Robert Downey Jr. talks about his renewed commitment to clean living, career comebacks and love.
Though he's widely considered one of the best actors of his generation, Robert Downey Jr. had become better known for his off-screen struggles with sobriety, most recently spending a year in rehab after a stint in prison. But at 38, the actor says he is enjoying both the clean life and a career comeback with two new films - his first in three years.
He plays mystery writer afflicted with a horrific case of psoriasis and other personal demons in The Singing Detective and a psychiatrist in the supernatural thriller Gothika. Making the films not only brought new focus to his career but new love as well: earlier this month, Downey announced his engagement to film producer Susan Levin, whom he met on the set of Gothika.
Newsweek's Jennifer Barrett spoke by phone with the Academy-award nominated actor as he enjoyed two of his only remaining vices, coffee and nicotine. He spoke candidly about his new career projects, his new outlook on life and his new fiancée.
The Singing Detective was your first film after leaving prison. I understand Mel Gibson sought you out for the lead role.
I guess, as much as he needs to seek me out. I live up the road.
Well, he's in the very nice area and I'm, well, up the road. [Laughs]
But he hired you despite concerns over the costs of insuring you.
He knew me better than people who might have been a little wary. To him, it wasn't that much of a long shot because he was seeing me all the time. You can always tell a lot more by seeing someone than you can from hearing about them. That’s been my experience. Everyone talks a good game, but let me have a good look at him or her. Nowadays, for better or for worse, I've become kind of the go-to guy for people who wonder, do you think he or she is messed up?
What do you say to that?
I say that's not really my job but, um, if you think they're in trouble, I'll give you an honest opinion. In the LAPD, they have something called a DRE - a drug recognition expert... I like to think I'm Dr. DRE.
Funny. That's probably a role you never figured you'd be playing.
Yeah. And it's not something I'm really interested in employing but sometimes, if my mood is right, I'll call 'em as I see 'em.
You could get people in trouble doing that.
Well, you know, by the time you're loaded someplace you're not supposed to be loaded, you're already in trouble.
Good point. Let's get back to the movie. Was playing the role in The Singing Detective cathartic? Here's someone who has hit bottom and is struggling to overcome his personal demons.
Yes, and I've probably been asked that question...
A thousand times, right?
Hmm, it may be closer to 35,000 now. [Laughs] No, but what's interesting is, it's as if you and I kept asking each other the same questions at different points in our lives. The answers keep changing. Now, I have to say that what's more cathartic than even having done the role is watching the audience respond.
The Singing Detective really captures something that people either get or they don't get. But even if people don't get it - or don’t even like it - they can't say that it didn't have them talking or thinking afterward.
Do you think it makes some audience members uncomfortable?
Yeah, but what good is therapy if you're not wildly uncomfortable before your little ah-ha's and epiphanies? I call it getting your money's worth.
In Gothika, you actually play a psychiatrist.
I have to say my research was complete before I started but I noticed that it's an occupation that is of increasing interest to me. It's an immensely underrated venture... It was a trip.
You're breaking up a little.
I'm sorry, there's a bit of construction going on here at Equinox.
You're calling me from the gym?
No, don't worry. I got off the treadmill, and I toweled my hair and, now I'm sitting here in this fairly fabulous couch. You know the couches with kind of cutout pieces in back of them that look like backrests? Very 21st century and barely comfortable in any way, shape or form. But it looks really nice - earth tones.
I've seen a lot of furniture like that. Looks nice but is completely dysfunctional.
Yes! That would be the perfect segue way into some question.
Well... since you brought it up. How long have you been sober now?
I can't be specific. There is a tradition that we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio or film.
But it has been a little while.
It's been ages. I have to say that it's really cool at this point. Last night was the Gothika premiere here and I was out with my gal and her parents and such-and-such and all my friends. It was a beautiful situation. People weren't ugly drunk but it was really happy. My publicist who I have never really seen even have a beer was so happy and relieved that this whole run of PR has gone over. And he even cracked a Heineken last night and I was like, yeah! For them it's Mazel Tov. For me it's Molotov. [Laughing]
Did you just come up with that off the top of your head?
That's pretty good, isn't it? [Laughing again] Ahh, it's nice to be able to crack yourself up before breakfast.
Heck, I'm impressed that it's barely 10 a.m. there and you've already worked out.
[Sound of drilling gets louder] You know. You actually seem really sweet and funny and smart...
You flatter me.
So I'm not going to subject you to the sounds of this pneumatic drill. I'm going to walk out of this club right now... [Moments later:] Hello, dear. Isn't that better? I'm actually outside. And I'm going to have a cigarette to bridge the gap before going to the Coffee Bean for an alarming amount of caffeine. The endorphins aren't enough sometimes. Where were we?
You were talking about the premiere last night and being with your 'gal', Susan Levin?
Don't worry about it. It took me three months to pronounce it correctly. I swear to God. She was being so nice about it, too.
You met on the set of Gothika?
I guess I had an idea of who she was before because she's probably considered to be somewhat young for her position. But I didn't really know her. So she was there producing the movie and... I had recently sworn off the idea of romantic love as being anything other than a fantasist's idea of torture.
Aww. But you know that's when it always happens.
I guess so because I had never been so firm in my resolve about anything, or so I thought. We went to one of those everyone-goes-out dinners and I engaged her in verbal combat as to the differences and perdurability between optimists and pessimists. I heard something and made it my own a little bit and developed a theory, which is always a pretty terrible idea. Mine was: the optimist believes the future is uncertain. The pessimist is always right but derives no satisfaction from it. So it's our duty to be optimists because then we can wake up and brush our teeth and give a shit. But - and here's my real closer - I said, clearly the pessimist has more information.
This is the position you were defending to her on your first night out?
This is my way of flirting. She looked across the table at me, held my gaze for about 15 seconds, and said, "You know, I'd say I pity you but I actually think you're kind of engaging and smart, nice and funny... and, yeah, so, anyway, we've got a big scene tomorrow and I wonder if you got the pink pages?" [Laughs] So there was my entrée into romantic love.
Well, hey, it worked.
It's kind of like discovering penicillin by accident.
Some of the best things in life were discovered by accident.
[Laughs] Certainly the best things I've ever done.
Speaking of that, I hear you have a new tattoo. Was this intentional?
Yeah, SUZY Q.
Why not 'Susan'?
You know, for some reason, SUSAN seemed kind of jailhouse to me. Not that SUZY Q is any less, uh, jailhouse. I'm sorry, more than anything else I am recovering from, I am recovering from a traumatized logic.
Did you tell her you were getting it?
No. A couple days before, she'd said, "Oh, my right shoulder kinda hurts" and so I'd kind of loosened it up and did some pressure points. So when I got the tattoo, I said, "Oh my left shoulder really hurts," and.. she said, "Wouldn't it be funny if you tear off your shirt and you've got my name emblazoned on your shoulder."
Ooh, she's good.
I think she was pleased. It's true in the start-up phase, there's a lot of subintentional and unconscious needs for more safety and comfort and establishing in ritualistic ways that you can trust each other and there's the promise of longevity and you're not all talk. You know what I mean? It's kind of a big deal... I think the engagement ring helped. too.
Congratulations. When did you get engaged?
Eleven fifty-nine p.m., Nov. 6, 2003. It was one minute before her 30th birthday was over. I figured I kind of wanted to get her while she was still in her 20s. [Laughs]
Ouch. Was she surprised?
You're just full of surprises.
I have always been full of surprises, but these are of a digestible variety.
You've probably surprised some people with your new commitment to being clean. Was it hard to go through all that publicly?
For the most part, you kind of hang up your personal development, you trade that in with the inundation of celebrity. All of a sudden you are frozen in a moment of transition from a moment of relative obscurity to public awareness... spending an undue amount of energy trying to create an image that is impossible to actually step into and enjoy. Because now there's a split between who you were and who you are and, of course, who you think you are. But I just think there is nothing more toxically comedic to me than some big actress or rock star talking about how victimized they are by the populace when, of course, they signed up and showed up for every rehearsal and when they got cast they said, "What a boon!"
You sing, too. I remember your duet with Sting on Ally McBeal and, obviously, you sing in The Singing Detective. When did you start singing?
You remember the movie Camp about kids at Stagedoor Manor (a performing-arts training center and summer camp specializing in theater arts)? I was at Stagedoor Manor. I did all that stuff... That was the real origins. About 21 years ago, these little $40 Casio keyboards came out, very much in my budget. My means grew and so did my collection. I always had a serious respect for composition and music. I have just been exposed to an amazing array of talented musicians and songwriters. It's in my sphere of activity and has been since I was 17.
Are you recording anything now?
Yeah, I have a great musical that is finally starting to happen. I am going to meet my (producing) partner Jonathan Elias today.
I understand you guys are working on an adaptation of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, the writer and singer Dito Montiel's memoir of growing up in New York in the 1980s. Is this the musical you're talking about?
This will be our premiere project. But essentially this is a guy I've know for about 15 years or so. I knew him because I used to go to his readings and I like his band, "Gutter Boy". I wasn't the only one. There was Allen Ginsburg and Andy Warhol back in the day. So then all this time later it turns out he is working for Jonathan Elias's music-production company and I said, dude, I remember you. And then I read his book, and I get it and I say, this is a movie. It's beautiful. My gal's assistant's wife says to me last night that she read the script and she says she was crying reading it and it just wrenched her gut. And I was just like, wow, we worked on that for almost two years now. And that was really cool. That was one of the real internal highlights of last night.
That's a nice note to end on.
And I thank you for infusing my morning with something that was not pointless and not irritating.
I appreciate that. We do get accused of that quite often.