Iron Man has been pummelling cinema screens for a decade now, so we caught up with Robert Downey Junior to find out how it feels to be going into Avengers: End Game, out this summer, with speculation over who will survive the coming battle reaching fever pitch. He’s the first to admit that the franchise isn’t ‘heavy’ entertainment but for him the superhero myths marching through our cinemas are really an exploded view of how we try to understand the conflicts that are inside all of us. Also, does the famously fast talker still feel the need to consume all of the oxygen in the room?
RSNG You started the Marvel Studios Iron Man film with a scrap-metal Iron Man suit over 10 years ago… how do you find yourself today in that decade of history?
ROBERT DOWNEY JUNIOR ‘Well, it’s been a decade of signs and wonders. The process is always the process, you’re given a sense of circumstances in the script and co-workers, and you go and try to put your secret sauce on that and make it fun and entertaining.’
‘I think what is extraordinary is how that baton has been passed in such a magnanimous way from all of these franchises and they have brought that all together in a way that is just so epic. So, part of it is just like that Joseph Campbell ‘Great Mystery’ and leaves everybody thinking: “What could all this possibly mean?” What it really is, is that there’s another fun movie that is coming out and you’re gonna love it.’
RSNG When you did the first film, did they give you any idea that this is where we would end up?
RDJ ‘I mean, there are scenarios, right? It’s like anything and I have always ascribed to the belief that you can’t know everything – it just doesn’t work that way. You have to get to a certain place in a process or a certain point in the road and then you go: “Alright… now I see how these roads converge.”’
‘Ultimately, what Marvel has done is that they have taken the high road and they’ve really listened to the audience and the fans and there’s been a lot of creative synergy, I guess you could say. You know, considering that these films are basically kind of light to medium but it’s not heavy… it’s not heavy entertainment.’
‘But the painstaking years and the thousands of hours of us all just pulling out our hair trying to keep it viable and interesting and entertaining. I am so glad that it has worked out this way. Because we have really been working our asses off for a while.’
‘Launching and sustaining a cinematic universe – nobody had even heard of that five or six years ago’
RSNG All of those roads started with you – we hear some people refer to you as ‘The Godfather’?
RDJ ‘Haha! Yeah, whatever. It’s like the invention of a game or of a device or something, you know. These things come from somewhere else and they are kind of bestowed on humanity – usually through unconscious means.’
‘It is a very conscious act to go and make a motion picture let alone launching and sustaining a cinematic universe, I mean… nobody had even heard of that five or six years ago. I think that it is interesting to be at the beginning of something and every one of us has at some point been at the beginning of something that was special.’
RSNG What has been your favourite thing about playing Tony Stark?
RDJ ‘Probably all of the different iterations and it’s literally just given me the chance to grow from a guy in his forties to a guy in his fifties. In some ways, it has eased that transition because these myths, these stories are really just blown up, exploded view, and ways of trying to understand those conflicts that are inside us.’
‘Also, of course, the challenges. So, making it all larger than life is kind of a fun way and it’s why I love movies and more than anything I am just a fan of movies. So to be able to be: “I’m not only the hair club president, but I am also a member.” You know what I mean? It’s like that.’
RSNG Going back through roles that you have played over the years, what do you feel you are most comfortable doing?
RDJ ‘Well, you know it’s funny because some people are good at exposition, some people are good at not saying anything and communicating everything and I remember back as far as The Pickup Artist which was among the first leads that I ever did and they were as fast-talking guys.’
‘In The Judge, where I played another fast-talking guy, I purposely tried to slow my character ‘Hank Palmer’ down a little bit and I thought that it was a very interesting observation that his old girlfriend makes when she says that he is that guy. So, I suspect that he was like that.’
‘The older I become there is less of a need for me to consume all of the oxygen in the room’
RSNG Was that Robert Downey Jnr? Do you have this facility as the fast-talking guy?
RDJ It’s easy to talk fast and be witty when you have a written thing of dialogue and I am interested in people and I like sharing and communicating. I feel, though, that the older I become there is less of a need for me to consume all of the oxygen in the room. I think that, in a sense, the fast-talking can be something of a defence-mechanism. But also, it can just be a habit it just depends on the day, really.’
RSNG It’s interesting that you mention The Judge because that film strongly suggests that your character is trying to gain affirmation from his father.You followed your own dad into the movie industry – is there any of your stuff he doesn’t like?
RDJ ‘My dad is a very discerning guy and he’s very opinionated, particularly when I started doing those kinds of mainstream movies that are the complete opposite kind of counter-culture maverick film style that he has been a pioneer in. He is just happy for my success and he is just happy if I am happy.’
‘But on my side, I am thinking: “Oh my God, I should be doing movies that are political, or whatever…” With regards to things that I have done that he doesn’t like, to be honest he doesn’t really think that much of anything except for the stuff that he thinks is great.’
‘You know how it is if you have a parent or relative or sibling or something and they’re always the ones who are going to let you know what they think right away. “That was garbage.” And you just thank them. My Dad isn’t derogatory in any way at all. But there’s also the cultural difference. The industry now is just light-years away from what I remember being raised in and by the way, we were outside mainstream cinema, to be sure.’
‘You have to remember, my Dad was a real underground counterculture filmmaker, and to return to Iron Man, what Jon Favreau and I did was tackle that kind of indie spirit and stamp a superhero movie with it. My Dad always said that at the end of the day, the only thing that is really important about any project is the writer, because it doesn't matter how stylised or well performed something is, if there isn't meaning to what you are saying, if the story doesn't have any merit, then you are just going to be pissing away an opportunity.’
RSNG As a producer, do you feel there is more pressure?
RDJ ‘There’s always a pressure when somebody gives you a bunch of money and says: “Please don't rush this!”
RSNG At which point in your life did you learn to take yourself more seriously?
RDJ ‘I don't know. I think a lot of it is function of age. I mean nothing was ever more important than me when I was 17, you needed to understand me, haha! But I remember doing Chaplin and Attenborough, rest his soul… I just remember thinking like, “Look if Dickie listens to me, and I can tell him it's going to be the greatest movie of all time…” and I meant it when I thought it, haha! And it's like, “You are bananas!” And then I wound up learning more from him than anyone 10 years after. But I think you learn to not take yourself seriously and you honestly assess yourself.’
RSNG Looking back on those Chaplin days, do you prefer to do this stuff now or is there a balance?
RDJ ‘You know, honestly, more than what kind of movie I am doing or who my leads are, it's just like, what is this group of people like? Maybe it's just a weird time for them, or I am not feeling it and maybe the director is really controlling and “Yeah, just tell me what to do asshole, like you have to control everything, I get it.”’
‘Some directors really take great care to have things kind of natural, whereas another director that really did that strangely, was Oliver Stone. When you are working with Oliver Stone, you don't feel like you are making a movie, you feel like you are walking into a world that is basically his world. But it’s a cool one and then you can do all kinds of weird stuff, and then thank him later.’
RSNG Your wife Susan is a producer too and you have a lot of projects together – is there something you advise your wife on or vice versa?
RDJ ‘We let each other know when we are about to walk out the door that we are making a huge mistake! “Don't wear those pants honey!” Or, “Your hair looks ridiculous!’ haha!
RSNG Do you like lawyers and do you believe in the system?
RDJ ‘I do and I do. Because it's really like, I want to say I believe in the system, the system is set up that you can pick holes in it all the time and you can talk about raw deals and blah, blah, blah, but what they really are is people and so I like people, regardless or not if they are lawyers. And yeah, I do.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for Avengers: End Game.