Robert Downey Jr: I'm absolutely normal, really

He's off drugs, out of prison, in love and back at work. But, asks Sholto Byrnes, can Robert Downey Jr really stay high on life?

Tuesday 08 March 2005 01:00 GMT

Two years ago, around American Independence Day, Robert Downey Jr was driving north on the Pacific Coast Highway in California. "There I was," he recalls, "with tons of fucking dope in my car. I'd already been up for a couple of days, and I could have gone on one for the next couple of days. And it probably wouldn't have ended there." But Downey didn't embark on one of the epic binges that have been a regular occurrence since his teens. Instead, he stopped the car, threw all his drugs into the ocean, and went to Burger King.

Two years ago, around American Independence Day, Robert Downey Jr was driving north on the Pacific Coast Highway in California. "There I was," he recalls, "with tons of fucking dope in my car. I'd already been up for a couple of days, and I could have gone on one for the next couple of days. And it probably wouldn't have ended there." But Downey didn't embark on one of the epic binges that have been a regular occurrence since his teens. Instead, he stopped the car, threw all his drugs into the ocean, and went to Burger King.

"I have to thank Burger King," he says. "It was such a disgusting burger that I ordered. I had that, and this big soda, and I thought something really bad was going to happen. I thought I might have a heart attack or have to go to the hospital. So I reached out to some people and said: 'I'm really in trouble. I need to curl up for four days and get all this out of my system.'" That was the last time, he says, that he got high.

We are sitting on the roof of Elias Arts, the studio in Santa Monica where Downey keeps an office. We are on the roof because the door to the garden is jammed, and Downey needs to be outside so that he can smoke. He may have given up drugs, but an addiction to unfiltered Camels remains. "They say that Lucky Strikes and Camels connect to the nervous system better than all the other cigarettes," he says, looking at my pack of Luckies. "Now if you just snap off the filter, we'll have a lot in common."

The charm may be the same, but this isn't quite the Robert Downey Jr that his long notoriety leads one to expect. In the late 90s Downey's once-promising career spectacularly combusted. He was in and out of custody for drugs and weapons offences, and his appearances on television alternated between his Golden Globe-winning role in Ally McBeal and pictures of him in prison overalls.

After a police raid three-and-a-half years ago on the Palm Springs hotel where he had hooked up with a collection of low-lifes in search of drugs, Downey was sacked from the show. He was considered so much of a risk that his insurance premiums rocketed. He lost out on a Woody Allen film as a result, and when he took the lead in Mel Gibson's version of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, Gibson had to pay the insurance himself. Downey seemed to have made himself virtually unemployable.

But now, the 39-year-old actor, often referred to as one of the best of his generation, has three movies coming up for release, and another, starring and directed by George Clooney, about to begin filming. He has also completed his first album as a singer and pianist, The Futurist, recorded beneath the gravel-topped roof on which we are sitting. He's aware that the actor/popstar cliché is one that irks many, but the reviews so far have been good. Described as "the equivalent of a heterosexual Rufus Wainwright CD" by Time Out New York, The Futurist features eight Downey originals. He has sung and played piano for 20 years, although it was not until he did so in Ally McBeal that his talents caught the public's attention.

He has enough material to fill three albums - there was a significant period when Hollywood was not exactly battering down his door - but film is unlikely to lose Downey to music in the near future. "There's places I've been offered to gig and I think it would be fun," he says "I thought I was going to open for Duran Duran, but now I've got a movie started, I couldn't get it together. And the going rate for opening for a band on tour is about 75 cents, and I'm not in a position to pay my musicians and the people who come to help me get my rocks off. It was just really impractical."

The Clooney project starts filming this week, while Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, a noir-ish comedy thriller in which Downey stars with Val Kilmer, is due out later this year, as is A Scanner Darkly, an adaptation of the Philip K Dick novel featuring Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves. But the ultimate sign that Downey has been welcomed back by the studios must be in the fact that he has just finished a children's movie for Disney, The Shaggy Dog.

It sounds like the insurance issue is over. "I guess so," he grins. "It's funny, you think: 'When is it going to happen and what film is going to make the difference?' With some people you might know that their nose has been clean for a while, but you know they're still full of shit. And then with some people there's just something different about them. I think it's pretty clear that if you do a bunch of movies back to back and you're not struggling to be responsible, you know that a certain phase is complete. I think Disney hiring me is a good indication of that." He shifts in the chair. "It's weird. It hasn't been that long. It's just that you can tell when someone's changed, just as you can tell when they're behaving as though they've changed but nothing's different."

Downey has not been beyond pretending to have changed in the past. He was supposedly cleaning himself up during Ally McBeal, but then came the arrest in Palm Springs. So has he really changed now? "Oh, yeah." How? "I don't even know what to pin it on, it's not that I got any more earnest or I did anything more morally correct than I used to. It's just that my time in the barrel - and that was a long freaking time - was up. It just dumped me. And I was like 'Jeeeesus! How did I get in that barrel?' I lost the ability to rationalise going on another run. No one ever said: 'We need to leave this guy alone for six months or a year, let him go and buy tons of drugs, let him drive around to where all this terrible crap happened, and he'll figure it out. No. That'll never work.' But for me, that's what did it."

For someone who has felt the full force of the law, including 12 months spent in a state penitentiary for drugs offences, Downey is very hard on those who take a sympathetic line on addiction. "It's not that I didn't have a hand in it," he says. "I see it in an almost religious right way. If you're stuck in this purgatory and you're offered deliverance of some sort, what does it say about you if you decide to re-engage with those lower energies again? I think it either says that metaphorically there's some demonic possession going on, or you don't know right from wrong. You're a lost cause."

Neither does he blame his father, Robert Downey Sr. A film director whose credits include alternative classics such as 1969's Putney Swope, Downey Sr introduced his son to marijuana at the age of eight. "It's been a kind of shitty deal for my parents," he says. "Back in the late 60s and early 70s they weren't doing anything that half of the underground elite weren't doing with their kids on the East Coast."

The family moved around, from New York to Europe, where the young Robert experienced the joys of a traditional English prep school for a year ("I spent most of time standing in the corner," he says), eventually winding up in Santa Monica. Downey first entered rehab when he was 23, but kept his act together, producing a series of performances that won praise, even if the highest garlands eluded him. Many thought he should have won the Oscar when he was nominated for the 1992 film Chaplin. It was only in 1996 that it all began to fall apart, after he was stopped for speeding and the police found drugs and a gun in his car.

Some experts suggested that rather than having a drugs problem Downey was suffering from bi-polar disorder, and that instead of prison and rehab, he should have been receiving treatment for depression. When I raise this, he laughs. "Yeah, it's something that somebody said, but it's absolute bullshit. Left to my own devices, when I'm not strung out on narcotics, I'm absolutely normal in practically every way."

Downey has always been open about his years of snorting cocaine and smoking heroin. So open that a thought strikes me: is he someone who had a genuine addiction problem, or did he just like to party very hard? He looks shocked when I ask him. "Oh, it wasn't liking to party very hard," he says. Then he reconsiders. "Well, I can't say I didn't like to party very hard. But the party was over 20 years ago. When I was 15 'til 19, those 1,200 days, yeah, I liked to get down. I was a kid and it was fine. But from then on it was pure escapism."

It was, he says, a struggle with drugs: "Nothing was working - rehab and all that. So I think that on some level I realised that the best way to lose this was to start getting arrested. Now, if you'd said to me: 'Guess what today is? It's the day you're going to jail. And you just thought you were driving home to snort more coke, didn't you?' Well, I would have said that I didn't want to do that. But it worked. It took a long time, but it worked."

Does he think he's been unlucky in that his every fall has been under the lens of the media? "It evens out. I got some breaks that I wouldn't have got, and I took some hits that I wouldn't have taken. I chose to explore this drug abuse darkness. And I chose to be in the public eye." Downey explains all this without self pity. He's warm, occasionally sardonic (his 11-year-old son Indio, from his marriage to the model and singer Deborah Falconer, told him that all his songs sounded the same. He asked his father whether it was alright for him to say that - he didn't want to hurt his feelings. "I was like: 'No, that's OK,'" says Downey. "Prick!") He's restless, twisting his arms around his chest while we talk. But he seems happy, relieved that his "time in the barrel" has passed.

"I was at the gym this morning," he says, "watching 101 Hollywood Catastrophes. There's Ben Affleck and there's Milli Vanilli. I wondered if I already went, if I was between 85 and 101. I was talking to a friend who said that public humiliation had been a really big part of my karma. But now that part is over. Now you just get to do what you do for a living every day, like every other sad motherfucker on earth. You get up, you suit up, you show up, like it or lump it, miserable or ecstatic. You just get over yourself and realise this is great, or it's not great, depending on what your attitude is. Mine vacillates. But what doesn't go through my mind is: 'Oh, I'd like to go and buy some of those capsules that wind me up with no career, no money, no job, no friends and no prospects of any of the above.'"

Downey's prospects today are much more hopeful. In August, he is getting married to Susan Levin, a producer whom he met on the set of Gothika, the 2003 film starring Halle Berry. Back in the 80s, Downey was with Sarah Jessica Parker for seven years, but his addictions made him unreliable and unfaithful. Now the routines of domesticity - going to yoga classes with Susan and watching Indio play football - are more appealing. Half of Hollywood seems to have encountered Downey in his mad years - an actor friend recalls seeing him in a club running around and shouting for cocaine, while my taxi driver says he often saw him loaded. Now, Downey tells me, he's rarely up past midnight.

Later on, I run into him as he's driving off. He winds the window down and confesses himself happy with how the day went. "Now," he says, "I'm off to have a wild weekend. I suggest you do the same." He guns the engine and shoots off down the freeway. He may be out of the barrel, but there's still a whiff of danger about him.

'The Futurist' is out on 25 April, £9.99

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