LAS VEGAS — It’s appropriate that we caught up with one of today’s most in-demand actors at the film-industry convention ShoWest in Sin City, because Robert Downey Jr. is on a roll.
The May 2 release of “Iron Man” will most certainly give us one of 2008′s biggest hits, and three months later, we’ll see Downey again, in Ben Stiller’s “Apocalypse Now”-meets-”Ocean’s Eleven” comedy “Tropic Thunder.” The disparate movies make for a unique situation, as Downey admits that the recent controversy over some photos of his “Tropic Thunder” character in blackface have clashed with his “Iron Man” good will to create, well, a Stark contrast.
In a candid conversation, Downey addressed the lovers and the haters while revealing the retooling of a key “Iron Man” scene, a big cameo during the end credits and details of the “Incredible Hulk” scene that will soon tie the two comic-book worlds together.
MTV: Robert, we were all so psyched when you were cast as Tony Stark, one of Marvel’s more complex heroes. What was the most difficult facet of his personality for you to capture, and how did you do it?
Robert Downey Jr.: It’s the fact that, at a certain point, he stops living under this veil of self-importance and disregard for moral psychology, and he decides to do something. And that’s what I usually hate about these movies — when suddenly the guy that you were digging turns into Dudley Do-Right, and then you’re supposed to buy into all his “Let’s go do some good!,” that Eliot-Ness-in-a-cape-type thing. What was really important to me was to not have him change so much that he’s unrecognizable. When someone used to be a schmuck and they’re not anymore, hopefully they still have a sense of humor.
MTV: When we visited the set , we saw martini glasses and alcohol bottles all over Tony’s pad, and this newest trailer has several shots of you nursing your drink like you’re Dean Martin. Did you enjoy laying out the breadcrumbs that will lead to Stark’s alcohol struggles in the sequel?
Downey: Oh yeah, that’s always been an important part of the character — at least it was when the “Demon in the Bottle” comic series came out. I think it was in the ’80s. That was a big, risqué thing to do. I can think of a bunch of different ways we can explore that and make it entertaining and poignant. We’ll see.
MTV: When a movie is being made based on a character you love, you watch extra closely for every little detail, afraid that something will pop up that sucks. And so far, everything has been so perfect with “Iron Man” …
MTV: … except, well — what’s going on with this Iron Man vs. the tank scene, the final shot in that Super Bowl trailer?
Downey: Well, as soon as we got the feedback from the people who had seen it — and we were never in disagreement with that — but all we needed was the impetus from the very people who had been supporting us all along to be saying, “Except for that last bit.” The Super Bowl spot was when we got the feedback.
MTV: So it’s being fixed? Because it just looked too CGI.
Downey: Yeah, we went back and retooled it. And that was Jon’s concern all along: “How do you make it so that you can’t tell if it’s practical or CGI?” And it’s tough. But hopefully we’ll get to do more than one of these, and if the first one does well enough, and people enjoy it and forgive any imperfections, we’re really going to push the envelope next time.
MTV: I think the problem was there was no humanity in that shot. It was just sleek, CGI things fighting.
Downey: Right! That’s what I said too. You need guys jumping off [the tank or buildings]. But then you’re talking about collateral damage, and you’re talking about a superhero killing people — which is a little bit tough in today’s political atmosphere.
MTV: I also wanted to ask you about “Tropic Thunder,” your Ben Stiller/ Jack Black comedy that sounds hilarious. Some strange photos have been released with you in blackface. I guess the obvious question is: Why?
Downey: I play Kirk Lazarus, an Australian five-time Oscar winner, who’s playing an African-American Army sergeant in a very important Vietnam movie. That’s the character.
MTV: But seeing a white man in blackface — you understand why it raises a few eyebrows.
Downey: I was … talking to this journalist from some really highfalutin paper, and she goes, “So, you’re playing a black man.” And I go, “Hey! No, I’m playing an actor who’s playing a black man.” And she goes, “Anyway …” I could tell that she wasn’t going to print anything that would actually have it in context. Whatever. I’ve had this love/hate relationship where I feel like oftentimes the media, without meaning to, is very callous and they put well-intentioned people who have some sort of moral psychology on front street and say, “Well, it’s your fault anyway. You shouldn’t have done that.” When, in fact, we’re all supposed to be responsible enough to talk about what we’re really talking about, so people don’t get in trouble for something that isn’t what it seems like.
MTV: But you understand why people would ask, “What’s with this random photo of black Robert Downey Jr.?”
Downey: Correct. It’s kind of evocative. And it’s interesting to me, because right now I’m really focusing on “Iron Man” coming out, and all of the good will and the anticipation of that. So, the last thing I need is for something to be misinterpreted. When people see the movie, regardless of race, color or creed, nobody has a problem with it.
MTV: How much of the movie would you say you spend in blackface?
Downey: I’m an African-American for probably 70 percent.
MTV: We recently spoke with William Hurt , and he told us about the thrill of filming alongside you in “The Incredible Hulk,” in the scene where Tony Stark drops in for a cameo.
Downey: Yeah, what a good dude.
MTV: What was that day like?
Downey: We were just cross-pollinating our superheroes. It happens to be a scene where I basically approach [his character, General Ross], and we may be considering going into some sort of limited partnership together. The great thing is he — and I don’t want to give too much away — but he’s in disrepair at the time I find him. It was really fun seeing him play this really powerful character who’s half in the bag.
MTV: As in, like, drunk?
Downey: I am not at liberty to elaborate.
MTV: It’s great that Marvel is doing all this cross-pollinating.
Downey: Yeah, we had fun. We shot it in a few hours. It’s like the same thing we did with a hitherto-unnamed star, who will probably appear in the end credits of “Iron Man.”
MTV: The end credits?
Downey: I am not at liberty to say. [Laughs.] I could probably look around this corner and see the presidents of Marvel within 50 yards.
MTV: Do you read the Marvel titles that cross-pollinate worlds like this? Have you read “Marvel Zombies”?
Downey: Everything I can get my hands on, I take a look at. I’ve been pretty busy working for the last year, but when they say, “Everybody, welcome so-and-so to the Marvel company,” those guys and gals really are a family. It’s been a really remarkable, cool experience to be part of the deal over there.
MTV: Last question: Imagine that “Iron Man” makes $800 million opening weekend, and on Monday morning those Marvel presidents come to you and say they’ll let you pick the villain in the sequel. Whom do you want?
Downey: Well, I don’t know if it’s so much the nemesis that I would think about as much as what the character’s genesis is and what kind of technology [he acquires]. Where do you find him at the beginning, and where does he have to go at the end? Because you still want to save space for the next. But very few fans, me one of them, would [disagree] that Mandarin was probably Tony Stark’s greatest nemesis. Mandarin is badass.
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