Robert Downey Jr. is a man who has seen the shadow of death and lived. Not just to talk about it, but to do something creative with the experience. So, with the debut of The Judge as the opening night Gala at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 4, with the debut of his first daughter coming in November, with a skein of other amazing things happening for him from the continuing adventures of Iron Man to on-going work for a new Sherlock Holmes sequel, these are the best of times.
“It really has been this mind-blowing excursion,” Downey offers in a wide-ranging, 55-minute interview with Sun Media. “It’s wild!” With his film-literate wife Susan (Levin) Downey by his side in a limo on the Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles, Downey is on the telephone to Toronto. This is a city and a film festival that figures strongly into his story of renewal, after making it difficult for himself to maintain his career through years of self-destructive alcohol and drug addiction.
Sober and clean since 2003 and married to Levin since 2005, Downey attended TIFF in 2005 with filmmaker Shane Black and another Hollywood ‘bad boy’ Val Kilmer. “We were back there with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was my calling card to Jon Favreau for Iron Man. And it wound up being the movie that Marvel thought qualified Shane Black to direct Iron Man 3. So there is this whole little thing that started back in Toronto years ago. We were just sitting on the street and maybe a person or two would walk up and say, ‘Hi.’ Nobody recognized the movie and we left. But Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it means a lot!”
Fast forward to TIFF 2014. The Judge is a sombre and serious family drama with huge Oscar potential. The 49-year-old Downey plays a hotshot Chicago lawyer who is estranged from his father, a morally rigid judge in a small town. When a car accident leads to murder charges, their lives are thrown into turmoil.
The judge is played by the formidable Hollywood legend, 83-year-old Robert Duvall. This is the first production from Team Downey, a development company started by the actor and his producer wife. “This baby,” Downey says with a laugh about The Judge, “this is our first real kid as a Team with Warner Bros. backing us.” Downey says the debut of The Judge at TIFF is a matter of “making good on the promise and the potential.” Meanwhile, the daughter arriving in November will be Robert and Susan Downey’s second child. Their son, Exton Elias Downey, is now two. “That’s why,” Downey says of the world premiere of The Judge, “when TIFF asked us if we would kick it off there, we were excited: ‘Oh my God, it’s such a fun fall!’ ”
The film The Judge, like Robert Downy Jr.’s life in general, is rich with human experience. “Everyone says this feels like those movies we grew up watching,” Downey says. “For Susan, it was Broadcast News. For me, it was The Verdict. For both of us, it was Terms of Endearment. Remember when those movies used to have a studio card in front of them?”
Downey is referring to an era when studios still deliberately made prestige pictures at reasonable prices, often with big stars working for less than they would make in summer blockbusters. Downey is hoping that The Judge, if it is commercially as well as artistically successful, could signal a sea-change in Hollywood, a return to the prestige picture era for the studios.
The Oscar campaign for The Judge does begin on Sept. 4. It is all about esteem in the American filmmaking community, Downey says. He personally has been nominated twice for acting Oscars, first as best actor for his dazzling performance as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin (1992), secondly as best supporting actor for his daring, cross-racial work in Tropic Thunder (2008).
“It definitely means something,” Downey says of Oscar honours for a film and for an individual. “It means something to the industry” and future success of The Judge “signals that it is possible for just a little bit of a sea-change.”
As for his own performance, which could get Oscar-nominated, Downey is reluctant to boast, although he raves about co-stars Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dax Shepard, Jeremy Strong and others. “I won’t speak about my performance in it but I showed up and I was honest and I was diligent and every day I raced home to get in a chair with Exton and rock him to sleep. It was just a monastic, loving celebration of this great story we got to tell.
“But, in seeing it now, if I could just take myself out of the equation, it’s one of the better movies I’ve seen in some time and I think that’s what you want to feel and everyone will have their own opinion and we welcome it. But it’s nice.”
The Judge delves deeply into the world of pain that is an estranged father-son relationship. Downey brings a lot of that pain into the role himself, through his personal experience, even though the story on screen is not his in any of the details.
“It’s so funny,” Downey says, knowing what he is about to say is not funny at all. Referring to The Judge and his experiences shooting it, “I can start crying just talking about talking about it, you know. I can’t actually say what the source is but I can say that unconsciously it just does some Rube Goldberg thing to me. It opens some valves and, all of a sudden, they just flow because it’s all beyond my perception of my own ‘story’ and it’s just really kind of a multi-tiered thing.
“Also, it’s the movie where my wife said: ‘I think there’s something here. It think it would be a really corrective experience for you to play this guy.’ Consciously, I was saying: ‘Sure, I’ll throw the Old Lady a bone.’ And then it would up being just this amazing thing!”