I’m sitting at a low wooden table in a London pub on a particularly sodden Tuesday night, waiting for Robert Downey, Jr. The pub is not any old pub, it is the Punchbowl, a Mayfair stalwart. One of its proprietors, Guy Ritchie, happens to be the director of Sherlock Holmes, in which Downey will star as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tweed-clad Victorian detective amid a formidable cast that includes Jude Law and Rachel McAdams. (The film is due out this fall.)
The place is heaving with an after-work throng. I am in a mild panic as I’m wondering how I (and my tape recorder) will ever hear RDJ in the clamor. As I’m craning around like Gumby, I hear a voice asking the barman very politely where I might be found. I stand up and say hello.
Downey is wearing a rain hat and smart raincoat and jauntily swinging an umbrella. He gives me a warm kiss on both cheeks and scoots into the corner. He is still Iron Man buff, maintained by the martial art he loves, wing chun, and I reckon he could kick the shit out of any bad guys who might be lurking in W1 tonight. His face is boyish, the picture of rosy, well-tended 44-year-old health, later explained by the cornucopia of naturopathic remedies in the bag to his right—a security blanket of sorts, always close at hand. He neatly arranges his rain paraphernalia, but the hat stays on.
In an act of sly premeditation, I have put my cigarettes out on the table in the hope that after all I’ve read, it might be true that Downey still smokes Camel straights and may possibly join me outside for one if it all becomes too much. He doesn’t take the cigarette bait. Instead, he eyes my Diet Coke with distaste and asks the waitress for a real one.
Sobriety has not tempered his wit. He tells me about a Sherlock Holmes read-through at which the cast sat with name tags and introduced themselves. When it came to his turn he said, “Hi, I’m Robert Downey, Jr., and I make faces for cash and chicken.”
His wife of four years, Susan, was a producer on Ritchie’s RocknRolla, which Downey adored. “So, I’m on the phone with Guy—I think he called for Susan—and at the end of it he goes, ‘Yeah, by the way, I talked about you for Sherlock, but you’re not right for it.’ I took umbrage at that and really wanted to do it.” He laughs—an acknowledgment that what we can’t have is infinitely more enticing. “They wound up thinking that Susan, Guy Ritchie, and I would be an interesting combination; that Susan and I could actually be on location together, which is the only way I would do it; how enthusiastic I was; and what a big fan I am. So why not go hire the guy who was finally in a hit movie”—Iron Man—”after 25 years?”
Downey’s self-deprecation doesn’t quite fly. His 1992 Oscar nomination for Chaplin does not meet the 25-year mark by a long shot. But he has had an unorthodox career, going back to the age of five, when he played a sick puppy in Pound, a film by his experimental-director father, Robert Downey, Sr., best known for Putney Swope. In 1987, the actor broke hearts with his portrayal of good-time-boy-gone-postal Julian Wells in Less than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis’s dark tale of disaffected youth in L.A. His performance crept under the skin and itched there for days after. You didn’t know whether you wanted to cook him a good meal, kiss him, or punch him in the face—possibly all three. His Charlie Chaplin was a possession rather than an interpretation, and I would hazard that he wasn’t just good, he was truly brilliant.
Chaplin was followed by turns in, among others, Short Cuts, Natural Born Killers, Wonder Boys, and Ally McBeal (until a much-publicized departure in 2001), and, oh, the Elton John video for “I Want Love.” Then on to The Singing Detective; Gothika (which is where he met his wife); Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; Good Night, and Good Luck; Zodiac; Iron Man (which earned more than half a billion dollars worldwide); and Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller’s ensemble comedy, for which he received an Oscar nod. Out this month is The Soloist, in which he plays the Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who discovered a brilliant schizophrenic musician (played by Jamie Foxx). Downey’s career, in other words, has been unrelenting.
The Punchbowl has become obscenely noisy. Downey picks up my tape recorder and plays it back. “You’ll never be able to transcribe this,” he says. “Come on.”
A quiet word with a waitress and we are spirited upstairs to a drafty private dining room. “Give me that tape recorder.” He does a little song and listens back to it. He remains holding it for the duration, like a compass.
“Do you still smoke?” I ask.
“Yeah, I bring a couple, so before I have a personality meltdown, I’ll have one so I don’t unleash myself on an unsuspecting public.”
“Shall we ask whether we can, as there’s no one else up here?”
“I’d rather beg forgiveness than ask permission,” he shoots back.
This has been a major theme of Downey’s life. In a nutshell, he smoked pot with his dad from a tender age, an introduction that morphed, when he was a young adult, into a crack-cocaine-and-heroin addiction. Downey spent 1996 through 2001 in and out of rehab and jail, ending up in 1999 in a California state prison, where he served one year of a three-year sentence. He is perhaps more publicly defined by this six-year lurch into the underworld than by the positive things that he has cultivated and brought to fruition: his son, Indio, born to his first wife, Deborah Falconer, in 1993; his music (Downey released an album, The Futurist, in 2004, on Sony Classical, singing smoky nostalgic tunes and playing the piano); the roles that preceded and endured the hinterland of his addiction (the impact on his work seemed of little consequence); his marriage to Susan Levin in 2005; his painting (imagine if Edvard Munch were an erudite surfer); and his life as it is now: clean and sober since 2003, bolstered by a steady routine of wing chun, acupuncture, shiatsu, naturopathy, and the odd cigarette.
Downey skirts around the topic of incarceration like a tired shadow boxer, deflecting it with weary humor and a liberal sprinkling of piss and vinegar. He’s got moxie, and it’s the best weapon he has against the judgment of strangers. And pity has no place in Downey’s nonlinear Ping-Pong vernacular. His only nod to it is a joke, when he gets all plaintive and Disney-character around the eyes, whispering, “Sometimes I wish I was taller, or I wish I was so small that I’d really know who liked me for what I was.”
“My heart bleeds,” I say.
“I have cartoon fantasies occasionally,” he replies, matter-of-factly.
“Are you a believer in therapy?” I ask.
“No.” He grins. “I am a steadfast supporter of separating out all the pieces, so that it is not overwhelming. Things have changed a lot—new relationship, I got a kid, got an ex. And at this point, all I’m doing is just machete-ing the next three feet of jungle.”
I point to a little navy bottle he’s been grappling with. “Is that hand sanitizer?”
“Yes. I’m a hygienically sound individual. Mrs. Downey would say I’m catlike clean.”
It is on that note that Guy Ritchie walks into the room with his eight-year-old son, Rocco. “Say hello to Iron Man,” he tells the boy.
“Hi,” Rocco says, peering at Downey shyly.
“Hey, dude!” Downey says. “How’s the fighting goin’?”
Rocco pulls his dad a pint, and throughout their conversation Downey’s eyes flick to me across the table, asking whether I mind. I shake my head.
We are in the house that the Downeys have rented for the duration of the Sherlock Holmes shoot—the high point of which is still a few weeks off, when Downey is knocked unconscious from an errant punch thrown by the seven-foot-tall actor and professional wrestler Robert Maillet. The elegantly upholstered sitting room is filled with yet more homeopathy and a carton of Camels. Downey opens the doors to the terrace. “I love London,” he says. Could he picture living here all the time? “Totally. What’s not to love?”
It is here—between talking about nudist colonies (he’s been to one), shamans (so have I), and therapeutic communities (this lost me)—that I do something really dorky. I congratulate him. I can’t help it. He just seems so happy, and with that happiness, generosity and goodwill spill out of him in a grand eccentric flood. He looks a bit horrified, though not quite as horrified as me. “That so wasn’t meant to be patronizing,” I say.
“It’s OK,” he says. “Congratulations I’ll take, because they’re in order. ‘God, it’s good to have you back!’ is a fuckin’ insult, because I didn’t go anywhere. The worst of all is ‘It’s just so good to see you back out there in the movies.’ Which is basically a way of saying ‘I’m glad you’re well enough to grind, monkey, grind.’ ” Downey has a grimace on his face, and his voice rises. “Because—you know what?—I know I provide a service for you. But I’m not a table-hop. And when I was a table-hop, I was a good one. I might have been a little sweaty, and I might have dropped a bus tray once or twice. But I actually really gave a shit about your peppermint tea.”
As I look at the face before me, on which comedy and tragedy make happy bedfellows, something tells me this is the gospel truth.
“It’s Elementary” has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the April 2009 issue of Men’s Vogue.