December 2009

Robert Downey Jr.The Game’s Afoot

The star of Sherlock Holmes and his director riff on beatdowns, baggage—and staying true to a literary icon a conversation with Guy Ritchie / edited by Joe Donnelly / photographs by Sam Jones

Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, are mainstays of the mystery lexicon and have been brought to life for screen and stage more times than you can shake a magnifying glass at—but assuredly never before like they are in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. The brainy, iconoclastic, misanthropic, violin-playing resident of 221B Baker Street, London, as channeled by Robert Downey Jr. is another type of Sherlock altogether. And director Ritchie certainly brings an alternative sensibility to the adventures—and misadventures—of Holmes and Watson. Though Downey and Ritchie had not worked together before this film, they had admired each other’s craft. We sat down with them to discuss their collaboration...

WE CAN BUT TRY

Guy Ritchie: I’ve worked with a couple of talented actors, but you know—and I’ve said this before—the most significant thing about working with you is you have the job you are supposed to have. I fancy that I can do most things, but one thing I can’t do is what you do—and that’s always a humbling, refreshing experience. Us conspiring together has been very rewarding and productive, but the most significant aspect of our relationship has been our evolution psychologically and our ability to be able to communicate more efficiently.
Robert Downey Jr: Well, your reputation is as a young and a smart guy—kind of, you know, a man’s man. I think, if anything, it was a bit intimidating for me, because so many of your films really exemplify—like all movies I love—that kind of smart, badass male attitude. Even if you know of somebody, until you’ve had your first couple of days working with him, all you really know is the reason you loved his work and what you’ve heard of his persona. So, you’re not like most directors in that you’ve got a lot of different, uh, aspects to who you are.
GR: And baggage.
RD: Yeah, but I’ll take that. I’ll take your baggage. May I take that bag for you, sir? Let me put this in your room for you...No, really, on this movie, it was such a blessed time, but it was such a hard shoot, and we were in so many locations. Still, it was never Brits versus Americans. It was just a real education in the way both cultures operate. I mean, just that weight of when you say, “Sherlock Holmes.” He’s f--king English, so there it is. But it hasn’t been since Chaplin that I had something where I felt how iconic a character is in the collective unconscious. So, I just assumed that to win the respect of people to play this guy, I had to put that out of my mind right off the bat.
GR: I’ve felt an investment in the character of Sherlock Holmes since I was 6 years old, because I was sent to boarding school at 6—till I was 10. It was the longest period I’ve been at any school. There were little speakers inside the dormitories, and if the kids were good, at night the only stories they’d play were Sherlock Holmes—I think eight-track tapes or whatever. I mean, it’s two geezers acting in a room with a bit of “clickity-clack,” but I was keenly aware of the significance of the intellect and the drama within their narrative.
RD: And it was given as a reward?
GR: Yes, and if the kids f--ked about too much, what they’d do is flick off the narrative, and then whoever was responsible for it being flicked off would have something of the blanket party descend upon them.
RD: My Lord.
GR: Don’t you love the expression blanket party?
RD: So good. I love the expres­sion—not the act.
GR: Have you ever been in a blanket party?
RD: Well, I’ve been in the more adult versions of similar situations, but I don’t remember helping to beat somebody up or being beat up by a bunch of my friends.
GR: Go to boarding school.

BATTLE SCARS

GR: You really got your hands dirty on this shoot. In fact, you got punched in the mouth—seven stitches. And you didn’t f--kin’ cry like a baby. You just spat a bit and carried on. That was a shift in my attitude toward you, too. I thought, Okay, that changed the paradigm. Because you get paid a lot of money. I get paid a lot of money. And we’re indulged with the things we’re indulged with. From my point of view, we have the best jobs in the world, and I suspect you think so, too.
RD: I love it. But what did I do when I got that big cut? I just hoped it was deep enough that it was going to need enough stitches to get your approval. I was nowhere near the cosmos for about 12 seconds. Then I think I peeled my lip inside out, and I was so happy to hear you say, “That was the best fight.”
GR: I was happy to be the guy who said, “Oh, that needs stitches,” because usually I’m the guy who’s like, “Oh, f--kin’ stitches—don’t worry about it.”
RD: We needed to finish whatever we were doing. I wish I had bled more, to tell you the truth, but that might have alarmed other folks. It was kind of a coming of age for me—thinking of being not 22 but 44. But I very well remember going to the hospital.
GR: You are pretty fit. I can tell how much of an eye you keep on your diet. This movie was so physically demanding—day after day of getting you to work out six to eight hours a day. Now that’s hard, mate. There’s not many 22-year-old athletes who could have kept up. There were times I thought, How is he going to do what we’re physically asking of him? All that knocking the s--t out of one another has a domino effect. Now that you’ve got yourself in that condition, do you find it easy to maintain? And was getting yourself into condition hard? Because I reckon you’ve got about 6 or 7 percent body fat.
RD: Wow, this is gonna be a good interview if we stay along these lines. I used to say, “Always eating, never dieting,” because it’s so much about where you are in your head—and there are billions of dollars of righteous industry devised to appeal to anyone’s illusion. Your head space will lead you toward whatever result you want, and the rest is just the mechanics. Sometimes in the thick of it, we were really tired—me and the Mrs. [Susan Downey, a producer on the film] had to pull up our bootstraps to pour out of bed. But there’s something about Arthur Conan Doyle and so much energy behind the arche­type. It just seemed there was a wellspring of good juice that would come when we needed it. Again, the perception of someone before you start work is irrele­vant, because it is couched in your own anxiety, your own projection and your own short­comings in being thrown onto that canvas. But what helped us make it down that road was the sense of ease you created on the set. I think a certain amount of your energy very discreetly but purposefully created a sense that this is not rocket science. It’s tough, but there’s no reason not to enjoy it.

DOWN BY LAW

GR: The making of this film was a worthwhile experience on so many levels. But since you can’t really have Sherlock without the proper Watson, let’s talk about Jude Law. How do feel about Jude—too broad a question?
RD: I always think that I’m the most all-around gifted person on any project. I have to do that—otherwise, I’ll start to crumble. By the time I saw Jude in Hamlet, I remember thinking, He may have more tools in his box than [I do]—thank God it’s only a few more days on set with him. But really, he was one of us from the beginning. All he wanted to do was talk about, “How do we mine what’s best about this?” And he took that leap of faith. The thing that warms my heart—and he deserved it and demonstrated it—was that the movie is as much about Watson as it is Holmes. I don’t even think it was Jude’s goal after a certain point, but he had faith that we were going to respect his decision to take the film. We spent a lot of time hanging out. We would have lunch and get together on off days. I’ve never done that before.

CURRENCY OF CHARACTER

GR: What I’d like is to continue to evolve with someone I deem worth evolving with. So I’d like to continue to work with actors of the same caliber as you, psychologically and creatively.
RD: There’s always such pressure for the job part of what we have to do, you know? And I think the more comfortable—by which I mean old—I get, the more vital it is that I be able to come out the end of these awesome tunnels feeling enhanced. Life is...I don’t know if it’s long or short, but I know I have to be in my body for 18 hours every day of it, and I want to feel that sense of pride, not just from the product but for the person I was able to be. I think that’s the greatest part of any sort of success—like currency that is really worthwhile. I hope we get a shot to keep this thing alive. I think that culturally it’s great, and I think your take made it commercial and off center at the same time. I don’t think it would be embarrassing to be doing Sherlock Holmes in my fifties.
GR: I agree. Thank you, Mr. Rob­ert Downey Jr. I love you, darling.
RD: Thank you, boss.