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Iron Man 3: Downey plays key role in superhero's character development

Does it still count as acting if an actor is indistinguishable from the characters he plays?
The Straits Times - April 26, 2013
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Iron Man 3: Downey plays key role in superhero's character development

By Alison De Souza, In Los Angeles

Does it still count as acting if an actor is indistinguishable from the characters he plays?

Lots of Hollywood stars get away with this. And some even fashion entire careers out of playing what is basically the same character over and over again.

One of the biggest self-plagiarists has to be Robert Downey Jr, star of the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes films, which all draw from the same repertoire of mannerisms and tics that make up his distinctive screen persona - a blend of eccentricity, wit, sex appeal and campiness.

It is more of the same when the actor deals with the media, including at a Monday press conference for Iron Man 3 - the latest instalment in the franchise based on the Marvel comics about billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, who creates a powerful armoured suit that allows him to fight crime as Iron Man.

"Well, isn't this intimate?" says the 48-year-old as he sits down at a Beverly Hills hotel to talk about the film, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.

The star is dressed rather normally by his standards, wearing a waistcoat and red tie over a pinstriped shirt, as opposed to the Halloween costume-worthy lederhosen (traditional Bavarian leather trousers) that he donned on a red carpet in Germany a few weeks ago.

But a press event with Downey is never entirely normal.

There are the usual wisecracks, of course, delivered in a voice that sounds like it is permanently accompanied by an arched brow and some goodnatured banter with co-stars and reporters.

Today, however, the actor seems to be feeling rather contemplative - something that is mirrored by the movie, which finds Iron Man in a rather touchy-feely, navel-gazing mood.

The story sees him suffering from some rather unheroic afflictions - insomnia and panic attacks - because he is haunted by events that took place in the film The Avengers (2012), in which Iron Man fought alongside other Marvel superheroes.

Downey reveals that he instigated this development during meetings with the film's creative team.

"My simple question was: 'A wormhole opened up and Stark saw extra-dimensional beings, and he just goes back to Los Angeles and he's fine?'"

The actor is considerably invested in the franchise, which has been a smash hit since the first Iron Man movie made more than US$585 million (S$726 million) worldwide in 2008.

Iron Man 2 followed that up with more than US$623 million in 2010, while The Avengers earned a cool US$1.5 billion - and Downey, a pay cheque of US$50 million.

This has established him as a key player in Hollywood, so despite his starring role in director Guy Ritchie's lucrative but more modest Sherlock Holmes films in 2009 and 2011, one can see why the actor would have a greater personal attachment to the metal suit than the tartan cape.

Iron Man 3 director Shane Black corroborates this, saying, in an earlier press conference that the actor "has so totally integrated and infused himself into this character... that he lives, breathes, thinks and, to some extent, is Tony Stark".

It is easy to imagine why.

Like Stark, Downey is a reformed bad boy saved by the love of a good woman.

In Stark's case, it was his personal assistant Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow in all three films, and in Downey's, it has been wife and producing partner Susan Levin, 39.

Downey met Levin in 2002 at the end of a well- documented struggle with drugs, alcohol and brushes with the law.

This had torpedoed a promising career that included films such as Less Than Zero (1987), Natural Born Killers (1994) and the biopic Chaplin, which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination in 1993.

It also saw him being written off the popular television show Ally McBeal, which won him a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in 2001.

Downey and others have credited Levin, whom he married in 2005, with helping him get clean and turn his life around.

The two now have a one-year-old son (Downey also has a 19-year-old son from his first marriage) and a production company, Team Downey, which co-produced the second Sherlock Holmes film.

The actor acknowledges some parallels between him and the Marvel Comics protagonist, even though he says it has been easier, as he gets older, to distance himself from the larger-than-life Stark and the more superficial aspects of his appeal.

In the process, he himself has become "moderately more humbled and more humanised".

"I'll never be more like Tony than I was four weeks before we started shooting the first one, when it was all the promise and all the 'Wow, look at this role I get to play!'

"The older you get, the more life continues to whittle you down and smash your ego, the less you identify with things that are essentially just metaphors for narcissism or vainglory or deep-seated fear."

It is getting a bit heavy all of a sudden, and Downey - who has always worn his eccentricities lightly and seems to sense when to shrug them off before things get too weird - quickly lightens the tone.

The next overly serious question ("What would you do for love?") is met with a joke aimed squarely at his audience: "I would do never-ending press schedules."

He is not quite done with the philosophising, though.

"Without taking it too seriously, Iron Man 3, I feel, is about transcendence," he says, referring, ostensibly, to the character's realisation that there may more to life than the suits and other high-tech toys he has become famous for.

"It's about this thing that you become identified with. Are you capable of letting go of it because it's impeding your actual human experience? And, what is an actual human experience and who's been humanising Tony all along?"

The actor adds that he felt it was important that the story develop the character's relationship with his girlfriend Pepper.

She is "someone who knows the ins and outs of an emotional life, and that what you achieve is about the kind of human being you become and not about how many toys or how much fame you have or how much fear you can instil in your enemies".

By this point, he has the full attention of all the amateur psychologists in the room, but before any of them can shrink his head any further, he is getting up to leave, with a dazzling smile and a quick quip as he exits.

The new Iron Man likes to talk about his feelings, it seems, but the entertainer in him also knows when to stop before it becomes too much of a drag.


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