Robert Downey Jr. Talks Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War
Robert Downey Jr. Talks Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War
You could, of course, call the Marvel Cinematic Universe the House That RDJ Built. Without Robert Downey Jr. blazing a trail as Tony Stark in the original Iron Man back in 2008, chances are the MCU would have spluttered and died long before Avengers: Age Of Ultron was a glint in Joss Whedon’s eye. So it makes sense that the second Avengers movie revolves around Stark, with Tony’s well-intentioned plan to ease the pressure on his super-friends by creating Ultron, a global AI police force, going somewhat awry. When the virtually unstoppable Ultron becomes self-aware and declares humanity personae non grata, it’s up to a guilt-ridden Tony to go toe-to-toe with his deranged creation. The effect this will have on the generally happy-go-lucky Stark will be fascinating, given that Downey is about to start work on Captain America: Civil War, which will pit the billionaire genius playboy philanthropist against Chris Evans’ walking flag, Steve Rogers. Is Tony about to become the villain?
We spoke to Downey on the phone in early January, and started off by asking about his working relationship with the man behind Ultron’s mo-cap mask, James Spader.
Last time we spoke, on set, you hadn’t yet worked with your old pal James Spader on this movie. What was that experience like?
He could have done it the easy way and instead he said, ‘No, if I’m gonna do this, I want to have the experience’. He’s got his big hit show (The Blacklist) and I feel that he just wanted a real counterpoint to that, wanted to really dive into doing something that can be extremely tough and thankless. And yet that voice and that personality and what he invested in this iconic villain I thought was kinda great, but it was also kinda silly. I know him from literally my first movie in Los Angeles, Tough Turf, and from Less Than Zero, and he’s always been reclusive. So I could not speak to him for a decade, but he’s one of those guys who you pick up the phone he goes, (affects pretty good Spader voice) “Anyway, Bobby, true romantic love is… well, I’m in it. Were you napping? Do you mind if I sit down?” He’s just Jimmy. He’s coming in and doing this jazzy Shakespearean thing, and you believe that somebody that has that much personality and that much wit and that much emotive capability is a threat. That’s the important thing.
You did scenes with him in his mo-cap onesie, with a giant Ultron face suspended three feet above his actual face. Was that surreal?
Honestly, no more surreal than what happens in any of these movies. Age Of Ultron feels like a beginning and an ending. In the script there’s a lot of references to that – it’s the ending of the beginning, the beginning of the ending – and honestly, what I was marvelling at in being there, back and forth to Shepperton and staying in Richmond up the road from Hemsworth and hanging out with Jimmy and getting to know Aaron Taylor-Johnson and all these new cast members, it’s just wild. It’s just incredible what’s occurred and how part of the furniture of popular entertainment it’s become. It’s become the gold standard of this genre of filmmaking, and it’s just a bunch of really cool, nice, talented folks who are all kind of scratching their heads but will roll up their sleeves and say, “Okay, let’s not take ourselves too seriously but let’s continue to take this as seriously as we did when we were wondering if we should join the party.”
As someone with a great Iron Man sequel under his belt, but also a not-so-great Iron Man sequel under his belt, what does that teach you when you’re going into a huge follow-up like this?
You never want to lean on things that you did knowing that it was like a back-up parachute. You don’t want to pretend there’s a back-up to that back-up parachute. And yesterday’s approach doesn’t necessarily work today. That’s what I really enjoy – that double sliding scale Spock Chess thing. How do you do it? How did you ever do it? How did you do it before, and how are you going to do it next time? I think, ultimately, it comes down to the very self-deprecating Mr. Whedon, who is more exacting on himself than he could ever be on anyone else. But he’s specific and in charge and I found him enjoying himself a bit more this time while simultaneously holding himself to a higher standard. You can’t do the same thing, only smaller, not as cool. There’s that other trap – where it’s, “Everything is bigger! Better! Do you know how many gigabytes we used in the opening sequence? How many terabytes?” Ultimately it comes down to that. I’ve never seen a call sheet that left less to the imagination. It was an 82-page call sheet. I’m sure this comes from every dropped ball over the course of these dozen or so movies so far. I’m sure they were incorporated into ‘never again’. And so there were very few quote-unquote logistical mistakes made, and I think it creates a safer environment to do something that’s really hard. But anyway, I could see Joss was having more fun and letting go a little bit more while simultaneously putting himself through one flaming hoop after another.
Joss said he’s not going to do the next two Avengers movies. Will you miss him?
It’s funny, nobody really ever goes away entirely from the Marvel universe. I’m sure whatever’s going on in ten years, whether I’m receiving a red cent or whether anyone still associates me with the product, there’s still always going to be a level as long as anybody from the original team is there, where you’re connected. More than I would miss him, I would be remiss to say that these are such Herculean gigs, so it’s important for Joss to take all the leverage he’s earned and to apply it to something else. Ultimately he’s a creator, and I think what he did is he’s very aptly taken pre-existing material and spun it into something that feels like a creation.
Let’s talk about the movie itself. Tony creates Ultron for a good reason, only to have it all spin out of control – not the first time that Tony’s hubris has gotten him into trouble.
Interestingly enough, it’s the ironic flip side. The thing I’m trying to create was to stop all this. It’s a ‘damned if you do’ type thing. Look, in some ways it’s just a device. Every character has to have something to do that makes sense to set up. What I appreciated was that it was a new flip for Tony without seeming out of character. What I appreciate is that he is maturing and that he is becoming a benefactor of something vastly different than his father ever could have imagined. The promised legacy of Iron Man 2 has really been realised in a way that I go, “Oh, that’s creative and smart and it keeps pushing the peanut forward and it’s interesting and new and it makes space”. Tony has always been interested in how he can make more space for himself under the guise of having a moral psychology and a spiritual awakening of sorts in the cave, but now it’s about being a worker amongst workers and trying to find his place and go back to the simplicity of where it all started, which is that a gal who used to work for him became his love. That’s been such a huge part of what I think differentiated him. I think Tony’s the only guy who actually, except for when he was really having a ball when we first met him, is in a committed relationship that he doesn’t waver on for years and years and years. That to me is cool.
So it’s not necessarily a Dr Frankenstein/Frankenstein’s Creature-type relationship.
Well, yeah. Except that, unlike Dr Frankenstein, Tony was never attempting to do this. I just love the idea that he can have an impulse to do good that finds its way back and becomes something else. Every time you roll the dice with your own best thinking, regardless of your intention, these things take on a life of their own. Tony’s Ultron defence system is supposed to let everybody retire and for a guy who’s still got a lot of piss and vinegar – in Iron Man 3, when we left him he was basically saying, “You know what, I don’t even need the suit. I’m just a badass.” Then what I feel happened is he went back east and he does the responsible thing for all these other people and puts a roof over their head and has an idea.
Is it fair to say that Tony feels a great deal of guilt about what happens with Ultron? And what does that guilt do to someone who’s so flip and glib all the time?
It’s so funny. My old material, those 15 minutes don’t hold up anymore. And yet it was such a strong 15. You have to grow up and say I don’t need to tap-dance and have the room turn upside-down anymore. I need to be true to the character and I need to be true to what the filmmakers and the studio are doing with the trajectory of this whole big juggernaut. As far as Tony’s guilt, I think it’s always tougher when you had a pure heart going in. I think that’s the rough part. ‘I don’t operate like I used to. This is a really good idea, don’t you see?’ But he missed something. I think it’s the guilt of recognising that my best thinking can still bring me back to a place where I wish I’d just kept my mouth shut.
Your deal was, initially, for two more Avengers films. Now you’ve signed on for more, starting with Captain America: Civil War. Why?
I’m crazy about Evans. I really am. I don’t know why or how to explain this particular kinship we have. By the way, he hasn’t called me in six months. Honestly, in order for this whole thing to have worked, I did my part, Hemsworth knocked it out of the stadium and then it fell on Cap. That was the riskiest. It was the one that had the highest degree of difficulty in making it translate to a modern audience. It was the Russos and Chris who, I think, really hit the line drive and won the series. I remember glancing through it going, “Wow, that’s a different way to go”. They said, “If we have you, we can do this or Cap 3 has to be something else”. It’s nice to feel needed.
At this point it ceases about being about announcements of contracts and deal points and Forbes and all that. And to see Chadwick being announced for Black Panther, I go, ‘Wow, man, Marvel is making all the right moves and they’re not doing it because it’s PC, they’re doing it because it’s exciting’. So why would I be the one to go, ‘I’m not going on the road. I don’t get along with the keyboardist’. Who cares? Who cares? And look, I also recognise that I’ll be turning 50 by the time I promote this movie. The clock is ticking down on the amount of memories and participation that I would allow myself and not embarrass the medium with. And when they pitched it to me and when I had a couple of ideas and when they said we like those ideas, let’s do those. Then there’s all this competition too. I don’t do this because I look at it as a competition, but I look at the marketplace and go, ‘Maybe if these two franchises teamed up and I can take even a lesser position in support, with people I like and directors I respect, maybe we can keep things bumping along here a little longer than they might have’.
There seems to be a feeling that Tony’s character may have to be recalibrated, though, for Civil War, and that he may become an antagonist.
Yeah. Again, it’s natural to change your views. The main thing to me is, and this is where I think the Russos are quite brilliant and where Kevin backed the play, is what sort of incident could occur and what sort of framework could we find Tony in? The clues are in Ultron about where we might find him next. But what would it take for Tony to completely turn around everything he’s stood for, quote-unquote, because he was the right-wing guy who could still do his own thing. When the first Iron Man came out the liberals and conservatives were both like, ‘You’re our guy’. Yes! Score! But the idea of Tony being able to march into Washington and say, ‘I’ll sign up’, wouldn’t have made sense if the political climate in the real world hadn’t shifted the way it has. It’s a little bit of things following a real world continuum in, ‘What would you do?’ There’s always the bigger overarching question, that Joss brings up all the time – it’s kind of weird that these guys would have all these throw downs all over planet Earth and it looked like a little collateral damage happened over there, and yet when the movie’s over, it’s like nobody minds. You have to figure, ‘Were you to ask the question, what would the American government do if this were real? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Tony doing something you wouldn’t imagine?’
So, do you see Tony as a bad guy in that movie?
I wouldn’t put it that way. Ultimately it’s Steve’s story; it doesn’t say ‘Iron Man 4: Civil War’. I think that’s great too. I think Chris [Evans] has been hungry to bring even more of an underside and some shadow to that. I remember the comics – on the surface you got the sense that Cap was baseball and apple pie, but underneath there was all this churning stuff of being a man out of time. Now we know he’s made his peace with that. What’s the bigger issue? It can have a little something to do with the past, but it can be about someone becoming more modernised in their own conflict.
Tony’s relationship with The Vision – the Artist Formerly Known As J.A.R.V.I.S. – should be interesting. And, interestingly, even though this is your fifth Marvel film with Paul Bettany, it’s the first time you’ll share screen time. What was the experience of seeing him as The Vision like?
[Jon] Favreau was visiting the set and went, ‘JARVIS, what did they fuckin’ do to you?’ I would maybe see Bettany on the street or at a premiere party, maybe. And the suit? Everybody has to pay their pound of flesh. I remember on Iron Man 2 when Cheadle came out in the Mark II, it’s the least comfortable suit, by their own admission, designed for any movie and he came out and stopped the party. I looked at him and it was right before lunch and he’d been in it for three hours. I thought, ‘Poor Don’, but you gotta do it. And for Bettany, they did a number on him with this absolutely awesome Ultron look, and it also reminded me of the times when I’ve been in special effects make-up. The very first thing he had to do was perch on the end of a precipitous ledge and stand up at the right time with the wind blowing and look right down the barrel, and 20 other things were happening, and it was like, ‘Yep, welcome’. But when – and I won’t give much of anything away – Vision gets to express and enter and find his place in earnest respect on the playing field, it was like an exceptionally well-executed, poetic, badass, “Aha!” moment for all of us. Joss was very particular about that in a different way than he was with Jimmy. I think people are going to get a kick out of the creative decisions about how Vision fits in.
Interview by Chris Hewitt