Robert Downey Jr - High on another kind of hit now

After his troubles, Robert Downey Jr is set to fly again in Iron Man 2. Little wonder he's feeling smug, says Gill Pringle, as the star explains how marriage helped saved him

'Last time we saw him as this hapless, charming prick," teases the ever-confident and self-assured Robert Downey Jr, grinning at the unspoken implication that he could just as easily be describing himself, rather than his on-screen alter-ego, Tony Stark or Iron Man.

For Downey has every reason to feel smug, having turned his career around from the depths of drug addiction, when few studios would even take a chance on him. He conquered his demons to become one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood, at the same time settling into a happy marriage with the successful film producer Susan Levin.

Sashaying into a San Diego hotel room, resplendent in a lilac pork-pie hat, violet T-shirt, skinny jeans and jewel-encrusted necklace, he tantalisingly thrusts a black rubber brief-case on the table. One has to ask...

"Ha! It's the same garbage as always. My routine hasn't switched up for a while," he smiles, opening up his case and rustling through assorted bottles and sprays. "Dandelion root, sunglasses, vitamins to keep the germs at bay, and, umm, don't know what this is...?" he says, scrutinising a bottle of prescription pills.

He says this with the unshakeable confidence of a cleaned-up, two-time Oscar nominee who is back on top of his game. The box-office successes of Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes have effectively dispensed with the "I kicked drugs and now I'm back" headlines of yesteryear. Today, he's invincible – a little like Tony Stark, beneath whose iron armour he was catapulted back to glory, Hollywood opening its cheque-book in his fearsome wake. Putting his junkie days firmly behind him, Downey Jr now has an even more compelling addiction: to power, glory and fame.

Driven to make up for a lost decade, he did just that with Iron Man, seizing his new-found bankability with both hands. At 45 years old, he has clearly become comfortable with re-joining the establishment, a task made all the easier by his marriage in 2005 to Levin, who worked with the formidable uber-producer Joel Silver at Silver Pictures.

With his wife serving as executive producer on Iron Man and his long-time friend Jon Favreau as director, it's clear Downey's involvement in the film extends far beyond being its passive star. He discusses casting and character development like a veritable corporate executive, earnestly defending the choice of Mickey Rourke as his nemesis in this high-stakes sequel. "We fought for Mickey to be in our film but then he fought for us because his people were, understandably, like, 'Hey! He's a really big deal right now, and we want to make sure that he's gonna be properly serviced.' And Mickey made some really great choices, which is why we hired him as 'bad guy' Ivan Vanko because we figured he would."

But Downey finds it impossible to remain serious for too long, mischievously poking fun at his co-star, whose devotion to Method acting resulted in him spending time in a Russian jail prior to filming: "How bad-ass was Mickey with those whips?" he grins. "But, really, at the end of the day, its just two schmucks in trailers and once in a while I'd be like, 'Hey, mind if I used your treadmill?' And Mickey goes, 'Yeah, you should try my weight vest. Helps you break the sweat quicker.' And I'd be, 'OK. See you on set, bad guy', and he'd say, 'OK, punk.'

"I'm not fully a Method guy but I like playing around with that energy sometimes. And Mickey wanted to do his part in Russian; he had a dialect coach who taught him and translated, so that was a very unique take. From the very start, he said, 'I don't want it to be Dolph Lundgren from Rocky V. I want to bring humanity and dimensions into it.' And I think he did that."

Thus invested in the success of Iron Man 2, Downey Jr says: "We felt more responsible to spend more time broadening our cast and horizons, and the story is actually significantly more complex and subtle, while you can still follow it." He is re-joined in the sequel by Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury; newcomers to the series include Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer and Don Cheadle as Col James Rhodes, the latter replacing Terrence Howard in the role.

As Iron Man became one of the highest-grossing movies of 2008, it totally changed Downey's public profile. "It's pretty miraculous," he concedes. "Although I'm not sure the public's opinion of me changed, it was more of a movie industry thing. Nonetheless, it's mind-blowing to me because I'd always felt like I could do something like this when nobody else agreed. It's wild. But I do try to keep my confidence in check. I think the thing that's been my saving grace, is that I consider myself a worker among workers. When I deviate from that, things just don't turn out so sweet for me. Now, because I'm married to a producer, I'm also kinda being given an education into what it's like to manage a bunch of creeps like me, and what it actually takes to get something done and schedules and budgets and all that kind of stuff."

Having dated Sarah Jessica Parker for several years in the 1980s, Downey married the actress Deborah Falconer in 1992; the couple had a son, Indio, who is now 16. Only with Levin, however – who he met when she produced his 2003 film Gothika, and married two years later – has he found the stability he needed in life. "I don't joke when I say she is my better half. She truly is. I cannot believe what a fantastic life I have today. But here's the thing, she didn't change me at all. She just gave me an ultimatum at a certain point. Ultimately, we both changed a lot so that now I can't ever imagine a life before her. I've certainly come to believe that Mrs Downey and I together are definitely better than me alone or me and anybody else. We love working together. It's hard not to work together and, believe me, I know my place. Making movies is so energy- and time-consuming that it takes you away from your real life for big chunks of time and, so, I get to escape with her as opposed to from her."

If life on Planet Downey is generally fabulous, he can't resist a small whine: "The suit was a little easier this time round although not enough for my taste. I was physically in the suit twice as much this time as last time. Despite being put under the impression that with the advances of CGI since I last wore the thing, it would be three or four days max in the suit, it turned out to be much, much more. Also, I just got older, and I came off Sherlock Holmes, where I was alarmingly thin and then proceeded to start pumping up again."

The son of the underground film-maker Robert Downey Sr, Downey Jr made his film debut at the age of five as a puppy in his father's film Pound, later claiming that his own father introduced him to drugs, offering him a marijuana joint when he was eight years old. Early successes came with Weird Science and Less Than Zero, before he achieved critical acclaim with Chaplin, earning an Oscar nomination and a Bafta award in 1992.

Thus followed an eclectic career, with disparate roles in Natural Born Killers, Richard III and Restoration. Spiralling into drug addiction during the late 1990s, and spending several months in jail from 1999 to 2000 on charges of probation violations, he still managed to pull off convincing performances in The Gingerbread Man, Bowfinger and Wonder Boys. Post rehab, he cemented his comeback with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Good Night, and Good Luck and Zodiac, followed by a second Oscar nomination in 2008 for Tropic Thunder.

Today, he is looking to mix things up. Later this year, he will appear in road trip comedy Due Date. He's also rumoured to be playing the writer Edgar Allan Poe in Poe, a film treatment written and due to be directed by Sylvester Stallone. Optimistically attached to a third Iron Man in 2012, Downey is also signed up for The Avengers the same year: Ask whether he ever envisaged himself as the hero of a multi-million-dollar comic-book superhero franchise such as Iron Man, he quips: "Yeah. I imagined myself playing one every year. They just never gave me the part."

'Iron Man 2' opens on 30 April

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing