Robert Downey Jr.’s Hieroglyphic Love Affair

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I was going to blog about Harrison Ford turning down a Han Solo spinoff, but the story feels off to me — the sourcing’s not so good. I don’t buy it. Let’s all be quiet and maybe he’ll make Indy 4.

So instead…here’s Robert Downey, Jr! Every year Time does a piece about great performances from the past year. Because we’re geniuses we call it Great Performances. I only had one nomination: Downey as a paranoid tweaker in Scanner Darkly. I could blab about how awesome he was, or you could just watch a clip on YouTube. He’s not a nerd per se, but he did give the best performance in the best SF movie of 2006. (Yes, that sentence was comment-bait. But I do actually believe it.)

I didn’t do the interview, my excellent colleague Amy Lennard Goehner did, but she graciously loaned me her outtakes. (And let us not forget, Downey is going to be playing Tony Stark in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Kind of interesting, because Stark had a drinking problem, and Downey has a history of addiction…anyway.)

TIME: What was your reaction upon receiving the script?
DOWNEY: This is going to be a freak show. This is going to be a blast.

TIME: What’s Linklater like as a director?
DOWNEY: We’re holed up in a hot conference room, and whatever happens during the day or whatever comes to light or whatever funny or dark or serious or poignant stuff we say winds up being in the next draft. He retrofits the script to the people playing the characters. On the other hand. he’s a complete taskmaster and he calls the shooting days the ground war. With Linklater, there is no stone unturned in the entire quarry by the time you’re done shooting every day. You feel like you’ve wrung out the sponge out of every possible idea.

TIME: Had you read the book before?
DOWNEY: I was somewhat familiar with it. I left the bookwormy stuff to people who were a little more essential, like Keanu who was asking for translations of the German words. I basically showed up, put on a pair of fluffy pink slippers and started thinking about how dark and weird and poignant we could make these guys and gals.

TIME: What drew you to the character? Did you feel like with your own personal struggles with drug addiction, that you felt a particular empathy for him?
DOWNEY: You’d think that would have to be part of it and definitely an obvious thing. To me at the time it was a kind of prophetic science fiction tale, and that the substance abuse was really a metaphor. And enough time has passed between that part of my life, you’d think I’d stop at some point and go ‘this reminds me of when…’ But really, we were working superhard in these strange conditions…what brought me to the table to make me want to do this was that Linklater was directing it.

TIME: Who you had never even met…
DOWNEY: No, and he was sitting at the Chateau with Keanu, and when Val Kilmer and I were doing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang we pretty much had School of Rock playing on a loop in a trailer at someone’s house. And in addition to all the other stuff Rick has done, we were having nerdgasms and were pretty geeked out about School of Rock, so it just seemed like someone I really like is calling and saying ‘do you want to be in this movie?’

TIME: So no trepidation.
DOWNEY: It’s funny, I feel it doesn’t add up, the whole thing was supposed to be a way for me to [he's talking ironically here] exorcise and show that I’m…[he breaks off laughing.] It was a job.

TIME: What’s it like to act in a movie where your performance is essentially traced over? Do you feel some of the acting is lost in the animation?
DOWNEY: It can cover a lot of the uncomfortabilities, its such an emasculating thing to be put in front of a camera and be told ‘and in addition try not to look ugly or shiny or sweaty.’

TIME: You had this system of putting post-it notes around the set, to remember your lines? Rick said they looked like hieroglyphics to everyone else. Can you talk about that?
DOWNEY: I’d go on these long rants and he’d make them intelligible and they’d be in the next draft. And I’d be like ‘ohmygod now I have to memorize this.’ So I’d go from the set to the gym to dinner to the hotel and immediately write it on a poster board in acronym. So when I’m saying ‘oh these gypsy grifters must have’ I’d write ‘TGGMH.’ Then I’d study the acronym.

TIME: Because you were able to improvise so much?
DOWNEY: Yes, and also cause he’s [Linklater's] so great with words, he’d take these thoughts and wordy pointless essays I spat out and he’d condense it to 25 words that meant something. He was a great editor and collaborator. I’d have a love affair with my hieroglyphics every night and then I’d bring them to the set and hang them up. It was super weird, but it works. Now I don’t leave home without my hieroglyphics.

TIME: Was there one thing that was a high point during shooting, in terms of the collaborative process?
DOWNEY: There was a scene where we’re all tweaking an engine outside and no one knows who to trust, and Freck shows up and we all turn on him. It just reminded me of the kind of freaky stuff that would happen when really good friends are getting too stoned.