PLAYBOY: Aren’t movie stars supposed to stay out of the sun to protect their skin?
DOWNEY: I like having some color before I go to London so I can hear Guy Ritchie say, “You cock. What are you getting a fucking tan for? This is Sherlock Holmes.” You get ready to shoot a fall film during the height of the summer. What am I supposed to do, wear a hat?
PLAYBOY: You’ve always been known for being independent. The last time we interviewed you for Playboy was 1997, when you were making U.S. Marshals. At the time you told spectacularly honest stories about what it was like to be a great actor with a drug problem. You talked about an audition with director Mike Figgis for which you showed up barefoot and carrying a gun.
DOWNEY: Oh yeah.
PLAYBOY: And the futility of people like Sean Penn and Jodie Foster trying to fix you, and getting down to a spiderlike 138 pounds.
DOWNEY: That was my fighting weight.
PLAYBOY: And how you had a divining rod that could lead you to drugs in a strange city and have you back in your hotel room in 45 minutes. Having come so far, how much can you relate to the guy who gave that interview back in 1997?
DOWNEY: Entirely. Absolutely and entirely. But sometimes it’s necessary to compartmentalize the different stages of your evolution, both personally and objectively, for the people you have to love and tolerate. And one of those people, for me, is me. I have a very strong sense of that messed-up kid, that devoted theater actor, that ne’er-do-well 20-something nihilistic androgyne and that late-20s married guy with a little kid, lost, lost in narcotics—all as aspects of things I don’t regret and am happy to keep a door open on. More than anything I have this sense that I’m a veteran of a war that is difficult to discuss with people who haven’t been there. I feel for the kind of zeitgeist diagnoses that are being applied to certain of my peers lately, and I think it’s unconscionable.
PLAYBOY: You mean like the rush to judge Mel Gibson based on his voice-mail messages?
DOWNEY: I’ll speak much more generally. If I’m friends with somebody now, I don’t talk about them for public consumption. But remember, I was in jail, and I don’t want to discredit the doctor, but somebody just decided I had some disease in my brain. Sight unseen they needed to publish it and capitalize on this “truth.” More power to them, misguided or not. But the real problem is this: When you’re in the hood, don’t be alarmed by gunfire. That’s as simple as I can put it. For me, the hood was northern Malibu and my own isolation and dependency therein. That’s the only thing I really know now, and I don’t think about it. But I learned it in such a ghastly way. Yes, I need refresher courses of an educational variety, but I don’t ever need to revisit the obvious.
PLAYBOY: How does it play back in your head?
DOWNEY: Well, it plays back in my head now as part of a miraculous success story—a success story of the spirit much more than anything else. So it’s funny to me when the metric by which people say I’ve changed has to do with things that are of no real import. The context of the conversation is sullied before I can even respond.
PLAYBOY: Are you talking about how you’re different from the guy in that interview?
DOWNEY: No. Here’s what I’m saying: People say to me, “Look how you’ve changed. Look at this building you’re in.” And by the way, I do the same thing; I misinterpret things in the same way that I’m reactive to—or nonreactive to but very aware of. Those people are completely missing the target, and it’s no mystery at all. I mean, shit, some people living in their trucks within a hundred yards of where we sit are happy and content but definitely have a mental illness and unrealistic desires based on things that are physically not true. And then there are people who are having a great summer and whose personal stock is up in a variety of enterprises who should pump the brakes, close down for repairs and allow themselves to be reinvented by the truth of what we’re really doing here.
PLAYBOY: What was the Robert Downey Jr. we interviewed in 1997 lacking?
DOWNEY: Nothing. Honestly, I don’t have a judgment on it. I just see somebody who’s like, “Oh God, life is really hard,” and this is how you’re coping, and it doesn’t work. You are not consciously aware of what you will have to unconsciously invite so you can go to the next place. It’s a molting stage, and I think some of it is just an exploded view of that phase of development in human beings or that phase of development in human beings who are underdeveloped at that stage.
PLAYBOY: Did that guy ever imagine the Robert Downey Jr. who exists in 2010?
DOWNEY: Well, it always comes down to what you believe. It’s also odd and just an exercise in forced duality to say I’d rather be here than there and this was better and that wasn’t. It’s important to say, “Hey, man, we’re here now, and it’s pretty good,” to just whisper through the dimensions and say, “Hey, you’re going to be all right.”
PLAYBOY: Early on in Due Date, when your character gets shot with a rubber bullet, he sits down and says, “I’ve never done drugs in my life.” When you first saw that line, did it make you uncomfortable?
DOWNEY:The funny thing is, it didn’t. Except for times when I’m asked to remind myself and everyone else of it, what I notice is that it doesn’t even come up. No one on the set said, “Isn’t it funny that you’re saying that?” Nobody said that because I was so in character while I was saying it and because I was probably the cleanest person within 50 miles. Not having done drugs for literally five or six years is a lifetime. I think of myself as someone who has no desire, use for or even, strangely, conscious memory of that life. And yet I don’t shut the door on it, and I don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Back then I had more religious devotion to unhealthy and self-destructive things than I had to an honest day’s work. In that context I was happy to give anybody who needed it an honest day’s work, as long as when that day was over I could get back to my real job. And that’s all.
PLAYBOY: One of the things you said in our interview is that, after Chaplin, you chose projects by doing little more than looking at the cover page, finding out who was directing and then saying yes.
DOWNEY: Whether I liked it or not, I always said yes? [laughs]
PLAYBOY: You didn’t give projects the scrutiny you do now. Would the wonderful acting opportunities you’ve had lately have happened if you had been more disciplined then?
DOWNEY: I don’t know. It’s hard because it’s a hypothesis within an alternate universe. You know what I mean?
PLAYBOY: Sure. Now you’re developing your own films. Do you have more discipline?
DOWNEY: In general, passivity is a big fucking problem for me. Are you absolutely satisfied being an actor for hire? I stopped being satisfied being an actor for hire before we did this the last time.
DOWNEY: It’s just the way I was raised, the things I saw happen creatively in my dad’s work, the way I saw my mom being able to express herself as an actress in an almost underground environment. There was a director, there was an idea, there was innovation, there was a great sense of excitement and fun. And in that way Due Date for me was such a return to a felt sense of community with a small, like-minded group of peers. To me it was like big-budget summer stock.
PLAYBOY: Your father, Robert Downey Sr., made several well-regarded independent films—except they were called underground then. His work was often compared to jazz improvisation. How much of that takes place on a big studio film like Due Date?
DOWNEY: It happened with this film more than with any indie I’ve ever done. But that’s specific to a certain type of team doing a certain type of movie with a certain type of studio at a certain point in their careers.
PLAYBOY: By a certain point in their careers, you’re talking about people who have had some big box office success.
DOWNEY: Why should one have to precede the other? Like you can’t do what you need to do until you’ve demonstrated you can do what they would like you to do but don’t necessarily expect because it doesn’t happen very often? Again, that’s the problem with passivity, with waiting for a time when you’ll be able to take care of yourself. That’s ass-backward, not having enough influence or leverage to give yourself some space and settling for copping a resentment and stuffing it every day.
PLAYBOY: You’re the newcomer in Due Date. Director Todd Phillips and Zach Galifianakis did The Hangover together. Do you feel as though you’re crashing an existing relationship?
DOWNEY: My confidence level lately has been so high that I’m happy to go with people who have a preexisting relationship and who just experienced something together that was unimaginably successful, enjoyable, smart and a little bit different.
PLAYBOY: What puts you in that confident place?
DOWNEY: My age and my recent set of experiences, which have left me feeling I’m in the zone. This is just the sweet spot of my career and my life so far, and strangely, they’ve come at the same time.
PLAYBOY: When did that confidence start?
DOWNEY: When Joel Silver put Shane Black, Val Kilmer and me together, with the missus producing, on a little picture called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was a practically perfect script, and we played with it a little bit and made some improvements. I liked the way it felt. My energy was even. Val and I synced nicely, and Shane did a great job directing.
PLAYBOY: Was the film successful?
DOWNEY: It was a movie that didn’t know how to find its audience. It wasn’t the audience’s or the studio’s fault. The movie was——
PLAYBOY: A feathered fish?
DOWNEY: That’s exactly what they called it. I’d almost forgotten that because it’s been so long since I’ve had feathered fish. After that, working with David Fincher, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo on Zodiac was just a very classy gig. And then things started adding up. I screen-tested for Iron Man, and the morning Jon Favreau called and told me I’d gotten the gig…I still get all choked up just remembering. It was such an invitation to this cornucopia of possibilities. And it all happened.
PLAYBOY: Tropic Thunder would have been a real risk for any actor. When you play an actor delusional enough to think he can method act his way into becoming a black man, don’t you worry about politically correct backlash?
DOWNEY: There was Ben Stiller, who to me is the closest living thing to Chaplin we have today as an actor and a director. He’s devoted to detail but also loves the feeling of a loose fish in his hand. I also thought about my dad’s film Putney Swope and how that was about a creative black man who, only by accident in 1968, finds himself in a position of true influence and power. And then I thought about all the years following that and how many black entertainers, more so than even my own pigmented brethren, had influenced me. I thought about struggle, and then I thought about my own struggle. And without imagining I could draw any realistic parallels, I decided to invest myself in it. I just had all these references guiding me and [laughs]—you know, forget everything I just said. My heart was in the right place, and when the character’s voice happened, I could do no wrong. That has happened only one other time, and it was with my character in Natural Born Killers, who interestingly enough was another Australian.
PLAYBOY: You were nominated for an Oscar for your role in Tropic Thunder. How did you handle that Oscar night compared with when you were nominated for Chaplin?
DOWNEY: I don’t remember how I handled anything when I was 26, honestly. There are reports; maybe they’re accurate.
PLAYBOY: What were the reports?
DOWNEY: Who knows? That I wore platform shoes and a Little Shop of Horrors necktie. Well, those aren’t reports; those are facts, and I’m not saying that what I wore represents how I handled it. The point is, I don’t think Tropic Thunder was about me or even about what I did. Maybe some courage was involved. I believe it was just an interesting year. It was all a cresting wave of what seemed like a major turning point in American culture, and I was peripherally involved in some small way.
DOWNEY: I remember a Rolling Stone article making the connection between my role being embraced as not offensive and the possibility of a black president.
PLAYBOY: Your character in Tropic Thunder paved the way for Barack Obama’s election?
DOWNEY: I don’t want to say I was directly responsible. [laughs] I’ll leave that for the historians. But do you think I could at least get a half-assed tour of the Oval Office as a result?
PLAYBOY: All this was made possible by Iron Man, a role you were forced to fight for.
DOWNEY: I just felt, Shit, this could be the thing for me. Why not me?
PLAYBOY: Who was against the idea?
DOWNEY: Everybody. I’ve been on both sides of casting. When you’re on the actor’s side, it’s all very personal. When you’re on the studio or producer’s side, it’s this free-flowing array of opinions, intuitions, previous experiences or recent accomplishments. Or Jimmy the Greek bets on where you’re at: Are you poised for your big Aqueduct purse run, or are you two sitcoms away from the glue factory? Probably the person resisting it the longest was me. I resisted being open to thinking of myself in that framework, that I could do the superhero thing. But maybe I could look like I was six feet tall, in the right boots. I could get my arms a little bigger and not move my face so much when I talked. I could be in a jeep with a bunch of military guys cracking jokes and then not look like a bitch when the bomb goes off. I might even look like the kind of guy who designs those big bombs. By the way, that’s more likely me. He’s not a hero in the beginning and has no intention of becoming a hero. He’s injured by his own creations. I just love that. I was three when Stan Lee created this character.
Let me grab some Nicorette gum. [reaches into a black plastic case filled with bottled water, gum and vitamin supplements]
PLAYBOY: Is that stuff working for you?
DOWNEY: Oh, it’s so good, dude. Cigarettes were just killing me.
PLAYBOY: How long has it been since you quit?
DOWNEY: Aside from a week in Italy, a year and a half.
PLAYBOY: Did everybody smoke there?
DOWNEY: Yeah. I almost didn’t, and then I was like, This is crazy. Are you kidding me? But I think next time I can handle Europe. What was I talking about?
PLAYBOY: Iron Man and Stan Lee.
DOWNEY: Oh yeah. I feel connected to Stan Lee on some trippy level in that I was wearing nappies when he was creating this character who went through all these transitions and was for years considered a second-tier superhero. By the way, if he had been considered anything else, the movie would have already been made. And so every single thing about it was right.
PLAYBOY: What won you that role?
DOWNEY: I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job. I had never worked on something that way before; I was so familiar with six or nine pages of dialogue, I had thought of every possible scenario. At a certain point during the screen test I was so overwhelmed with anxiety about the opportunity that I almost passed out. I watched it later, and that moment came, fluttered and wasn’t even noticeable. But to me it was this stretched-out moment of what keeps people from doing theater for 30 years—just an unadulterated fear of failure.
PLAYBOY: Yet you made it work.
DOWNEY: Yeah. And I had prepped myself to the point where I was able to tumble over in that wave and not be dashed by it. I see that all the time. People think they’re ready for something; they’re prepared, they’ve checked their equipment, and then the first thing goes wrong on the landing craft and they’re just dead in the water—boom, you’re done. You’re floating up on the beach.
PLAYBOY: When you got that job, was it one of the greatest moments in your life?
DOWNEY: Definitely not the greatest moment in my life. It was a singular moment in my professional life, and I was right where I belonged. I was training with my si-fu at the L.A. Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy. Once you get on the mat, you’re not supposed to get off. My assistant Jimmy came in and said that he didn’t mean to interrupt but I had a phone call. The si-fu , this one time and never since, said, “Why don’t you take five minutes, grab a drink if you need it, and if you need to take that phone call, feel free.”
PLAYBOY: How often do you do kung fu, and what does it bring you?
DOWNEY: I was there this morning. I’ve been doing it for seven or eight years, maybe longer. I recently doubled up my sessions to three hours three times a week, and I’m not exhausted by it. It’s so funny because I thought, Shit, I have to get in shape for Sherlock Holmes. I realized the reason I’m not changing much with the stepped-up workouts is because I’ve been in shape for five years. Because of my training, my conditioning is as good as it can be, and that’s why I’m not noticing dramatic changes even though I’ve been on a cleanse diet and all this other shit.
PLAYBOY: What’s the cleanse diet?
DOWNEY: Dr. Alejandro Junger has a program called Clean. You get a shake, eat some lunch, and that’s about it. I’m not on it today because I did it for a week that ended yesterday, and then I’m starting it again tomorrow. I needed a day.
PLAYBOY: Why are you so devoted?
DOWNEY: [Laughs] Well, any explanation I give now will only be relative to what I think I know. Until you’ve had your ass handed to you enough on any point.… It’s asking yourself, Why am I putting on this weight? Oh, it’s stress weight. No, for me it’s what I believe about myself. When we were done with Tropic Thunder, my missus said, “You have to go on a diet right now. No offense, Downey, but you’re fat…for you. Well, for anybody.” I was like, “But I feel great!” Then there’s that whole thing where I’m like, Can I just give myself a break? Does it matter if I’m a specimen? It’s all about how I think I need to be perceived. But to answer the thing about discipline: Discipline for me is about respect. It’s not even about self-respect; it’s about respect for life and all it offers. And not indulging. I have happily reconsidered my position on a bunch of things I didn’t want on my “no” list despite all evidence that I couldn’t handle them. At the end of the day, anything I think I’m sacrificing I’m just giving up because it makes me feel better.
PLAYBOY: How close are you to a black belt?
DOWNEY: I will be testing for brown belt next. There was a time when I was focused on the gradings: The gradings were going too fast for me to prepare and give a good showing, or the gradings were going too slowly because I felt I should be at a higher sash level. When I stopped concerning myself with the color I was wearing around my waist and got down to addressing the same three or five mistakes I was continually making at every level, that’s when I shot forward. If that’s a metaphor for anything else, then great.
PLAYBOY: What part of this activity do you value most?
DOWNEY: The apprenticeship. I have an instructor. He is my teacher and will remain my teacher until one of us is no longer here. To me it’s not devotion; it’s a decision. And by the way, it ceases to be about the result, which is self-defense and formidability and people intuitively not getting in your space. To me, it is about being vigilant about the decision I made.
PLAYBOY: Your wife produces your movies and works alongside you as partner in your production company. What’s the challenge of mixing business and marriage?
DOWNEY: It’s reminding yourself and your partner, through experiences or quietude, that you genuinely prefer their company to their absence, and then having a healthy amount of intentional separation within your unity. The other thing—and studies have been done on this—you need a certain ratio of positives to every stressful incident with each other. For every pointless spat we have, we need to have five moments of genuine connection and appreciation. These statistics apply to us. The physics of being in proximity, being cell mates and lifers together, just comes down to continually respecting each other. Sometimes I don’t want that and just want to be respected, to be heard. I don’t want to be managed; I want her to follow my directives. And it’s never gonna be that way—except when it is, and it’s great when it is.
PLAYBOY: How often does that happen?
DOWNEY: It happened last night, for a second.
PLAYBOY: You mentioned you want to have kids. You have a son, Indio, who’s now a teenager. Do you want a boy or a girl?
DOWNEY: I think we should probably try to have a girl because I don’t want another male entity to have to compete; I don’t want Indio to feel there’s another boy in my life. But I don’t know what we’d have to do. Do we have to put it in a spoon and hang upside-down? Of course that’s wrong, and I think, Wait a minute, I don’t get to make that decision. It’s the stupidest conversation ever because it’s like saying “Red or black?” You have a 50 percent chance of being right and a 50 percent chance of being wrong. I think we’re going to have a girl.
PLAYBOY: How soon? That’s within your control.
DOWNEY: I think I will be wrist-deep in doo-doo within 18 months. I’m calling it, right here.
PLAYBOY: What excites you about going through fatherhood again?
DOWNEY: Well, let me think. What is the upside? The upside is doing what you’re supposed to do, what feels righteous. And that is another 18 years, legally, of thankless blood, sweat and tears.
PLAYBOY: One of your goals is directing. Is that something in your blood?
DOWNEY: I guess so. Dad’s shadow is kind of still there. I’m sure that’s part of some metamorphosis.
PLAYBOY: How much of a kick is your dad getting out of your success?
DOWNEY: It’s all relative. I’d wanted to meet Paul Thomas Anderson for some time. Dad was coming out here, taking the train because he doesn’t fly. I said, “What are you gonna do?” He goes, “Ah, I’m gonna go to a Dodgers game with PTA, and then we’ll be.…” I said, “What?” He said, “You guys should meet.” [laughs] So I got to go to dinner with those guys.
PLAYBOY: When do you think you’ll direct?
DOWNEY: In three years.
PLAYBOY: Your career really took off with Iron Man, Tropic Thunder and Sherlock Holmes. Now you’re starting another exhausting round of big projects.
DOWNEY: I’m doing Sherlock 2 and then Gravity and then The Avengers. I promised myself I wouldn’t do this again, but Gravity is a short schedule. And as Noël Coward said, work is more fun than fun.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel that way?
DOWNEY: I feel what’s fun about not working is reconnecting with who I really am. Or being up in Big Sur with the missus, renting some cheap bikes, taking a 17-mile drive and going to some New Age sandwich shop and getting watercolors and doing a couple of sketches. Left to my own devices, I’m happy to be in any of these modes.
PLAYBOY: Jamie Foxx told PLAYBOY that a key to Tom Cruise and Will Smith staying on top is that they will strive to beat you in everything. They are ferociously competitive. Do you have that?
DOWNEY: I’m my own version of that. I feel as though I was coughed out of the whale’s mouth into this life. If I had a strategy, I’d dare anybody not to laugh or puke at the strategy I came up with.
PLAYBOY: Good point.
DOWNEY: Yeah, and I like that. But I’m not a guy who has to destroy you at Ping-Pong or I can’t eat. My realm, my Octagon, is what we’re shooting, and my confidence is in what happens between “Action” and “Cut.” But if you’ve had a life as difficult as anyone’s and your most stressful times had nothing to do with being powdered for your fucking close-up, then the reality of a day spent on a relatively safe film set is not daunting at all.
PLAYBOY: What do you worry most about?
DOWNEY: I’ve noticed that worrying is like praying for what you don’t want to happen. I don’t worry, but I observe where my mind tends to go. I have such an overwhelming sense that if you’re in the right state of heart, which I have been for a little while, the next right thing appears to you.
PLAYBOY: Do you believe in fate? Was this a road you had to travel to be where you are now?
DOWNEY: I don’t necessarily believe I’m meant to be anywhere, but I know there are a lot of probabilities. Some of the probabilities that seem the least probable are actually where I’m heading. A lot of my peers who have led pretty healthy lives have been dealing with some serious health problems the past couple of years. I put myself at risk for a bunch of years and find I’m perfectly healthy. I also know that some of my pals have led contented lives for the better part of the past quarter century and I have known relative happiness—and by happiness I mean having a sense of peace and not just waiting for the other shoe to drop—for only five or six years.
PLAYBOY: What’s the best thing about getting older?
DOWNEY: I think there’s something honorable about it. I’m trying to think exactly where it happened—maybe on Iron Man 2. Being around youngsters, guys and gals under 30, and suddenly realizing that, to them, you’re part of the old guard. My story is a fucking period piece to them. Even when I was in a really bad way I always imagined being 75 years old and talking smack to some future industry upstarts. It was a fantasy then.
PLAYBOY: What’s your view of the newest wave of reality-TV stars such as the Situation, Snooki and Kim Kardashian—people who are famous for living lives on-screen?
DOWNEY: It means what it’s always meant, that everybody is famous somewhere for something. I wouldn’t have made it if I’d been born in 1975 or 1985 instead of 1965.
DOWNEY: Because the feedback loop is so intense that I would have combusted in some way. If I had to pick a decade or two to be a complete dope-smoking fucking coke freak—not that I’m saying there was ever a good decade to do that. And honestly, because we’ve been talking about this back and forth a lot, in the context of right here now, I look back on it and think, Jesus, did I have a choice? I guess I always did. Why couldn’t I see until I could see? If there’s a reason for that, I haven’t figured it out entirely. But the nice thing is, I’m not in a hurry. I almost feel that’s an end-of-the-line answer to learn. But it’s just so trippy, dude. I mean, just think about when we did that last interview. You said 1997?
PLAYBOY: Yes, 1997.
DOWNEY: That’s nearly two seven-year cycles ago. Wow.
PLAYBOY: Back then you liked to spend money. Now that you make real money, what does it mean to you? What is the best thing about having money now?
DOWNEY: Well, I have a pretty big family. And there’s a lot of experience-is-everything, a bit of a gypsy-grifter thing in my DNA for some reason. Let’s say Chaplin had come out and I’d busted all the right moves, gotten on Antabuse or something, and done the stuff I’m doing now back then. I guarantee you I’d have a hangar filled with vintage this and that and maybe even a bronze of myself—flagrant artifacts of success, a real squander-fest. Now a splurge to me is getting a bunch of T-shirts or sneakers. And I still look at the prices, because I think everything is ridiculous.
PLAYBOY: Would you have been able to handle this success back then?
DOWNEY: No. Now I’m scared of the right things.
PLAYBOY: What are you scared of?
DOWNEY: Infidelity. Losing my sense of true humility. Looking back I think, Oh my God, I could have been done. I could have been so fried and so bad off and, oh my God, such a cautionary tale. [laughs] And I still could be. By fear of infidelity I mean I have a passion for how delicate it is to maintain things that are really pure. And I don’t find myself tempted because I don’t put myself on a frequency that temptation likes to go. I keep myself in overtly pheromone-free interactions with all women, except my wife. She deserves it.
PLAYBOY: You pulled yourself out of a nosedive and showed it’s possible in a time when every misdeed is covered with harsh immediacy. Is the glare too harsh?
DOWNEY: Nope, I don’t think so. Comparatively speaking, in a semi-democracy in the 21st century, it’s not that big a deal. It’s a big deal if you’re the one in the barrel. But why did you put yourself in a position to be in the barrel? What did you expect? Some people are not made of stuff hard enough to withstand the realities of their position.
PLAYBOY: People have to take responsibility for themselves?
DOWNEY: But they’re creating it. Everyone’s creating their own stuff. To me, here’s the only thing: You take responsibility, whether you’re outraged by the results or not, that you in some way participate in and create what you’re experiencing. It’s people who stay stuck—and I relate to this because it’s a card I’m happy to play when I’m tired or overwrought—who think, I’m a victim; I’m being victimized! You’re out of line! Can you believe this? I didn’t do anything wrong! Well, actually you did.
PLAYBOY: Do you accept your own culpability?
DOWNEY: I couldn’t believe it took so long. But again, when it’s going down, when the bust is on, there’s never a good time to have your house raided. You just think, Man, all those times I was stuck at the window in my underwear, sweating mortar shells and thinking the cops were coming, and they never came. I would think back on those other thousand times and relax. And then they came. Which is why I find myself fascinated with shows like Bad Girls and Jerseylicious, and also Inside American Jail and Lockup. The best one’s in the U.K.; I watch it when I’m over there doing Sherlock. It’s called Banged Up Abroad, which means “locked up.” Locked Up Abroad is always fun.
PLAYBOY: What intrigues you about prison shows?
DOWNEY: First of all, I enjoy reenactments that aren’t done so well that I’m buying it. That creates a certain aesthetic distance. Then I like interviews with someone having some catharsis. It always starts with “I kind of had a feeling I shouldn’t be doing this.” [laughs] It’s never “I strapped the hashish around my midsection just knowing it was all gonna pan out for me.” And they never say on Locked Up Abroad, “This was the first time I ever tried this.” They just describe the time they got busted. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I am part of a culture that is equally fascinated, disgusted and soothed by the socialization of the random suffering of others.
PLAYBOY: You recorded an album in 2004 and went on Oprah to promote it. Was it what you hoped it would be?
DOWNEY: No, it wasn’t. As a matter of fact, Trudie Styler was cleaning out one of her and Sting’s apartments when they were moving from one place into another, and she found a cassette tape of demos I’d somehow forcibly extended to them in 1988 or 1989. I think I even remember the moment. I’d also enclosed a scarab that I thought Sting and I would instantly have a transmutation with because of Synchronicity, his album that I understood better than anyone else. I listened to the demos again and became infatuated with them because they have moments that to me show, yes, I was musically inspired. And then the rest is gobbledygook, like the kind of people who come up to me when I’m going to Good Morning America and thrust their DVD in my hand. Like I was that guy.
PLAYBOY: How many rounds would you last on American Idol?
DOWNEY: Oh, I’d take it.
PLAYBOY: All the way?
DOWNEY: You know what? I haven’t seen it enough to know that. Some of these kids can belt the songs. For me, the shit has come to this, and here’s one of the great things about getting older: I’m confident enough in myself as a singer to never go out of my way to do it again. [laughs]