Avengers: Age of Ultron: Robert Downey Jr. on the perils of superhero burnout
An on-set Q&A with the 'Iron Man' star
Robert Downey Jr. is hanging from wires over the pulverized set of Tony Stark’s skyscraper penthouse, locked in a fight to the death with a hovering robot who has turned unexpectedly homicidal.
Iron Man doesn’t have his armor, so his weapon of choice this time is a fondue fork.
“The deadliest fondue fork in all the land!” emphasizes Joss Whedon, the writer-director of Avengers: Age of Ultron. “‘From Odin’s melted cheese, I shall destroy thee!’”
The robot, a member of Stark’s Iron Legion that has been possessed by the newly self-aware artificial intelligence program Ultron, is actually a stuntman in a motion-capture suit, who thrashes and spins as Stark pretends to plunge the fork into his neck to pry loose some vital circuitry.
Stick a fork in him. He’s done.
After Downey finishes gliding through the air with the greatest unease, he’s ready to talk. That’s one of the great things about visiting the Avengers set: Downey loves to talk, he’s good at it, and since he usually has nothing better to do than sit around in segments of big, clunky armor, he ends up holding a lot of court.
“What’s it going to be?” he says, pushing open the door to the Shepperton Studios soundstage outside London. The weather makes for a constant guessing game. “Hm, rain,” Downey declares, mildly surprised at the ink clouds dousing the golf cart that’s waiting to take him back to his trailer. “You never know what you’re going to find when you open that door.”
After we get to his homebase and dry off, it’s time to settle in to talk about fighting the good fight.
Entertainment Weekly: So how have you been?
Robert Downey Jr.: [Pause.] Happy.
EW: Good. Glad to be back in the armor?
RDJ: It’s funny, today is the closest I’ve felt to the first Iron Man.
EW: In what way?
RDJ: There’s been a little bit of rig work before and also this week is the first I’ve been sliding and jumping and running since Iron Man 3. [When he broke his ankle.] So that was a little bit humbling. Then you’re suspended in the air, so it’s really fun playing around. Kind of like how it used to be.
EW: Iron Man 3 was also about what happens when you don’t want to do the thing you’re good at anymore. So, no superhero fatigue?
RDJ: You know it’s funny, I want to go see Days of Future Past, and then I realized today I’m reading an article where Wolverine himself is saying I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I go, “Oh my God they’ve been doing this twice as long as we have.” Then I just think about when you start burning out, how many ways you can twist an arc.
EW: Instead of burning out, you’re adding more fuel to the fire with people like James Spader as Ultron. He’s here doing motion-capture, which surprised me. I thought he would be performing only the voice.
RDJ: I think Jimmy was like if I’m going to do this, I’m going to be all in. So there’s been times where he’s just been there all day just essentially doing theater for us while the cameras don’t even turn around on him.
EW: You two started your careers together. What’s it like being back on the job?
RDJ: His voice has a Pavlovian effect on me because he was one of the first voices where I ever thought, “I should really take a knee and listen to this guy.” Really he was the first guy I saw off the boat when I came back to L.A. to start working. So there’s the usual Marvel element of “Wow, ahh!” casting.
EW: Were you involved in that casting? Did you recommend him?
RDJ: No more than I recommended Shane [Black, who directed Downey in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang] for Iron Man 3. There was kind of a sub-intentional thing. Once you cast a vote, that’s your vote. I got a little grapevine and a little birdie announcement. And then I called him and he was like [Spader impression], “Bobby … this would be great!”
EW: Did you guys stay close over the years? People always associate you two with Less Than Zero, even though that was a long time ago now.
RDJ: By the way, for me too, there’s part of me that feels Spader and I never left the set of Less than Zero. Julian [Downey’s ill-fated character] literally didn’t. But no, the truth about Spader, and he’s the first to admit it, is he’s not a gadfly. He’s kind of a really smart, committed purposefully isolated talent.
EW: You’ve had five major appearances as Iron Man so far. Tony starts out as this guy who is kind of oblivious but comes to realize these weapons he’s been making are causing real people real pain. Iron Man is his way to accept responsibility and personally try to prevent as much of that as possible. Now, he’s kind of like “Okay, have I done enough?” Ultron is created so he can abdicate that responsibility, right?
RDJ: The downside of self-sacrifice is if you make it back, you’ve been out there on the spit and you’ve been turned a couple times and feel a little burned and traumatized. So to me he was like a returning veteran trying to make sense of something. He was never a guy who didn’t get his hands dirty. He was a guy who was a tinkerer. He’s a mechanic. I think this time, what you said about abdication is apt, but it’s also about recognizing limitations.
EW: Do you feel those limits?
RDJ: I’m right on that page. I was laid up for basically six months based on a bit of untimely bravado with a big team of people who are charged with my safety. [Again, the ankle-breaking accident on Iron Man 3.] What are the obvious and not as obvious limitations of how I can influence the situation.
EW: Age of Ultron changes the villain’s backstory to have Stark create him, instead of Hank Pym [the Michael Douglas character from this summer’s Ant-Man, who invented Ultron in the comics]. Since Ultron includes elements of Stark, is he the dark side of Iron Man’s protective impulse?
RDJ: I love the idea that impulse starts from a good place but you’re still dealing with a really imperfect inventor. [Ultron] is essentially a very dangerous child who senses very quickly that we got everything crossed up. And then because Tony is involved, the amount of corruptible data is inherent in something like an Ultron.
EW: What about doing good in the real world? I see the cast here has been passing time tweeting support for a fan with terminal cancer. People in general get catharsis from superheroes because it makes them feel strong when it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed. You do a lot with kids who are disabled. [Like this video of Downey presenting a boy with an Iron Man-themed prosthetic limb.] Do you feel a responsibility to use your own superhero “powers” for a good cause?
RDJ: [Nods.] There’s a kid who I have to respond to on Twitter. He’s having heart surgery in a couple weeks and he’s nervous and his mom said do you think you could give him some encouragement. I took that email at like 5 in the morning and I was like, “mark.” Yeah, it’s about being vulnerable, invincibility. There’s something for everybody. [Laughs.] I certainly have taken my comfort in these stories.
It’s Age of Ultron week at EW.com. Check back for more exclusive Q&As from the set of the new Avengers movie.