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Robert Downey Jr.: Entertainer of the year

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There are enough organic potions and natural remedies on Robert Downey Jr.’s coffee table to stock an aisle at Whole Foods. Shriveled, rooty-looking things in Ziploc bags. Jars filled with herbal pills as big as bullets. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor next to all of these unusual items in the living room of the London townhouse he’s been renting while shooting his latest movie, an elementary detective story called Sherlock Holmes. It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but with his hair in full bedhead bloom, Downey looks like he could use a pick-me-up. He reaches for a bottle and shakes a dozen gelcaps into his palm, then stuffs them into his mouth. ”Brain formula,” he mumbles as he gulps them down.

They must be working. This year, thanks to a series of clever choices, Downey has pulled off one of the smartest second acts in recent showbiz history. After doing just about everything humanly possible to destroy a once-promising career — including spending the better part of a decade in courtrooms and even jail cells — he’s finally fulfilling his potential. He’s become a movie star. At 43. For starters, he’s at the red-hot center of a humongous new action franchise, Iron Man, which has grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide since opening last May. He followed that in August by doing something few actors have dared since Jolson — blackface — in the Ben Stiller comedy Tropic Thunder, which grossed $110 million. Next spring, he’ll be costarring with Jamie Foxx in The Soloist, Atonement director Joe Wright’s drama about a journalist who befriends a homeless musical genius he finds pushing a shopping cart around L.A. (Downey’s performance was starting to generate Oscar buzz — the most since his nomination for Chaplin in 1993 — but then The Soloist was moved from its November release date to next April.) And now, here in London, there’s Warner Bros.’ latest franchise launch, Sherlock Holmes — directed by that Guy getting divorced from Madonna — which Downey just started shooting two weeks ago.

”Why am I having this year?” he ponders, chasing down the formula with a swig of mineral water. ”To tell you the truth, I haven’t fully digested what’s happened to me before, during, and after Iron Man. Tropic Thunder seems like it happened 25 minutes ago. Time is not entirely linear. It’s all so associative. If Ben Stiller called me today and said we needed to shoot more scenes, I’d get my jacket and go. But I do know that I don’t want to waste any more time. That’s why I’m putting my nose to the grindstone. That’s why I’m cranking them out.”

Let’s just say the ’90s weren’t Robert Downey Jr.’s decade. He drove naked down Sunset Boulevard, throwing imaginary rats out his car window. He got arrested for trespassing when he mistakenly wandered into a neighbor’s house and passed out in the kid’s bedroom. He served nearly a year in a California state prison for drug possession, and then did eight months on Ally McBeal, until he got booted from the show after he got busted a couple more times, once in a hotel room in Palm Springs with cocaine and a Wonder Woman costume.

Yet here he is today, on this drizzly October afternoon, padding around a Mayfair mansion so fancy it’s got a swimming pool — no joke — in the kitchen. ”Nice, huh?” Downey says, pausing at the architectural oddity during a tour of his digs. ”I could put a couple of folding cots in here and I’d be all set. That’s all I’d need. I could live in the kitchen.” He’s lived in worse. But since court-ordered drug treatment in 2001 — and his marriage to producer Susan Levin in 2005 — Downey has kept ”the bad dog,” as he refers to his darker side, on a short leash. ”It’s not about placating the bad dog — it’s about feeding the good dog,” he says of the struggle. ”You still have to feed the bad dog, but only enough so that the ASPCA doesn’t bring you up on charges.”

These days, Downey’s drug use is limited to nicotine, along with the brain boosters and other macrobiotic concoctions cluttering his coffee table. But you can still see Downey unleash all his canine energy — not to mention puppy-dog charm — on the screen, even when playing the sorts of roles that don’t normally require more from an actor than looking fine in a crime-fighting costume. ”Why did people go see Iron Man?” asks Downey’s Soloist costar Jamie Foxx. ”They went to see Iron Man because Robert Downey Jr. was in it. That’s why I went. I saw it at a screening in Beverly Hills. I was sitting next to Warren Beatty, and Warren leaned over and said, ‘I’ve known Downey since he was a kid.’ People in this town are really rooting for this guy. Not just because they like him, but because he’s great as an actor.”

Sitting down for a conversation with Downey is a little like that scene in Iron Man when Tony Stark slips into his jet-powered boots for the first time. It zooms wildly all over the place, veering from a discussion about whether he should have grown a mustache for Sherlock Holmes (”I tried, but everyone thought I looked like Super Mario”) to his first impressions of the Iron Man comic books (”If you ask me, Tony Stark looked like Schneider from One Day at a Time”). It can be a bumpy, if thrilling, ride.

When the talk lands on his career, he reveals that he had hoped for an earlier comeback, with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a savvy, twisty 2005 crime caper costarring Val Kilmer that never found an audience. ”It was going to be my coming-out party, my emergence into 21st-century cinema,” Downey says, laughing. ”When it tanked, I was heartbroken.” On the bright side, it did get noticed by director Jon Favreau, who happened to be looking for an actor to play a certain weapons-manufacturing magnate with a thing for Black Sabbath. Downey wanted Iron Man so badly he spent three weeks compulsively rehearsing every conceivable line reading for his audition. ”I had amendments and ancillaries and pop-ups for every part of the scene — if it went off in one direction I could add A, B, or C. It was madness,” he says, ”but also the most positively reinforced ritual I’ve ever performed. If Aleister Crowley had a younger brother — it was that type of s—.”

Nabbing the part of the heavy metal fellow was only the beginning of Downey’s karmic turnaround. Just before he started shooting Iron Man in March 2007, Stiller — who says he was looking for a ”real actor” for the part, not a ”comedy guy” — offered him the role in Tropic Thunder of Kirk Lazarus, an Australian Method actor who undergoes pigment alteration so that he can play an African-American soldier in a big Hollywood blockbuster about Vietnam (”I’m the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude,” Downey says, quoting a line from the film). The part was so loopy and potentially tasteless — blackface remains the third rail of American comedy — he couldn’t resist; he flew to Hawaii to start shooting it in July 2007, two weeks after finishing production on Iron Man. ”It took a lot of courage,” Stiller says of Downey’s dedication to the role. ”I mean, think about it. He had to come to the set every day in full black makeup and play this over-the-top character. Most of the crew hadn’t read the script. Nobody knew what was going on. And here comes this white guy in blackface doing the Jeffersons theme song.”

Downey, though, saw Tropic Thunder as a blissful getaway. ”Ben Stiller saved me from the ghastly fate of a crash after shooting Iron Man,” he says. ”The waiting around, the expectations, the not knowing how it was going to come out.” There were other distractions as well. While shooting in Hawaii, Downey got a visit from British filmmaker Joe Wright, who pitched him the part of Steve Lopez, the newspaper columnist who tries to help a homeless Juilliard dropout. ”Joe shows up in Kauai, in the middle of the jungle, wearing a trilby hat,” Downey recalls, ”and he tells me this story about friendship and faith. All of a sudden I start feeling all my old theater heartstrings being pulled. Before Joe left the island, I knew I’d be doing The Soloist.” Downey started work on the film in early 2008, after he returned from making Tropic Thunder in Hawaii.

As it turned out, Downey didn’t have to worry about Iron Man at all. Its $98.6 million May 2 opening weekend made it the biggest superhero franchise launch since Spider-Man. Downey grins when he remembers the night his numbers came in. ”It’s Friday evening, and we’re all in a side room at a restaurant in Santa Monica,” he says. ”And every few minutes the estimates go up. ‘The estimate is now 77! The estimate is now 87! The estimate is now 100!’ And I’m going crazy because I’ve had 25 Cokes and three cappuccinos. I’m like, ‘Come on, give me another lucky seven! Give me money!”’ The euphoria didn’t end there. ”About 10 days later, Jon Favreau and I were invited to this dinner with [Paramount CEO] Brad Grey and all these assorted heavyweights,” Downey continues. ”Jon and I give each other a look, like we were made men or something. Iron Man had put us in the game.”

It’s a nippy Sunday morning at an old shipyard-turned-museum about an hour outside London. An ancient torch-lit tavern has been outfitted with a 19th-century boxing ring, where Downey has been shooting a scene in which he shows off Sherlock Holmes‘ pugilistic expertise. Judging from the footage playing on the monitor — the shirtless star trading slo-mo blows with a hulking brute twice his size — Downey’s version of the detective won’t be spending much time puffing a pipe or examining stuff with a magnifying glass. No, this Sherlock has kung fu moves. ”In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, there are references to the fact that Holmes practiced martial arts,” notes Downey, wincing while watching the action on the monitor. ”In the books, there’s a physical side to the character. So we’re just extrapolating from the original material.”

It’s a testament to Iron Man‘s success that Holmes is not being played by somebody like Daniel Radcliffe or Shia LaBeouf or even Michael Cera (although Jonah Hill would have made a pretty good Watson). When director Guy Ritchie first came aboard, right after finishing RocknRolla, he was thinking of a much younger Holmes. ”Guy wanted to do more of an origin story, which would have made me age-inappropriate,” says Downey. But Iron Man‘s box office demonstrated with inescapable Holmesian logic that a middle-aged movie star could indeed fill theater seats. Well, this middle-aged one anyway.

Not that there won’t be plenty of other reasons to see Sherlock Holmes when it opens in November 2009 — Jude Law’s turn as Dr. Watson, Rachel McAdams as Holmes’ feisty love interest — but Downey will undoubtedly be the main draw for most moviegoers. It’s an even safer bet that they’ll line up for Iron Man 2, which the actor starts shooting this March for an April 2010 release. After that, he’ll play Stark again, this time in The Avengers, a synergistic superhero ensemble project Marvel Comics has in the pipeline for summer 2011. At one point, Downey was even thinking of squeezing in a memoir — ”I banged out a couple of things, which I found cathartic” — but ultimately he decided not to go there, or anywhere else that might be deemed self-indulgent. ”Beware the passion project,” he says, talking about the peculiar movies stars often make when they get a little clout. ”It’s so predictable: ‘Now that I have a hit, I can tell that story about the transsexual horse whisperer!”’

At the rate he’s racking them up, Downey could probably get away with a transsexual-horse-whisperer trilogy. Just now, though, he’s got his hands full with Mr. Holmes. ”We still haven’t figured out what sort of hat he should wear,” he says. ”Guy Ritchie was hell-bent on me wearing a bowler, but it was more Chaplin than Sherlock Holmes.” Downey is still teasing out the character, feeling for his shape, and perfecting the accent. ”There’s a lot of pressure because of the kudos I got for my voice in Tropic Thunder,” he says (indeed, there’s even talk of a possible long-shot Oscar nomination for his supporting role). He also had to whip himself into shape for the part — Holmes needed to be ripped and buff for today’s topless boxing exhibition — while keeping up with his regular holistic regimen of natural tonics and potions. Even here, on the set of Sherlock Holmes, he manages a constant dosage. An assistant holding a black box full of bottles and baggies is always hovering nearby, like a Secret Service agent with the nuclear-code briefcase.

”Oh, they work,” Downey insists, popping another supplement. ”They definitely work. I’m alive, aren’t I? What more proof could you want?”

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