Robert Downey, Jr. 20 years ago, a convicted felon coming to terms with his rehabilitation

                               July 2003 By Philip Berk

After years of heroin, cocaine and alcohol addiction, rehab and prison, Robert Downey Jr. is doing what he does best, playing a psoriasis plagued patient in The Singing Detective. 

The film premiered last month at the Toronto Film festival where he received a well deserved standing ovation.

At the In Style party following the screening he beamed, “I swear that was the highest I’ve been since high school. I felt like I grew two inches.”

Eight years ago he was considered the best actor of his generation, but even then he had trouble finding roles.

“After I was nominated for an Oscar (for Chaplin,) I thought, my God I’m going to get all these great parts now,  become an A list actor, get prestigious jobs, and absolutely not. That just didn’t happen.”

At the time he was “happily” married to Deborah Falconer, a song writer, and the proud father of a two year old boy, named Indio. 

But then in 1996 he was arrested for drug possession, driving under the influence, and carrying a concealed handgun. Two weeks later he was arrested again in what became known as “the Goldilocks incident” when he stumbled into a neighbor’s home and passed out while under the influence of drugs. Three days later police arrested him once more, this time for leaving a recovery center where he had been placed. After two more probation violations and numerous stays in rehab clinics, justice caught up with him and he served one year of a three-year jail sentence. But even after being  paroled, he was arrested twice and served time in a rehab center because  recent California law prescribed treatment rather than prison.

Even now he is on probation and subject to random drug tests, which if he fails even one test will result in four more years in prison.

Is it any wonder the man seems somewhat conflicted. 

The last time I interviewed him was three years ago for Wonder Boys — he hadn’t served time yet — when he showed up with his seven year old son and rambled on incoherently.

In Toronto he’s more coherent, obviously grateful that his good friend Mel Gibson (they worked together a decade ago in Air America) has given him a new lease on life, although one that may be short lived.

Coming into Toronto he was all set to play the lead in Woody Allen’s next film, but suddenly, when the production company couldn’t insure him, he had to be replaced.

Asked about it, he offers a different version of what happened.

“They claim they hadn’t researched the insurance issue, and I thought that was kind of funny because they usually do that before they offer me a part. But then when the actress who I really wanted to work with (Winona Ryder) dropped out, everything changed really quickly. Ironically an actor people compare me with, Will Ferrell, is now doing it. But you have to wonder if it was really about  the insurance. I just did a big budget movie with Joel Silver and they were able to work out the insurance thing.”

Is he disappointed?

“Would it be nice to do a Woody Allen movie? Kind of, but the truth is, I’ve got so much other stuff to do I wouldn’t be able to give it my full attention. I think people kind of wind up doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

How difficult is it for him to stay sober?

“I don’t think I’m the first actor who ever had an abnormal reaction to crushed grapes, but clearly I took it to another level. Of course it makes me nervous that I am consigned to having to behave in a certain way. But it’s not like having an allergic reaction to lobster and downing scampi after scampi after scampi. It had gotten past the point where there wasn’t  any benefit to it. I had started to believe I had to injure myself and make myself toxic and ugly and unhappy in order to thrive. So now  I make a decision every morning. I am not going to buy coke from anyone.”

And does therapy help?

“Who wants to go to therapy? Who wants to keep the plug in the jug? Who wants to go to the In Style party and not get into a drunken brawl? But you just got to fucking behave. We’re here on Planet earth. This isn’t the Octagon. We’re supposed to care for one another and be careful with ourselves, not ruin our kids and piss off our moms. We’re supposed to be good Jewish boys and girls, aren’t we? We’re supposed to do the right thing. Yuck. That’s what I have to say. Scratch everything else I said. I say yuck.”

The Singing Detective was completed two years ago and his Joel Silver movie Gothika with Halle Berry opens next month.

So what does he have lined up at the moment?

“There are some things I’m producing and I’m finding that developing projects is a lot more fun than waiting for projects to be developed. In Hollywood everyone is a writer on some level,  My dad used to say, ‘Anybody can act, kid, so go for it. Few can direct, but nobody can write, so unless you’re serious don’t even pick up a pen.”

Was he surprised when Mel offered him The Singing Detective?

“I had no idea what he was up to. I was out in Malibu with my chiropractor and some martial arts friends of mine when Gibson comes in, beats one of them up and puts down these six tapes of the television series (the BBC series starring Michael Gambon) and gets back in his car and drives away, which is how he tends to do business. I started watching the tapes and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is great.’ Why did he drop these off for me? It was much later that he let me know he had acquired the rights and thought it was something I might be interested in.”

Almost unrecognizable in the film, Mel plays an eccentric psychiatrist who attempts to help his character confront his tortured past, a role he has played in real life, according to Downey.

The two of them have been buddies for years. When they were presenters at the Golden Globes two years ago, rather than be seated in the ballroom with the other stars,  they remained backstage all night having fun with the other presenters.

How close are they?

“Gibson is like a crazy shrink. He has been through a lot of the stuff I struggled with for so long, and he is nothing if not unorthodox. He is kind of like a big brother who plays tricks on you, but you get the joke in the end.”

Downey and Falconer are no longer married, but they share custody of Indio, a responsibility he takes very seriously.

“Parents of my generation,” he once told me, “went off on their own thing which was largely an excuse to be irresponsible. I remember people saying, ‘It’s good to get your kid on formula, then you can go out and put your hair in a beehive, hang out with the girls,’ you know what I mean. No, it’s not good to put your kid on formula! They should be breast fed. ‘Oh yeah, just give him a little grass, that’ll be fine. He’ll be lazy and stoned and addicted to THC seven months later.’ That was the environment I grew up in, but for me  the real exciting thing now is hanging out with my son, contributing to this his growth. It’s amazing.”

Is there anyone else in his life at the moment. 

Is he dating?

“Sir I don’t date,” he jokes.”Those who can’t, date. But I’ve got a girl friend and it’s real serious, because she doesn’t take me too seriously.”

Would he consider working in the theatre, maybe a Broadway play?

“I think it could be great, but my kid’s going into fourth grade. I live in Malibu, I go to martial arts class in Santa Monica. It’d be kinda rough to be appearing at Lincoln Centre right now. But it’s something I want to do. If I really want to go for the brass ring, then there’s going to be a lot of full circles and the people I’m still really close with are people who started off with me doing Off Broadway and regional theatre. So it’s something I’d like to do.” 

In one of his reflective moments, he gets lost in his thought.

“This friend of mine does this morning meditation and you sit there and for sixty seconds you let the cloud come out of your head and you kinda see what’s in the cloud. I had a great gold watch and I lost it. Where is that damn watch? Where is the sweater I lost when I was eleven? What happened to my little puppy? I mean it’s all like dumb irrelevant clutching onto things that you have that don’t matter anymore. It’s all in the cloud.”

Speaking of clouds, how does he feel about Arnold running for governor?

“Unfortunately convicted felons can’t vote.”

But they are allowed to have an opinion?

“The only thing that can make it weirder is if I announced my candidacy.”

Is he equally reticent to talk about  Mel’s movie? (The Passion which has stirred up a storm of controversy by those who consider it  anti-semitic.)

“Right now I’m just reading the articles so I can make up my mind.Christ almighty, talk about putting the cart before the horse. ‘Have you seen it? It’s awful and it’s a disgrace and they ought to bomb his house.’  I’m going to see it next week, but I’m just watching the people who have seen it that I know,  and everybody has a different reaction. All I can say is, he’s an artist, he’s a great dad, he’s a good friend, and he makes movies that people talk about.” 

And he recognizes a great actor when he sees one.

In The Singing Detective, Downey seals his reputation as the best actor of his generation, Johnny Depp and Sean Penn not withstanding. 

a convicted felon

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