Robert Downey Jr., Producer Wife Susan Reveal Their Quirky Relationship, "Perfectly Symbiotic" Marriage
In a rare joint interview, the couple give THR a peek into their relationship ("He was interesting but weird," she recalls of their first encounter) and open up about how she helped orchestrate his recovery, his career comeback and their first joint project, 'The Judge' (after their son and upcoming daughter, of course): "She is the font of all good things," he says
This story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The right logo says a lot about a company. MGM wouldn't be MGM without its lion. Amblin is defined by E.T. in a bike basket. And where would Pixar be without its hopping desk lamp? Then there's the logo for Team Downey, the production house that Robert Downey Jr. and his wife, Susan, opened a little more than four years ago. It's in the shape of a yellow street sign, with a cutely drawn stick-figure mental patient in a straitjacket being chased by a stick-figure nurse with a butterfly net.
Which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Mr. and Mrs. Downey, the most "perfectly symbiotic" marriage in Hollywood (at least according to Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie).
"I'm turning off the AC," announces Susan, 40, getting up from her chair in the spacious "living area" of Team Downey's three-story, pop art-filled headquarters on Venice's Abbot Kinney Boulevard. "It's freezing in here!"
"No, leave it on," pleads Robert, 49. "This is a perfect temperature for creativity!"
Susan rolls her eyes — "Oh, please," she mutters — then switches off the air conditioning and settles back down next to her husband, who is sprawled on his back on a leather sofa. It's August, and she's five months pregnant with the couple's second child — their son, Exton, was born in 2012 — but whatever bump she's sporting is concealed under a stylish shawl. By accident or not (if you believe what Freud said about accidents), the couple has arranged themselves for this interview in the position of a therapist and her patient — one sitting up, the other supine on the couch. If not for their frequent hand-holding and occasional smooching, you'd think you'd stumbled into a session.
On Oct. 10, Team Downey will be releasing its first homegrown feature, The Judge, in which Robert plays a ruthless big-city attorney who returns to his childhood home for his mother's funeral and ends up staying for a while after his estranged father, a local judge played by Robert Duvall, gets arrested for vehicular homicide. As with the arrival of every firstborn, The Judge's opening is prompting much nervous pacing in Team Downey's hallways. It's not a particularly expensive movie (its budget is only $50 million, supplied by Warner Bros., which covers much of Team Downey's overhead and operational expenses through its first-look deal), and the duo already is drawing up plans for future Team Downey projects (like a live-action adaptation of Pinocchio that Robert seems especially keen to make). But a new production company's maiden film can be just as defining as its logo. In Hollywood, after all, you only get one chance to make a first impression. And Robert's already had two or three.
If The Judge does well, it'll set the tone for the months to come, announcing to the industry that Team Downey is a serious destination to do serious business. It'll prove that the company is more than just a vanity project for a superstar husband (at this moment, the best-paid actor in Hollywood, earning $75 million in 2014 from backend off of Iron Man 3) and his high-powered, rarely interviewed producer wife (the woman who has guided him through one of the greatest Hollywood comebacks of all time, who got him cast as Sherlock even before the first installment of Iron Man put jet boots on his career). On the other hand, if the verdict on The Judge is not so favorable, if Team Downey's first effort turns out to be a flop, well … even Geppetto might have some trouble getting that Pinocchio reboot off the ground.
"Yeah," adds Susan, "we played with other names, like RoSuDo. But everyone was like, 'What the heck's that?' If you have to explain that it means Robert Susan Downey, then it's not going to work."
"Then I had the idea of Team Clown," Robert goes on. "I had this image of these people with red noses and weird hair in a big truck making honking noises and rolling down the street …"
"We saw a bunch of different logo names and designs by different people," adds Susan, "but then we saw the street sign with the nurse and mental patient." "And that was it," says Robert. "That said it all."
They met on the set of the 2003 Halle Berry thriller Gothika, which Susan was producing for Joel Silver. She'd been working at Silver Pictures since 1999, helping make films like Thir13en, Ghosts and Swordfish (her first job out of film school was as an assistant at Larry Kasanoff's Threshold, helping develop the Mortal Kombat franchise). But Gothika was a big career step. It was Susan's first full-credit producing job, and she didn't want to complicate matters by getting romantically involved with one of the stars. Besides, she thought he was an oddball.
"We were up in Montreal prepping for Gothika, and we had lunch with the director and Halle Berry," recalls Susan of her first encounter with the man who would become her husband. "Everybody else ordered Japanese, but Robert told us how oatmeal was the 'superfood.' He brought his own packets of oatmeal to have at lunch. And he had this box of various herbs and stuff. And then he started doing these yoga moves. I mean, he was interesting but weird."
Susan Levin and Robert Downey Jr. had little in common. She grew up an honor student in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Ill. (her businessman dad had an office in the Sears Tower, her mom was on the PTA) and later graduated summa cum laude from USC. He was a child of Hollywood, a Santa Monica High School drop-out whose on-camera career started at age 5 when his director dad cast him in the underground films he shot in the family living room. Susan had never puffed on a cigarette, much less suffered a drug problem. Robert was a walking cautionary tale.
Downey had been doing drugs his entire life; his father gave him his first joint when he was 8. (His mother, who battled alcoholism much of her life, died Sept. 22.) But during the 1990s — a decade that started with such promise, with an Oscar nomination for Chaplin — Downey slipped totally off the rails. He drove naked down Sunset Boulevard, throwing imaginary rats out of his car window. He got arrested for trespassing when he wandered into a neighbor's house and passed out on a child's bed. In 1999, after failing to appear at a court-ordered drug test, he was sentenced to three years in a California state prison. He ended up serving a little less than a year and immediately landed a gig as a regular castmember on Ally McBeal. But within months, he was in trouble again, getting arrested in a Palm Springs hotel room with three bags of cocaine, a loaded gun and a Wonder Woman costume. He was all of 36 years old, but many in Hollywood — including David E. Kelley, who booted him from Ally McBeal — assumed he was a lost cause, the sort that too often ends as a tragic ticker on the bottom of CNN's screen.
Downey is vague about the exact time frame of his sobriety, but when he met and asked out Susan on the set of Gothika — his first big-screen acting job since being incarcerated, though Mel Gibson had hired him for a TV adaptation of The Singing Detective (Gibson had to underwrite Downey's insurance policy himself) — "The exit strategy [from drug use] was in process," he says. He was sober enough, at any rate, that Susan finally agreed to a date. Within three months, Robert was proposing marriage— though he wasn't yet divorced from model-singer Deborah Falconer, whom he wed in 1992 after 42 days of courtship. He and Falconer have one son, Indio, 21, who also has had issues with substance abuse; in September, he pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and was sentenced to a drug-diversion program. Robert in part blames himself: "When you collide your DNA with your partner, half the writing is on the wall," he says.
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Eventually, Susan accepted Robert's proposal. But, always the sensible one, she insisted on a very long engagement. Two years. Also, she laid down the law: If Robert wanted her, he had to give up drugs, completely. If he messed up, she'd be gone. "Addiction was so foreign to me," she says. "I was incredibly ignorant of the hold it had on people."
"Thank God for that," says Robert. "If she knew the depths of my depravity, we would not be sitting here."
They were married in a Jewish ceremony in August 2005 in the Hamptons, long one of Robert's favorite summer spots. Silver gave the wedding toast. But except for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — Shane Black's underrated 2005 detective comedy that Robert and Susan worked on together — they kept finding themselves pulled apart by business. Robert went off to make Good Night, and Good Luck, The Shaggy Dog, Zodiac and, eventually, Iron Man, the film that flipped the switch on Marvel's perpetual franchise machine ("I feel like I was the opening band at Woodstock," he says of the parade of Marvel superheroes that followed Iron Man onto the screen). Susan, meanwhile, decamped to produce Jodie Foster's drama The Brave One, Hilary Swank's horror film The Reaping and Kate Beckinsale's Antarctic thriller Whiteout.
But the couple had a two-week rule: They promised never to spend more than a fortnight apart. And even when separated by miles, they always were looking out for each other — and for chances to cohabit on a movie set. In 2008, for instance, while Susan was in London producing RocknRolla, she gave some casting advice to director Guy Ritchie, who had just been hired by Warner Bros. to shoot his first big-budget action movie, Sherlock Holmes (which Susan would co-produce). "If Susan hadn't been in the room," says Ritchie, "Robert probably wouldn't have become Sherlock Holmes. She facilitated it, definitely."
The couple found more opportunities to team up, especially after Susan left Silver Pictures in 2009. Robert brought her on as a producer on Iron Man 2, and they worked together on the Todd Phillips comedy Due Date. The two-week rule became a one-week rule, and then, in 2010, after they decided to set up Team Downey, a no-week rule. "Our feeling was, if we wanted to spend time together, have a life together, then we should just go ahead and make movies together," explains Susan as the reason for starting the company. Robert sees Team Downey, as he sees most things, in somewhat more transcendental terms. "Susan holds one pillar and I hold the other," he says, "and this creative arc of tension just flows between us."
Before anything could flow, though, they had to find a place to hang their new shingle. They purchased — for $5.6 million — the 7,000-square-foot property on Abbot Kinney that had served as home, studio and gallery for L.A. fashion photographer Steve Shaw. After sprucing up the space — the leaky indoor swimming pool was turned into a fish tank; Robert's collection of Banksys and Kostabis were hung on the walls; Iron Man models were positioned all over the place — the Downeys moved in (at least for working hours; they go home at night to their $13 million, 3,500-square-foot ranch-style house in Malibu). Next step was hiring David Gambino, a producer at Silver Pictures who once had been Susan's assistant, to oversee Team Downey and its staff of 15. ("Robert tends to be involved with the more creative side of things, while Susan is the one you talk to about the nuts and bolts of putting a production together," says Gambino of the office dynamic. "Sometimes they disagree — it's actually fun.") That left only one more task: deciding what movie Team Downey should make first.
The Judge, in some ways, was an unlikely pick. For one thing, it's a serious family drama written by David Dobkin, the comedy director who made Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus. For another, it's a serious family drama, period. "It's not the kind of movie anybody is making anymore," says Dobkin, who based the original story on his own experience caretaking his elderly mother after his father died. But after a rewrite by Gran Torino scribe Nick Schenk, it was the type of movie Robert and Susan wanted Dobkin to direct. "We thought it would be exciting to develop the sort of movie we grew up loving," says Susan. "These incredible character-driven dramas that have something a bit more commercial to them — Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, The Verdict, Kramer vs. Kramer." (All of which, by the way, got lots of love at the Oscars; The Judge's best shot probably is for Duvall's supporting turn, which involves a bathroom scene so harrowing, it supposedly scared Jack Nicholson from taking the part.)
"But beware the passion project," interjects Robert, nodding with Zen wisdom. "It's OK to push the envelope, but you shouldn't have to go into arrears to do it."
"Yes, beware the passion project — that's what Robert always says," notes Susan. "Fortunately, our taste tends to be more accessible."
Among the other projects being developed at Team Downey: Yucatan, a treasure hunt adventure set in Mayan ruins and based on a script Steve McQueen worked on obsessively throughout the 1960s that never got made; a Perry Mason movie; and that Pinocchio adaptation in which Downey would star as Geppetto, a role he obviously has been jonesing to play ("If Chico Marx were in Raging Bull …").
Robert's contract with Marvel includes one more appearance as Iron Man after next summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron, in another Avengers sequel, which Susan won't be producing. Beyond that, the goal is to keep all future projects in the family, including a possible third Sherlock movie, so that the couple never again needs a two-week rule. "That's the whole idea for Team Downey," says Robert. "Before I met Susan, I didn't even know what producers did, except yell at you when you did something they didn't like. Now that I understand what they do, she's the only one I want."
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When Robert gives an interview by himself— without "the Mrs.," as he refers to Susan; she calls him "Downey" — he's a different man. His default conversational style is a bit like that scene in Iron Man when he slips on the rocket boots for the first time. Verbiage zooms all over the room, bouncing off walls, knocking over expensive vases. Ask a simple question about Tony Stark, and his answer will take you on a brilliant but random ride veering from a discourse on organic brain supplements to a reference to Super Mario to an in-depth exegesis on the character of Schneider from One Day at a Time.
With Susan in the room, he's markedly more thoughtful, more linear. "Yes, I've noticed that, too," says Dobkin. "It's as if she has some sort of calming effect." Since marrying Susan, the only drug Downey uses is nicotine gum — and even that drives his wife nuts. ("He leaves the little plastic wrappers all over the place.") He calls the decade they've been together his "Great Transition," and he credits Susan with being its architect. "She is the font of all good things," he says.
Susan also has made some changes. "I was very focused, driven, rigid, work-oriented," she says of her life before Downey. "I didn't care about having a family or making a home. I didn't think about kids. It's not that I didn't want those things, I just didn't think about them. And then I had someone who came in as a tornado, this creative, beautiful ball of insane energy and passion. And it completely opened me up."
Robert smiles from his spot on the couch. "She's still the person who always knows the most direct route from A to B," he notes. "If you're trying to get through traffic from Malibu to Burbank, or wherever, she'll beat nav every time. She must have the most branched neural pathway system in history."
"I like traffic patterns," she admits.
Part of the secret of their success — and maybe the best thing Team Downey has going for it — is that they have figured out how to make sleeping with one's business partner look attractive, even romantic. "Maybe it's because they started their relationship working on a movie together, so it's natural to them," says Ritchie (the Guy who once was married to Madonna). "But the reason I call them perfectly symbiotic, it's that they each represent the other side of each other's coin. There's no clashing over the same space, although they're always looking in the same direction. It's a very rare thing they have."
Due Date director Phillips puts it more succinctly. "Susan is the quintessential Type A," he says, "and Robert is more of a Type AA. But somehow they make it work."
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Not that it's always easy. "There have been times," admits Susan, "at the end of the night, when I'm brushing my teeth, when Robert will have a brainstorm and I'll be like, 'I can't take this right now.' But otherwise it's pretty organic. We don't really divide work from life."
Robert has his own theory (as usual) about mixing marriage and business. "I see it as a part of several different therapeutic interactions that we are constantly engaged in," he says, rousing himself from the sofa. "It's another form of co-parenting. We co-parent our children, our relationship, our business. It's all the same. It's all part of the therapy of life."
Then, when his wife steps out of the room, he turns the air conditioning back on.