He. Is. 'Iron Man.' Robert Downey Jr. Speaks

The Oscar-nominee chats, in his inimitable style, about suit zippers, the importance of lighting, and keeping it real.
"If there’s ever been a character in the history of my career that I would be happy to associate myself with it’s Tony Stark," Robert Downey, Jr. told Wizard's Rickey Purdin, "because it’s the coolest job that I’ve ever had."

That's an impressive statement from the prolific actor who turned in memorable performances in Natural Born Killers, Less Than Zero and Chaplin, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. But as he discussed, at length, his titular role in Jon Favreau's Iron Man, the first feature from Marvel Studios, Downey supported his pronouncement by revealing the deep thought he put into the project.

"Well, I’m not like coming in and going, 'Hey, this is all wrong. Relight.'" he said in his own defense. "But I will come in and say, 'I’ve seen this in a movie before, no offense. But if we do this, I haven’t seen that.' Some of them are so far out they go, 'Will you just go and put on your chest piece and earn a living like everyone else?' But, I feel the responsibility to not venture into this genre without an understanding that it’s actually inhabited and enjoyed by very apt, bright, perceptive people. So, just because it happens to have this two-dimensional aspect to it in its origins doesn’t mean that it doesn’t go deep and that it shouldn’t be an art form."

To better understand those origins, Downey had lunch in Beverly Hills with Tony Stark's father, Stan Lee, who admitted that the creation of Iron Man had been a challenge in the Vietnam Era. But it was a "dare" that paid off, bringing in more female fans for the vulnerable billionaire than for all the other Marvel heroes combined.

But what real-life influences did Downey draw upon for that vulnerable billionaire?

"Well, this might sound a little weird, but I’m not drawing on other things for him," he said. "It’s like I consider him to be a real entity for the most part. Regardless of the amount of dough that I’ve made over the years, I’ve never lived four seconds like this guy has lived every day. So it’s been this really kind of amazing experience to see what it would be like if you had unimaginable resources and you had this change of heart and then you decided to pull those resources into something that became very much like a fetish and obsession.

"I tended to go more into mythology and the real basis of mythology and how men and women are capable of, at a certain sort of level, making themselves godlike, clearing themselves of these earthly things and locking into a purpose or some sort of divine idea, whether it seems dark at the time or not. It’s like you can see through perception and then you have this heroic experience."

Of course, there are some distinctly un-heroic experiences in the actor's past which many Iron Man fans feel make him perfect for this role. But, though candid about his extended, highly-publicized battle with drug addiction, which cost him a marriage and time behind bars, Downey downplayed the influence of that struggle on his portrayal of Stark, the first major comic book superhero to suffer from alcoholism.

"I think that when someone has had a fundamental change," he explained, "Whatever friends of mine or peers who are just in a different place in their own evolution, by the time that you’ve seen the light and start doing the right thing, you really don’t relate to the person that historically [they] still say you are.

"So, my thing is that Tony Stark has been known to go bonkers and be so irresponsible that he’s too hammered to put on the suit. It’s the fact that Tony is so conflicted at certain points, I guess, in the later years with 'Demon in the Bottle' and all of that stuff. There’s so much stuff going on in this movie as it is that we decided not to do that thing too, but I get it. In a way that’s why it’s ideally suited for me and I’m ideally suited for it."

Speaking of suits, Downey proudly declared himself "the first person who’s been able to relieve themselves while wearing the suit," thanks to a zipper cleverly concealed by a hitch piece.

To make sure he looked plausible as the man in the "armor," the now-forty-something actor put himself through a rigorous exercise regimen on top of his regular martial arts, yoga and healthy diet.

"There are a couple of scenes where they light it right and I’m like, 'Wow. That really looks great. I’m really in shape.'" he said. "Then you see this picture of Tony Stark [from the comics], who kind of looks like Tom Cruise except more handsome and more buff...I’m not particularly tall and I’m surrounded by giants, and I’m not walking around like Don Adams, on boards or anything, but there are all these elements of, like, when I see this movie I want to be able to believe that he’s the guy."

Putting on the suit definitely helped get Downey into the mindset of a powerful superhero. "Like, the first time you try on that suit, you could take the least macho superhero man or woman and put them in this suit, and I swear to God that for 15 seconds you would believe that any of them would destroy their nemesis."

In the face of so many tech-heavy elements, the down-to-earth actor--who came to Iron Man from such character-driven films as Zodiac and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang--had to work harder to put a human face on this comic adaptation.

"As much as we’ve been able to in this," said Downey, "we’ve tried to have it feel like if [Robert] Altman had directed Superman or something like that."

Iron Man blasts into theaters May 2, 2008.
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