It hasn't been the easiest lives for Robert Downey, arguably one of the most intensely charming and charismatic actors of his generation. At the Sundance Film Festival for the world premiere of his latest film, The Singing Detective, most of us who saw it agreed on two things: One, a second Oscar nomination is a distinct possibility and Two, portraying a character with hallucinatory alter-egos could well be a case of art imitating life. Paul Fischer tried to dig beneath a complex psyche amidst the wintry chaos of Sundance. It's hard to know what to make of Robert Downey Jnr. On this, his second appearance at Sundance, the world's foremost independent film festival, the actor knows that he'll be asked about a past littered with second chances, drugs and prison. He doesn't exactly skirt the issues, but as he incessantly plays with his Sundance badge, he is full of uneasy energy, bouncing off the walls like a child and handing out napkins imprinted in the form of hundred dollar bills, not to mention aimlessly singing 'Office Krupke' from West Side Story.
That's just for openers. So it stands to reason that attempting to get a straight answer out of Downey is a challenge. He hates the idea that The Singing Detective is his comeback film. On that prickly question, he quoted an inspirational speaker who, he said, told him "the bigger the setback, the bigger the comeback." "Nowadays, any time you can complete one thing and move onto the next thing, the board is washed. You suck again," he said. "Or still suck. Everything's a comeback. I think it's become incredibly tenuous and kind of precipitous out there. You can't rest on your laurels."
The Singing Detective marks Downey's return to the big screen since his various arrests for drug use and possession. Based on Dennis Potter's TV series, Downey stars as Daniel Dark, a bitter, misogynistic psoriasis-sufferer, covered in a collage of painful flaky skin and sores, whose symptoms and sentiments are a symptom of a painful past and childhood memories. Drugged and immobilized in hospital, he fantasises about the hard-boiled detective novel he's written, scenes of which intermingle with childhood memories of his own unfaithful mother, and with reality.
Characters suddenly slip into lip-syncs of 1950s popular songs [in the series they were from the forties]. It was a part that Downey was born to play, he agrees, following his latest West Side Story rendition. It always seemed like I grew up on that stuff, you know what I mean? What else was there if you're like 14, and wondering what you are going to do with the rest of your life, all 6 years of it," he says, while his eyes dart around the room like a cat ready to pounce at any moment.
The fantasy-driven aspects of his character remain super cool, debonair and confident. Downey says he was never anything like the coolness that song-and-dance character often personifies. "You know what, I was a mess," Downey concedes. A mess while making the movie he adds. "You're kind of like Bobby Darren and nobody's kind of like Bobby Darren because he was way, way out there, you know? But when I saw it, when we were sitting there watching it, you know, all of our bitching, lamenting and character assassination was really for nothing. It turned out all right."
After his frequent absences from the public, Downey seems unconcerned as to how audiences will react to him at this point. "You know what? I'm no longer anxious, because I've seen it with an audience of more than a dozen last night [at the Sundance premiere] I think it's what it's supposed to be." Part of what Singing Detective is 'supposed to be' is a film about a guy tripping. That old art imitating life thing. The question had to be asked. In playing a guy hallucinating, Downey responds to the question in a kind of self-mocking fashion, though with Downey, you never know. "You mean, this is trippin' man? You know what's so funny? Most of the time I was kind of in and out of awareness or consciousness. Those are kind of like transitions, where, you know, let's keep the cameras rolling. Okay, now we're going ahead to Scene 24 where you go".uh, sticky betrayals".So let's tighten up the lens. It was kind of like a lot of that stuff, in and out, and all that was like it was the transition time of the day. I mean, they have to do that to make everything come together, you know? So, I remember every day and every set-up of this film, and yet watching it, I was kind of like 'Shit, how did we do all that?' We did all that, all because of our producer fellas, and particularly Mr. Gordon our director, who really kind of got their Swiss watch on before we started and figured out how we were going to make it all fit." Perhaps one of the elements that enabled Downey 'make it all fit' was his perceived ability to relate more to a character 'trippin' following the actor's own drug-related experiences and what he had gone through, conceding that he'll never really know. "But would it be easier if I thought Betty Ford was simply a president's wife as opposed to some Mecca of Minneapolis? Actually, I never made it to Betty Ford but I think that anybody could correlate with anything." At 37, the older but wiser Downey is determined to pick his professional projects carefully. While he has been absent doing time and dealing with a plethora of inner demons, in terms of his now revitalised career, the actor cheerfully insists that "I've become a picky little bitch." He has been in showbusiness now for some 25 years, was nominated for an Oscar for Chaplin and while some may be wary about working with an actor with so troubled a past, that doesn't prevent a reflective Robert Downey from taking anything that comes his way. His sobriety has made him choosier about work. "You know when somebody says something like, well I'll give you something like Singing Detective, you really want to be careful in following up, like that kind of actual planning and just stirring things with your career. I've never bothered to do that before. I'd throw the script across the room and go "Why do they keep sending me this horseshit? I'm not without talent' and then I wind up'."
The Singing Detective may put Downey back on track, but he remains somewhat philosophical about how Hollywood will continue to take him, post-arrest. "Shit, I don't know you know? I've always been a fella who put most of my eggs in one basket and then take a dump in the basket but I really don't know," says a wistful Downey, fiddling with an unlit cigarette. "I mean, I'm a little older, I'm mildly wiser, and I think, what I have noticed is there is a direct connection between how things go with me and society's poster boy need and so I figure I can relate to that too. I need to keep things real black and white but it's like I try not to be really happy in my skins and with my work. I always want a higher challenge and I'm always down for a good hard time, whether that has to do with visiting serious institutions or visiting various studio lots."
Perhaps Downey's intensity in taking on a role is what allows the actor to mask those troubled demons of his. Now, returning to professional acclaim with this film and a slew of announced projects, Downey thrives on the work, and deals with fame and his recent infamy with a sly sense of humour. "I think I've been lucky, being my frequent appearances on Court TV have brought to me another level than just the actor guy," he said. "There's no pedestal thing happening. I'm very tangible to people because my fallibility is my forte."
Downey can now afford to look at his past transgressions and realise that there is a reason why Hollywood has forgiven him for his stint behind bars. "When I was doing various stints in the pokey, people would say to me, 'Dude, the only difference between you and me is you got caught.' The only difference is that I created situations in my own bottoming-out or crises, and I sought to reach out and act out in a way that was scary to the public, and very, kind of like, let's see, why don't I dress for arrest? Maybe that's my way out of here, you know, and that painful anticipation has passed."
The actor adds "I am less of an insurance risk than anybody who does not have a Geiger counter going on what's up with them and their proclivities. After all, it's not like I'm a guy who would go and sneak one in like I'm under the ridiculous illusion that I can control this chemical compound past a certain point. The truth is in the piddle, and I'll piss at the drop of a hat. I don't care any more. Whereas other people might be kind of like, aren't you a little moody today and might be on their way to this super bottom out."
Downey's participation in Singing Detective had as much to do with his close friendship with Mel Gibson as the quality of the material. It was Mel who optioned the Potter script and who insisted that Downey do the film. The relationship will continue. Downey confirmed that he will do the new Mad Max film if asked, that he hopes Gibson will eventually direct him as that troubled Dane Hamlet and that he has put aside the pain of his past to contemplate on a future rich with possibility. As the last time he was at Sundance, he arrived with his father who had directed him in 1997's Hugo Pool; it was fitting to finally ask what lessons he has learned from Robert Downey Snr. "Well he laid the boots to me in the driveway because I broke the antenna off the rabbit." Always leave 'em laughing is Downey's motto.