Robert Downey Jr: "I'm an American and therefore I subscribe to all things American ..."

Robert Downey Jr talks Zodiac, A Scanner Darkly and Fur.
Cannes, 2006.

Do you think this is the kind of science fiction that enlightens the present?

“Maybe. I don’t know. I’m having a tough time answering that question because the book was old and it’s this and that. I think it’s kind of about if [Philip K.] Dick wrote it during his generation, and then my, and in some cases our, generation came through, and really didn’t do all that much, and now this new generation of kids is really kind of like protected and explorative and probably not as likely to be all drug addled, I think it kind of like works generationally, you know? But I don’t think it’s like some self-important cautionary tale. I think obviously it’s all just a metaphor. That’s why science fiction is so great, I guess.”

The drug theme of the film means that it’s a bit close to home, isn't it?

“How do you feel when you ask the question you know everyone else just asked? You gotta do it, right? I got a job to do. So I’m going to give you my same pat-ass answer.”

Go on then. But you were apparently the one making jokes about drugs on set, according to your director, Richard Linklater, just now. So it’s a fair if obvious question.

“It didn’t really bring anything up because I went to Austin [Texas], I had a lot of dialogue, I went to work, I went to the gym, I came home, I studied until I fell asleep, and then I woke up, went to work, went to the gym, and came home. Now maybe the accumulative effect of that afterwards or whatever, but it was really more seeing it last night. After a while, if you’ve been an actor for, like, fucking 25 years or whatever, you have some aesthetic distance. It’s not like if I’m playing a serial killer I go home and I go, ‘Boo-hoo, there’s blood on my hands,' regardless of whether I witnessed some crime scene or something like that. But seeing it last night I really was touched by how emotionally satisfying it was and that there was that shred of hope at the end. It wasn’t as dark a movie as I had imagined.”

The look of the character is quite original.

“Why thank you [laughs]. I loved the pink slippers. There’s always some speed freak somewhere who’s wearing his mom’s slippers, in a driveway, going grrrr, grrrr. Yeah, and I liked the hat, and the glasses were fun. A fishing jacket. Any good tweaker always has to have one good jacket with a ton of pockets in it, because this one’s going to hold . . . you know, whatever. It ain’t fishing tackle.”

How did you feel when you saw the film for the first time and what had been done with the animation? Was it anything like you imagined?

“Yeah, it was understood that it was going to be rotoscoped and the whole thing. Some people are reacting, like, ‘Well, that was just a device, and bup-beda, b’dum, b’dum. They didn’t need to do that.’ I say, ‘Yeah, we didn’t need to. It was just what we did.’ It’s funny when you have Keanu [Reeves] and Rick involved, and it’s this kind of super-famous source material. The only character missing from any discussion is the person’s own relationship with who all those people are. It’s like, ‘I see a movie he directed, she’s in, they did and it’s from this book. And I knew that book and I love that book. I knew her and she’s a cunt.’ So it’s almost like my opinion is almost formulated by me insinuating myself. I don’t know how you do it? I don’t know how anyone gets enough distance from anything to be really objective. Scanner Darkly, obviously, is not the kind of movie that invites objectivity. It really tries to pull you in, you know?”

How did you get involved? Have you known Richard from a long time back?

“No, he called, and I was really happy. We were here last year with Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and when we were shooting Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Val Kilmer said, ‘Have you seen School of Rock?’ I was like, ‘No, I heard it’s great.’ He was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to watch it right now.’ He like got his kids in, my kid came over, and then when it was over, he went, ‘Okay, rewind it. Let’s watch it again.’ We were just like on this School of Rock kick. So when a couple of months later they said, ‘Oh, Richard Linklater called . . .’ I was like, ‘I know that name.’ I had seen Waking Life and kind of put all these things together, and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s the kind of guy I want to work with.’”

Richard was talking about the subversive club of people in Hollywood. Is this film subversive technically, or because of its content? Is it more subversive than George Clooney who has more openly political views?

“I don’t know, it seems like I am surrounded by a lot of limousine liberals and left-wing larrys. I don’t fucking get it. You go spend some time in an institution and tell me how fucking liberal you’re going to be. I’m an American and therefore I subscribe to all things American: our corruption, our liberalism, which is just a big, fucking, ego trip; we love a good war, we’re kind of stupid, we’ve got a lot of money, a lot of guns; we’ve got a lot of oil but we don’t, for some reason, want to waste any time doing it when we can farm it out and blame other people and invade their countries. We’re big old pigs. We’re fantastic! And we make a ton of movies, and some of them are really great, really innovative, so, you know, we’ve got the whole deal. We’re probably going to get our asses kicked and get some humility at some point. But until then, fuck you! That’s how I see it.

"But as far as being subversive, how subversive am I? I’d be perfectly happy to be opening some massive commercial movie, and then flying off doing a Nescafe ad on the cover of the fucking . . . you know what I mean? I’m not attempting to do anything. I made a bunch of choices based my own selfish, narcissistic, self-medicating ideals, and here I am, everyone going [dumb voice] ‘This is a hell of a comeback.’ You know, I didn’t give a shit before. It’s not like I’m coming back to something I’m desperate to be a part of. This is my living. If I had fifty million dollars, I would be outside fucking painting a hillside, or doing some ‘art’ movie that no-one gives a shit about [sucks in through his teeth].

“Anyway, what I’m getting at is I don’t know how subversive any American who works in the entertainment industry is. You know? You want something. You want people to say, ‘Wow, what you did over there is, dah-de, dah-de, dah.’ It’s like saying, ‘Are you a subversive soccer player with fucking Siemens tattooed on the back of your jersey?’ And what does subversive mean? You run the other way? What the fuck are we talking about here? [Laughs] Sorry. Just as a counterpoint, I might change my mind tomorrow. I’m sorry.”

Was it fun working with Keanu and Woody Harrelson?

“First of all, speaking of subversives, because he might be, Keanu, I’m like flipping through the pages in Premiere magazine, 50 Most Influential People, and I’m like, ‘Could it be my year?’ Of course not. And there he is, number like 19 or whatever the fuck it is. I’m like, ‘Shit, this is great, he could really parlay that into something.’ So Richard had this vision in this adaptation and then Keanu steps forth and suddenly there’s financing. And then Woody and I come onboard and proceed to push each other over the edge. I’m like, ‘I’m going to have a pair of scissors in my hand when I go in to rat out my friend.’ He goes, ‘I’m going to fall out of a tree.’ I go, ‘What? I’m going to walk my fingers across a table.’ [Laughs] He goes, ‘I’m going to fart and smell it and blow it at you.’ I was like, ‘Great.’ We’re so stupid. He goes, ‘But anyway, the characters.’ I go, ‘Yeah, the characters. . .’”

The bicycle scene where you think someone has conned you out of some missing gears is hilarious. Was that easy to do without laughing?

“I was dead, fucking, serious. I had five pages of dialogue. I knew this bike, I could take this bike apart and explain everything to you except the fact it’s a fucking 18-speed bike, there’s three in front and six in back. What is wrong with these people? They’re so stoned out. But I know that one. I remember smoking a joint once, and going out in my driveway, and I had like whatever fucking sports car, and I got in and I was like, ‘Brmmm, brmmm, brmm. Wait a minute, how do you drive stick? Fuck. Okay, wait a minute. I got it.’ I had forgotten how to drive stick. I was like, ‘Shit.’ I got out, and I got in like the Pathfinder, and drove away. This is what happens when you’re fucking stoned all the time. What do you think?”

And did you experience the paranoia we see some of the characters going through in the film? Did you ever experience that, or just the general paranoia that seems to exist in America at the moment?

“Yeah, there’s general, lukewarm, paranoia. It’s nothing. You know, mine would be like I’m just looking out at that boat while I’m talking and I’m going, ‘Aha, sure [eyes widening]. Oh, that’s a fucking boat, right? Noah’s Ark was a submarine built by space aliens.' It’s all that far out shit. Frek! [the most paranoid character in Scanner Darkly]. It’s so sad because you’ve twisted your brain into this place where what you’re seeing isn’t really imaginary. I think you’re just tuned into a channel where really awful shit’s going on 24/7. Like why would you want to tune into that?”

You’ve been working with David Fincher on Zodiac. I spoke to Jake Gyllenhaal a little while back and he said you were sometimes doing 80 takes. It sounds exhausting.

“It would be like this. We would do a scene and he would say, ‘Mark [Ruffalo], I really need you to hit that fifteenth word of that monologue just as you’re coming around the bumper of the 1970 Dodge Dart,’ and Mark would be like, ‘Uh, okay.’ And we’d do it, and he’d kind of get it right, but then some moth is in the light, and we’d do it again. We did it like 75 times. I’m there, he hasn’t given me any notes, so I’m really comfortable, and Mark says, ‘Fuck, dude, do we have it or not?’ He says, ‘Downey, come over here and tell me if we have it.’ Shit. Mark was, like, ‘Just tell him. Just tell him.’ So we watch these takes and he says, ‘Do we have it?’ I go, ‘Erm, no.’ Fuck. Then Mark would get it right and I'd like drop my cigarette. He goes, ‘Well, now Downey fucked it up.’”

Is he an actor’s director or more a technical guy?

“No, no, no, he’s brilliant, he’s funny and he really understands . . . it’s not like he just wanted to torture us. He just doesn’t want to have to do all this coverage. So if you want to do an eight-minute scene in one set up, then you do it like Kubrick did it. Except, you know, I don’t know if even Kubrick had the understanding that David had, because he came up with film and has probably had more experience shooting more stuff over time than even Kubrick had, and he’s seen technical innovations, he started on video, and all that stuff. We’re working on doing something together right now that a guy’s writing, an idea that we have for a show. So, obviously, I had a great experience. I’m right back in his office saying, ‘Now what do we do?’ you know?”

There’s quite a long list of films coming up that you’re in. Are you a workaholic?

“I don’t work too much. I work and then I take a break, and then they say, ‘How about this?’ I go, ‘No.’ They go, ‘Okay. What about this?’ I go, ‘Oh c’mon.’ Then they say, ‘What about this?’ and then my accountant calls up and goes, ‘What about your alimony?’ I go, ‘You know what, I love that project. That’s a project I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.’”

Can you tell me about Fur, the Diane Arbus film?

“I can. I think it’s going to be great. You know, Steve Shainberg, who did Secretary, Nicole Kidman and I. I spent six weeks in this lace make up, because he’s got hypertrichosis. It’s about an imaginary relationship she has with a circus freak. Obviously I didn’t play Diane Arbus, so I’m the circus freak. Aren’t I? [said archly] It will be fun. It’s a beautiful movie.”

Don’t take it too personally but what gives you your highs today?

“My highs today? You know what I call it? I call it appropriate rest. Exercise. And, I think, food helps a lot, too. It’s so weird. Who’d have thought.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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