Robert Downey Jr. : The Father of the Man

Robert Downey Jr. crawls into a dry bathtub for a chat with his director, James Toback, at the end of the fast, grueling shoot for the film Two Girls and a Guy, and explains the lure of personal movies, explores the mysteries of fathers and sons, and praises directors who give actors a chance to hang themselves.

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The notion of originality is constantly being ballyhooed in Hollywood. But as everyone knows, originality is an unknown quantity that's almost always more trouble than it's worth. The great, creaky system of Hollywood movie/moneymaking doesn't deliberately stamp out originality (that would take clear thinking); it mostly ignores or accidentally rolls over on it. Which does and does not explain something of why Robert Downey Jr. isn't a giant movie star.

Downey is unquestionably an original. He's also widely regarded as an actor of literally immeasurable talent. Still, he's never done a brilliant film. He's only been brilliant in some of the good (Soapdish), interesting (Natural Born Killers, Chaplin, Short Cuts) and terrible (Less Than Zero) films he's been in. Those people who care about quality in Hollywood have spent a decade shaking their heads over Downey-sometimes in awe at one of his performances, sometimes in wonder at his failure to break through, and sometimes in fear and frustration at the drug problem that threatened last year to eclipse talent and charisma as the source of his greatest celebrity. Now having spent years making all sorts of movies and struggling to grow up to his own gifts, and having created his own family, including son Indio (pictured on these pages), is Downey ready to emerge as a fully adult actor? To be great in a great film--and perhaps to become the movie star he once seemed a sure thing to become?

Writer/director James Toback, whose roots go back to the most extraordinary stint of originality-tolerance that modern Hollywood's seen--the '70s, in which Toback himself wrote and directed the classic Fingers--knows what gives with Robert Downey Jr. He worked with Downey years ago on The Pick-Up Artist, and saw then Downey's potential for dealing with aspects of experience that are far outside the range of any of his contemporaries. For the low-budget, extremely personal, the-'70s-weren't-for-nothing independent film Two Girls and a Guy, Toback wanted only Downey, and Downey signed on for a short, ultraintense shoot with costars Heather Graham and Natasha Wagner. At the end of shooting, Toback sat down with Downey to talk about the many-layered collaboration they'd been through, and about his unusual star's approach to acting, creativity, fatherhood, sonhood, Hollywood, money, sex ... Well, read for yourself.

JAMES TOBACK: Your character in our movie, Blake Allen, is charming, enjoyable, entertaining, brilliant, witty, musical, lonely, compassionate, duplicitous, contradictory, slippery. When I asked myself who could play him--

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: --You came immediately to the conclusion of Leonardo DiCaprio.

JT: [Laughs] Yes, but he wasn't available so then I thought of you.

RD: I think what happens is that you develop certain connections with certain people. If you're lucky you converge at the right time. You run into a person when you need to. Like when you showed up at the cast party for the Saturday Night Live I hosted and said, "Are you ready?" We hadn't spoken in what, three years? And I knew you meant you had a movie for me and I said "Yes" to myself before you even told me what it was. It was totally intuitive. And that set the tone for how we've worked together. When we were doing a scene, once I'd given you what--

JT:--what you thought I wanted--

RD:--[Laughs] exactly--I was free to let my spirit go. Over and over in the movies I've made, that's the risk directors have promised me I could take, but this is the first time I've actually been allowed by anyone--including you on The Pick-Up Artist--to do it.

JT: I'm a slow learner.

RD: Don't you think a director should give an actor the chance to hang himself? It's the only way original stuff has a chance to come out.

JT: Some actors, like you, are great at it. Other perfectly good actors don't know what to do when they're let loose.

RD: Even if you give them time?

JT: Time is an unaffordable luxury on a film.

RD: We had all the time we needed on this film and it was by far the shortest shooting schedule I've ever heard of.

JT: We got lucky.

RD: I think it's more than luck. I think that actors subconsciously reward a director with their best and fastest work if they're given respect, trust and free reign.

JT: Actors in general or you in particular?

RD: [Laughs]

JT: How do you feel about the erotic scene in Two Girls and a Guy?

RD: Well, it was certainly a first for me. I've made over 20 films and altogether they've included four kisses, an obscured blow job in Less Than Zero, and nothing else I can remember.

JT: It's not as if you haven't been asked to do it because you look like Lou Costello.

RD: I have to admit that sometimes if I'm watching something that's sexually explicit I cover my eyes because some part of me still thinks it's shameful.

JT: No kidding? Give me an example.

RD: Well, watching what Heather and I did was very unnerving to me.

JT: That may be because you were in the scene.

RD: Heather was in it and she didn't seem at all unnerved. It's strange, because I'm certainly not a prude. By the way, I found it interesting that you didn't describe this scene specifically in the script. We just sort of decided what was the right way to go.

JT: I don't think sex is an area where you can tell actors what to do. If it's not something that comes naturally to them it will feel false and embarrass everyone.

RD: It's odd, though. People are always saying, "Why can't they just suggest it, we know what it's like." But when there's a brutal hit on the mobsters in Last Man Standing, we don't just hear that from outside. No, you see guys blown up at the dinner table.

JT: Sex is the only area where everybody says, "Wait, let's pretend it's radio."

RD: What I loved about the erotic scene in Two Girls and a Guy is that it's quite specific, but it actually reveals very little flesh. You know why I love Peter O'Toole so much?

JT: When I asked you 10 years ago who your favorite actor was you said Peter O'Toole.

RD: You bet.

JT: Why do you love him so much?

RD: Because he expresses a self-assurance in his sexuality without having to lay an organ on anyone.

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