Nominated for two Academy Awards, Robert Downey Jr’s career has had its ups and downs, mostly due to problems in his personal life, but in the last two years with the mega-success of Iron Man and Tropic Thunder it’s on a roll again.
Now starring as the iconic detective Sherlock Holmes, along with Jude Law as Dr. John Watson, in Guy Ritchie’s creative retelling of the story, the combination seems a sure-fired hit. The movie is produced by Joel Silver, and Downey’s wife, Susan Levin – it’s the first time they’ve worked together since they met on the set of Gothika.
Were you scared about approaching this role?
I don’t get scared anymore. I just get busy. I already knew by the time Guy was directing this that it was a fresh interpretation, and I’ve worked with Joel Silver a bunch, I live with Susan Downey, so I knew I was in good hands.
Fortunately, I’d spent some time in England in the late eighties playing Charlie Chaplin and I had a great tutelage in all things British from Lord Attenborough, so I felt like I passed go. At a certain point it just comes down to will you meet the standards that people are expecting of you and you expect of them?
There’s none of Holmes’ drug use like there was in the Seven-Per-Cent Solution, was that your input not to glamorize cocaine use?
I loved Seven-Per-Cent Solution. It was never a high enough percentage for me, kind of a weak, tepid solution if you ask me! This is a PG-13 movie, and if you go back to the source material Sherlock’s never described as being some strung out weirdo, and also back in Victorian times it was absolutely legal and acceptable, you could go down to your corner pharmacist and grab all that stuff.
A lot of the flaming hoops we had to jump through doing Sherlock were how do you take what comes from the source material, how do you amend it so that it’s accessible and how do you not whitewash it but still be respectful to that? If there’s anything that we’ve added this time around it’s that this is essentially about this very far-reaching case and Holmes and Watson save life on earth as we know it.
The relationship between Watson and Holmes reminded me of an old married couple at times – how did you create that chemistry between you?
We were trying to get Jude to do the movie and he’s a pretty savvy guy, so it was not talk, talk, talk, it was, ‘Are you interested in making the best version of this?’ And the great feedback we’ve been getting today is that they say the movie’s about the two of us and the third thing that that creates. And Guy created such a sublime atmosphere on set that we were sure it was going to turn out as well as it did.
It’s so funny to me, usually people say, ‘You had this great chemistry,’ and they’re talking about Jude and me like we should be doing romantic comedies together.
But this film is not a comedy, it’s a love affair of sorts, but Holmes and Watson are aspects of all of us, and I think we knew when to yin and yang back and forth and we were just a good team.
Would you say this is the most accurate film version of what Arthur Conan Doyle intended or is it a revisionist version?
There’s an esoteric element to this and sometimes you just feel like you’re in the right groove and you feel the history and the legacy of something. There were times where we were so locked into exactly as Doyle expressed it, and you can’t beat the guy’s words so we had one of his quotes on the Call Sheet every day, but we had to twist it up a little bit [too].
There were a lot of slow motion scenes, was there a technique involved in doing them?
It’s a seven second take so you notice everything that happens, that you never see in seven seconds, in play back. I think it’s just about trying to do less. Guy used to tell me, ‘Try one like, ‘That taste like peanut butter.’ And I thought that was the strangest direction I’d ever got, and it actually kind of worked.
Can you talk about how you prepared for the bare-knuckle boxing scene?
There was a choreographed version of it – I went in and got all pissy about it. Guy came in and we worked on it, so I think you were probably seeing version 6.0 by the time we shot it. By the time we were done shooting that scene I felt like we really had a handle on the movie. Not because we finally top-lit me and I showed my rippling abs, but because this was Guy’s idea of Holmes.
It was a really bold thing and it could have gone very poorly. In which case the rest of the movie would be trying to recover from the bad Guy Ritchie idea that we went out and shot. But it was literally perfect and I think it set the tone; it was his take on the film, so it was about me trusting him and us getting each other’s approval.
This is the first time you’ve worked with your wife Susan since Gothika. How was it working together again?
It was intolerable (he laughs) She’s fantastic; there was a lot of den mothering going on during this process, sometimes us fellows would be having just a little too much fun and she would be scratching her head saying, ‘We’ve just got to get something shot.’