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Robert Downey Jr. is the gold standard when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “We set the bar pretty high with Robert [in 2008’s Iron Man] with the first major casting decision of the studio,” says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “Almost every decision since then has been based on knowing one day, if we’re lucky, whomever we’re casting will have to go toe to toe with Robert.”
When Marvel and Sony were casting the new Spider-Man for last year’s Captain America: Civil War, they sifted through thousands of aspiring Spideys. What everyone agrees upon is that when Tom Holland read with Downey for the first time, the results were magical. “Tom demonstrated a really natural internal conflict,” Downey says. “It’s really hard to get down to the real meat and potatoes of what makes someone tick. And to do that while screen testing for the relaunch for Marvel’s most beloved? We all noticed.”
It didn’t hurt that the former gymnast can do backflips on command, either. “Yeah, he does all that stuff,” says Downey. “The problem with doing a backflip is that they keep asking you to do backflips in less and less friendly environments…like with a blinding mask on in a crowd of people.”
Downey credits Holland’s early work — he starred in Billy Elliott in London’s West End and movies such as The Impossible — for what keeps the young actor grounded. “Tom’s experienced enough to be able to enjoy all the stuff that’s about to happen to him.” He laughs. “I knew him when.”
As for his director, Jon Watts, Downey says he enjoyed working with him immensely. “He seems to have a cap on his own eccentricities,” he says. “When I watched [Watt’s first film] Cop Car, about halfway through that he had his own take on things. He was pushing narrative into areas that were uncomfortable more than I was expecting. By the time we got to shooting Tony’s scenes [on Homecoming] I already knew they had an excellent movie in the bag.”
Iron Man is now firmly in the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though Downey calls Spidey “the OG-est of the OGs”), but Downey says that he could have never foreseen it. “If I had known in 2007 where and what that screen test that went pretty well would ultimately lead? It is the journey of a thousand miles, for sure.”
He was speaking to EW from the set of Avengers: Infinity War, due out next year. “Doctor Strange [Benedict Cumberbatch] is coming over to watch Homecoming with me. He just got here and started shooting. Then [Mark] Ruffalo comes in next week and I’ll find out what the heck is going on in Ragnarok,” Downey laughs.”It’s like we’re all deeply embedded journalists who go out to these foreign nations and come back and kibitz about the stuff we’re not allowed to talk about because it’s classified.”