There is no telltale mud caked on his boots. No suspicious stain on his clothing. Nothing that indicates a foul crime may have been committed. But as Robert Downey Jr. sits down at a Santa Monica café with a cup of coffee, there are a few small details that a keen-eyed detective might notice. For example, there’s the stylish black watch, a piece of expensive celebrity swag that he has, interestingly, turned facedown on his wrist: ”It shows that I’m someone who is uncomfortable with receiving things for free,” he says. Then there’s the straw trilby hat perched on his head that doesn’t quite go with the rest of his outfit. ”I was having a bad hair day,” he explains. It’s elementary.
As the star of the upcoming action-adventure film Sherlock Holmes, opening Dec. 25, Downey has had time to hone his own deductive powers. When he stepped into the role of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baker Street detective, Downey, along with British director Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla), was determined to give the iconic crime-fighter a unique stamp — no mean feat for a character who, according to the book of Guinness World Records, has been portrayed on film more than any other. In this reimagined Holmes — which pits the 19th-century sleuth and his sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) against a sinister occultist — gone are the traditional hallmarks that have become the stuff of easy parody: the deerstalker cap, the cape, the curvy pipe and magnifying glass. In their place are bare-knuckled fight scenes, massive explosions, and highly choreographed action.
Downey, 44, knows the stakes are high. It was one thing to strap on the rocket boots of a second-tier superhero like Iron Man, whose mythology was little known outside a circle of comic-book fanboys. With Holmes, who’s a superhero of another sort (”his superpower is his brain,” Downey says), audience expectations — from Holmes purists looking for cerebral pleasures to action junkies who just want to see stuff blow up — are trickier to navigate. Downey was cast hot off Iron Man and Tropic Thunder. At the time, he cheekily said of Holmes, ”Clearly I’m going to do it better than it’s ever been done.” Today he’s a little more circumspect. ”Holmes is a huge iconic character, and this is a really big movie.” He shrugs. ”I’m just a guy.”
Despite all the bells and whistles of a nearly $100 million budget, the makers of Sherlock Holmes insist their film is faithful to the detective’s roots as a supersleuth, pointing out that Conan Doyle’s stories reference Holmes’ skills in the martial arts, boxing, and sword fighting. ”People think the movie is going to be, like, this modern punk-rock version where we’re all wearing high-tops,” Law says, laughing. ”It’s actually more true to the books than they’re guessing.” For Warner Bros., a potential new franchise hangs in the balance. (Sony, which is developing a Sherlock Holmes comedy with Sacha Baron Cohen as Holmes and Will Ferrell as Watson, will also be watching with interest.) ”If the movie is successful, our goal is going to be to get to a sequel quickly,” says Warner Bros. Pictures Group president Jeff Robinov, who upped the ante by shifting the film’s release from November to Christmas, one week after the presumed juggernaut of Avatar. ”Hopefully we’ll be lucky enough to get there.”
When the first Sherlock Holmes trailer hit the Internet in May, showcasing Holmes as a punch-throwing, fireball-dodging action hero, fan reaction was sharply divided. Some were excited by the fresh take on a character most people still associate with British actor Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes in a series of 1940s films. Others bared their teeth like hounds of the Baskervilles. ”The more die-hard Sherlock fans worry we’ve taken it into some big Hollywood sellout direction and destroyed the name ‘Sherlock Holmes,”’ says Susan Downey, the star’s wife and a producer on the film. Those skeptics lit up comment boards on sites such as AintItCool.com, declaring the movie ”the end of Sherlock Holmes as thinking people have known him,” and asking, ”Why not rename it Lethal Weapon 5?” Their fear was that literature was being treated like a comic book.
In a sense, they weren’t far off. Producer Lionel Wigram spent nearly a decade trying to figure out a way to revamp Sherlock Holmes on the big screen, and finally piqued Warner Bros.’ interest when he brought executives a short comic-book version he’d created as a selling tool. ”I wanted to dispel the idea of Holmes as an English fuddy-duddy,” says Wigram. ”I thought, ‘We’ve got a brand that’s been internationally renowned for 100 years, a fantastic character that actors would line up to play — and he can be an action hero!”’ With help from a graphic artist, Wigram pitched Warner Bros. a vision of Holmes that was more Indiana Jones than Masterpiece Theatre. ”The cover was a drawing of Sherlock Holmes with, like, a gun in one hand and a knife in the other and his shirt open and sweaty,” says producer Joel Silver. ”The minute Lionel showed that to the studio, they said, ‘Oh, we get it!’ Comic books tend to be something they get pretty quickly these days.”
Ritchie, who listened to recordings of Holmes stories at his English boarding school as a boy, instantly saw the appeal of the project. ”I loved the idea of an intellectual action hero,” says the director, best known for slam-bang British gangster films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Initially, Ritchie wanted to relaunch Holmes with an origin story, à la Batman Begins (an idea that had actually been tried before, with the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes). But once Downey expressed interest, Ritchie fell in love with the idea of setting the actor loose in the criminal underworld of Victorian London. ”It seems impossible now that anybody other than Rob could have played him,” Ritchie says. ”He thinks like Sherlock Holmes, he’s complicated like Sherlock Holmes, and he can really brawl.”
Downey set about steeping himself in Holmesiana, spending hours with Conan Doyle scholar Leslie S. Klinger. But though Downey has a sharp intellect himself, he has a far more free-form way of expressing his thoughts than Holmes (”I could only understand every other word Robert was talking about,” says Ritchie with a laugh). In the end, the actor says, portraying Holmes was as much an act of make-believe as playing a guy in a metal suit. ”I’m very intuitive,” he says. ”But playing Holmes, sometimes I’m just standing there trying to hopefully appear smarter than I am.” He laughs. ”Some of it is really basic: You pick a point and just look at it and say what you’re saying — because what you’re saying is smarter s— than most people say.”
Ritchie knew he didn’t want his Watson to be anything like the befuddled, roly-poly sidekick so often portrayed. He flirted with the idea of casting Russell Crowe, but then, in talks with Downey, began bandying about Law’s name. Law was not very familiar with the Holmes stories, nor did he know Downey personally. But after an hour-long meeting at a London hotel, it was clear the two had an easy, Butch-and-Sundance rapport. ”Afterward, I pulled Robert aside and was like, ‘What do you think?”’ says Susan Downey. ”He gave me a big thumbs-up and said, ‘Done deal.”’
Finding an actress to play Holmes’ love interest, a con artist named Irene Adler, proved more difficult, but after considering numerous actresses, Ritchie settled on Rachel McAdams. For the actress, the challenge was bringing to life a character who only appears in one story, ”A Scandal in Bohemia,” as a mysterious American femme fatale who once bested Holmes in a match of wits. ”Irene was a bit elusive, and there was a lot that was up for interpretation,” says McAdams. ”But what emerged is that she really acts from her heart, and Sherlock is very much in his head. That inspired a certain collision.”
By all accounts, shooting on the London set was otherwise rather collision-free. Perhaps the biggest drama took place off the set, as Ritchie’s divorce from Madonna, to whom he’d been married since 2000, made headlines. Downey says Ritchie did his best to tune out the distractions. ”Guy is a country gentleman,” he says. ”He doesn’t want to occupy his mind with things that may be unpleasant or may get him riled up. He was just doing what he would have been doing regardless of the situation.”
Ritchie describes his own way of dealing with the tabloid noise in four simple words: ”Head down, arms swinging.”
Nibbling on vegan cookies (from which one can deduce a health consciousness that may have been lacking in the past), Downey reflects on the improbable spot in which he currently finds himself. Ten years ago, bouncing in and out of jail and rehab, he told a judge, ”It’s like I have a shotgun in my mouth, with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gunmetal.” Now, with Iron Man 2 set for release next May, he finds himself working on The Hangover director Todd Phillips’ next comedy, Due Date, and looking at a possible second major franchise with Holmes. Like Holmes himself, who was killed off by Conan Doyle in an 1893 story, only to be brought back a few years later by popular demand, Downey has an unexpected new lease on life.
Silver, who’s known the actor since they worked on the 1985 teen comedy Weird Science, isn’t surprised to see him atop the A list. ”People root for him,” he says. ”I mean, this is a guy who’s been through such hell in his life — yes, a lot of it self-inflicted — but he’s come out the other side. People want him to succeed.”
But what does Downey want? Having achieved more than he could have imagined, he doesn’t seem so sure. ”I have no set plans for my future,” he says. ”I’ve never had it this good — this is my day in the sun — and I certainly don’t want to look a gift horse in the molars. But Susan and I want to begin to be in our lives as much as we are in our jobs. I’d love just to sit here and say, ‘What movie’s playing tonight?’ I’d love to finish the new book about D-Day I’m reading. I love painting, I love music.” Sometimes, he says, he asks himself whether he even wants to keep acting. ”I’m f—ing really good at what I do — and have been for a long time, so I don’t waver on that,” he says. ”But here’s the thing: I can only be a guy on a call sheet probably, I don’t know, maybe a couple more times. It’s something I’m so grateful to have in my palm, and yet I already see its inevitable decay.”
Then again, he says with a weary smile, ”if Sherlock Holmes performs well, I could be busy for the next 5 or 7 or 10 years.” Downey may wonder where the ride is heading, or how much longer it will last. But if he thinks moviegoers are ready to let him leave the screen, the man needs to get a clue. — Additional reporting by Benjamin Svetkey
Who is Sherlock Holmes?
Created by doctor-turned-author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, Sherlock Holmes appeared in four novels and 56 short stories, captivating British readers with a unique ability to unravel mysteries and foil criminals, most notably his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. A chemistry and forensics expert, Holmes could take a trivial observation — a scratch on someone’s shoe — and use it to solve a case. Dr. John Watson, his sidekick and biographer, described Holmes as an erratic man who lived for his work, was addicted to cocaine, cared little for women, and could outsmart and outfight just about anyone. No wonder he’s been reborn so many times. — John Young
A STUDY IN SCARLET (1887)
Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story appeared in the magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual.
WILLIAM GILLETTE (1899)
The American stage actor popularized the iconic image of Holmes with a deerstalker hat and curved pipe.
BASIL RATHBONE (1939)
He played Holmes in 14 Hollywood films — the first of which was The Hound of the Baskervilles.
DEDUCE, YOU SAY (1956)
In this Looney Tunes classic, Daffy Duck was Dorlock Holmes, and Porky Pig his loyal helper, Watkins.
SHERLOCK HEMLOCK (1970)
A Sesame Street fixture, Hemlock was often the culprit in his own investigations.
MURDER BT DECREE (1979)
Christopher Plummer filled the detective’s shoes in a movie about Jack the Ripper.
YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)
Barry Levinson’s origin story imagined Holmes and Watson in boarding school.
WITHOUT A CLUE (1988)
The comedy recast Holmes (Michael Caine) as a drunken actor hired by the true genius: Watson.
Hugh Laurie’s cranky doctor was inspired by Holmes; they even share the same home address: 221B.
”She’s not a typical woman of her time. It was a matter of balancing her femininity with what was masculine, like being a weapons expert.” — Rachel McAdams on playing Irene
”I was the one with the hard collars, which were incredibly uncomfortable, especially to fight in. I started getting neck rashes. Watson has to wear T-shirts in the next one.” — Jude Law on playing Watson