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Institute for Robert Downey Jr Studies > Required Reading

The Playboy Interview: Robert Downey Jr (1997)

Playboy, December 1997, by Michael Fleming

Robert Downey Jr.— a candid conversation with the precocious, scandal-plagued actor about his hippie boyhood, his descent into drugs, his escapes from rehab and his resurgent career.

When Robert Downey Jr. discusses his well-publicized reputation as a heroin and coke addict, he often talks about how, despite the media circus swirling around him, he processed thoughts through what he calls a lizard brain — a mind that compartmentalized his life into 45-minute increments. Each increment followed the same pattern: Race out of the house, get drugs, get high and be back in the house within 45 minutes.

Itís hard to keep a straight face when Downey explains this because he actually has a lizard perched atop his head. Itís a bearded dragon, a reptile belonging to his four-year-old son, Indio. The lizard cost $80, not including the veterinary fees incurred when it went into seizures earlier in the day. The lizard was meant to keep Indio busy while dad shot a co-starring role in U.S. Marshals, the spin-off of The Fugitive.

Indio couldnít care less that his father is being interviewed. Though his father has been called the best young actor in this country by director Robert Altman and others, Indio wants nothing more of his father than playtime. It obviously gnaws at Downey to have to put off his son, and so the compromise is that while Downey answers questions about an illustrious career that almost came undone by his addiction to hard drugs, he does it as Indio places the lizard on top of his head.

The son of Robert Downey, the underground filmmaker who directed Putney Swope, Robert Downey Jr. entered the movie business when he was not much older than Indio. He was born on April 4, 1965 in New York City and made his screen debut at the age of five as a puppy in his fatherís film Pound. He did another turn, with his actress mom, Elsie, in the Downey-directed Greaserís Palace.

Itís no surprise that, as a student at Santa Monica High School, he quit school and headed to New York to become an actor. While waiting for his big break, Downey Jr. sold shoes and bused tables, even served as ďliving artĒ at the downtown club Area.

In 1982 he entered a happy, successful phase that included dating aspiring actress Sarah Jessica Parker. He also got jobs playing punks in movies such as America, Firstborn and Baby Itís You, and he starred in the 1985 telepic Mussolini: The Untold Story, as the dictatorís son, Bruno. But it was a supporting role in Weird Science that gave him his big break. He became buddies with fellow cast member Anthony Michael Hall, the geek in the John Hughes teen-angst film Sixteen Candles. When Hall joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1985, Downey went with him. Spotted on SNL by director James Toback, Downey got his first starring role, the title character in The Pick-Up Artist. Then came Less Than Zero, from the Bret Easton Ellis novel, with Downeyís portrayal of the spiraling downfall of nice guy-drug addict Julian Wells. It put him into the top echelon of young actors, and Downey took full advantage, making several movies each year, including Chances Are, True Believer, Air America, Only You, Soapdish and Short Cuts.

Downey beat out such highly bankable competitors as Robin Williams and Billy Crystal to star in Chaplin, the biopic directed by Richard Attenborough for which Downey received an Oscar nomination.

Meanwhile, Downeyís penchant for partying was becoming problematic. Growing up in a bohemian family, Downey had smoked pot with his dad by his early teens and had also used cocaine. When he starred in Less Than Zero, his castmates feared there wasnít much difference between the performance and the performer.

While Downeyís acting seemed effortless, even inspired, in such films as Heart and Souls, Natural Born Killers, Home for the Holidays, Restoration and Richard III, his drug problems worsened. His self-destructive behavior had earlier taken a toll on his relationship with Parker.

Subsequently he met and married singer Deborah Falconer, and they had Indio. But on June 23, 1996, Downey was pulled over for speeding and was found to be carrying cocaine, heroin and an unloaded .357 Magnum in the cab of his truck. By that time Falconer had moved out with Indio and less than a month later, in what became known as the ďGoldilocksĒ incident, Downey surprised a Malibu family on July 16 by passing out in their childís bed. He had to be revived and was sent by Malibu municipal court judge Lawrence Mira to the Exodus Recovery Center in Marina del Rey, the same facility Kurt Cobain visited before committing suicide.

Downey escaped from the facility for four hours on July 20, then found himself handcuffed before the same judge, who made it clear that the party was ending. Mira jailed Downey for ten days in a 24-hour lockdown facility and gave him three yearsí probation, with the threat of jail again if he slipped up — even once.

It was the remedy Downey needed. So far he has remained sober, and he has his family back. Strong performances in the Toback-directed Two Girls and a Guy, the Mike Figgis-directed One Night Stand and the Altman-directed The Gingerbread Man have helped restore Downeyís reputation in Hollywood.

To see how Downey is rebuilding his life, Playboy sent Michael Fleming, a columnist for Daily Variety, to speak with him in Chicago, where he was filming U.S. Marshals. Fleming reports:

ďWe had agreed to meet on what was supposed to be his day off. It had rained the previous day, forcing a change in the shooting schedule. So when we met that evening, Downey had not only worked a full day in an unair-conditioned airplane hangar in 100-degree heat, he had also absorbed a punch in the ribs from Wesley Snipes, the filmís villain, that was serious enough to require X rays. Despite this, Downey could not have been more gracious. In three interview sessions over the next 24 hours, he was as engaging and charming as he appears on-screen. He didnít duck a single question, and this was by far the most candid, in-depth interview he has given about those dark days.

ďDowney now spends his days with two constant companions. Thereís Joe Bilella, producer of Richie Rich and Downeyís partner in a production company called Herd of Turtles. The other is Earl Hightower, a court-appointed drug counselor who helps Downey stay straight. Both were there at the three-floor house Downey rented during the Chicago shoot, along with his son and Downeyís mother, who came for a visit while Downeyís wife, Deborah, stayed in Los Angeles to work on her music career.

ďDowney is not particularly ashamed of or apologetic about the events that transpired last year. Indeed, he cringes more at the memory of a bad film. He covered the most difficult subjects without a hint of bitterness, defensiveness or denial; in fact, he often seemed so eager to tell his story that he would interrupt or change subjects in midthought. He says heís rediscovered the things that are important in his life — his son, his wife, his directing aspirations and his own plans for a music career.Ē

Michael Fleming: In your new film One Night Stand, you play someone whoís dying of AIDS. Director Mike Figgis based the character on a close friend. He trusted you with the role, even though you were having problems at the time.

Robert Downey Jr: Mike was so loving to me, because I was out of my mind when I met him.

MF: What do you mean?

RDJ: We were at Kate Mantiliniís restaurant in Los Angeles. I was shoeless. Is there a statute of limitations for a concealed weapon?

MF: Weíll have to find out.

RDJ: Okay. I had a concealed weapon. At the bar. He was looking at me and Iíll never forget the look on his face. I was thinking, What? Is he aware of whatís going on? He asked me, ďWhy do you have a gun?Ē It was, like, sticking out of this little purse. I mean I was completely in a fantasy. I wasnít a badass. I thought I was meeting with Figgis for the handsome male lead, because I was so debonair. In fact, he was interested in me for the role of the guy dying of AIDS. He gave me the job.

MF: Do you think he made that decision on the spot?

RDJ: Yes.

MF: Figgis directed Nicolas Cage to an Oscar in Leaving Las Vegas. Cage played a guy with a fatal addiction to alcohol. There you were, with your own addiction. Did you tell Figgis about your problem?

RDJ: It was apparent. But this is interesting. He related to me like someone who was completely in control of his own reality, and was deserving of respect. There was no condescension because of what I was going through. I donít discount the fact that addiction or alcoholism is a disease. But I still feel that, at every turn, I was choosing to keep going with it. It was serving some part of me, either deeply spiritual or darker, I donít know.

MF: Do you mean that it helped you creatively, the way people have said Richard Pryor was funnier when he was on the edge?

RDJ: Yeah.

MF: Did being high help your work, or is that an illusion?

RDJ: Well, itís all an illusion. But my beliefs, my expectations have changed. When I first got turned on to hard drugs as a teenager, I could snort coke and drink all night and still function. As soon as I started smoking heroin instead of smoking coke, everything was different, and I knew it was. And it happened around the time I was doing Home for the Holidays.

MF: How did that affect your performance?

RDJ: Home for the Holidays is, for me, one of the most relaxed performances in the history of cinema. I canít attribute that to the fact that I was at a serene place in my life, or that there was a real warm feeling on the set.

MF: You can joke about it now.

RDJ: This is a problem for me because I glamorize this stuff. I canít say that it wasnít real dark, real evil and real hurtful to those around me. And yet, practically every take of that film was a print.

MF: Your director, Jodie Foster, didnít let you off the hook just because you were doing good takes.

RDJ: God bless Jodie Foster. When does she have time to do a handwritten letter telling someone how she genuinely cares about them? She said, ďListen, Iím not worried about you on this film. Youíre not losing it or nodding out, and youíre giving a great performance. Iím worried about your thinking you can get away with doing this on another film.Ē

MF: So it was made clear that you were courting trouble.

RDJ: Nonetheless, the experience was a ball. My body felt great. I wasnít hungry. There are certain, practical things that doing lots of heroin and cocaine takes care of. Like weight problems, or attention deficit disorder. I could actually be interested in what someone was saying, when I wouldnít have been interested sober.

MF: Home for the Holidays was filmed mostly in Baltimore. Where did you get the drugs? Did you take them with you?

RDJ: I could go from watching Spectravision in a hotel room to being back there in about 45 minutes with drugs, and I could say that for any major city. Itís like thereís the drug-crazed divining rod, and itís your main focus. The purpose is so clear. The purpose is to procure substance. I called it my lizard brain.

MF: Were you recognized?

RDJ: Yeah. That would usually be to my benefit.

MF: Now that youíre straight, you donít look back on Home for the Holidays and cringe, knowing what was going on inside you?

RDJ: Iím very proud of that film. Itís the rest of the day I cringe about.

MF: Was it a shock to realize you were in trouble?

RDJ: Mostly Iím surprised that it didnít happen sooner. I mean, itís like running red lights all the time and finally getting a ticket.

MF: How did your peers react?

RDJ: I ran into Mel Gibson somewhere, and he said that he thought it was funny.

MF: Funny?

RDJ: Yeah. It wasnít funny for me, but to read about the sequence of events, yeah, thatís funny. And itís funny because nobody got hurt.

MF: Do you worry that directors might be eyeing you to make sure you donít slip?

RDJ: If I were a director looking at me agitated, I might be suspicious. But thereís plenty to do now, just being a dad and working.

MF: Youíre working with people who know you well.

RDJ: The first thing I did after was Two Girls and a Guy with James Toback, whoís an old friend. He gave me my first lead and completely sympathizes with compulsive behavior. He and I were pretty much two peas in a pod. And then Altman was like, ďBig fucking deal. Youíre over it. Letís do some good work.Ē And now, I have the support of Wesley, who I was in One Night Stand with, and Tommy Lee Jones, who I did Natural Born Killers with. They have been very cool with me.

MF: Did they lobby for you?

RDJ: I guess they did, yeah.

MF: People can help you now, but their words didnít have much impact on your sobering up, did they?

RDJ: No. But it was grotesquely amusing to watch people attempt to fix me.

MF: How many people tried?

RDJ: Several dozen.

MF: Sean Pennís attempt seemed most dramatic. What did he do to try to help you?

RDJ: Oh God. Everything from secreting me to the desert to kick, to knocking down my door and putting me on a private jet to Tucson.

MF: He knocked down your door?

RDJ: Or he and a couple of other guys did, yeah.

MF: Thatís friendship.

RDJ: And thereís nothing quite as disconcerting as hearing him yell at you through a door about what his intentions were for you that evening. I just remember waking up, or coming to, and saying, ďHow the hell did he get in here?Ē Heís not to be taken lightly when heís upset. And he was upset.

MF: Had he been a good friend of yours for long?

RDJ: In a relatively short time he was a better friend than some people Iíd known for ages. I remember him saying three or four years ago, ďYou have two reputations. I think you know what both of them are, and I think youíd do well to get rid of one of those reputations. If you donít, it will get rid of the other one.Ē And I was like, ďTwo reputations, Iíll be right back.Ē Just hearing him say that reminded me that I should go score. So I did and I was back in, of course, 45 minutes.

MF: He broke down your door. Did you try to escape?

RDJ: Of course! And itís so weird when youíre trying to break out of your own house.

MF: Their efforts didnít help?

RDJ: Itís that inertia of an addict. Next thing I know Iím on a private jet. Then itís three days later, and Iím at this treatment center Iíve been at before. Everyoneís being really nice. The very next thought I had was to escape, to leave the clothes there, take a water bottle. Soon I was 50 miles into the desert, no ID, no cash.

MF: You actually escaped?

RDJ: Yes. Miraculously, I hitched a ride for 27 miles into town, telling them something like, ďIím a married man. I had a room in town and I hadĒ —I just started bullshitting up a storm— ďI had a lady of the evening. I woke up and sheíd taken my credit cards. Iíve got to get back to my sonís bar mitzvah.Ē I called my accountant in New York, woke him up. Said, ďI got to get on a plane now.Ē Next thing I knew, I had a coach ticket. But because it was me, they bumped me up to first class. Drank the whole hour-and-a-half flight back.

MF: Did you try to avoid Sean Penn afterward?

RDJ: You bet. After that, he was like, forget it. It sucks, too, because someone as honorable as he is, I really should have responded. Jesus, I grew up idolizing this guy. Not only does he consider me a friend, but heís taking time. Heís got a family. Heís got a career thatís going well. Heís living his dreams and making time for me, and Iím like, ďI canít, I just canít— sorry, busy.Ē

MF: Who else attempted to straighten you out?

RDJ: For a couple of months, I think it was the visitorsí roster. Whoís here to try to make an impact today? And I was always available. With few exceptions, I was always saying, ďGreat, letís try,Ē because resignation is a real bad idea.

MF: Once you got straight you became expensive to insure. You dropped out of a picture called Wild Things because the moneymen wanted you to pay a six-figure premium.

RDJ: Itís all justifiable. I canít say I wouldnít be a high risk, and Iím not saying it wasnít cool of them to go out on a limb to get me, to want to have me do this film, considering my history. Hereís the other thing: I donít need a fucking acting career. If I have one, itís great. If things pan out, itís great. If things crash, and I never do another movie again, I donít give a fuck.

MF: Really?

RDJ: I donít give a shit. I love change. I write music. I can paint. I could, by virtue of my semicelebrity, go out and fucking do a million things, some of which might be a lot more gratifying than acting. I have a love-hate relationship with it because itís so fucking time consuming and usually disappointing. I donít fucking care what happens. I just care how I feel while itís happening.

MF: The insurance hazards seem behind you now.

RDJ: Yeah, Iím a safer bet than people who are supposedly controlling a dope or drinking or sniffing or shooting problem. Some of them are working on films now anyway because they passed their physicals. I was much more of an insurance risk before I was an insurance risk.

MF: You have a court-appointed drug counselor, Earl Hightower, who goes wherever you go. How long will that last? Whatís it like?

RDJ: Actually, itís been really liberating. We get along and we have a lot of laughs, but we also take care of business. Iíve never been in this situation, where if something is going on, someone says, ďWhatís up? Letís talk about it.Ē And I actually talk about it.

MF: It must be a strong incentive to know that if you slip even once, youíre going to go to jail.

RDJ: I donít think anything else would work for me. At this point, itís been a while, and it would pretty much take a psychological meltdown for me to forget the reality of what Iíve been through.

MF: But you never really know for sure?

RDJ: No. I wouldnít put it past anybody whoís been where I have.

MF: Letís talk about your films. It seems no matter what you do, Chaplin will be how youíre remembered professionally. How does that performance hold up for you?

RDJ: We were in Savannah doing The Gingerbread Man and I saw it. I said, ďGoddamn, this is really good.Ē

MF: Was Chaplin your best work?

RDJ: Yes, thanks to Attenborough. Heís in a class by himself, and he taught me more than anyone else.

MF: You got the role over some big names— Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, to name two.

RDJ: Right. But Billy Crystal as Charlie Chaplin? Physically, he canít do it. Robin Williams, heís a genius, but howís he going to get down to 145 pounds?

MF: Why do you think Chaplin wasnít a big hit?

RDJ: Because of the way Tristar marketed it? I donít know.

MF: So it got lost?

RDJ: I think so. I also think the fact that it was a biopic worked against it.

MF: You received an Oscar nomination, though.

RDJ: Hell, yes.

MF: Did you expect to win?

RDJ: Yes. I totally deserved to win.

MF: Did you keep a stone face when they had the camera on you as Al Pacino won for Scent of a Woman?

RDJ: Yes. The guy who had the camera on me as I smiled and got up and gave the ovation to Pacino said, ďNow that was discipline.Ē

MF: Did that performance take preparation?

RDJ: I thought for a second I was going to win. Marisa Tomei had won, and I thought, Itís the young people here. Iím sitting there, convinced this could be it. The voice-over in my head was just ridiculous. Itís all going my way. Not much longer now. Why is it the last category? Because itís the category. Richard Tyler designed this suit for me. Iím going to go up and show it off. I kind of look like Daniel Day-Lewis. He won. Last time. Itís all coming together. Itís all— itís— well, some people think itís not your turn. Well, he did get dicked twice before, and Pacino is major. But he canít. Itís me. But that— no, he canít— itís me. Itís not— itís— oh ... Then itís, ďHey, Robert, you want to go to the after-party?Ē Oh, yeah. Good. That was just fucked.

MF: So it wasnít a glorious night.

RDJ: Nah. But it was great to be nominated. And I got shafted for Less Than Zero. I should have been nominated for Home for the Holidays. Maybe Iíll be nominated for one of these other movies. Iíd like to project that into the future right now.

MF: After Chaplin, Attenborough said you were Tom Cruise and a character actor rolled into one, and that if you choose your roles right, the world will be your oyster.

RDJ: He was absolutely right. [Laughs]

MF: Have you made the right choices, and have there been roles you should have taken?

RDJ: No. Thereís nothing I passed on— I canít even remember, but there were dozens of them— that I wish I had back. What Attenborough said is so true. I should have waited and not done anything until I found something really good. Something I had developed. Things would be real different right now. Itís so weird to feel like Iím making some sort of comeback.

MF: Especially when you really never stopped working.

RDJ: Yeah. And what [hesitating] really ... just ... squelches ... my ... very ... nutsack is when people say, ďOh, weíre glad youíre working again.Ē Then I turn my back and they whisper [assumes a pained, hushed, dramatic voice], ďHeís such a lost soul. Heís struggling. Heís lostĒ—

MF: So you—

RDJ: Iím not done yet! ďHeís in a lot of pain, heís so sad, he canít be enjoying any of this, heís so sick. Heís a sick young man! He needs help! Heís got to stop. [Loud again] Hey, but the dailies were great!Ē

MF: Were you always able to work while impaired?

RDJ: Sure. I was a teenager when I got to L.A. to do Tuff Turf. I was on the Universal lot. I went to Los Angeles and it was like all my dreams came true. And there were no repercussions. It was the Eighties. And I fit in real well. Iím like the last guy at the party. Itís passe to be involved in the shit I was involved in last year. But I never stopped working. I was making tons of money. I was set up in a relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker, and it just seemed like I could do no wrong. 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 wasnít going to stop. So Iím surprised it didnít happen sooner.

MF: How are things different now?

RDJ: I just have to find balance now. Iím living like a fucking monk right now. And thatís okay, itís my turn to be a monk. I remember always hearing about people who went home after work and dealt with their kids and watched the Discovery Channel and had a popsicle and went to bed at ten oíclock.

MF: How long can you last doing that?

RDJ: I donít know. I guess the issue for me is to keep things dynamic, and I donít think that would have happened while doing what I was doing before everything fell apart.

MF: Does that mean you need to do things differently?

RDJ: I burned out on it to the point where I really wanted to escape from Deb and all the supposed rewards. So whatís going to be different if I have the same formula now? I would love to do something radical. I want to change my name to Elias, which is my real last name. I want to paint myself blue and present myself as a new architect of the 21st century. I want to make Prince look like a stockbroker and just do something so radical. Whatís the fucking point of crashing, burning and rising like a phoenix out of your own ashes into the same exact fucking thing you were before, sans drugs and alcohol? Whatís the value in that? Except that everyoneís a little more comfortable, and maybe I am too. And if I play my cards right, maybe I can have that fucking horse ranch! Maybe I can have all the pieces fit. I really would like to play my cards right. I can have a fucking horse ranch too!

MF: What youíre saying is that you need to—

RDJ: Youíre trying to decipher three minutes of manic flight. Thatís not an easy feat for anyone.

MF: Weíre trying. You need to plot a different course.

RDJ: I think so. I remember saying to my wife a couple of years ago, ďDebby, weíve got to get out of L.A. Weíve got to get out of the country. Weíve got to move to China.Ē

MF: China?

RDJ: Yes. I felt we had to do a total 180 degrees, from the culture and everything weíd been raised to value. If I had really been ballsy—

MF: You would have done it?

RDJ: Yeah, and this interview would be taking place in the new Hong Kong.

Michael Fleming: Which actors do you like?

Robert Downey Jr: I always say John Malkovich, Christopher Walken— and Iíve really been impressed by Peter OíToole. I donít know why. I think territorially. Like, where do you bridge the gap between yourself and another actor? When I saw Chris OíDonnellís Robin, I thought, I couldnít have done that. I just donít know how I could play Robin effectively. [Laughs] And Jerry Maguire.

MF: Could you have done that role?

RDJ: Yeah. I should have. I wanted to, yet I couldnít have. He was meant to do that.

MF: Tom Cruise?

RDJ: He was hilarious. I can remember seeing Leonardo DiCaprio in Basketball Diaries and going, Well, hey, that kind of preppy thing. And yet this character was on dope, so that should have been my glove-fit role.

MF: How do you choose your roles?

RDJ: I usually look at the cover page of something, I hear whoís directing it, I hear who else is in it, and thatís pretty much it.

MF: You donít need to read the script?

RDJ: No. When Altman called me about The Gingerbread Man, I didnít read it before I said Iíd do it. I knew Kenneth Branagh was in it. I loved him. Altman was directing it. There it is. [Laughs] Some say itís haphazard. I think itís haphazard if youíre not being intuitive. Still, I am confounded by how youíre supposed to do this, build yourself a long-lasting career.

MF: How was it working with Altman again on The Gingerbread Man?

RDJ: It was great, so great. He would say things to me like, ďDonít memorize your lines or anything.Ē ďDonít look at the script tonight.Ē ďThat was absolutely adequate, letís move on.Ē Just funny stuff. And everyone was doing these Southern accents. Kenneth had one.

MF: How was yours?

RDJ: Awesome. It was like in Natural Born Killers. Give me an accent, Iíve got a character. I donít have to do anything else. Put whatever clothes on me you want. If Iím worrying about the pants or the hair or the dialogue, I must (A) not have an accent or (B) not be in a good movie.

MF: Letís talk about your childhood, growing up the son of an underground filmmaker. It doesnít sound like Ozzie and Harriet. Your first on-screen appearance at five was in Pound, in which you played a puppy asking another dog if it had hair on its genitals.

RDJ: The line was, ďGot any hair on your balls?Ē It was with a bit of a lisp, too. A little accent I was doing.

MF: How did you end up in your fatherís film?

RDJ: It was more convenient than having a kid whose mom might be there saying, ďHeís going to say what? You want him here Ďtil when?Ē

MF: Did your parents think hiring you was easier than finding a sitter?

RDJ: Yeah. Then again, I wouldnít put it past myself to have been trying to work an angle to get a career at five.

MF: Were you aware of what you were doing?

RDJ: It was all so organic to me because my dad was screening dailies on a sheet in our living room in the Village. Dad made movies, and we would watch the film he had shot that day. People came and made movies with my dad. Antonio Fargas and I made jokes until he had to go to the set to make a movie with my daddy. My mommyís doing a movie with Daddy.

MF: So it was just part of your life. You came back at the age of seven with Greaserís Palace, and your throat was slit by God.

RDJ: Exactly. And my mom really got it from God. She got arrows, she got shot.

MF: What did you read into that?

RDJ: That was when I recognized that there was someone in my family who worked in front of the camera, and her work had a deep effect on people who were watching. That was also when I realized that it was a discipline. You had to do it again and again. I didnít want to do it again. Dad took me behind the tree and gave me a little face slap and said, ďYouíll do it until weíre done.Ē That has stuck with me to this day.

MF: You worked with him again recently.

RDJ: Yes, in Hugo Pool, which is another world unto itself. I play a Dutch film director who gets in trouble for shooting an extra, and I actually say in the film, which Dad loved. When Iím doing films with my dad, he knows all the characters Iíve been doing throughout the years. There are like 20 of them that will come up at any time.

MF: When you were a kid, you smoked pot with your father.

RDJ: Yeah, to say the least.

MF: Were you still having drug problems during the filming of Hugo?

RDJ: Yes.

MF: Your father introduced you to pot and then spent years overcoming his own coke problem. Was that shoot awkward?

RDJ: Well, it was really weird because my dad was directing it. My cousin was working on the film. It was ouchy and painful for them to see, but, again, my work didnít suffer from it. But that didnít mean it was OK. There was a lot of drive for me to seek help.

MF: Now that youíre a father, do you look back at your childhood with resentment?

RDJ: Though I feel resentment sometimes, I donít think I have any more reason to resent than someone in the 16th century who was leeched by his dad. I mean, it really was the times. I was in the generation that was smoking pot. I lived in Woodstock, where it was like rainbows and pinball and pizza and pot.

MF: Your home must have been quite a bit different from those of other kids in the neighborhood.

RDJ: I was not unlike urban latchkey kids. And also my dad was going around to colleges a lot. Back then there was something real earnest and avant-garde about it. I liked being my dadís kid. I liked the respect he got. I loved his sense of humor. I loved watching my mom make movies. And thatís when I really got into it. When my mom kind of retired, I started, and I felt in a way that I carried that on.

MF: Are there patterns you wonít repeat with your son?

RDJ: Yeah, but I think thatís a dangerous attitude to take, because then youíre in denial. Some things I consider inexcusable about my parentsí behavior Iíve already surpassed. There is so much fear in being a parent.

MF: How did becoming a father change your views?

RDJ: It was the first time I recognized that there was something a lot more difficult than working. A lot more rewarding. Suddenly, your primary focus is outside yourself.

MF: Was your son aware of your problems?

RDJ: No. I havenít dropped the ball as a dad very much.

MF: Do you usually take your son on the road with you?

RDJ: So far, heís come to visit every time. My wife is back in California. Sheís a singer and songwriter, and sheís starting to play a bunch and things are taking off for her.

MF: Has your son become more important than your job?

RDJ: Yes, and itís weird, too. Itís so much more important to me what Indioís watching on TV in the trailer than what Iím doing on the set. I find myself obsessing about things like his dental hygiene.

MF: You went to Santa Monica High with a lot of kids who had acting aspirations. Did you hang out with Rob Lowe or the Estevez clan?

RDJ: I hung out with Ramon Estevez, the middle one of the three brothers. He taught me how to tap-dance, taught me about the social intricacies of late-night coffee shops. He was the first true eccentric I ever met. That whole family was like the Hearsts to me. They lived in Malibu. They all drove nice cars. They had a tight family.

MF: Did you act in any school productions?

RDJ: Yeah. I would show up in the morning and hang out with my friends, then ditch. Show up for theater arts, ditch. Come back to hook up after school.

MF: Your grades must have been interesting.

RDJ: They were consistent. And there was this fence— thatís where I learned to escape. It wasnít easy to get over this chain-link fence, which was 20 feet high, at least.

MF: How did your parents react to your ditching?

RDJ: My dad said I should either show up every day or quit and get a job. He was going back to New York to shoot a movie. I remember being called into a counselorís office, and she said, ďListen, we want to get you through this year. Eleventh grade was starting out well. You come in for summer school and weíll make up a bunch of these credits, and weíll get you into your senior year.Ē I looked at her, thought of Dadís plan B, and I quit instead.

MF: Do you regret not finishing?

RDJ: I take it upon myself to follow my interests, which include history, a love of nonfiction and science. But where was I going to go to college? What was I going to major in, tap dancing?

MF: Describe those early days in New York.

RDJ: I was living with my sister in a really depressing apartment on Edgar Allan Poe Street, West 84th Street. Really depressing. Iíd put on whatever clothes I had pilfered and I would go on these casting calls. I didnít have an agent.

MF: Did your family send you money?

RDJ: No way. The defining moment was when I called my dad. I said I needed some money. I really was hungry. I had ten cents. And he said no. He said, ďAsk a friend.Ē I said, ďI donít have any friends.Ē He said, ďAsk your friends. donít call me.Ē I thought that was so cold. But I worked it out.

MF: How long before you made it?

RDJ: It took three years. I was in New York, working in a restaurant as a busboy. I never made it to waiter because I was too sweaty and didnít have the finesse. Across the street from the restaurant was a theater. I got a part in a play. An agent saw the play, then I had an agent. I got a part in Tuff Turf. And then I auditioned for Weird Science.

MF: That was a big break.

RDJ: I walked into John Hughesí office and Anthony Michael Hall was there playing with Johnís stereo system.

MF: This happened right after Sixteen Candles?

RDJ: It was like running into Spencer Tracy or something. It was like seeing a movie star. [Anthony] Michael [Hall] came in and watched us read, and he kind of looked at me, like, Iím going to tell John to get you this job. I remember that Sarah was in the car outside waiting for me, and I said, ďI think I got this job.Ē

MF: How did you meet her?

RDJ: We met on a film called Firstborn, which is, I think, the second movie part I ever got. I moved into her apartment shortly thereafter. We fell in love big time.

MF: So you had both a career and a girlfriend. And you and Michael went on to become cast members on Saturday Night Live.

RDJ: Again, he helped me. This fellow probably had a greater influence on my career than anyone else. We became— and still are— good friends, and he had, at the age of 17, as much juice as anyone. Anyone I was excited to meet I met because he already knew them.

MF: So it was his idea to do SNL?

RDJ: The idea had come to him, and we were always talking about wanting to do something. The show was re-forming, Lorne Michaels was coming back, and Michael got excited about it. He got me an audition for it.

MF: It was not considered the greatest SNL season. How was it to be on at that time?

RDJ: It was wildly exciting. Our first host was Madonna. I was in John Belushiís dressing room. We demanded— or rather Michael did, because I wasnít in that position— bunk beds with NFL sheets. I was 20, so Iím barely making it there on Monday to meet the new host, you know.

MF: So you were living up to the SNL partying tradition?

RDJ: Oh yeah. During that time, Michael was probably the most amazing pussy wizard in history. And if you were anywhere near him, you were having fun. Heís 17 years old, and there are gorgeous girls everywhere.

MF: You left to do Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield.

RDJ: That was fun. My hair. I was such a nerd, I thought the higher my hair, the more handsome I was.

MF: Then you got Less Than Zero.

RDJ: Things were going well. Sarah and I had a place in L.A., and we had a place in New York. When I wasnít working, I was going to Red Square, going out to the clubs all the time. Andy McCarthy was cast as Clay, and I went to the audition. And I was Julian. I was smoking jackets, spats, ascots, gloves.

MF: And you brought Julian to life.

RDJ: Thatís probably the first time I created a character from scratch. And it was really emotional. The first scene was on the tennis court, when Julian is confronted by his father. Everything changed from then on, because I knew if I got that right, the rest of the film was going to go well.

MF: Some castmates, such as Jami Gertz, feared you were replicating Julian too convincingly.

RDJ: I didnít do it because of the movie. I did it because Iíd been doing it for ages already. I started believing that as long as your performance was up to par, you wouldnít get too much flak on the shape you were in when you got there or when you left. That wasnít a good thing to cultivate.

MF: Were you partying with your peers, or alone?

RDJ: If there were people there, great. If there was no one there, fine, as long as there was a bottle of Absolut, or a little something or other.

MF: Was it mainly hard liquor then?

RDJ: Drinking, coke. Mushrooms were often involved.

MF: Did it strain your relationship with Sarah?

RDJ: Not having that affliction herself, it was just confounding for her. But we had a love for each other that overcame all of that, and there was a surprisingly high percentage of normal days as well.

MF: How did it end?

RDJ: One of the things I remember is that we were kind of broken up, but we werenít beyond reconciliation. Then I read in the paper that sheís gallivanting with one of the Kennedy boys.

MF: That was it?

RDJ: No, not at all. What could I not forgive after all Iíd done? I just wasnít there enough of the time. We had real deep love for each other, and I worshiped her. When I could. I donít know that I would have had a career at all without her. She gave me something more than work.

MF: Do you see her? Have you met her husband, Matthew Broderick, or is it too hard?

RDJ: Itís not too hard. I ran into them somewhere, and Iíve never been uncomfortable seeing her with him. I love her and I always will, and Iím glad she found someone sheís happy with.

MF: After your seven-year relationship ended, you almost immediately married Deborah Falconer. What made her the woman you could commit to?

RDJ: It was really her personality, though it was of great benefit that she happens to be one of the most drop-dead gorgeous women Iíd ever seen. Thereís something really youthful about her. She isnít self-conscious about how beautiful she is. And I could not get over her ass.

MF: How long from curbside meeting to marriage?

RDJ: Forty-two days.

MF: After seven years in a relationship with no ring, it took you only 42 days?

RDJ: Not to slight Sarah in the slightest. It seemed eventually Sarah and I would have married. But once certain words are said, or once you separate yourself geographically from a relationship, itís a whole different game. Itís like pulling the one-armed bandit. And I came up gold bars a lot quicker than I ever expected.

MF: How did Deborah react to your substance problem?

RDJ: She was as wild as I was. That was the last time I remember it being fun. We started off in high gear. I couldnít maintain the relationship, and then she got pregnant. That helped, but even that couldnít deter me from my primary purpose, until now.

MF: There were reports she took Indio and left temporarily.

RDJ: That was in April.

MF: And by June you were bottoming out.

RDJ: Also by June, I was hitting this stride that was very ethereal. I was out of body. I was getting toward the place I had always been looking for. See, some people like to go down and out with booze and dope, barely conscious, nothing working but the heart and lungs. But for me, there was the introduction of all these other drugs. I donít know if I was dying. I didnít know what was going to happen.

MF: It sounds like a dangerous place.

RDJ: It was bad, and it was fuzzy, comfortable and familiar, and inviting. I was in a place that didnít have a lot of exits.

MF: Then you were found in a childís bed in what became known as the ďGoldilocksĒ incident. How did you end up there?

RDJ: I donít recall. I was trying to justify what happened up and down, saying, ďIt looked like my house, right?Ē Then my partner, Joe, laid it on me pointedly that it looked nothing like my house, that there was an elevator that went down into the house.

MF: Have you ever gone back and said anything to the family who lived in that house?

RDJ: I still havenít, but I should. Hopefully by December Iíll say something to the lady.

Michael Fleming: What was it like to be in the tabloid crosshairs?

Robert Downey Jr: Thus this. [He holds up the middle finger he displayed for paparazzi] But in my mind, the only thing that mattered was that I had left my bags in that neighborís house. My drugs were in those bags in that house. Get me my property.

MF: So, actually, the media were a small concern?

RDJ: It was just another hurdle between me and the next hit.

MF: Then you found yourself before an unamused judge. The same judge who had sentenced you one month earlier, when you were caught with drugs and a handgun.

RDJ: Itís the unfortunate aspect of addictions and disease: In the face of all logic and your heartís desire to clean up is a low, distant hum in the background. I remember my lawyer saying after the first incident, ďYou canít make any mistakes from here on in.Ē

MF: But you did.

RDJ: I wanted to stop. I really wanted to. Stopping isnít hard. Not starting again is.

MF: At that point, youíd become emaciated. How much did you weigh?

RDJ: One thirty-eight. Iíll never forget it.

MF: What are you now?

RDJ: One seventy. And sadly, I loved 138.

MF: Why?

RDJ: I felt like a spider. I could do anything. I say sadly because thereís a part of me that still, to this day, romanticizes what was going on. Not only was I at zero body fat, I was starting to get down to zero muscle mass. Then it would have been zero bone mass, and then what would have happened? A strong wind and—pixie dust.

MF: The judge sent you to rehab after that infraction.

RDJ: Yes. I went to Exodus.

MF: Where you also escaped.

RDJ: Exactly.

MF: How did you get out?

RDJ: Like a velociraptor. Remember in Jurassic Park when they were systematically checking the fence for weaknesses? There were three or four off-duty police officers there, making sure I didnít go anywhere. The mistake that was made, in my estimation, was that I was woken up and given Valium and coffee, which is a low-grade speedball. Then I was alert and relaxed.

MF: And ready to check out.

RDJ: Again, itís so crazy. The thought that went through my head was, I have to make this a short run. Somewhere in the back of my head, though I wasnít consciously aware of it, I knew that I had been told: ďIf you leave here, you are going to jail. The only place youíre going from here is jail,Ē and I said, ďI donít think so.Ē There was a sweet, dedicated, kind man who I had taken into my confidence. I asked him to get me more coffee while I took a shower. There was one window that opened, so I opened it and hurdled.

MF: The star became a fugitive.

RDJ: Iím wearing my hospital pants, a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of slippers, and I went into a yacht store and first asked about some boating equipment. That must have been quite a sight. And then I asked the sales guy if he could kindly call me a taxi.

MF: Did he know who you were?

RDJ: Yeah. In fact, he asked me if I wanted the taxi at the back door. And off I went. I donít—Iím not at liberty to say what happened after that. But let me put it this way: Things were about to get much more serious. Judge Mira had had enough of me, and rightly so. I thank God for him, really. He was way—

MF: Pissed?

RDJ: I donít mean there was a personal vendetta or anything, but it was like, Forget it. He showed me what reality was.

MF: He put you in jail. How was it?

RDJ: It wasnít until Iíd been in for two days that I realized what had happened. I wasnít quite myself yet. So I was talking shit to the people in the jail and saying things like, ďHeads will roll.Ē Real pathetic stuff.

MF: But jail made an impact?

RDJ: Yeah, that did it. It was just horrible, being in jail. It was only for ten days, but I wouldnít wish it on anyone.

MF: If you hadnít been forced to stop, what would have happened to you?

RDJ: I donít know. So many things could have happened. I could have had a real God shot. I could have hurt somebody, and then it would no longer have been a victimless-crime situation. I could have died—that was always a possibility—but I always felt that wasnít my destiny. The worst thing was that I would have continued indefinitely.

MF: Later, you described your problem to Diane Sawyer on national TV. Why did you feel the need to publicly absolve yourself?

RDJ: I donít know. I just liked Diane Sawyer. Also it was a way to get the afternoon off from dishwashing duty at rehab.

MF: Were you happy with what aired?

RDJ: It was all right, yeah. She was nice about it.

MF: You also hosted SNL. A bold move, but there was criticism that you might not be taking things seriously.

RDJ: I donít think you can take it seriously unless you joke about it. Iím suspicious of stoicism.

MF: Youíre neither stoic nor defensive about any of this stuff.

RDJ: I donít think youíre ever reformed, and I guess thereís nothing worse than a reformed smoker. Iím not that yet. So it might not be over, you know? I donít even know. I hope it is. I just donít want to come off like I feel Iím impervious.

MF: What was your familyís reaction to your problems?

RDJ: My mom was pretty much there for the whole thing, and I just remember her saying, ďKid, the truth is the truth.Ē I think everybody was fairly relieved that I was in jail for a while, because itís difficult not to sober up in jail.

MF: You have made nearly 40 movies. Are you rich? Could you not work if you chose to?

RDJ: No, not for long. But when I was making $40 a shift as a busboy, I had all I needed. There is something about making tons of money that makes you spend tons of money, and all of a sudden you never wash your own car, you donít make your own bed. But itís all for a price. When your phones get fucked up, you donít go down to AT&T. Some guy drives out.

MF: You grew accustomed to the high income?

RDJ: Yeah, and believe me, if ever someone found the transition to boy king an easy one, it was me. No one ever sat me down and said, ďHereís how you build your own little empire.Ē I was very much left to my own devices, and as James Woods said when we were doing True Believer, ďThis kid has more silk than it took to land the troops in Normandy.Ē I was way into clothes, way into toys. It was a fad that lasted ten years.

MF: You spent all your money, didnít you?

RDJ: Itís really easy to get ahead of yourself, and everything is so remarkably incremental. You make a movie, the checks come in every couple of weeks. Itís not likely I would have sat down and said, ďOK, letís get down to the nitty-gritty of money management.Ē Itís a good idea. I almost went bankrupt last year, but it costs 50 grand to go bankrupt nowadays.

MF: It seems surprising you got that close.

RDJ: It was easy.

MF: Because you spent so much on drugs?

RDJ: That was the least of it. It was extravagant purchases and no moderation. When we had Indio, we bought a house. I didnít want to be driving around in a Porsche with a baby seat, so we got a Mercedes. Then we wanted a Defender. The Defender had too short a wheelbase—Iíd never bothered to test-drive it—so I traded that for a Discovery. Impulsive stuff. But itís just so bothersome to penny-pinch and sit down and go over it all. Now I am more apt to do that because, given my druthers, I wouldnít have done any films this year.

MF: You would have taken time off?

RDJ: You bet. And done something else. I canít say I donít have remorse about not thinking, planning ahead. But thatís just how it is now. I have no fucking regrets whatsoever.

MF: How has all this changed you?

RDJ: I was changing throughout it all anyway. In some ways, Iím less motivated now than I was when I was the lovable tornado. But Iím resilient.

MF: When John Belushi was spiraling downward, the word was that people actually gave him drugs to keep him working. Did people make it easy for you to stay on the wrong road?

RDJ: Nobody made it easy for me. Everybody made it more difficult, and I raced to the challenge.

MF: Are hard drugs really prevalent in Hollywood?

RDJ: No. Well, it depends on who youíre talking about. I think all it takes is a handful of folks messing with the brown to kick up a big dust cloud. Itís so high profile.

MF: Youíve said you want to direct. Do you get that from your dad?

RDJ: I think so. Also from watching fellows I admire and watching fellows I despise. The movie I want to direct is called Danís Best Friend, about a dog walker for the rich and famous. One of the dog walkers is kind of an O.J.-meets-Keith Haring character. He takes all these dogs and sits in the park and has an out-of-body experience. The dogs run away, and he doesnít get any of them back. Heís serendipitously abducted and taken to Long Island to hang out with a bunch of his old high school friends. Itís a big ensemble. Itís kind of dark.

MF: When will this happen?

RDJ: I can probably do it next spring. In some ways the drive is to keep me doing whatís convenient, which is being an actor for hire. But I have to finish the script. Iíve got to.

MF: It sounds more difficult for you than acting.

RDJ: I think itís a lack of motivation to get down to the toughest gig in the world, which is writing. And yet I love it more than anything else—writing, painting and music.

MF: Is acting ever hard for you?

RDJ: Itís only hard for me when I think that the environment isnít conducive, because then I just feel hatred. Deep, seething rage.

MF: Does it manifest itself, or do you keep it in?

RDJ: Itís not appropriate to rage. Too bad.

MF: But you always hear of actors throwing fits and tantrums.

RDJ: Well, I never set that precedent. To do it now would be really untimely, I think. They would say, ďHe must be having a rough time. Heís just getting back on his feet.Ē

MF: Do you mean that they would not take you seriously?

RDJ: Why should they?

MF: The documentary The Last Party was your tour through the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Did you come away loving politics?

RDJ: No. It was exhausting and pointless.

MF: What about Clinton?

RDJ: I hear that heís actually done more than most administrations do. [Suddenly Downey, remembering an earlier thread in the conversation, changes the subject] But Iíd have to say that aside from having had a concealed weapon, which was not loaded and which I had a permit for—and by the way, the bullets were where they were supposed to be, which is in the glove box... The only reason they called it a fucking concealed weapon was that it was under the seat. But what am I supposed to do, put it in a gun rack? Whatís more, Iím in a truck. What am I supposed to do, put it in the flatbed in back and have it rattling around? That would be subtle. Nothing I did deserved punishment or corrective measures or anything. America is fucking ass-backward with respect to a lot of stuff.

MF: Like what?

RDJ: Punishing people for drug dependency. Drug trafficking, maybe. People are dying around that. People are dying around drug dependency too, but look at Holland. It has one of the darkest histories of mankind. But theyíre not judgmental. I think theyíre perfectly aware of manís inherent desire to alter his consciousness.

MF: You wrote and recorded the song Smile for Chaplin. Do you want to record more music?

RDJ: Yeah, I have enough for about two albums, 50 songs, and then a whole musical too.

MF: Letís talk some more about your movies. Tell us what comes to mind. One Night Stand?

RDJ: Thin as a rail.

MF: Danger Zone?

RDJ: Five hundred grand for two weeks.

MF: Home for the Holidays?

RDJ: Loved the trailer. I mean my trailer. That was one of my favorite movies, ever.

MF: Restoration?

RDJ: Wildly difficult and somewhat rewarding.

MF: Richard III?

RDJ: Somewhat difficult. Ian McKellan asked me to be in it. I loved him. Fifty grand, two weeks.

MF: Hail Caesar?

RDJ: One day, with Michael Hall. Genius scene. He was directing.

MF: Natural Born Killers?

RDJ: Tour de force. Loved shooting in prison.

MF: Heart and Souls?

RDJ: Real fine, San Francisco, lots of money, Deb was pregnant. Probably one of the best times in my life. Good movie.

MF: The Last Party?

RDJ: Never need to go to another convention, thank God.

MF: Short Cuts?

RDJ: Played my first creep. Fond memories.

MF: Chaplin?

RDJ: Finest performance given by an actor in the 20th century.

MF: Too Much Sun?

RDJ: Working with Dad. Always a pleasure.

MF: Chances Are?

RDJ: Ryan OíNeal, sake festival.

MF: True Believer?

RDJ: Learned much from James Woods.

MF: Less Than Zero?

RDJ: Speaks for itself. Awesome.

MF: Back to School?

RDJ: Hair hell.

MF: Weird Science?

RDJ: Serial dumper.

MF: Care to explain?

RDJ: I was the serial dumper. I defecated in a fellow castmateís trailer, much to the chagrin of Bill Paxton and Robert Rusler. It was a real bad scene. Joel Silver freaked. I never admitted it. Joel said, ďDowney, did you do it?Ē And I said I wish I had. Because Iíd been threatening everyone that if they didnít treat me right, I was going to take a dump in their trailer, or that Iíd go take a shit in Joelís office on his desk or something.

MF: Whose trailer?

RDJ: Kelly LeBrockís.

MF: Was it a dump with some sort of provocation?

RDJ: No. It was the serial dump. Random turds.

MF: Do you feel you have anything to prove to Hollywood or to the movie business, to restore their faith in you?

RDJ: Thatís a real dangerous assumption for me to make, you know. As far as Iím concerned, if I had stopped in 1992, I would have done all I needed to do. Now, I donít even have to prove anything to myself. I know I can do all these other things. Itís not like Iíd like to take up the piano or maybe take a course at NYU. I know how to do all the other things I want to do. And Iíve proved that to myself without having endeavored to finish or complete any of them. Itís just time to step up the stakes for myself. Because otherwise Iíll just wind up depressed and anxious, and Iíll be in jail again shortly thereafter.

MF: So you canít really say itís over?

RDJ: No. All it would take would be 45 minutes.