Q&A: Robert Downey Jr.

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It's a good time to be Robert Downey Jr. With a career resurgence that continues unabated after the one-two punch of 2008's "Iron Man" and "Tropic Thunder," the 44-year-old actor finds himself operating with new clout and a potential new franchise with "Sherlock Holmes," opening Dec. 25. On his way to the set of his new Todd Phillips comedy, "Due Date," Downey Jr. talked to The Hollywood Reporter's Chad Williams about bloody lips, American manners and the art of the movie trailer.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did "Holmes" first end up on your radar?

Robert Downey Jr.: About 15 minutes before "Sherlock Holmes" came into my periphery I was half-jokingly asking (producer) Joel Silver -- whom I credit with basically re-inviting me to the world of big studio movies with "Gothika" -- "Dude, where's our franchise?" This was in the immediate aftermath of "Iron Man." And pretty soon after that he said, "Remember that franchise you were talking about? I think this could be a good one." Next thing you know I was talking to ("Holmes" director) Guy Ritchie.

THR: Where were things in the development process when you came on board?

Downey Jr.: I'd just heard that the concept by Lionel Wigram had gone back to Holmes' roots but was presented in a way that made sense in a sort of post-"300" atmosphere. Then Guy Ritchie got interested. I was hearing about Guy through my wife Susan (a "Holmes" producer) and Joel because they had financed "RocknRolla," which I really liked. I guess I had a little too much time on my hands because I asked Susan to get the North American trailers for me (for "RocknRolla"). I love Gerry Butler and the turn that he did, which showed a very funny, different side than he'd shown in "300" -- and for some reason I was really interested in making sure that was reflected in the trailer. I found myself tweaking in an area where I had no actual business tweaking. Guy didn't know any of this at the time, but I started talking to him about it and then we both realized that they'd put us on the phone because we were supposed to discuss the possibility of doing "Sherlock Holmes." Shortly thereafter, he told me that we shouldn't even be having that conversation because I was too old.

THR: And who changed his mind about that?

Downey Jr.: Somebody called him and said, "You said WHAT?" and gently explained that I was in a different career situation than I was in years past and that I might be the perfect choice. Next thing I knew, we were talking about doing the movie and who would be my best co-star for what's essentially a Victorian buddy movie.

THR: Speaking of your co-star, since when is Watson such an attractive guy?

Downey Jr.: Have you heard Guy's nickname for (Jude Law)? As soon as Jude was cast, on the Internet they called him "the hot Watson" and then on set for the entirety of the shoot, over intercoms and to anyone who was in earshot, (Ritchie) called him "Hotson." Interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle's description of Watson has nothing to do with the way he was seen in films previous to Jude's being cast. He's a man of action, retired military, a bit of a ladies man and at times verging on a potentially degenerate gambler. I also figured that the more gals were interested in looking at Watson, the less I had to worry about being anything besides completely off the wall and eccentric.

THR: Will people recognize your Holmes?

Downey Jr.: Well, we got invited to the annual Baker Street Irregular's ball in New York so I guess we haven't fallen too far from the tree.

THR: What was it like working with Ritchie on what's really his first big-budget studio film?

Downey Jr.: He had a lot of really fantastic ideas about how to put the right spin on reintroducing these characters. There was something so relaxed about (the set) that it sometimes verged on chaos. But we were also shooting almost entirely on his home turf and it was a great education for we Americans to go over to England and see how they work and what they respond to and what they find repulsive about the American way of working. (Laughs.)

THR: I'm afraid we're going to need an example.

Downey Jr.: OK. We'd call a story meeting, and Susan and I would just launch into the myriad subjects we need to attack to make the script better and we'd look up at Guy and his British buddies or department heads. They'd kind of look at us as though they didn't want to make us feel bad but were mildly disgusted with how uncivilized we were about just launching right into work. So I was like, "Susan, why don't we get a cheese plate and a little of that low- to mid-grade caviar ... maybe somebody wants a blini. It's tea time isn't it? Well, let's see if they want some tea." And no sooner did we start opening our sessions with an offer of a beverage or some food -- as soon as we civilized ourselves -- the floodgates of goodwill opened.

THR: Your Holmes is a much more physical version than we're used to. Tell us about the fight scenes.

Downey Jr.: We developed a lot of (the choreography) early on and some of it was very dialed in but often as not we'd get there and say, "This doesn't feel quite right," and we'd pull out as many toys as we had that were clad in rubber and start swinging. I only really got rocked once and I needed less than 10 stitches. We actually still finished the day and then I went to the hospital.

THR: Where did you get busted open?

Downey Jr.: Just on the inside of my lip. It was no big deal. But I was very happy when Guy said it was more serious than he thought. That really made my day because he would routinely show up on set with black eyes from his jiu jitsu training.

THR: Has your approach changed at all in the wake of your recent success?

Downey Jr.: The difference is personal in that I have a bit more influence now -- that my ideas maybe carry more weight than they might have before. But regarding the type of project, my approach is unchanged. Go for broke and exempt all cliches if possible. And set up and pay off story points in as clever and honest a way as possible.

THR: Are you having more fun now than you would have if all this had come 20 years ago?

Downey Jr.: Absolutely more fun now, perhaps because I've lived more mistakes than I could possibly repeat. I'm kind of a professional troubleshooter in a sense. Having done so many films the less than optimal way, I tend to smell the end result of faulty process pretty acutely ... and hopefully help it be avoided by my co-workers.
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