Robert Downey Jr.
Behind Robert Downey Jr.’s bright, amusing and intelligent exterior lays a luminous old soul, one that suffered through a difficult childhood. Robert’s struggle with drugs dates back to his upbringing and I hope he will emerge as the spirituality enlightened person I know is within him. Since our interview he has become one of the most respected young actors in Hollywood, winning an Academy Award nomination for his terrific performance as the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin. Robert has always had great taste in furniture and clothes. When I photographed him at his pink house in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset Boulevard he wore an Armani suit, later changing into a Versace jacket.
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I moved out on my own six years ago. I lived on Ninth Avenue and 52nd Street in New York city. There were no windows that you could see out of. I just remember it being a really depressing claustrophobic space that I actually had a lot of fun in. I was a busboy at Central Falls restaurant. I don't think it was tough monetarily. As a matter of fact it was the best thing that ever happened to me when my dad said, "I've carried you for too long. You're 18. Don't call me up even to ask me for a dollar. I don't care if you tell me you're hungry." I remember that was the point of transition where I decided, Fuck, I really have to grow up now.
My family lived everywhere, New York, London, California, Woodstock and Connecticut. One day I'm going to ask my mom and dad what year we were where 'cause I'm just spacing. It seems like so much of my past I really don't remember. Maybe it's because I have these screen memories of the times that were very emotionally difficult. I grew up in a family that was doing drugs and trying to be creative. At the same time there was so much love and laughter in our family. When I was 14 my mom and dad's marriage was over. I stayed with my mom because she really needed me to stay with her. They were married and had been creative partners for 15 years and the separation left her shell-shocked. My sister went to live with my dad. While I lived with my mom I'd hang out with my friends in Washington Square Park and we'd go and watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I'd always known that I was going to act from the third grade, from when I played the evil lord trying to take over the princess's house, to when I did Oklahoma! in high school.
But it was while I was doing the play Fraternity across from the Public Theater that I realized that acting was something that was really good for me and that it was something I needed to do. Most of the things I pursued in my life were out of necessity, not out of desire. I had this extreme paranoia that led me to be good. I was so afraid that I wasn't going to have my shit together that I got to the theater an hour and a half before every show. I would lay down on this mat, stretch out and run over dialogue, actions and transitions in my head. Acting gave me a discipline which made me get there early and drink herb tea and really appreciate the theater. I’d help them strike sets and loved the fact that I was getting 50 a week.
At that time in my life, I was getting into all this spiritual stuff like human energy systems and auras and projections and consciousness. I almost felt like my higher self was saying. Fuck, this kid's in trouble. We'd better surround him with a lot of good thoughts.
I had gone through a period of being self-destructive because it's so much easier to spend every night going out getting drunk with the boys and making a thousand phone calls in pursuit of drugs than to stop and say, "All right, what am I going to do tomorrow?' Substance abuse is just a real easy way to give you something to do every day and it's something you know you'll always get the same result from; not like trying something that's artistic or not necessarily artistic but productive. Because you don't know if the results are going to be failure or whatever. I've never failed to get high from smoking a joint, I've never failed to get depressed from doing coke. But usually, even if the outcome's negative from the drugs, at least you know it's going to be that same fucking negative every time and it's so comfortable.
While I was doing Fraternity I was sitting in my apartment and I was feeling potentially suicidal and the phone rang. It was the agent my dad had hooked me up with. He told me he had gotten me a reading for Firstborn. I went in to read for this English director and was obnoxious and he cast me. And I thought, All right, maybe something is going to happen now. My initial goals were external. I wanted to make a million dollars. I wanted my name above the titles and I wanted everyone to know who I was and all my friends going, "Wow, I wish I were him." It probably wouldn't have made me any happier but at least it would have given me the guise of success. Now my goals are more internal. My goals are to make myself happy and whole. Acting really helps because I feel it gives me a focus and it lets me express stuff that I can maybe relay to other people.
Lately, I think the most important thing for me as an actor is to keep working. I want to keep learning. I'm in a position to start saying no to projects. It's too easy to just keep picking scripts that are very me and something that's so easy for me to do. Now I look for a role that I wouldn't think I can play right off the bat. What it comes down to is that I want to do roles I can learn from. The kind of films I want to do Hollywood really isn't ready for now, films about spirituality, about what's really going on in the undercurrent of this majestic reality that everyone is trying to suffocate and not confront.
Would I do a nude scene? Sure. What it would come down to is me saying, "I hope I don't get a hard-on." It would be distracting to the crew and I'd be embarrassed because, shit, maybe it's not as big as I want it to be. You can expose yourself in a lot more ways than taking your clothes off.
Do I consider the effect a film will have on my audience? I do more lately. I'm not worrying about money, so my struggle is more about accomplishing my goals. I was in Georgia and this lady came up to me shaking and said, "I saw you in Less Than Zero." I felt like saying, "You're every bit as special as I am," but I was in a pissed-off mood and I didn't want to sound like a prick, so I said my usual thanks, and started to walk away. Then she said, "Two of my friends went into rehab after seeing you in that movie." I got chills up and down my spine and thought. Fuck, now I know why I do what I do.
My image is of a guy who never thinks about anything, has a good sense of humor and does crazy things without thinking of the repercussions. There's a more serious side to me that sits at home, reads and is quiet. Everyone wants to feel that they're in touch with someone, and it's a great conversation piece, but me—the real me—is someone only a few people know.
Mediocrity is my biggest fear. I'm not afraid of total failure, because I don't think that will happen. I'm not afraid of success, because that beats the hell out of failure. It's being in the middle that scares me.
My biggest sacrifice for success has been losing touch with the day-to-day reality of a modest existence. Los Angeles isn't reality, and making a movie in Los Angeles is a double-entendre of non-reality. I never get to spend time alone anymore, and that's got to change. I need time to recharge my batteries.
I love life and I would never give up. I put myself here. I'm certainly not going to cop out, and maybe I've ridden that line desperately without a net but I really feel blessed that there's some Gabriel or whatever entity that is watching over me, for whatever reason. Maybe it will have nothing to do with film. Maybe I'm meant to pull some kid out from under a bus who's going to be one of the major leaders in the next hundred years.
Robert DowneyJr., January 1988