HOLLYWOOD — When one beholds the billboards touting the first movie in the new “Sherlock Holmes” franchise, one sees the slim, natty, Anglo-looking Jude Law and imagines he is Holmes and that the less buff, older and somewhat rumpled Robert Downey Jr. is his Dr. Watson. Wrong, of course, and despite stereotypical expectations, Downey Jr.’s Holmes is earning critical praise, quite apart from the fact that the film is heating up the box office.
Indeed, it’s startling to realize that former bad-boy Downey Jr., no longer so junior (he turns 46 in April), has a son aged 16. Was he at all surprised to be offered the part of the master detective — who, as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was something of a drug addict — rather than the good doctor?
“I’ve always felt myself to be an outsider in Hollywood,” he says slowly, as though exerting great patience, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how our movie-business works. And since this is a franchise, a big-big-bucks enterprise, I’d have been surprised — very — if they had offered Sherlock Holmes himself to, say, Jude Law, who is a fine British actor but therefore not basically a Hollywood actor and ergo not a Hollywood product. Unlike, in a strange and quite ironic way, yours truly.”
Downey Jr. is given to longer sentences that sometimes amuse and occasionally baffle. He once opined that many of his friends must think him an “economic bisexual with tentacles.” He’s also publicly stated that his father (underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.) introduced him to drugs at age 8 by offering him marijuana. The subsequent addictions, overdoses, arrests and jail-time in adulthood cannot of course be laid at Downey Sr.’s door, and in any case, the whiff of illegal substances is now several years and movies past. But Downey Jr. grimly expects that profiles of him will mention them. He draws the parallel that a piece about him that omits the subject is like one about Winona Ryder that doesn’t touch on her shoplifting episode. The difference is that Ryder’s was a single episode while Downey Jr.’s was a series, including a surreal scene in which he wandered into somebody else’s house and fell asleep — a la Goldilocks — on a child’s bed and the time, in 2001, he was fired from TV’s “Ally McBeal.”
“I’m a colorful character, all right,” says Downey Jr., whom insiders say is proud of his work despite his nonchalant attitude. Yet he’s self-deprecating about his talent, saying he’s “an incredibly gifted faker.” He’s been Oscar-nominated twice: for playing Charlie Chaplin in “Chaplin” (1992) and for 2008’s “Tropic Thunder.” Did he expect such good reviews for his Holmes? “Did I?” he repeats wonderingly.
“I wanted to sort of refresh old Sherl, but I knew I couldn’t make a complete departure from the rules and standards, (from) all the portrayals of that iconic character. Just bringing him up to date is what I tried to do. On the other hand, if you’re young enough or backwoods enough never to have seen a Sherlock Holmes flick, then my recent portrayal is the standard one and your archetype.”
His opinion of the movie?
“But I’m hired as an actor, not as a critic,” he says. “Everyone who sees it gets the chance to form their own opinion, if they want one.”
Was it fun making the film? And how did he get along with cast and crew?
“It was a long shoot. No major dramas. People got along. We went in there and worked. And then we worked some more.”
Downey Jr. is disinclined to discuss the movie in depth, saying: “It isn’t some philosophical statement or conundrum. It’s an entertainment. Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes was — and is — and something about him and Dr. Watson. Many have seen a movie or two. Some have actually read a story or novel of Conan Doyle’s.
“But when you make a new movie with these icons, and this also held true in the 1940s with all those Basil Rathbone (the actor who played Holmes) movies, the challenge is coming up with a story for them. The story’s the thing. And in a franchise, the stories — plural. But judging by how the picture is performing financially, the story is satisfactory, and so are we the performers. Which is good because we put in a lot of hard work on it.”
Improbably likable, Downey Jr. still seems boyish, and his first acting role was in his father’s film “Pound” when he was 5. Via his dad, Downey Jr. is Irish and Russian-Jewish. Via his mother, Scots and German-Jewish. Due to Downey Sr.’s profession, Jr. grew up in several locales, including, at age 10, London, where he saw a lot of theater (his favorite movie star is Irishman Peter O’Toole). At 11 his parents divorced, at 17 he dropped out of high school in favor of acting, and at 20 he joined — for one season — the cast of TV’s “Saturday Night Live.” Then he went to Hollywood.
“Somewhere or other I read the fiction that I was very successful very early,” Downey Jr. recalls. “Untrue,” he emphasizes. “Like everybody, I’ve had auditions and more auditions, and some of the roles I lost, or didn’t get, devastated me at the time. Which shows you what life’s really like. Don’t dwell too long on your failure; it’s a form of narcissism, and it helps nothing. Just move on. Move along blithely, as Oscar Wilde might have said.”
In 1987, the actor got a big break by landing the lead in the film “The Pickup Artist,” but it flopped.
“Sometimes I’ve flattered myself by saying I’m very picky and I couldn’t possibly commit to such-and-such a script, it’s beneath me, and one week later I ask, ‘When do I report for work?’ ” he says.
Downey Jr.’s film resume is diverse, and he’s also done television (for a time, due to drugs, he couldn’t get work on the big screen) and music videos. He stirred considerable controversy by doing a day’s shooting on an Elton John video, for which he was granted the rare privilege of temporarily leaving prison to go to work.
Although serious about his acting, Downey Jr. obviously doesn’t require serious projects, for instance admitting that he signed to do “Air America” in 1990 for two reasons: to costar with then- handsome Mel Gibson and for the money. “Regardless of the final product, I got the money and I worked with Mel,” he explains. In 2003, Gibson cast him in “The Singing Detective” in spite of the insurance company declining to cover him. So what does the half-Jewish Downey Jr. think of Gibson’s now- infamous anti-Semitism?
“Sometimes it’s almost better not to know too much about an actor,” he says slowly. “I say ‘sometimes.’ Bigotry is just so pointless and outdated, but some people hold very outdated beliefs, and what else can you say? You know, Mel bought me a motorcycle while we were still filming, and I asked him if he intended me to kill myself on it, and he said that since we were most of the way through filming, he wasn’t very worried.”
In 1995, Downey Jr. didn’t get along at all with Hugh Grant while making the period picture “Restoration.” He made several nasty comments about his British costar, who declined to respond in kind, declaring, “Consider the source. His words say more about him than they do about me.”
His 2003 film “Gothika” was a flop, but his second wife, Susan, was it’s producer and they wed in 2005. (Son Indio Falconer Downey is via first wife Deborah Falconer.) Would Downey Jr. like to have another child? A long nonpregnant pause before he asks, “Next question?”
It’s not generally known that Downey Jr. stands at just 174 cm and in recent films has been asked by filmmakers to wear lifts, which he does and admits to, while warning: “There’s nothing to talk about there — lots of actors do that, both now and in the past. Tom Cruise. Or read up on John Wayne, who even had lifts in his car so he’d look taller driving. Height is one of the rules and practices of this male-enhancing business.”
One of Downey Jr.’s future projects is a film biography of the writer Edgar Allan Poe, who died prematurely and mysteriously.
“I have several things in development,” says Downey Jr., who also briefly refers to the next Sherlock Holmes. Yet leisure time is important to the actor, who says, “Friendship helps nourish you, and friends are important for the roots they give you — the continuity — and for interest and fun and gossip. You know, for umpteen things. And to let your hair down, as they say.” Did Downey Jr. ever desire or imagine he would someday play Sherlock Holmes? “This business is crazy, man. It’s wacko. Not ever can you predict what you will do. All you can do is make some announcements about what you won’t do, and even then you’ll end up doing some of that, so it’s a way of life that’s constantly surprising, which in a way is good, ‘cos it doesn’t get too boring.
“Which is to say, you can get bored during a given project, but in a few months or a few weeks you’re on to the next thing, and it can generally be said that you get paid as much for a flop as for a hit. Just so that you yield more hits than flops, which is the really tightrope aspect of being a rich and famous actor who’s sometimes overrated and is sometimes underrated.” He suddenly stops, sounding pleased with what he’s just said. And why not?
“Sherlock Holmes” opens in Japan March 12.