“I’ve had several careers, ” Robert Downey Jr said on an early January afternoon, sitting beside his producing partner and wife, Susan, in a cavernous soundstage on the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles.
“There was one career where I was happy to be working. Then there was one where I was so happy to be able to be working again. And now there’s one where I’m working – and it’s working.”
Robert and Susan Downey have been together through much of that journey – through rough times, good times and ridiculously amazing times – from the period when Robert was struggling to regain his footing after years of substance abuse and multiple stints in rehab and jail through his stunning comeback as Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man, the first in what would become a decade-plus string of Marvel superhero blockbusters.
Now, the two, who have been married since 2005 and co-founded the production company Team Downey in 2010, are embarking on a new chapter. Having concluded his bajillion-dollar-grossing run as Iron Man in last year’s juggernaut Avengers: Endgame, Downey, 54, finds himself looking ahead to life after Marvel. But when you’ve already ticked off nearly every box imaginable for a Hollywood actor – promising wunderkind, Saturday Night Live cast member, tabloid fodder, industry pariah, two-time Oscar nominee, global superstar – what worlds are left to conquer?
“Robert is in an unusual place where, even though he’s had such a massive career, there’s such a strong association with this particular character of Tony Stark, ” said Susan, 46, who first met Robert on the 2003 supernatural horror film Gothika, on which she was a producer. “So there’s a lot of scrutiny of: Well, what’s next?”
The answer, apparently, is talking to the animals.
In his first post-Marvel role and the latest and biggest Team Downey production to date, Downey stars in Dolittle as Dr John Dolittle, an eccentric Victorian-era Welsh veterinarian who is drawn out of his hermit-like existence following his wife’s death and, with the help of his menagerie of animals, embarks on an adventure to try to save the queen of England.
For the Downeys, who have partnered on both smaller films like the 2014 drama The Judge and big, splashy franchise fare like the two Sherlock Holmes films, Dolittle represents a leap into uncharted territory. Directed by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana), the film attempts to breathe new life into a property that dates back to author Hugh Lofting’s 1920 children’s book The Story Of Doctor Dolittle.
Downey says it was never set in stone that Dolittle would be his first post-Marvel movie. Indeed, the film was originally slated to be released in April 2019, two weeks ahead of Avengers: Endgame, but was bumped back nine months and underwent extensive reshoots, with directors Jonathan Liebesman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) reportedly coming on to help work out what Downey calls a “really technically challenging Rubik’s cube from beginning to end.”
Discovering magic togetherFor the Downeys, who have two young children together, Dolittle is just one of a number of recent and upcoming productions that are pushing the duo further into film as well as television.
“We’re thinking about, how do we challenge ourselves and each other moving forward?” Robert said. “Is there something we could direct together? Is there a story from when Susan was in film school that I could write and she’d direct it? We want to step up our game a little bit.”
The two are executive producers of the upcoming HBO limited series Perry Mason, with Matthew Rhys as the 1930s Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer, and recently announced a first-look deal with the network. An eight-part documentary series called The Age Of AI, hosted by Downey, is currently running as a YouTube Original. A quirky, dystopian series called Sweet Tooth, based on a comic book from DC’s Vertigo imprint, is slated for Netflix.
And a number of movie projects are at various stages of development, including a film about a real-life quack doctor who transplanted goat testicles into men to restore their virility (set to be directed by Richard Linklater), a third instalment in the Sherlock Holmes series and a documentary about Downey’s father, the pioneering underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.
Susan Downey says that such eclecticism is a reflection of the Downeys’ far-ranging interests. “We don’t really make our choices based on, ‘Oh, this is commercially viable and fits this slot, ’” she said. “We sort of just look at the whole picture of, what’s the story, what’s the journey, what’s the challenge? Does it give us the opportunity to do something we haven’t done before?”
Best foot forward
Director Jon Favreau, who remade Downey’s career when he cast him in 2008’s Iron Man and later directed him in Iron Man 2 and the indie Chef, says the actor’s restless creative spirit will continue to propel him as he charts his post-Marvel career.
“I think it might have been freeing to have that character resolved in Endgame, so that now he can move forward as Robert, ” Favreau said. “But he doesn’t shy away from the legacy of Tony Stark. If anything, I think it helps signal-boost whatever he’s exploring and whatever he’s curious to do.”
(Amid rumours that Downey will make a cameo appearance as Stark in the upcoming Marvel film Black Widow, Favreau said he expects the actor to maintain his connection to the Marvel universe in one way or another. “We both feel like alumni of a university that we’re very proud to wear the ring of – and sometimes the alumni association gets a lot done.”)
As for where he will go as an actor after Dolittle, Downey – who earned Oscar nominations for the 1992 Charlie Chaplin biopic Chaplin and the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder – says he’s open to anything, big or small, citing the indies Captain Fantastic and Honey Boy as two of his favourite films of the last five years.
“I wonder sometimes if there isn’t a perception about me that I’m booked for the next 30 years and if you don’t call me with the next biggest movie that will ever have been made on Earth..., ” he said, trailing off. “Like I’m some middle-aged supermodel who won’t get out of bed for anything less than $1bil.”
“After we finish every movie, he likes to tell me he’s quitting the industry and he’s going to go do theatre in Rochester, ” Susan said dryly.
“There are some people – and God bless them for having the wherewithal to do it – who are methodically picking, choosing, crafting and modifying what their career looks like from the outside in, ” Robert said. “But it’s very hard to manufacture intuition. I do not thrive in a developmental situation. I like: ‘We’re doing this – now let’s figure out what it is’.”
Susan smiled at him patiently. “You certainly have a little bit of the ‘ready, fire, aim’ vibe, ” she said. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service
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