An actor and all round legend like the actor behind the iron suit needs no introduction. If you're unfamiliar with his work, check out Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 1, (and maybe 2), The Avengers, and also Chaplin and Tropic Thunder. He's done lots, and despite a few glitchy years in the middle, as of now he's at the top of his game. Ahead of the release of Iron Man 3 this Friday, here, Robert Downey Junior discusses his most prolific character to date, the special place that Shane Black (whom he worked with on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and for Iron Man 3) holds in his heart, and the journey that Iron Man has brought him on.
1. Q: When you signed onto the franchise, did you know people would relate to this character and that it would be this special?
A: At this point, with the first two "Iron Man" movies and then "The Avengers" and now doing "Iron Man 3," there is obviously this sense of continuity.
I think part of what really made it work was it was tangible. And with Legacy, the human beings who make all the tech in the movie, it’s as if you can reach out as we go from movie to movie and you are feeling more and more like you’re seeing something that’s become part of the collective unconscious. On a certain level this stuff is real and it’s also kind of feasible technologically. So I think that’s what made it successful. We had a group of talented people and we did something that kind of bridged a gap between the unfeasibility of most superhero genre movies and the kind of movies like a "James Bond" or "Mission Impossible" that are grounded in things that we think could happen.
2. Q: Marvel’s "Iron Man 3" comes five years after the first "Iron Man" film. Have you changed over the years in your approach to the character?
A: I am five years older, so back in the day, all I cared about was have I taken enough creatine, do my arms look big, how’s the light, and then am I kind of charming and funny. And this time around the relationship with Pepper is obviously the kind of center of the movie. Contrary to my own designs, it seems like this time I’m much less thinking about how do I come off and this and that. I am thinking about the other characters. I’m thinking about this kind of a checklist of stuff that we always thought maybe we should do. One of them was we always felt like Tony and Rhodey should be at Neptune’s Net because it is up the road from where Tony lives and it’s a biker bar. Jon [Favreau] and I, and then Shane [Black] and I and even Joss [Whedon] have all contributed to this kind of Christmas list that we never got to execute because story or time or money or whatever got in the way. And it seems like, without it being convoluted, a lot of those wishes are coming true in "Iron Man 3."
3. Q: Is it fulfilling as an actor to miss moments and come back to them later in the franchise and not be making the same movie over and over?
A: Yes. I also feel the passage of time. This is just such a sweet time to be with this group of men and women. So I don’t necessarily feel the whole grief of time is running out. But you know, there’s a half-life to an arc of a career, an arc of a franchise or whatever, so I think there’s been a lot of just good will this time around because we all feel like it’s a really nice ride, and again, the audience has driven the success. That’s what’s been cool.
4. Q: Why was Shane Black the right guy to direct this film? What is his different take here?
A: Jon and I used to call Shane [Black] and ask him for advice and he would give us these metaphors and sometimes direct comments or whatever, and he would never take a penny for it. One time he asked for a piece of well-done salmon and some blueberries as payment. So we are a bunch of "weirdos" but we all have the same enthusiasm for the genre.
Shane has been so instrumental in shaping the action genre and bringing character into this sort of filmmaking that I was surprised and delighted and obviously very much in favor of him directing this. As Jon [Favreau] has moved on into other realms of activity and had his other successes and other experiences, it’s interesting to see that now it was Shane and I reaching out to Jon to remind us of where he was heading the ship to begin with. But the great thing about this story is it’s dramatic and it’s pretty deep and dark at some points, but it also is very quintessentially Shane Black. I love movies where there are things that you’ve forgotten were even set up that pay off. And by the way, again going back to Jon, that’s what Jon and I were always trying to do. We were doing it in a much less organized way and we were I a little bit luckier than more planning-oriented writers or directors would be.
5. Q: Shane Black is an interesting choice because he can navigate a script packed with characters and that’s not an easy thing to do.
A: No, it’s not easy. Just for starters, we had always considered how to get Tony with a kid who is kind of smart and good with his hands and who understands tech. We thought, great, so maybe there is some sort of geek-squad kid from a super smart school, and they were like, but how can you relate to that? Or maybe just this kid from rural Tennessee.
We really wanted Rhodey to be more dynamic and have a gun in his hand and really be able to match Tony in his kind of bravado and his wit, and we’ve done that. As for the Tony/Pepper storyline, we wanted to show what happens four movies later in the course of a relationship, because as Kevin Feige [producer] reminded me, Tony Stark is the only Super Hero who has cultivated and maintained a relationship with one woman over time that doesn’t go south entirely.
6. Q: How do you keep the chemistry fresh between Tony and Pepper?
A: I start thinking in terms of what’s in it for my co-stars, and what is it that keeps this interesting for Gwyneth. We have addressed that because she has a pretty remarkable arc for a love-interest, female heroine in this film. So that’s probably one of the things that I am most excited about. Without giving it away, let’s just say she has a pretty incredible arc this time.
7. Q: Talk about the other female roles in Marvel’s "Iron Man 3."
A: Rebecca Hall, who plays Dr. Maya Hansen, has just become one of my favorite people in the world. The relationship between Tony and a girl from the past that he just shared a night with is also really cool to motivate some changes and drama for him and Pepper. But it’s also nice because we always saw Tony as a playboy but we never thought that there was someone he actually maybe would have spent a little more time with. It’s interesting that there is this history between them that comes into play in the story and the theme. Rebecca has done a great job.
8. Q: Is the way Ben Kingsley interprets things inspiring to you even though you’re peers?
A: I think what is inspiring is when you motivate and push each other to say, "Hey, you know, we can really kind of play here. We don’t just have to serve material." If you have good instincts, that’s kind of what you’re always left wanting when the movie is done shooting anyway. Speaking of which, Guy Pearce who plays Killian, has really come out of the gate and I think he is going to remind people why he’s one of our great, national treasures—on loan from Australia, of course.
9. Q: Everybody seems to be having fun, too, always stepping each other up.
A: What happened to the fun? That’s the first thing I was thinking, and I always have to remind myself as I absolutely insist on having fun. Why do I forget? Why do I become someone who is just in the slog of the pressure of the schedule? Tony Stark is a joy to play and charity starts at home.
10. Q: What does the Extremis storyline bring to Marvel’s "Iron Man 3"?
A: I remember when I was rereading some of the later Iron Man comic strands, there was this one called Extremis, and I was bringing it up from 2007 when we were shooting the first "Iron Man." I said, "This is so cool" and everyone was like, "Yeah, anyway." On "Iron Man 2" I said again, "Oh, this Extremis is so cool." "Yeah, anyway" again. But Shane [Black] really latched onto the Extremis idea and thought about how could we bring it into play. So in "Iron Man 3," Extremis is what brings Maya into play; it’s what brings Killian into play. It’s at its core, the idea that, okay, we don’t want to have suit on suit, so what’s the alternative? The Extremis is something that has applications outside of the military too. In fact, what Maya is attempting to do with her research, in her mind, is Nobel Prize stuff but in our world, it’s Nobel Prize stuff gone wrong.
11. Q: Why was it important to bring Happy back?
A: Jon Favreau, as we remember him first and foremost, is one of the most astoundingly watchable and fantastic actors of his generation, and I think very under-appreciated. I felt like the big idea here was that his character Happy is central to the story. He is, aside from Rhodey, the closest guy to Tony.
He is central to the story and when he comes in he just brings everyone to school, because he has the freedom of not having to worry about what’s on the call sheet; he’s just someone coming in to play and have a good time. So I think a) for the fans, b) for all of us who love him so much, c) for Shane, d) for the rest of the cast who has either a direct experience with him or an understanding that he’s kind of the grandfather of why we’re all here anyways, it was super important. I think he’ll probably wind up with some of the most touching and definitely the most entertaining moments in the story.
12. Q: The emotional journey here is very, very strong, is it not?
A: Yes. As much as anything else, there’s been a question going on of, "Okay, where did this start? All right, he had shrapnel in his heart. And how did he get fixed? Oh, that’s right, Yinsen put an electromagnet in him. And then what did he do? Oh yeah, he put in an arc reactor of his own. And what has that done? That’s powered everything since. And then what happened? Oh, it started poisoning him. So then what happened? His father posthumously led him through a mysterious initiation into how to perfect his own heart."
But when we started "Iron Man 3," he has quote-unquote perfected a heart without actually dealing with the wound to begin with. So once you have all those things in play you go, "Okay, with all of those plates spinning at the same time, what is he supposed to do?" And I think that there really is only one thing to do, and we tried everything else and wrote everything else and talked about everything else and the one we’ve chosen I think is absolutely delightful.
13. Q: Compare putting on the suit during the first film to putting on the suit now. What are the advances?
A: The funny thing is Mark 1 was really clunky, but it was a ball. And if you ask some people, they still love the suit before it was a suit that anybody knew from the comics or from the franchise per se. Then it’s been just a bunch of guys and gals standing around figuring how to make it survivable and how to utilize the resources of other departments. So, for me it’s gotten easier and easier. It’s gotten to the point where I can be wearing a pretty significant amount of gear and not be uncomfortable at all for long periods of time. I have much less to complain about, which has left me a little bit confused, but has also helped me to refocus my efforts back again on story and on my costars.
14. How was this shoot different from the other two "Iron Man" films?
A: We had a lot of night shoots on this movie, and there were points in the night shoots where everything was coming together all at once and it’s four in the morning and there are 25 plot points and 6 characters and you just go, "Wow." And the best remedy for complication is just a good time. So this has been, I think probably since the first "Iron Man"—as stressful as it was and as much hope and as much excitement as we had in the unproven entity—a real return to a sense of just fun and goodwill. I think everyone just trusts themselves now too. It’s like we’ve been doing this long enough to not be second-guessing ourselves. We’ll second-guess each other just because we’re used to it and it helps push the envelope a little further toward the edge. But this time we kind of started at the edge and we’ve been falling into the chasm together.
15. Q: Why did you guys decide to go with the Mandarin, and why cast Sir Ben Kingsley?
A: That’s one of the things that Marvel does best. Marvel casting is very thoughtful and very conscientious and also very bold in their casting choices.
Sir Ben brought the trifecta of an extremely accomplished artist who also came with a lot of very strong ideas that were necessary and had to be implemented, and then third, decided to absolutely cut loose and play in a sandbox like an improvisational five year-old. And I think probably the most fun that I’ve had shooting the film has been watching what he’s done that you never could’ve imagined would be scripted before they said "rolling." So, and coming from me who prides myself on off-the-cuff stuff, I guess that’s saying a lot. So in a way, this movie would not have worked at all and would not be the movie it’s going to be if Sir Ben hadn’t done what he did.
16. Q: What can audiences expect?
A: I can honestly say that they should expect to be continually surprised. This is intentionally a mislead into a redirect into a turnaround into a bait-and-switch into a red herring. But I think that in some ways that this is the most emotionally satisfying and the most technically and action-wise and superhero-wise entertaining of the three. It’s fun.
Check out our exclusive interviews with director Shane Black and the rest of the cast right