Robert Downey Jr’s career couldn’t be more successful, recently starring in one box office blockbuster after another, Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, Sherlock Holmes and the critically acclaimed dramas The Soloist and Zodiac.
On May 7, 2010, he’s back as billionaire industrialist Tony Stark in Iron Man 2, with a whole slew of new problems. The US government wants him to hand over his revolutionary weapon to the military, the shelf life on the battery keeping him alive is nearing its expiration date, and a mysterious man from the Stark family’s past named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rouke) is out to destroy him.
I spoke with the always witty and fascinating actor about Iron Man 2 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.
Growing up, did you ever dress up as a superhero for Halloween?
Growing up, no. But, in my mid-30’s in Palm Springs, right before an arrest, yeah.
It was a premonition!
Why do you believe Iron Man was such a sensation?
I think the tone of Iron Man was what made the movie a winner.
There was this feeling that we took the subject matter seriously but didn’t take ourselves too seriously.
I remember even when I was testing for the film I knew it was really important for me to be able to demonstrate the sort of stoic and fiery side of Tony Stark, but to also be able to score with humor.
How has Tony Stark change from the first movie?
In the first film Tony was in this kind of nether-world, somebody who needed to be put in check. By the time Iron Man 2 starts you’re essentially seeing Tony’s persona.
He’s showing that persona to everything and everyone around him because he doesn’t want them to know that anything has changed.
But a lot has changed, and he’s really in quite a desperate way. The hero’s journey is really what he’s not telling people, not what he’s doing with or without a suit on.
From the first movie to the second movie, you’re working with a lot of new characters and actors. How was it to work with the new additions to the cast?
It was great. These are all folks that I’d be happy to work with, in any circumstance and any medium, so it was just swell.
I don’t want to say I’m neurotic, but I felt a little bit like a co-manager of a baseball team that just got an even better line-up in the Spring. I felt a little beholden to be partially responsible for their experience.
Don Cheadle has taken over the role of Rhodey from Terrence Howard. What was he like in the part?
Don is too evolved as a person and as an actor to just pick up where someone left off. He chose to be true to the character and the seriousness of the story, which shows a lot of discipline since he’s an actor with so much natural charm.
Of course, as it turns out, he still pulls off some great lines in the movie.
What do you think the definition of a hero is?
I think a hero is someone who, if they’re abroad or traveling, they go to the (Gwyneth Paltrow) GOOP website (www.GOOP.com) to find out what restaurants to go to, what clothing shops they might enjoy and what sights they should see and they do that not fearlessly but they do it in spite of their fear!
Can you talk about the physical and emotional challenges of this film?
Physically, I feel like Don, Scarlett (Johansson) and Mickey actually had a heavier load this time, in terms of armature.
I think we just labored really hard and said, “Okay, we’re audience members who made the first Iron Man successful. It’s smart, which is why we were drawn to it. So, what do we expect?” We kept putting ourselves in the audience’s seat.
For me, the mental and emotional development and aspects of Tony were a lot more.
Also, this whole idea of Howard Stark (Tony’s father), and the legacy and the shadow of that legacy that we were always talking about, showed how Mickey and I, were two sides of the same coin.
One was able to escape that captivity and one saw his father die in the ruins of improper recognition, and having to reckon with that.
Really, all of the characters, including Black Widow/Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), in certain places, bring me back to an extended family that I’ve always had.
Rhodey is there saying, “Hey, you’ve always had me on your wing, so why won’t you really let me help you?” Obviously, the Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) relationship is really about love.
Did you feel pressure doing a sequel to such a successful first film?
Like it’s past tense? I didn’t sleep last night!