Robert Downey Jr. Interview – THE SOLOIST

     April 23, 2009

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

I’ve interviewed Robert Downey Jr. a few times now. In every instance, he’s always walking around with a hard black plastic case that is always shut and when people ask him what’s in it, he always makes a joke but refuses to talk. But at the end of “The Soloist” roundtable interview last Saturday, he finally caved in and opened the case and showed us everything inside. While this news might be boring to a lot of you…if you’ve ever wondered what was inside here’s what he said, “Well, let’s go through this. Wallet. Parasites, lilac water, Blackberry. Jude Law got me a really expensive phone. Lifeospheric age blocker. Cigar lighter. Cigar. And none of your business.” It was a very funny ending to our great interview.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Last weekend I attended the international press day for “The Soloist” as a reporter for our partner website Omelete. If you haven’t heard of the film yet, it’s directed by Joe Wright’s (“Pride and Prejudice”, “Atonement”) and it stars Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., and Catherine Keener. Also, it’s based on a true story. Here’s the synopsis:

Journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a former classical music prodigy, playing his violin on the streets of L.A. As Lopez endeavors to help the homeless man find his way back, a unique friendship is formed, one that transforms both their lives.

Anyway, while I already posted everything that Robert said about “Iron Man 2” a few days ago, below you’ll find the entire interview where we not only talk about “IM2”, but “Sherlock Holmes”, “The Soloist”, and a lot of other stuff. If you’re a fan of Robert’s, I promise you this is a great interview and one you’ll enjoy.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here. Finally, if you’d like to watch some clips from “The Soloist” click here.

Can I start the interview with nice to see you again as Mr. Stark?

Robert: Thank you.

I hope you don’t mind.

Robert: Are you kidding me?


Robert: Two weeks and it’s already glorious.

If you don’t mind me also asking, Jon has been Twittering the whole time on-set.

Robert: Yeah.

What is that like for you? Do you know that he’s doing this?

Robert: Jon is my brother and he is the keeper of the “Iron Man” flame and whatever he wants to do, within reason, to keep his anxieties at bay is absolutely fine with me.

How do you feel in your career nowadays? You know with the “Iron Man 2” shooting, this movie coming out…does it feel?

Robert: And “Sherlock” in the can. Don’t even get me started on “Sherlock Holmes”. I might have a double-franchise by three days after Christmas.

Okay. Does it feel good to be you again?

Robert: What do you think? (laughter) Who was I before?

Do you look at your face in the window in the morning and say “wow, it’s me!”?

Robert: You know what I honestly think is…the days get busy and there’s a lot of stress and the way we shoot, and “Iron Man” is sometimes like Downey knows what he’s doing just roll it, and I’m like “wait a minute I’m supposed to be interacting with the computer. Give me a keyboard. At least let me see where the qwerty key is so I’m dealing in the right….” Now go in on the tight shot and it’s like “can I, can I…all right forget it.” It’s very crazy making.

So people are thinking too much of you?

Hell, no. No, no. then I’ll say “hold on a damn minute” and I’ll like…I don’t know. Drink a little water and then I’ll say “I’m almost done”. And then I’ll stop and I will say on the way back, I’ll be driving my car home from the studio or whatever blowing a cigar and listening to Peter Frampton and I’ll say…

Not Beethoven?

I listen to Beethoven, too, and I’ll say “I cannot believe what a fantastic life I have. What a fantastic day I had. What a nice evening it is.”

When five years ago you were saying “all my friends are making $20 million a movie and I’m the only one who’s not there yet”.


You said that maybe five years ago. What about now?

Yeah, five years ago I was still thinking that there was something about that money and that influence that was going to make or change anything, so I was still attached to the idea that somehow outside circumstances were going to make me feel okay.

But now that’s sort of possibly changed with…

That man is dead. (laughter)

Talk a little bit more about “Iron Man” because last time we saw each other you hadn’t even started yet and so now you’ve started.


How much fun is it?

It’s so fun. Day one I’m doing a Senate hearing where the government is saying the Iron Man tech needs to be turned over to the Senator and the Senator is Gary Shandling. And we had this fantastic day that was somehow this controlled chaos of a Senate hearing where I keep interrupting them and dah dah dah. And I’ve never been in a sequel and it’s very daunting because I feel the expectation of the millions of people who watched it and enjoyed it and told me that it was a little different than your usual genre picture and that they expected us to not screw it up. So I actually have taken “Iron Man 2” probably more seriously than any movie I’ve ever done, which is appropriately ridiculous for Hollywood.

The last time you said the suit was very uncomfortable?

Yes everything….

…and you watched through the mask this time?

Everything has been improved. Everything is ergonomic and the story is incredibly risky and artistic for a big genre movie.

In which way risky?

The set pieces have to do with things that aren’t your typical like bad guy conflict. The relationships are very complex and hilarious. The motivations Tony has and why he turns around and does things has completely to do with his own internal processes and it really is, I think, as much as we tried to in the first one really see behind the façade of this kind of storytelling. We really, I think, leaving ourselves open to…we’re kind of trying to tell a story about how a dysfunctional family saves life on Earth as we know it.

And also, for this film you have Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell. You have an insane cast.

It’s huge.

Could you talk about working with Mickey?

I could if we shot together. I’ve seen his stuff and it is literally remarkable. Literally remarkable. He’s so good. And he’s formidable and he’s very much reminding me of that kind of charming, confident guy that we know. Sam Rockwell, on the first day of shooting I was like “if this guy thinks he’s going to be funnier and cooler than me (laughter) and it was a photo-finish. Scarlett Johansson, amazing. Don Cheadle is just rocking it.

Don’t you feel you are working too much? I think the past two out of three interviews you said at the roundtable, I need to take a vacation. That’s my next movie and then I’m going to take a break. It’s not going to happen right?

Yeah, it is.


After “Iron Man 2”.

Do you feel you’re working too much or you don’t feel you working…?

I thought about it this morning because the truth is I need to be kept in check. I need a system of controls. Now, sometimes that system of controls is free-time like when I pull the Misses and we went to the Bahamas and did nothing for two weeks, but even then I knew where we were and what we were doing. I’m not one of those people who’s like oh this girl needs a lot of structure or she’s going to go to the wolves. That’s not the story. I just really….I’ll never be here again. I’ll never be 44 years old making a sequel, making a thing this and that, and so I’m really kind of just running on gratitude right now.

You just celebrated two weeks ago your birthday, correct?


So how did you celebrate it?

What’d I do? I had the flu.

Can I ask you about “Soloist”, sorry?

I wish you would.

Yes. What was it about this one then, I mean you’re doing this in the middle of these other sort of role different from this, very different films. Was it Joe Wright? Was it…what drew you in?

It was Joe and it was Jamie and I was in Hawaii doing “Tropic Thunder” in a very different position than I am right now going like “what do they think I’m going to do? I just played a journalist.” And there was something about Gary Foster and Joe Wright flying there and really being passionate about the way they were going to do it as much as the story they were telling. And I was on this huge…you couldn’t be any broader or bigger than “Tropic Thunder”, so the idea of really switching gears and doing something where Joe said he wanted me there every day. He wanted me there working with the LAMP members. He kept telling me the movie is not about you. The movie has nothing to do with you. The movie is about Jamie and the movie’s about these people and I was like “well then what the fuck do you want me there for?” He’s be like “Robert, just observe”. I was like “Oh God, this guy is so artsy.” And it turned into this incredibly wonderfully humiliating three months on skid row, which is probably exactly what I needed.

What was that like working with those people, Robert?

Those people are us, so it was like working with us in very trying circumstances. I guess kind of like…the only way I can describe it is what was it like having dinner with a family during the siege on Stalingrad whatever, you know? The human nature comes forth and people strive and crave to just…we all just want to be connected to each other and be like each other, which we are. And I was surprised that my street cred on Skid Row was pretty high due to my….

Was that good or bad?

It was great.

For the right reasons or the wrong reasons?

Well, right/wrong whatever. It never occurred to me that A. that people would be like “Dude, I was in county jail with you” and I was like “fuck dude I remember you!” and people are seeing that so I wasn’t trying like trying to milk that but it was just part of what was going on. So I didn’t feel all that ill at ease. I guess the challenge again was I was asked to on the dawn of my hostile overt super resurrection on a world stage of who cares to go back to this very basic fundamental where I started and where I always start which is this is how we do it. This is a process. This is about growing and learning and experiencing each other. This is about a bunch of people around a table listening to each other and talking to each other and then how do we turn that into a piece of film to entertainment. Well, hopefully well.

Do you learn some things during this movie? Jamie said he learned a lot about himself and he went through therapy for “The Soloist”. I mean, you’ve been through a lot over the past 20 years so…

Yeah, I was already in therapy.

I guess you don’t need that, but did you learn something from yourself doing that shoot?

You know what? As a matter of fact, I did. I realized primarily that I have a lot more space and time and energy and patience and ability than I give myself credit for insomuch as I would be on my feet for 12 hours and then I would be busy at lunchtime. Whereas usually you have these little breaks and you go back and forth, but I was essentially a crew member. So the part of me that always felt like God I’m glad I don’t have a “real job” because I couldn’t hack it, I had as real a job as anybody who was working on the loading dock for three months because I was always in motion. I was always asked to go over and talk to this person about what we were going to do for this unscripted piece of interview that’s going on for the next thing. I was asked to go walk where Steve was going to walk and work out something with the camera. So I actually got an amazing education and then later on I also really did with “Sherlock Holmes” too. There’s something about having “Iron Man” come out and be a gynormous hit that too a certain pressure off the performance and the last thing I think about anymore is my performance and the technical ins and outs of that. I’m very much more objective now and I know that that plate is spinning and if it starts to wobble I just go back to it and go like that, but I’m very much outside the realm of my own self-conscious concerns because there’s so many more interesting things going on than me in front of a camera. There’s everything that’s happening on the set and all the little….

How do you consume yourself with your roles? Like Steve gets really consumed with his work? How is that for you as an actor?

Yeah. Well, strangely the most consuming role, on a certain level, was “Tropic Thunder”, because I was wearing a mask it was gestalt therapy. Whatever it was, it was just this massive catharsis for some reason. And then after that I was like “oh well, now that space is empty.” All this kind of venom, rage, discomfort and hiding behind things stuff. I feel that kind of went away. And then I went and did “Sherlock Holmes” which was technically really difficult and period, but I am kicking ass for 2-1/2 hours and all this stuff I’ve been learning for five years suddenly I’m like co-choreographing with these veteran stunt guys and bad-asses. And I’m in there having this just meat eating, man slaughtering competition with these guys and then at the same time playing a very reserved Brit and that to me was a massive education and just a process, but it kind of started with “The Soloist” and just being asked to escape myself. Escape myself and observe my environment.

So do you think that a movie like this could be seen as it’s romanticizing truth or do you think it’s realistic?

I think it could be seen a lot of different ways. I think it could be seen as minimalizing and Hollywoodizing huge issues. I think it could be saying that poverty and mental illness are a black problem because we’re in Skid Row. I mean there’s a lot of ways that this film could be…

How do you see it?

I see it as all of the above. It’s everything that’s good about it and it’s everything it missed, you know?

What about playing the guy that’s next to a person that can be a train wreck or can go very wrong in life?

I’ve been that train wreck and I’ve been that person next to that person who could be a train wreck. It’s just, you know, it’s what it is.

You have to have some inner strength to come out. It’s not…

Yeah, yeah but who doesn’t? I think that’s the thing. I mean I think “The Soloist” is interesting in that it talks about massive conflicts with self and in a normal state of being and with the world in a chaotic state of being. It’s such a simple story. I am observing and I’m in denial of my conflict and I am projecting and I am painfully aware of my conflict while I am just trying to keep everything going and the only time I’m okay is when I’m connected with my music, and I think Steve being able to see that in Nathaniel and me being able to participate and watch this movie I go, “oh I kind of get what this is about, you know?”.

How much as the Misses called her? Because the last five years you seem to be a changed man.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Here’s the thing, she didn’t change me at all. She just gave me an ultimatum at a certain point. And err…did she change me? I think what it was is we both changed a lot and turned into this thing which is this just…we are a 300 year old couple. I mean I look at her and I go “either you’re putting me in the ground or I’m putting you in the ground unless we go in a car accident. In which case, someone else is putting us both in the ground”.

Which is the best.

It’s the best. Yeah, what changed was I came to believe that she and I together were definitely going to be better than me alone or me and anybody else, and I just had like sign it off. You know sometimes you’re like it’s go time by end of business day today you have to make this life-changing decision and it’s irreversible. No it’s not because you can always screw it up and you can always intervene on it if you want to subvert it in some lousy way, but I prefer to remain optimistic. I’m pretty sure we’re going to go the distance. But the thing is she insists that she has never tried to make me change anything just because it just makes me mad.

There’s a lot of people in your life that had a huge impact like your son Nathaniel’s life.

Yes. What?

Yes, there’s a lot of people in your life that have a huge input on you?

Yes, you want their names?


One of them is a writer. I can’t say what our relationship is but he’s a mentor to me. One of them is, of course, my dad. I’ve been watching Putney Swope lately because now it’s 2010 I have a touch-screen Hewlett Packard computer thing that’s like this big and I touch something and Putney Swope starts playing on it. So people come up and go “come look at this”, so I’m re-establishing my relationship with my dad through this film and through talking to him. Pablo Ferro, who was a fantastic….he did like all the—what would you call it—when they have like opening credits for movies and things slide in…an optical effects guy. He was this super artist who people would say like reinvented the wheel in the 70’s and stuff with movies. He was a friend of my dad’s. Hal Ashby. There’s just so many people. James Woods when I was working with him. I’ll never ever, ever forget that. George C. Scott working with him was life changing. Richard Attenbough.

What about yourself?

…hugely influenced me.

What about yourself? Are you helping kids or did you go give the pep talks to some 20 year old actors telling them don’t screw up?



Because I don’t want to be…I’m not that poster boy. Let me put it this way: I’m into interacting with people but once I start….I’m a martial artist. And so the closest thing I have to a religious code is the Wing Chun/Chou Lin tradition. And the first rule is a true warrior does not take up causes. And I hate to say that in the midst of what’s the message of “The Soloist” and are you for the….or whatever some of the stuff that happens, or it’s so in in Hollywood to say my thing is to Health the Bay or mine is this or that or dah, dah, dah. And until further notice, until I change religions—not that it’s religion—but I just believe that warrior code. I think it’s really important that what you do is get your side of the street as clean as you can make it. That’s the only thing I can do that will have any resounding effect. But going out and spouting stuff, then I’m in politics and then I have a cause and then I am doomed. I swear to God I’m doomed. If you ever see me coming up with a cause, you bite me in the ass!

But you’re the martial artist. That would be dangerous.

Oh my God in five years I’ll just take out this whole room.

Jamie described you as someone who’s very together. Is that how you see yourself?

Um-hum. Yup, until further notice.

Can I ask what’s in the bag?

Well, let’s go through this. Wallet. Parasites, lilac water, Blackberry. Jude Law got me a really expensive phone.

Are you twitting?

No. Lifeospheric age blocker. Cigar lighter. Cigar. None of your business. (laughter)

I have actually a quick question. Are you already thinking about Comic-Con because…

Goddamn right I am.

Do you know if you and Jon are planning anything cool?

Yes, what do you think?

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