it feels really, really gratifying to be able to be old enough and mature enough to process this and enjoy it. But also, like, my older-male peers would say, ”Hey, just like the down times, when you let it flow and let it go, really feel this [success], but also know it’s fleeting.” And, you know, Ben [Stiller] is already working me for Tropic Thunder, so in a way I feel like there’s no rest for the happy-weary. But it’s wild. It really is so wild.

You’ve just wrapped on The Soloist, right?
Yes, sir.

Which will be out in November?
Supposedly.

To go from two big summer movies to a solid dramatic acting role to round out the year — that’s a good year.
It feels to me like that championship season, you know? There’s something a little bittersweet already about it, because I know I will never work this hard again. [Laughs] Certainly not on purpose. You know, this time I did it on purpose. It’s just weird the way things happen. You know, ”Things happen in threes!” And I’m like, well, you know, you buy into that superstition and watch things happen in threes for you. I’m more of a ”What you believe and expect, you’re likely to experience.” And hope is real good. It’s central, in fact.

Yeah.
I don’t know. I’m so tired of hearing my own voice on this kind of stuff…. [Laughs] It’s trippy. You know, I certainly didn’t expect for it to turn out this way. I knew after Iron Man there was going to be such a crash, and I knew myself at least well enough to know that just this once the best thing to do after doing a big job was to go jump into another big job right away. And then after that, when I knew Jamie [Foxx] was doing The Soloist, and I’d seen Atonement and realized how gifted Joe Wright was, I thought, Wow, looks like I’m going to be doing that too.

It seems like you’re going to be spending the summer riding the promotional train — you don’t have any projects lined up to leap into any time soon?
I really don’t know. I mean, can you imagine me just taking a job to get out of press? Who’da thought? I was pulling out from Jay Leno’s [show] over there, and I had to call you, and I got stuff to do, and my kid’s waiting for me at home, and there’s all these folks [by the studio gate], half of whom just want me to sign something so they can go sell it on eBay. But while I’m pulling out, they go ”Robert! We’re the ones who put you where you are!” I thought, Wow, there’s always going to be something tugging at your heartstrings, or your shame-string, or your purse-string. I think the best thing I could do…is to not just paper the walls with my image — I know the other side of that too, you know? You’re the poster boy for this, you’re the poster boy for that. I just would rather try to do this smart and not overexposed, if possible.

Well, good luck with that.
[Laughs]

Thank you so much for checking in with us.
My pleasure, and I’m stoked that you guys are following up on this. I honestly never thought I’d be having this conversation, so it’s cool.

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