Robert Downey Jr.: Rockin' Robert

Robert Downey, Jr. cares these days about what he puts into his mouth. And also what comes out of it. Well, to a point, anyway. Having already told me he's curbed his caffeine intake and banished nicotine, the 25-year-old explains he is "really trying not to eat dairy" as he peruses the menu of a studiously downscale West Hollywood "conversation" hangout and sways in rhythm to vintage Nina Simone. Downey, to whom critics have sent mash notes for irrepressible performances in movies that would have sunk most careers (Less Than Zero, The Pick-Up Artist, True Believer, Chances Are), has effortlessly charmed our waiter into admitting us to a closed-off upstairs section of the place. And now, casually tucking his best-pressed T-shirt into a pair of black trousers with stained-glass piping, he looks up pleadingly at our server through caterpillar eyelashes, and persuades him to bring off-menu items. Dairy items, with extra mustard.


Satisfied, Downey grins over the railing, surveying the black-clad, Sobranie-sucking patrons below, and observes: "I call this the 'I'm-17-and-very-angry-at-my-father place,' but, I like it during the day." And for the next couple of hours, he speaks, and occasionally listens, as we talk about his position in Young Hollywood. Why, for example, despite the majority of his movies being bombs, does he still look like the best bet for leading man of the '90s? And why, despite even Air America, his latest offense, is he Movieline's choice for Young Hollywood cover boy? "I thought, like, you asked two other guys and they said, 'No,'" he says, laughing, and managing to hit so many notes in his reading--mouthy arrogance, irony, flippancy, insecurity, charm--that the effect is to turn the question to "Who else is there?"

Indeed, there is no one else like Downey. A bratty, sexed-up verve fuels his presence onscreen and off. The daffy, happy-go-lucky insouciance that he exudes harks back to vintage stars. He has dash. Picture him under contract to a big studio way back when, doing, maybe, Gunga Din not Air America, Here Comes Mr. Jordan instead of Chances Are, Some Like It Hot not Back to School, The Lost Weekend not Less Than Zero. Downey can be Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy. He can play louts, like Grant or Robert Montgomery did, and dare you to prick his balloon. He seems nimbler than anyone else in a scene, more charming. Part of it is just genetics. There's the mouth that's like a lewd Cupid's, and brows that can leer comically like Groucho Marx's, or smoulder like Tyrone Power's. But apart from looks, he's got a running-off-at-the-mouth delivery that was made to order for farce--and when he cooks, go figure where he'll next take a scene.

But Downey--along with the Toms, Keanus, Christians, Kiefers, and Patricks of the business--flies or falls in a town that has given up on myth-making, where career guidance is catch-as-catch-can. "I need mentors," he says, leaning forward. "People who are smart and who you're excited just to listen to." Downey, who shares his film salaries with an agent, a business manager, and a friend who doubles as an assistant, is in the throes of bigtime personal and professional rehab.

Following the crash landing of Air America, his CIA flyboy buddy movie with Mel Gibson, he is about to sign a studio production deal that he predicts will announce "to the industry what I'm capable of doing. This year is going to be a very big year. I'm going to find projects that I can't Fax in from my trailer. Finally, after five years, I know how everything works. I finally got my system together."

Until recently, Downey's internal system was anything but together. It's a testament to his acting chops and charisma quotient that he won job after job despite rumors of outrageous, addictive excess. Life-threatening carousing. Improbable partners. Risky business. "I always had a certain snobbery about my consumption," Downey says, crossing his legs and cocking his head to one side. " 'Oh, don't smoke it, it smells up the room,'" he drones in a foppish voice. " 'I'll drink seven bottles, but it has to be the right year.' But I was out there in the field, all right, very hands-on. I loved the chase. I always thought there was something more chivalrous about not being discreet about it--that would have taken away some of the fun." Downey's attitude endeared him to neither his famous, partying peers nor to those who were just saying no. Why? "Maybe it's because I used to be the guy who would offend them, then disappear into a lavatory for two hours with a seven-foot hermaphrodite. Part of me feels like I'm supposed to want to be hanging out with the ten [actors] whose names are always mentioned, you know? I don't know all the people I'm supposed to know, for who I am. And it's not just because I have a girlfriend."

Downey met actress Sarah Jessica Parker while shooting Firstborn at 18 and they moved in together soon after. But that has never slowed him down. He gleefully recalls a typical night out, during his wilder days, at a downtown club with Loree Rodkin, his former manager. "I was wearing spats and had an Oscar Wilde look going that night--all but the boa. I offended a rather short actor by loudly and abrasively telling him in front of all these people that he was just plain too small. It got to the point where he wanted to fight me or something, so I thought I'd better go outside. I got into the back of this limousine and leaned my head out the window and my elbow caught and zapped my head. I went and got stitches but I thought, 'I really shouldn't be alone with this,' so I went back to the place at four in the morning. There was Loree watching my friend Josh pouring gin over somebody and I come in wearing this bloodstained shirt tripping my mind out and she was like, 'My God, this is my client and his friend.' I said: 'So where are we going now?' I wanted to go to Canter's for home fries, or something, and she's like, 'Robert, it's over.'"

And it nearly was. He overspent. Overate. Overdrank. Over-everything'd it was possible to overdo. "I'm not saying that I was where Julian was at," Downey explains, referring to the silver spoon coke fiend he played in Less Than Zero. "I never worked when I was high." But did anyone on a movie demand that he submit to a drug test? "Someone threatened to," he says, "but I bribed them with a Mandrax."

With his addictive behavior apparently in a choke-hold now, Downey calls himself "a reminder to a lot of people who were on the 'Top Ten Most Likely to Need Reconstructive Surgery by Thursday' list of where they're not. I feel like the Hunter Thompson of my peer group. There's this initial respect I get from young actors, like 'Boy, you're still here!' The bad boy shit is so over with the new generation, but it's like [they think], 'Well, it might be over, but I should jump into it for a minute.' I did the MTV Awards, which got to be a real nightmare afterwards. I felt like I was fucking Santa: 'Who wants to come sit on my face's lap and tell me what they want?' I saw Christian Slater, to whose already-nurtured delinquency I used to contribute. He's now in the same scenario I was. I thought it was kind of cool that I was showing someone slightly younger my ropes: 'Here are the ropes, now there's plenty enough for both of us.' I hadn't seen him for a while and he was getting hounded and I was getting hounded and our hound crews sort of merged. I was signing something on his back and he said, 'How do you deal with this?' It's cool realizing I've been around long enough to see the next generation coming up. I'm happy to be here as a representer of 'Do whatever you have to do but give me the keys and I'll drive home.' "

The rude-boy-turned-designated-driver claims he now restricts himself to caffeine. "Catch me on a Saturday when I've got a coffee buzz," he says, fingers twitching in the air. "I get so excited, why, I reorganize the linens." So, what did Downey want from his binges? "I don't think I ever wanted to die," he answers, his gaze level. "I think what I meant was that I wanted to change and couldn't think of a way to do it that was more direct. It's really important that I keep it together right now. Given an option, do I really want to alter my consciousness, which was redundant anyway? I don't need to have the same fucking things coming up, or to keep running into walls with relationships." After a moment, Downey smiles slyly, rolling his eyes, as if hearing himself. "I feel like Jimmy Woods when I say stuff like that, although he comes from a much sicker, smarter place, in some ways." Downey tells me that Woods, once known for addictive behavior of his own, nicknamed him "Binky" when they made True Believer, and considered him a candy ass who "wore more silk than it took to land all the troops in Normandy." Downey shrugs. "I took it as a compliment. I think I'm pretty out there."

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