The son of cult filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., Robert Downey Jr. lived a Hollywood life that nearly swallowed him. His struggles with addiction were well publicized throughout the '90s and early '00s, but in the past few years, the focus has again shifted back to his acting. Which is as it should be. Robert Altman once called him the greatest actor of his generation, and Downey has racked up a body of work that makes a good argument for the claim, stretching from his turn as a drug-crazed L.A. kid in Less Than Zero through his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, memorable collaborations with Altman and James Toback, and, more recently, a great starring turn in Shane Black's meta-buddy film Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Currently, Downey can be seen in Richard Linklater's animated Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly, playing a paranoid, drug-addled roommate to Keanu Reeves' equally addicted undercover cop. Downey recently spoke to The A.V. Club about paranoia, conspiracies, and other pleasant subjects.
The A.V. Club: I'll start with the hardest question of all. Whose decision was it to put you in a beret for much of this movie?
Robert Downey Jr: If I remember correctly, I just thought that he should be getting more and more of a French underground/fascist/MI5 look as we went along.
AVC: How familiar were you with Philip K. Dick before doing this film?
RD: I was a relative dummy. I essentially would see his name when I went to see Blade Runner or Minority Report or the like. But he certainly is my kind of strange.
AVC: Did you read a lot of his work before making the film?
RD: I didn't read at all, I left that to the other professionals. I figured Woody Harrelson would come in and decide that if I did something off-beat, he'd do something more off-beat. And Keanu did all the research and Winona looked pretty, so we had everything covered.
AVC: The film is about drugs, and several cast members have had very public histories with drugs. Did that feed into the experience of making the film?
RD: You'd think it would, but it's such a technical endeavor. For me, it was just a lot of memorization and a lot of choreography, because it was a very short schedule. So I essentially remember it as kind of a [Richard] Linklater boot camp of shoot, gym, eat, study, shoot.
AVC: Did the fact that you knew you were going to be animated later affect your performance?
RD: It just gave us a lot of leeway that we may not have otherwise been afforded. If your body mic is sticking out, if your hair needs a trim… It's just like "Oh, we'll fix it later." It would be kind of great to do every movie like that.
AVC: Do you see this becoming a viable approach for making films?
RD: I think, just like Rick said, that it was a good idea for this film. Pretty much everyone has said, "Wow, using the rotoscoping to tell this story was very appropriate, and therefore it was cool that he chose to go that way." Now after he did Waking Life, I don't think he was saying "I've got all this technology, what other film can I do and tell it this way?" It just kind of came to him that it would be a way of enhancing this Dick-ensian story.
AVC: People are going to talk about the relationship between the government surveillance in this film and the Bush administration's accessing of bank and phone records. How do you see this film relating to the current situation?
RD: You can always make comparisons, whether they are acute or broad. I would leave that to the people who like to assert themselves in those areas.
To me, it's cyclical. Twenty years ago, 30 years ago, there were similar issues coming up. Technology has advanced to the point of where… It's funny, I read the other day that Sky Dayton of Earthlink is going to make the city of Anaheim the first Wi-Fi city. And I thought that was strange, seeing as how A Scanner Darkly takes place in Anaheim. It's as if good filmmaking—the timing of telling a story—by necessity aligns itself with something that's—for lack of a better word—synchronistic and timely. I don't know that A Scanner Darkly would be as interesting a film in '99 or '98.
AVC: You've called your character in Short Cuts your first "creep." Your character in A Scanner Darkly is another one. What does it take to play a creep?
RD: You've gotta think creepy thoughts. The great thing about Linklater is we'd be futzing around and rehearsing in some Austin, Texas Hilton boardroom and some girl would come in with the eggs, and she'd have, like, a really big zit on her neck or something, and I'd go like "Wow, nice bug bite" when she left. Next day, you come in and there in the rewrites, I'm calling someone a bug bite. So I guess everybody has a little creep in them, that kind of self-conscious thinking about other people, thinking about people in a derogatory way, thinking about how you can manipulate and alpha-dog the situation. In A Scanner Darkly, everybody's pretty much such a wreck that it's that scramble to get an upper hand while you're losing your mind.
AVC: You're also playing a particular sub-species of creep in this, someone who has a lot of paranoia going on. How do you get inside that mindset?
RD: I would just venture a guess and say our generation has a predisposition to understanding that we're on the fucking verge of something, and yet that something seems a little nebulous and remote because it hasn't happened. And some people say the writing's on the wall, and I say, "I don't know. Who put it there?" But when those inclinations are activated, they tend to result in something paranoiac.
This whole idea of conspiracy and manipulation, it's as old as the trees, because life is messy and hard. And to consolidate things down into a belief that a few people are evil and that they're doing this… It's just not that way, if you ask me. There are some root assumptions and some directives that a whole myriad of societal bigwigs have. It's kind of like they all went to the same school, and the same school is very Nietzschean in that anything that doesn't increase your power is not worth investigating.
AVC: It seems like a conspiracy-theory summer, with The Da Vinci Code and A Scanner Darkly. What do you think is going on in the culture to bring all this up at this moment?
RD: I think we're misunderstanding somewhat that the current revolution and cataclysm is more of an externalization of a big shift in our consciousness generally. And because matters of the spirit are much more terrifying than anything that could ever happen in the material world—because obviously one creates the other, doesn't it? Things are thought first and experienced later, rather than we just have these couple of senses that are…
A lot of it to me is just physics now. We're finally starting to recognize and admit that the senses are creating as much as they are perceiving. The eye is pretty much creating the image that it perceives, which is just so weird. For everyone that I know, and I expand that to pretty much all of us that have that intuitive hint that there is so much more going on than could ever meet the eye, it's unsettling as hell. I have a feeling that we're recognizing how unsettling the bigger picture can be. When, in fact, shouldn't it be comforting to know that it just ain't all that serious? Having that sense of play and feeling that you can actually kind of create your own reality to a certain extent.
A Scanner Darkly is a bit more of a mirror than The Da Vinci Code, which is kind of like a Ferrari engine of a bastardization of a book I love, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. To me, that whole phrase "I looked into a mirror darkly," from Corinthians [as Dick reworked it in A Scanner Darkly] applies to it, that idea that if you're seeing something that is very evil and sticky and dark and seemingly manipulative, is it seeing you?
AVC: Like the idea of staring into the abyss and having it stare back.
RD: I don't even know why I would remember this, but I remember being in Thailand and shooting Air America with Mel Gibson, what, fucking 20 years ago, and being in Bangkok and seeing that kind of depravity. I hear it's quite different now. But there's still that aspect of wholesale destruction of the sanctity of femaleness and all that, and then you go up in the mountains and there's the monks in their robes, and you can feel like you've never been in a more blissful, loving place in your life.
But we're on location, and I just remember like, just what a dog means there, it's a little different. There was some puppy running around the set one minute, and then I just looked out my trailer door and this truck just backed up over it and just, ugh, slushed it. And I didn't expect to see that kind of disregard for something that we, as Americans, would be like "Not the puppy!" And it's really weird to think that other places, or maybe other aspects of what we consider to be our American way, are just that callous and that kind of fucked up.
AVC: I'll try to shift to something a little bit more pleasant.
RD: [Laughs.] Okay.
AVC: Anything beyond dead puppies has got to be more pleasant.
RD: I just figured I'd beat you to the punch in case you wanted to go down to the end of that dark road. [Laughs.]
AVC: You were involved in one of the scariest scenes I have ever seen in a movie, and that's when you are questioning Mike Tyson in Black And White. Was that as on the edge as it looks?
RD: Well yeah, the director James Toback was like "Just go tell him…" And I was like, "What? Just go tell him that I had a super-gay dream about him, and I was wondering if he'd hold me?" [Laughs.] And Mike was like off in the corner deciding what Versace shirt to wear for the scene. He's like [adopts Tyson voice] "Yeah, we're going to improvise. Yeah, just don't have him saying any weirdo gay stuff." And when I said it, he was like "You can't talk to me like that, man, I'm on parole man, I'm on parole." And I said, "Will you hold me?" He said, "If I hit you, I'll pull my punch." But Mike Tyson pulling his punch is like a donkey trying, I don't know, to bite an apple out of your mouth or something.
AVC: So which is more of a challenge to you as an actor, a straightforward action film like U.S. Marshals, or a self-conscious action film like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang?
RD: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is one of my favorites, if not my favorite movie that I have ever done, so it's not a fair comparison. I don't remember anything about U.S. Marshals except that we were running around and pretending like we could ever hold a candle to The Fugitive. [Laughs.] I just remember like, "Strap on your bulletproof vest, you're in the bayou!" [Laughs.] What the fuck what? Where's the story? Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a fucking Maserati engine of a plot. It's Shane Black, it's Joel Silver, it's Mrs. Downey [Downey's wife, Susan Levin] producing, and me and Val Kilmer just going toe-to-toe in great shape. Shane Black, who I've adored ever since he wrote the definitive buddy picture of all time, Lethal Weapon. So yeah, I mean, that one to me was alive and innovative and the other was something else.
AVC: You have a diverse bunch of films coming out. How much of that is a conscious choice on your part?
RD: I'd say it's 50/50. Sometimes having a childish approach to things, well, I just did this type of movie, so now I should do… At what point do you, as a writer, or me, as an actor, stop imagining that we've got to show what we can do! It becomes a bit more of an intuitive game, you know: Who are the people? What kind of experience am I going to have? Because… I was reading this thing, Time magazine or something, it was talking about the kind of brain chemistry of happiness and what it really means and how misconceived it has been. Making the jump from $40,000 to $70,000 a year is a big deal but making the jump from $70,000 to $140,000 you'd think would be a bigger deal, but it actually creates more stress for most people. At a certain point you have to think, how much more of your life do you want to enjoy and how much are you sacrificing by how much harder you have to work, and how much more you have to hustle to make that extra dough—that at the end of the day isn't going to buy you any more happiness? Not that it can to begin with. So I tend to look at things as like, am I going to be stronger, wiser, and gladder at the end if I go to fucking Bulgaria to shoot this whatever? [Laughs.] And I'm like, no, I'm not.
AVC: Part of what's been interesting about your career is, however accidentally, you never got to go to that point where you could make the big action films. In the long run, are you happier for that?
RD: The long run is, I'm 41 and I have a feeling oftentimes when the chips are down or I'm just awake and my whole psyche is booting up, one of the first things that screams at me is, "Why didn't you?!" You know? It's like, well, because maybe if I had, if I hadn't had these kind of diversions or disappointments or challenges, maybe certain parts of that outside stuff would have been more tangible and doable, but maybe in the long run I'd say, "God, you never know." To me, there is an excitement about this next chapter that I could never have anticipated. I was burned out when I was 22, and I've seen… I don't know… some of us have done a great job with it. Keanu is in really good shape with what he has created. Johnny Depp is a great example of someone being able to find balance. Sean [Penn], without tying his shoelaces together at all, kind of had a long trajectory of getting the type of attention he really deserved and the type of monetary compensation. To the point where people always assumed he was going to be the greatest thing they'd see in a movie that year. So he was kind of in a way underappreciated.
So I don't know, that's the funny thing. Comparison is such a fucking dangerous game. Everybody's got their own thumbprint, and that leads them to their own weirdo, winding road of experiences.