The Business of Being Robert Downey Jr.

UPDATED: December 5, 2011
PUBLISHED: December 5, 2011

Everything is new for Robert Downey Jr. these days.

We’ve known him for years as a top-shelf actor—right now as Sherlock Holmes in the second film in that franchise, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. We used to know him as a caricature of Hollywood excess. But we’ve never seen him like this: A businessman.

There are lots of reasons why he’s a businessman now—we’ll get to those. But first, he tells a story to illustrate his steep learning curve in this new arena.

“Recently I was trying to describe somebody to a friend of mine. My friend is a stock investment-type guy, and the person I’m describing is kind of a nightmare to do business with. And my friend goes, ‘Oh yeah, that guy, he’s a killer.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh so that’s how you think of it. You don’t think of it like he’s a schmuck? Or he’ll get his? You just go, that guy’s a killer?’

“So my friend says, ‘Oh no, no, no. The guy’s a serial killer. He’s a sociopath. That’s the way he is in business.’ And I think about this and say, ‘So if you’re out to dinner with him, you’d have a certain respect for him.’ And he says, ‘Aw, respect, no respect, the guy’s a killer!’ ” Downey cracks up at this. “So I go, ‘Ohhhkay.’ ”

Downey’s the first to admit that things have changed in radical ways for him in the past three years. It wasn’t because he’s seen life-altering success as an actor. He had that back in his 20s when he was regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation and was nominated for an Oscar for Chaplin. That kind of success he understands. But success in film right now means blockbusters. The more blockbusters, the merrier. Blockbusters are the biggest, most serious kind of business in show business. And if that’s the kind of business he’s going to be in…

“Oh yeah, it’s been quite an education for me, lo these many years,” he says. “In May of 2008, after Iron Man’s [hugely successful] opening weekend, I was suddenly informed that I was in a different place on Monday than I was on Friday when I woke up. Crazy. I trusted the people who put me on notice, so I made it my business to educate myself because it’s so easy to slip up, so many ways to drop the ball.”

He smiles at all of it. “It really is just a matter of, for lack of a better phrase, God’s grace that anyone can maintain anything, let alone achieve something that has to be maintained.”

Sean Penn once broke down his door and put Downey on a private jet to rehab (it didn’t take).

Yet here he is, doing just that.

It took a long time to get here. Back in the 1980s when Downey was starting out, blockbusters certainly existed (just ask Mr. Spielberg), but “that wasn’t on my mind,” he says. “What was on my mind was nailing theater auditions and trying to be an excellent busboy.”

Indeed, even with Indiana Jones and Star Wars and Back to the Future films taking over movie screens for entire summers, the words “franchise” and “tentpole” didn’t exist back then (unless you owned a chain of campgrounds). Downey was certainly aware of big box-office potential. “The first quote-unquote blockbuster I ever saw was driving down Broadway with my dad. And I go, ‘Oh my God, look at all those people lined up.’ And the theater marquee says The Godfather. And of course then there’s Godfather 2. Not too many years later, Jaws came out and a couple years later there was Jaws 2. So I was conscious of—in very, very rare circumstances—that something I would do might require an encore, if you will.”

He didn’t know just how rare those circumstances would become. His most acclaimed performances came in films like Less Than Zero (his character’s death didn’t seem sequel-friendly), Chaplin (again, death was a factor) and Natural Born Killers (yup, died). But onscreen mortality really wasn’t the problem. Sequel-ready stuff didn’t come his way, but more obvious was that he wasn’t exactly sequel material; his dual reputation in the industry was that he was one of the great actors and perhaps even greater high-functioning drug abusers. It’s hard to justify entrusting a $100-million-plus production to a leading man with that pedigree, no matter how talented he is.

Now, everything is different. It took 20 years and one of Marvel Comics’ second-tier superheroes to make Downey a megabrand. Kevin Feige, a friend of Downey’s who has now become one of the major creative forces at Marvel (now owned by Disney), casually mentioned to Downey years ago that Marvel had plans to launch its own slate of movies. Downey said, “Cool, maybe I can be your first guy.” He didn’t think anything of it, but next thing he knew, he was Tony Stark, the Man behind the Iron.

When Iron Man hit big and a sequel was announced—as well as a first-ever interlocking series of movies and characters including the Hulk, Captain America, and Thor all leading up to a collective mega-movie for The Avengers—Downey had to adjust his approach. Even more so when Sherlock Holmes became a franchise, as well. He was no longer “just’ an actor. He had to think long term.

“The thing is, you’re either involved in a certain product design that’s a one-off, or you’re involved in a product line,” he says of the difference in approach. “Nobody knows that there’s going to be another one, but that it’s simply a franchise possibility with potential success. So how do you contribute to that success? There’s a bunch of ways. In the case of the first Iron Man and the first Sherlock, there were similar approaches by a small group of people wondering if we could hit it out of the infield. The real challenge begins after you have the opportunity to follow it up and do it again.”

The result for Sherlock Holmes is in theaters now. As for The Avengers, out this spring, Downey was due to finish his part in Central Park the day after our interview.

So how do you attack mega-projects like those? When you’re dealing with “ninety-something call sheets and hundreds of millions of dollars,” as Downey says? There had to be a way to humanize what was on paper a superhuman-sized endeavor.

Downey says it all boiled down to relationships, trust, accountability, “and developing those relationships so they can transcend the potential loss.”

This attitude about the importance of relationships is the first clue Downey offers about how he creates successes in his newfound land of opportunity. It also shows how he turned his life around from, quite literally, total self-destruction.

The stories of Downey’s drug-fueled excesses are well-documented Hollywood lore: Sean Penn once broke down his door and put Downey on a private jet to rehab (it didn’t take). Downey claims he once showed up high to a meeting with director Mike Figgis with a gun sticking out of his bag (he got the part). Then, in June 1996, Downey was pulled over for speeding and was caught carrying cocaine, heroin and an unloaded .357 Magnum. A month later, after a long bender, Downey was found passed out in a child’s bed in a Malibu house. His explanation: He thought the house looked like his. (The media referred to this as “the Goldilocks Incident.”).

As he told Playboy: “It was never easy, partying the way that I did, which was as often as I could. But it was doable. And as long as it was doable, I wasn’t going to stop.”

One of his most-told tales was from the set of the Jodie Foster-directed comedy Home for the Holidays. At the time, Downey was hard into his addiction. But if you watch the film, Downey’s character is manic, yet connected. The performance is not forced or sloppy. He’s completely engaged. Foster was too bright not to notice what was really going on. “She said to me, ‘Wow, you’re really, really good in the movie. You don’t think you’re gonna be able to work this way on your next film, do you?’ And I was like, ‘Relax, honey,’ and I was in jail five minutes later.” He laughs. “Man, you gotta pick the people who are worth listening to. If Jodie Foster calls me up I pretty much put down whatever I’m doing.”

Like most folks who have returned from a particularly dangerous edge, Downey knows how lucky he is. “My experience, and not just regarding my life, but what I see, is that by the time people get busted, there’s usually been wrongdoing for some time. Now, once in a while people never get busted, and once in a while someone gets busted the very first time they fall. The rest of us tend to catch a cosmic pass once in a while. The mistake is to take that as a sign of a green light to continue not doing the right thing.”

Which is, of course, what he did for years. One of the most interesting aspects of this period is that Downey now takes complete ownership of who he was and what he did. Almost as if life is a “you break it, you buy it” proposition. As he’s said before, “To me, here’s the only thing: You take responsibility, whether you’re outraged by the results or not, that you in some way participate in and create what you’re experiencing. I don’t pretend it didn’t happen.”

This isn’t the typical behavior of a high-profile addict. An awful lot of them rely on some form of denial (and legal counsel).

“What is the upside of denial and being litigious?” he asks me today. “Oftentimes, because we have such a great system of law, and there are so many lawyers out there, even if you have one that’s not that good they can still confuse the issue.” He laughs at this. The bottom line about all of his past legal troubles, he says dryly, is “I’ve never been unfairly hassled.”

Now Downey is happily married to wife Susan, and engineering a career and business bigger and more successful than he ever imagined. The reason for his turnaround—and for making it stick this time? It’s not because he’s afraid of looking like an idiot or a failure.

“There’s nothing I like more,” he says, “than someone who rises, crashes and burns, and rises again—the whole phoenix metaphor—only because if you burn again, you’re a moron.” And he chuckles. “So it’s not fear of confirming that I’m a moron.”

Then what is it?

“I remember Tommy Lee Jones in an interview back around the time we were doing U.S. Marshals. Someone said, ‘What’s the most important word for you?’ And he said, ‘Honor.’ And I was like [scoffing], ‘Oh, honor, OK. Was he in the Marines or something?’ ” Now Downey smiles. “Ten, 15 years later, I couldn’t agree with him more.”

This goes directly to what he was trying to illustrate with his previous anecdote about the “serial killer” businessman. How do people behave in business? How do they justify themselves? And, most important, what kind of businessman did he want to be? He became all about honoring relationships.

“With people like Jodie Foster, and [producer] Joel Silver, through whom I met my wife, and some others, I’ve got a very small throng of people who have primarily been interested in each other and supporting each other through tough times and less-tough times. That, to me, is about the primary principle of business. You are either someone who honors your commitments to, and your relationships with, people you decide to stick it out with through thick and thin, or you are a slimy snake. There is no middle ground.”

All of this used to seem so complicated, like “a Good Will Hunting algorithm on a blackboard, on a good day.” But Downey has sought to simplify and make sense of it all: “That moral energy runs down lines of principles. If you want to stay connected to that juice, it’s really important not to be the idiot. You can’t be like, ‘I’m always rigorously honest. Unless…’ ”

The key to keeping past temptations at bay? Not allowing yourself to become distracted or bored. “If you are interested and excited, and if you can find a way to stay interested and excited on the days when there’s nothing interesting or exciting going on, when you’re just down in the trenches doing the grunt work, the 98 percent maintenance and elbow grease that is any sort of business, you’ll be all right.”

That’s what he does every day now. It’s not just the long shooting schedule of the average blockbuster. He has launched a production company with his wife called Team Downey (“That’s what everyone calls Susan and me,” he says), and the day-to-day business is intense. This is not your typical actor-hangs-out-production-shingle operation. They’re developing multiple projects across multiple platforms—and it’s that embracing of new media that makes it unique.

“What we intend to do is utilize all these resources and this exciting time in entertainment and media at large to keep learning as much as we can,” he says. Project development and brainstorming is a staff-wide activity. “When we get a script or are developing a script, we’ll pull everyone off the phones or out of the kitchen or whatever detail they’re on and we’ll attack. The goal is the best possible version of this type of story or this type of movie. The best idea wins and we vote on things.”

In the pipeline: Computer games (online and off-line), potentially partnering with Warner Brothers on a new cable channel and reviving the 1960s TV courtroom drama Perry Mason as a feature film for Downey to star in and produce. Team Downey also has a long-dormant Steve McQueen project called Yucatan that they’re reworking as a new breed of adventure tale.

“It’s a very inspired treasure hunt that isn’t about the treasure, but more like an Altered States kind of trippy take on that,” he says. “So we bring everyone in and ask, ‘What’s the best movie we’ve ever seen about this?’ And we talk about Raiders or Papillon. All of a sudden, without trying to mimic things, we set ourselves on a course where everyone becomes a cross-section of audiences the world over, with different tastes but all in on the point of view.”

Now try an interesting exercise: After reading this story, could you imagine these words coming from Robert Downey Jr. at age 25? Thus is the measure of how much a man can change. For Downey, the foundation of this change is that one word Tommy Lee Jones tossed out there years ago: Honor.

Honor is Downey’s go-to verb: Honor your loved ones, honor your commitments, honor your business partners, honor your fans, honor your work and the final product. And the biggest accomplishment of all: Honor yourself.

“For me, it’s just this: Are you in your own way, or out of your own way? Are you doing the right thing or is your heart heavy?”

Finally, Downey has the right answer.