During the Comic-Con madness, we snagged a few minutes with Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, stars of the hotly anticipated 2008 superhero flick

By Nisha Gopalan
August 02, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Robert Benson/WireImage.com

The most popular man of steel at this year’s San Diego’s Comic-Con: Iron Man. There, panelist Robert Downey Jr., who plays brash, Robocop’d tycoon Tony Stark, tested his mettle in front of a tough audience that rivals the cranky crowd at Cannes. Defying the odds, our Oscar-caliber hero managed to magnetize the room with his own arsenal of secret weapons — charisma, quick wit, and a stately, crisp suit. Afterward, EW chatted with Downey about his maiden voyage into geekdom.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You went through a rough period of substance abuse a while ago, when people were wary of casting you in movies. Is this, like, awesome validation for you?
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: The physics are pretty simple — if you’re not shooting yourself in the foot, you’re gonna have better opportunities. Nowadays, it’s like the quantum leap from instant stardom to instant bad boy or bad girl is so quick. For me it was a really slow burn. But it’s really just a function of age, you know?

What do you see when you look at someone like Lindsay Lohan?
I don’t want to talk about that [specifically]…. I’m just kind of loving everybody, to tell you the truth. It’s ridiculous how different things are now than they were 10 years ago. It’s a real challenge to reconcile your own process of growing up and becoming an adult with temptation and celebrity and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, if you don’t like what’s happening, change it and do something different.

As a character actor, did you ever imagine yourself in a role like this?
I’m a guy, so I’m pretty prone to narcissistic fantasy. And I could always relate to these things. I remember talking to Keanu [Reeves] when he got back from doing the first Matrix, and he told me just what a mind-blowing experience it was. And this is a guy who’s not known as the quintessential butch guy. But he became that character, and that franchise took off. I started thinking at a certain point, ”Maybe this is not in the cards for me, and I’ll stick to being more of a character actor.” But Tony Stark is a character. So I think the line is a lot less blurry than it used to be.

It’s interesting that Comic-Con has sort of turned into the courtship of alpha geeks.
It really is. It’s also cool because this is a true democracy. This is run by the people who really drive this whole industry. I guess the disappointing thing is, it would be nice if I could just stroll out there…or, like, stuff my bag full of stuff from other [studios]. And I’m not saying I couldn’t. It’s just that I’m here to work. It’s like the Cannes film festival: ”Did you have a nice time in the south of France?” ”I don’t know. I was in a hotel room for three days.”

People always talk about how hard it is to make a film like this. But did you ever just go, ”Holy cow, this is fun!”
There’s a scene where we’re out in the high desert and these massive 60-mile-an-hour winds are blowing. And sand is everywhere, and I’m in this Mark I suit. And everyone’s wearing dust masks. I’m just in this contraption, and I looked around and said, ”We have to get this right now.” It was so ridiculously funny — it’d be impossible that you’d survive. So what do you do? For some reason or another I just started cracking up.

This was your first time at Comic-Con. How did you manage to look completely in your element?
They showed the Iron Man trailer [two days earlier at Comic-Con], and it did so well. I was in Hawaii shooting on this Ben Stiller movie [Tropic Thunder]. All of a sudden, all the guys there, their BlackBerrys are going off. They’re like, ”Dude, Iron Man‘s tearing up at Comic-Con.” I was like, ”Really?”

Were you as comfortable at that jam-packed unveiling of the Mark I suit at the Marvel booth? Fans were right up in your face.
We were in this little room. And I’m like hugging the producers and [director] Jon Favreau’s there. Then they go, ”Robert Downey Jr!” I walk out and I was like, ”Oh my God, there’s all these people!” I’d kind of chilled out by the panel. But I was a deer in headlights for the first 10 minutes.

NEXT PAGE: Gwyneth Paltrow feels the geek love