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Robert Downey Jr. Talks Iron Man 3
Ol' Shellhead on the end of his Marvel contract and more...

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For Empire's recent Iron Man 3 cover feature, we flew to LA for an audience with Ol' Shellhead himself: Robert Downey Jr., and found that the man is as silver-tongued, beguiling, hilarious and often bewildering as Tony Stark, the character with which he's become synonymous over the last few years. What follows is an extended version of the interview. Enjoy.

Robert Downey Jr. Talks Iron Man 3

How difficult was it to come up with a plot that didn't just have Tony calling his buddies in The Avengers to help out?
It took one sentence: "This is not superhero business, it's American business". It didn't really just take that, but it's amazing that you can have these endless brain-racking discussions about what course something should take, and then you realise "I love movies" and as an audience member, I'm thinking about if so if you just put me at ease so I don't have to be asking that question when I'm trying to enjoy the movie. Also, then why isn't Cap or Thor calling me when they go to their next movies? It's not because they can't afford me.

I think just like the comic book series too, there are times when they are all together and there are times when you want to follow them from their origin to beyond. Joss had to make all these plates spin at the same time and then Jon and Ken and all the other superheroes' origins movies, there was so much to do that everything had to complement everything that it's refreshing to see everybody be able to not have to co-exist but do their own thing for a while. It was so ambitious.

Kevin [Feige, head of Marvel Studios] has said casting you was a risk. Was there a point when you knew the risk had paid off?
It's only a risk if you don't feel it. What sucks is when you're like, "Ohmigod, I know it, I know it!", and you have all these intuitions and you see the stars lining up and then you just crash into a brick wall. You never want to doubt your own sense of destiny. That's a terrible thing to have that pulled out from under you and yet I'm sure it's very character-building.

Shane was telling us that you were a real American hero, and he called you a cowboy. Do you feel that way?
I do not. I do not. But I think it's important that he says that sort of thing. It's good for our relationship. I love Shane Black. Isn't he a character? He's so bright and he's so odd and yet, at the same time, the reason I had such a nice summer and fall after I busted my ankle and we came back after shutting down the production for a while, is that we all liked the story points. I can't think of better story points than this. That almost never happens in a genre movie. You're always thinking, "Well maybe we need to go reshoot in Act 3", so that was very comforting.

How do you deal with the expectations placed on you now that this is the third Iron Man?
When you have all this dough on the table, there's a huge expectation that you have to tick all these boxes and perform at a certain level.
When you have all this dough on the table, there's a huge expectation that you have to tick all these boxes and perform at a certain level, but to me it always comes back to "Here we are, there's the actors, there's the camera, there's all the props, now how can we get back to that sense of play?" I know everybody says that, but a lot of people are still doing things by the numbers, a very assembly line kind of thing. You say this, I say that, you walk here, I'll walk there. Now I'm not saying that I don't hit my marks, or that I don't care where the camera is, I'm not crazy, but I don't believe that just because it's written down that you have to say it, or that you have to do it if a better idea comes up.

Are you conscious of how Tony's evolved?
I'm not conscious of much, to tell you the truth. The weird thing is when you establish a character, I always think the first time you do something it's like the first time you make love. Anyway... how do you sustain that bit of magic, or whatever it is that makes something successful? I feel that the first time I played Tony, I did it best. Sorry! The first time I played Sherlock Holmes, I did it best. And I think that part of it was that because there were all these unknown quotients, so you were hoping and imagining you would have to repeat a performance, and other times the story gets better.

But a lot of it is letting go of the ego - "Hey, remember when I had that big hammer in my hand when I was making the suit? Remember how big my arm looked there? And that scene, when I made that funny joke and everyone laughed, wasn't I great there?" - and then you go and do a movie and you're still the central character, but it becomes about the quality control of all these things. Who is your bad guy, what are you doing, who are the people you're working with day to day? I think it's become less and less about establishing whether or not Tony is viable, but about the quality of the entertainment itself, and that's what I tend to have most of my focus on, having made the first one work well enough to have people say, "Oh go do that again..."

Is Tony still fun to play?
Yes... it's fun to play. Whenever I think you have a new relationship, a new opportunity, for me a new baby, naturally these protective instincts come up and I use that in the relationship with Pepper. If there's one thing I really care about, it's her, and seeing as how last year things got really funky in New York and I don't really know what happened but I didn't like it and I almost died, naturally he's a little more edgy. So to explain, the tone of the movie this time is a little edgier without being dark.

The funny thing is that I remember someone in the Hollywood Foreign Press saying of the first one, this is a comedy! It is? I don't remember the convoy getting bombed in Afghanistan as being particularly hilarious. But it's always strived to ride that edge of having some moments of realism, but then not taking itself so seriously. When a genre movie takes itself really, really seriously, I just check out.

Has Tony changed?
He's still just ignorant. And that's what I like about him. You read the comics and you see these things and sometimes these people look impervious. That's why I really liked Michael Keaton's Batman. You looked at him and you thought, this guy is a little flaky. He's a little odd. And how can you not be, you know? I think Tony, because Tony is more of an extrovert, he takes those shortcomings and he hurls them into the public domain and in this case it was just a really bad idea. At the same time it inevitably drives him towards this journey where he's able to transcend something that's been haunting him since the first Iron Man began. I think Shane is an incredibly insightful writer and he has a great vision for things.

How has your relationship with Shane changed since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?
We were both pretty different then. We had literally nothing to lose and nobody gave us any indication that they were going to see this movie, so as far as we were concerned, we were just trying to put something on our reel that we thought was great. It's funny - I saw it the other night, and it's hard for me to watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and not get nostalgic about it. It's not perfect but in some ways, I think it's the best thing I've ever done. I don't know why.

The missus [Downey's wife, producer Susan Downey] said you're a bright guy and people say all these things about you and you quickly agree with them, but there's part of you that was raised in a very abstract way and you obviously paid a high price for some of your weaknesses, and there's some part of you that's making peace with everything going as well as it has, and the great thing about Harry Lockhart was that he's kinda dumb. "What did you do?" I threw the gun in the lake. "Why would you do that?" Val Kilmer was essentially telling me through the whole movie that I'm a moron but at the end I'm just smart enough to work for him. She said because I'm playing against type, which is either someone who knows everything or thinks they know everything, depending on who's talking back to me, so to me there was a real character. In some ways, I know where I end and Tony begins, but back then, back in the day, it just seemed like a real character, like I created a character.

This is the end of your contract with Marvel. Are you thinking about negotiating to come back?
I'm not stupid. I like to play ball. I love the company, I love the character, and the people I get to work with and then there's just the business side of things. I'm not too picky about that either. Let's see what happens. Chances are... I don't know... I also take the audience very seriously. I feel bad when I see folks doing movies and the audience is like, "Don't do that anymore."

There are a bunch of different ways you can do it in dramas and comedies and genre movies and action movies, whatever. I'm so fortunate in that I don't have to overstay my welcome if I can sense that I'm not welcome, then I don't want to do that. That's the other thing, too. When you get too much investment in you - "I feel that this is my brand and I need to really influence the way this goes..." - no, I don't. I'm married, I have a kid, I have a real life, a real life without cameras rolling.

But could you watch someone else play Tony Stark?
You know, ego... but sometimes ego just has to be smashed. It would probably be the best thing in the world for me, but I hate seeing people's egos suffer. I hate it when people have to learn those painful lessons of humility. I think I have a good amount of humility in the bank, a fair amount for now, and as long as I don't create a need for more humility, maybe I'll be alright.

Shane is replacing Jon Favreau, of course, as director. What do they both bring to this series?
I want to say that their styles are similar. Shane, unlike Jon, is more of a writer than an actor, and while Jon's a good writer, he's more of an actor than a writer. I feel that Jon completely believed in me from the beginning and he's the reason I even had the opportunity to work with Shane. But the funny thing is that Jon watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and said, "He's got a gun in his hand, I believe him, he's got a sense of humour, he looks like he could be a threatening presence, he looks good, he still has his hair..." whatever.

It's like my screen test for Jon was a movie directed by Shane, and we called Shane a couple of times shooting the first Iron Man and asked him what he thought what we should do with the scene. One of my favourite moments on this was we were doing a scene and talking about it and going, "Dude, what should we do about this? Should we... call Jon?" Yes, we should. Because in some ways, even though he didn't write the comic or create the Marvel Studios, Jon's kind of the creative George Lucas behind this strain of the superhero thing. He's always been very simple and direct. This is about his relationship with Pepper and everything else is about having fun and exploring themes, but if you take that relationship out of the movie, you have no movie.

Robert Downey Jr. Talks Iron Man 3

What's your affinity with Tony Stark?
Well, it just took me 38 years to get through his origin story. The affinity now is that how do you sustain something. I think it's the painful anticipation of the past. Nothing will ever be harder than anyone's adolescence, even if you have a good one. It's really tough. All those times when you're saying, "Oh my God, I was 21, what happened? Oh, I'm 28 with a kid, am I going to be 30? Maybe there's reincarnation but I don't recall..."

So every time you come up against a milestone of human experience, it's the first time for you and it's a trial. So what I like about my affinity now is that Tony is, like we all are, a survivor. His metaphors are really big, so big they make for excellent genre entertainment and what I really appreciate is that the filmmakers and myself have agreed to allow this kind of interplay where I can explore anxiety.

Last time it was his mortality and being spared an untimely death by being poisoned by this material that he took from his own weapons because he tried to build a better mousetrap. And this time it seems to me to be about transcendence, and about fear which is why there is a terrorist. And all of that stuff, and his primary relationships. We've started all these new relationships which are sub-primary but very important. If they hadn't gotten along, Avengers would have ended with a bunch of messed up folks on the streets of New York and we'd all be speaking alien. And no shawarma.

You said that the first time you played Tony was the best time for you.
I also think that at that time I was creating a slightly augmented persona of someone who was more handsome, more masculine, more sexually attractive, more more more, everything I might have a soupcon of, and I tried to get it across and dial it up a bit. And once you become identified with that thing, you begin to refer to it as 'me', and then you realise, "No it isn't" - you're actually doing something to appear taller, sexier.

Did you ever got lost in the conflation of the two?
Not really. I attended enough of my theatre arts classes at Santa Monica High School that I have an aesthetic distance. It's not performance art.

How do you keep it fresh? Can you be better than the first time around?
What was it about the first go round that people remembered? We can't keep throwing him up against walls and having his experiments go badly.
It's possible but I'm still suffering a little bit from the natural Freudian inflation of all the success. There's a little bit of soul reclamation going on. I've seen this before, there's been a death and rebirth of egos three times, the third one being in Iron Man 3. Tony's ego and to a certain extent my own as well, when he comes out of the cave he's been made anew, when he comes out of the wormhole, he's gone to a different level of commitment and I think on this one by the end he's transcended his need to be identified with being Iron Man.

Control seems to be a big part of this movie, whether it's Tony controlling the armour or the armour controlling Tony.
All good themes. Speaking of Drew Pearce, he was our secret weapon. He joined our programme already in process and it was a soap opera at times and he had the ability to take himself out of the equation and just keep delivering really solid thematic ideas, tonnes of jokes, tonnes of witty stuff but at the heart of it that's why he's the perfect choice for Sherlock 3.

And I believe that he and Shane created a synergy together that neither one might have ended up with alone. But control is in, well... let's just say the only thing I ever let go of had claw marks in it. To me, essentially what happens in the movie is if he had controlled what happened between the time this movie starts and the time it ends, he would never have wound up on the journey he took. And if he hadn't wound up on the journey he took, partially because of the backlash from his own hubris, he wouldn't have wound up in a place realising he'd been carried there, in some way, by all these people he interacted with.

Drew [Pearce, co-writer] once told me that he couldn't believe some of the stuff Marvel were letting him and Shane get away with. The giant rabbit, for example, isn't something you would expect to find in a summer blockbuster.
(Laughs) Again, I think this goes back to Favreau's sensibility which is we should be as horny as we can be, but I don't want to be embarrassed for my kids to see this. I don't want to feel irresponsible, it's not tawdry and it's not gauche. I love it when somebody says that thing and I go, "Why did they say that?" But it's not an explicative. The great thing we have with Drew is an alacrity of knowing where those lines are, and when they bleed through too much.

But is it that we're getting away with stuff or that Avengers freed us to go to a Phase 2 of a new sort of origin or closing the circle for Tony. What was it about the first go round that people remembered? We can't keep throwing him up against walls and having his experiments go badly, but the giant rabbit to me - it's funny, in Native American tradition, rabbits represent fear, so even though it's this big orgasm for a production designer and an extension of what came out of our writers' minds... are we actually building that big rabbit? How tall is it? - to me I always looked at it as he's offering this gift which is essentially an externalised reaching out that says he's horrified.

It's a terrible, stupid gift to give to somebody but that's what relationships are. We bring all our unconscious material and then we put a full length mirror in front of ourselves, who's another human being, and we try to work this stuff out. Gwyneth is... to me, the moment that we knew that this was going to be special six years ago was when Gwyneth walked into the Howard Hughes stages down in Playa Vista and we started rehearsing with her. That's when we knew. The best.

It's sad to me that there are eight years between Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3 for Shane. Were you pivotal in bringing him on to this?
I was not. But on this one, Shane had to let go of being the gunslinger writer guy. He had to complete his education as a director. And the coolest part is that to a woman and man, everybody loved his vision for this movie. They loved how cogent and communicative he could be, about what his vision was and how he'd like them to try to bring it to the next level and to turn that into a production design and a look for the movie cinematographically, and the fights with my dream team of Marcos and my sifu, Eric Oram, who came in and brought this to a place where every bit of physical action is telling as much of a story as when we started with the first Sherlock. It's been a while. It's amazing that you're able to keep that kind of continuity with someone. Things are really nebulous, dude.

There seems to be an emphasis on Tony action sequences here.
Again, for a 5-6 month shoot, we're always saying this is Tony's moment. Things shifted around. We realised we had more hand-to-hand stuff with Tony and sometimes I'm daunted. On Avengers it was helmet closed, see you guys in two weeks, have fun! On Iron Man 2, I remember that was a real grind to try to live up to the expectations. On this one, I feel we met and exceeded our own expectations. I think the boot-and-glove sequence should be pretty great, but it all came from Shane's mind. "I think it would be great if he could only get back a couple of the pieces of the suit, and therefore how does he get out of that situation?" I loved that idea.

Is the ankle better?
The ankle seems better. I'm going to say yes.

Interview by Chris Hewitt

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