I’ve interviewed Robert Downey Jr. enough times now to know that the way it works is you give him a little question and you sit back and let that brain of his spin. The reason I can’t imagine anyone else playing the Tony Stark we’ve seen in the Marvel movies so far is because that character is so closely tied to the qualities I’ve seen in the real Downey off-screen. In some weird way, the “Iron Man” films will eventually serve as a highly stylized form of autobiography, telling the story of Downey’s enormous promise, his rocky years of self-destruction, and his eventual metamorphosis into the blockbuster-friendly charm machine that he’s become.
We had twenty minutes with him. There were four or five of us around the table. When he strolled in, he had with him “The Box,” his omnipresent collection of various vitamins and health supplements, and he looked healthy and happy. We jumped right in, asking him if he had any hesitations or worries about playing the character for the fourth time. “This is… the grab bag wish list of things we’ve always wanted to do and haven’t had the chance,” he said. He had his own expectations for the sequel, and they were hefty, to say the least. “[This] was supposed to answer all the questions for the audience, cure all my uncomfortable moments in the past playing this character, and get in every idea that fell by the wayside in the last three movies. Then we shot the movie and I feel like there”s still a number of other things we have to do.”
Unsurprisingly, Downey was effusive in his praise for Shane Black, and he talked about how his “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” collaborator ended up with the directing job this time out. More importantly, they seem just as happy with each other on this side of the experience, and it sounds like Downey isn’t the only one who was happy with Black. Drew Pearce was the original writer on the film, and I’ll bet he was nervous when Black got hired since Black is, of course, a screenwriter himself. “I think that by the time Shane teamed up with Drew Pearce, the overall arc of the turns and acts and themes and all that stuff in the story remained relatively unchanged, which is amazing,” Downey told us. “They really kind of made just exactly the right size sandbox for the whole thing, but there”s some new kind of twists in it architecturally. That”s just the way Shane writes, y’know? Nothing is arbitrary. Everything has some meaning at some point later in the story or speaks to a theme. That”s the hardest stuff to try and grab when you”re already shooting. That said, I respect him so much that I did not respect his day to day writing at all. I just looked at scenes at the beginning of the day as, well, they had to put a bunch of words… which must be annoying to an excellent writer, but that”s just the way I”ve been conditioned. I get a good script and go, ‘This is good! I mean, we”re not going to shoot it, but…’”
I would imagine that kind of comment makes some writers cringe, but it really does seem like it’s all about the end result for Downey. He’s been thinking about the character for quite a while now, and he had some questions coming into this process. “I thought, ‘Isn”t it odd that he had this experience? And why was he suddenly just in New York for one summer?’ We know why he was there. Stark Tower. But what he was doing there was really building a piece of architecture for a third act set piece. I wanted him back home. I thought, ‘What if that happened to any of us? Wouldn”t we be a little tripped out? You”d be watching your back.'”
If you read my breakdown of the footage we saw at the press day, then you’ll see how that footage we saw emerged from some of the early thoughts Downey and Pearce and Black were kicking around. “Then I thought about this 21st-century reality, this kind of oddball zeitgeist of America and terrorism and all the weirdo stuff that this country seems to generate and co-create.” It sounds like they talked about images and locations and beats that they wanted in the film and then built from there. I brought up the way Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is obviously into the value of set decoration and atmosphere in the short scene we saw of him arriving for a broadcast, and how interesting the idea of playing him as a media-age terrorist is, and Downey talked about how the character fits into pop culture. “I”m thinking about Oliver Stone and I”m thinking about… doing ‘Natural Born Killers.’ I do think it”s evocative, that kind of paranoid idea that a terrorist is manufactured to blah, blah blah. People like that. It”s why I like ‘Manchurian Candidate.’ I like the possibility of something like that going undetected until it”s up and running. I think it”s scary and it occupies, I believe, a part of the American paranoid psyche. I think that’s in there.”
One of the biggest complaints about the Phase One Marvel movies is that they had a lot of connective tissue about The Avengers built into them, and in many ways, it made them all feel like previews for something bigger. Downey really emphasized for us that this film is far more self-contained than “Iron Man 2” was. “We thought, ‘Let”s not get indulgent now, but let”s go back to Tony and Pepper.’ It was also really, really great to have Happy come back. Jon was just so great. He was standing on the set that we had designed, this workshop, and he says, ‘All I have to do is put on a suit and crack jokes. This is going to be great.’ He”s actually very integral to the story and all that stuff. But it is true, this one is Tony”s journey from A to Z, chasing the bad guy. It”s a bad guy who draws him out to places that he”s never been before and I think that that was what was attractive to Shane. He said, ‘I”d like to see him crashing in mid-America. I”d like to see him interacting with some kid who kind of doesn”t really relate to him as anything but Iron Man.'”
We discussed how he has a sense of ownership over the character now, and how he has a vision of how Tony fits into the larger Marvel Universe. He was asked about what Joss Whedon brought to this particular film in his role as overseer of the entire Marvel Universe. “I think, honestly, what he brought was momentum. It”s a twofold thing. When you have something that”s just an unprecedented smash, you can sort of relax for a second, but you”re also following that. He brought us a lot. He brought us a lot of comfort and a fair amount of performance anxiety.”
He continued, addressing the idea of whether or not they could ever recast the role. “I feel like I got sold to Disney for $4 billion.” He doesn’t seem to mind, though, and it sounds to me like he knows that Tony Stark is going to be a part of his life for a long time. “The thing about playing this kind of inherent narcissist, whenever you kill one of Tony”s egos, another one just pops up. I”ve had that experience, but I”ve found the whole thing to be a very quieting journey for me. It”s been remarkably humbling. You realize you”re just kind of part of this thing. I think the problems begin when any one person involved in anything, particularly anything successful, decides that they have some sense of ownership to it. This is really something that Stan Lee scratched down going on 50 years now. He touched on something really, really cool with Iron Man and, strangely, Iron Man was sort of this second-tier superhero who laid the groundwork for these other guys and gals. Where I”m at right now is that I”ve always thought of myself, particularly since I”ve been married to this high-functioning Jewish girl from the Midwest, I think of myself as being a company man. I like showing up and I like doing press. I like being able to say, ‘I”m going to take a break because I don”t want to burn out.’ I don”t want to be doing a roundtable or a press conference and have people say, ‘He looks tired!’ I want to be there. I want to communicate and kind of experience this. The funny thing is that, though I can be quick-witted, I tend to have a slow take, experientially for things. These five or six years have not been enough time for me to process what has happened.”
The subject of money was broached, which is always uncomfortable, and I think Downey handled it with as much grace as possible. “I honestly get uncomfortable with leverage. I was annoyed for awhile about having a contract where, in success, not very much changes for you. But then I got to thinking, ‘What was I really doing before I got ‘Iron Man”?'” He continued, “I’m not going to pretend I”m over it. Obviously, it”s better to have a contract run out than it is to have one go on indefinitely. But I guess that”s why contracts have limits on them. Let”s just say that me, the agents and the lawyers are having a bit of a ball right now. I don”t like this whole Western thing… of ‘We”ve got him! Let”s screw him to the floor!’ It”s like, ‘Weren”t we excited about the future a couple of years ago? Now we”re just laying the boots to each other.'”
Downey was asked about how this film raises the stakes, action-wise, from “The Avengers,” and I really like what he had to say about it. “The funny thing is ‘Iron Man 3’ is simultaneously a much smaller story, but it also feels just personally… I”m in every second of every action scene in this movie. I”ve never done so much action in my life. The scope feels really, really big. Again, I think Marvel”s intention is to defy expectations again.”
Asked to compare Favreau to Black as a filmmaker, Downey said, “They”re very similar. You also can”t really work with one without reaching out to the other. Jon and I reached out to Shane on several occasions [on the first two films] and Shane definitely would refer back to Jon on a lot of stuff. Jon has an incredible sense of showmanship, and Shane is much more kind of introverted. When he does become ectomorphic, it”s very entertaining. For instance, we were night shooting and he just went running across this thing. He caught his head on something and dislocated his shoulder. He just sat there and we were like, ‘Back into the emergency vehicle.’ He was like, ‘Just two more shots! I”ll stay, I”ll stay!’ and I said, ‘You have to go to the hospital.’ Jon is very smooth, and Shane is a little more like myself and a bit spiky at times. I”ve also changed. There”s the Jon that directed the first ‘Iron Man’ and the Jon that directed the second one and the Jon that has done all the things he”s done. What I”m really happy about is that, as things have changed, that Shane has stepped in and run with this obviously fantastic opportunity. I”m just so comforted that nobody has suffered for all of it, including the franchises and the movies themselves. Jon and I have offices across the street from one another. Shane and I are still speaking. It”s a nice relationship, you know? Again, I think it”s a testament to Kevin and the central people at Marvel. They”re very, very thoughtful about their choices.”
And if you’d like to know what Kevin Feige and Shane Black think about “Iron Man 3,” I’ll have that for you in just a few.
In the meantime, if you didn’t check out the new trailer, you really, really should.
“Iron Man 3” opens on May 3, 2013.