Megastar paydays, two movie franchises and a comeback worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Which begs the question... What's the Downside? 'Sherlock 2 starts off good, gets better and has the best act three of any movie I've ever done. It's like the best sex of your life - if, that is, the best sex of your life took two years from start to finish,' said Robert Downey Jr
Team Downey – yes, that really is the name – is based in an
ultra-modern $6 million three-storey building in the terminally hip,
bohemian Venice district of Los Angeles.
It exists purely to
maintain Robert Downey Jr’s thriving public image as the most
irresistible brand on the block – actor, writer, producer, potential
One entire wall on the ground floor is given over to
pop-art portraits of every single employee, but by far the largest is
that of Downey and his wife. The emphasis might be on the team
aesthetic, but there’s no ambiguity about who’s ultimately in charge.
Ascend to the upper floors and you find a large kitchen, three
ridiculously plush bedrooms, a projection room and a terrace with
barbecue and swimming pool.
'No nation on Earth can touch the English for eccentricity,' said Downey Jr
the expansive top floor, Downey greets me with a big movie-star smile.
With a regal curtsy and a self-mocking grin, he goes off in search of
coffee for us both.
He’s surprisingly slim and, at 46, the only hints
of middle age are a few creases around the eyes and flecks of grey in
his goatee. His boyish enthusiasm remains undimmed. Having returned, he
grabs a handful of vitamin bottles and a box of nicotine gum.
‘I’m off the smokes again,’ he explains.
I offer him my own brand, and his eyes light up with childlike delight.
can have these? Man, these are the British gums. The originals. These
represent a solid day’s worth of guarantee that I won’t launch myself
like a heat-seeking missile on an unsuspecting public. Now I’m ready to
When I last met him in 2007, Downey was moaning he was the only actor in Hollywood earning the same as when he started out.
his critically acclaimed performance in 1987’s Less Than Zero, it soon
became obvious that he was as troubled as he was gifted. Between 1996
and 2001, he became the poster boy for self-destruction, being
repeatedly arrested on drug-related charges and finally spending a year
in jail at the turn of the century.
By the time he cleaned up for
good in July 2003, he was only able to return to work – on the
big-screen version of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective – after
close friend Mel Gibson paid the insurance bond. Subsequent movies had
little box-office impact.
Then, in 2006, he landed the lead role in
the comic-book adaptation Iron Man, which grossed over half a billion
dollars on its release two years later.
His next movie, Tropic
Thunder, won him an Oscar nomination. The first Sherlock Holmes film
made half a billion, as did 2010’s Iron Man 2. What changed?
Downey Jr on the set of Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows with director Guy Ritchie and Jared Harris (Moriarty)
words. Richard Attenborough. In ’91, I came to London to film Chaplin
with him. What he taught me was life-changing. I was 26 and knew a lot
less than I thought I did. But I was willing to learn.
helped me to see that if I wanted to act on any meaningful level, I
needed to immerse myself in what was happening with British acting in
the Sixties. He made me aware that all those great actors – Burton,
O’Toole, Finney, Courtenay – figured out the whole thing and mastered
it. He taught me about economy of effort and efficiency, even when I was
out partying all night and burning the candle at both ends. It’s the
raw emotion of the British model that’s most informed my own approach to
Ritchie with Jude Law (Watson). The first Sherlock Holmes film made half a billion dollars
a more personal level, Attenborough told me that one day my ambition
would supersede all my other impulses and set me straight. At that time I
foolishly thought my ambition had been realised.
'The fact that I
was acting in movies, I couldn’t see beyond that. Attenborough saw a
bigger picture. How do you remain a fast bowler for more than one season
and also retain the use of your arms when you retire? How do you
sustain that? That’s how Attenborough measured success. It took a long
time for me to understand that properly.
‘With Iron Man, I had to
take on board all that Richard Attenborough taught me about ambition all
those years ago. I realised I needed a plan. I looked at Keanu Reeves
in The Matrix, Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man and Johnny Depp in Pirates
and thought, “I could do that kind of film.”
'I then had to seize
the day when it came. I fought harder for Iron Man than I’ve fought for
any other movie. I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I
made it impossible for anybody to do a better job.’
It was a random
phone conversation in 2008 with director Guy Ritchie that led to Downey
being cast as a swashbuckling Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century, but
Downey’s fascination with the character’s creator took root far earlier.
filming in London in 1989, he regularly visited Conan Doyle Hall in
Belgravia to observe seances. The hall was part of a large 175-year-old
mansion that housed the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, which
for decades has invited members and non-members to witness the tilting
of tables and levitation of wardrobes, aided by presences from beyond
the grave. Its centrepiece was a large medium’s cabinet containing the
chair on which Conan Doyle wrote many of his Sherlock Holmes stories.
Holmes, Watson, the Gypsy fortune teller Sim (Noomi Rapace) and her
friend (Affif Ben Badra) in a scene from the film. 'To improve on the
first Sherlock was one reason for doing a second film,' said Downey Jr
‘I spent a lot of my spare time there,’ says Downey.
go there mainly to sit in on the seances they conducted, where people
would try to contact loved ones who’d passed away. It was fascinating. I
went back recently to their new location near Victoria, because some of
the plot of the new movie centres on fortune telling and mediums. If
I’ve learnt anything, it’s that it’s possible to detect the presence of a
deceased person in the room simply by the way the curtains move.’
is completely serious; like Conan Doyle himself, he has a long-standing
fascination with spiritualism and psychic phenomena – coexisting, in
his case, with a dedication to yoga and wing chun kung fu.
at all sceptical about clairvoyance,’ he says. ‘I’ve always been drawn
to that stuff. Knowing that Conan Doyle shared my interests helped me
make my mind up about taking on the role of Sherlock.’
'I'm the 76th
actor to do Sherlock, so there was a lot to live up to. Not since
Chaplin had I done something where I felt the character was so iconic in
the collective unconscious,' said Downey Jr
It’s a decision he
clearly doesn’t regret, as 2009’s Sherlock Holmes confirmed Downey’s
status as one of Hollywood’s hottest stars.
Last year alone he
made an estimated $31.5 million, including a $15 million fee for
starring in the second instalment of the franchise. But Downey makes a
shocking confession to Holmes fans.
‘Act three of Sherlock 1 was
serviceable, but not really very good. With this new movie, we agreed it
needed to be a big improvement. Sherlock 2 starts off good, gets better
and has the best act three of any movie I’ve ever done. It’s like the
best sex of your life – if, that is, the best sex of your life took two
years from start to finish.’
He says he was daunted to be taking on the most frequently portrayed character in cinema history.
Holmes, Watson and Watson's bride Mary (Kelly Reilly)
the 76th actor to do Sherlock, so there was a lot to live up to. Not
since Chaplin had I done something where I felt the character was so
iconic in the collective unconscious. To improve on the first Sherlock
was one reason for doing a second film. Another reason was that I got
the chance to film in England again.
‘When I got the part, I
voraciously made my way through the Conan Doyle books and was taken with
his charming attention to detail. Watson remarks that Holmes keeps his
tobacco in the toe of a Persian slipper.
Stephen Fry as Holmes's older brother Mycroft
interesting thing about that line is that it’s a judgement, a source of
wonder, and it also explains so much about the character of Sherlock.
It’s a wonderfully eccentric observation. No nation on Earth can touch
the English for eccentricity, though the Irish come close.
one-eighth English. And it’s an important eighth. My dad is half-Irish
and I saw that eccentricity in him from an early age. For instance, he
would stir his tea with an upside-down hammer. He would also claim to
understand what the family terrier was saying when it barked.
there’s two ways of looking at that behaviour. Maybe he preferred a
hammer to a spoon. They’re both made of wood, right? Maybe, just maybe,
he could actually understand the language of dogs. Another way of
looking at it is to say he was a wantonly eccentric kind of fellow.’
influence of British culture on Downey isn’t just restricted to his
acting; it has affected his entire life. With an underground-film-maker
for a father and an actress mother, he travelled constantly in his early
years, first visiting Britain at the age of six.
‘My dad was working
on a movie in London, so we sailed over from New York on the SS France
ocean liner. I attended Perry House, a prep school in Chelsea. I was
there to study classical ballet, but most of my time was spent being a
complete moron, when I should have been working on my pirouettes.
also spent way too much time focused on Monica, the most beautiful
English girl you could possibly imagine. Coming from Greenwich Village
in New York, London was like another planet. The weather was grey, but
everything else was in technicolour. I was completely charmed by it all.
I found it all so civilised. Hell, even the sewer rats were polite.
'It doesn't get any cooler than hanging out in The Punch Bowl with Jude
Law (far left) and Stephen Fry and Guy Ritchie (centre), trying to keep
up with the quick-fire English banter,' said Downey Jr
on, I was hooked on British culture. It started with the music. At six
my dad introduced me to the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed album. It meant
much more to me than Sesame Street. I played it endlessly. Elvis
Costello’s Imperial Bedroom is my favourite album of all time.
it comes to music, the Brits beat the Americans hands down. There’s no
contest. But it’s not just music. I’m fascinated with British history,
from watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace to the
English countryside, the architecture, the street art.
adored British comedy, from Python to Billy Connolly to Blackadder, and
I’m especially drawn to the cutting edge. It doesn’t get any cooler than
hanging out in The Punch Bowl with Jude Law and Stephen Fry and Guy
Ritchie, trying to keep up with the quick-fire English banter.
love Frankie Boyle’s work, but everything he says seems to be an
instant controversy. Why should he compromise the simple truth that
humour is about what’s funny, not about what’s morally right and wrong? I
just hope that British comedy doesn’t lose its nerve.’
It was a
random phone conversation in 2008 with Ritchie that led to Downey Jr
being cast as a swashbuckling Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century
seems appropriate to solicit Downey’s thoughts on Ricky Gervais, whose
edgy presentation of this year’s Golden Globes he appeared to denounce
in a speech on the night. A genuine spat or good-natured verbal
‘For me, anything that’s happening in public is going to
have a level of gamesmanship to it. If someone really offended me, I
wouldn’t say anything about it publicly. I’d wait for a quiet moment and
have it out to their face. Or, more likely, I’d shrug and ask myself
why I should care.
‘The media are always looking for a spat, and I
have to say that I love it, even when it’s about me. I love tabloid
reality, for the reason that everything is true in the moment that you
read it. It doesn’t occur to me when I’m reading it that it might just
be made-up garbage.
'Life is good,' said Downey Jr (pictured above with wife Susan at the Oscars)
take that kind of thing any day over sycophantic, over-respectful
journalism where everyone is a member of the same club and all the
uncomfortably sharp edges are smoothed over to save face. Which is just
as bad as lying.
'The truth is that I like Ricky Gervais and I’ve
seen him around. I’ve just heard that he’s been invited back to host
the Golden Globes in 2012. So, he wins. End of story.’
Downey is happily married to Susan, an influential Hollywood player who was a producer on several of his recent movies.
from the Team Downey building, they own a sumptuous home in LA, along
with a $14 million estate in the foothills of Malibu. He has an
18-year-old son, Indio, from his previous marriage to actress/singer
Deborah Falconer, and he and Susan are expecting their first child
together in February.
‘It’s funny,’ he says. ‘I used to say that I’d
welcome a bullet to the forehead if I ever ended up as a 40-something,
remarried, marketable, big-action movie dad living in a cosy cul-de-sac
in suburban LA. Now I am that guy.
'It just goes to show that I
usually don’t know what’s good for me in life. But I’m getting better at
knowing that stuff. I don’t need to rub against the grain nearly as
much as I used to. I’m 46 now, so the countdown to my half-century has
begun. I’d have to be completely deranged not to stress about that.’
It seems turning 50 is the only downside that Downey can conjure.
is good,’ he says. ‘With a new baby on the way, maybe I ought to think
about slowing down a little. But I can’t see that happening in the short
And with that, the activity in the building becomes
noticeably more hectic, as Guy Ritchie bounds up the stairs and
announces his arrival to discuss Sherlock 3. Downey needs to get back to
work. With laser-like sincerity he thanks me for coming so far to see
Heading into his office to greet Ritchie, chewing
rapaciously on his gum, he turns and says, ‘Give my love to England. I
do mean that.’
‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows’ is released on December 16