“I’m Tony Stark. I build neat stuff, I got a great girl, and, occasionally, I save the world. So why can’t I sleep?”
Not many people realize this but up until 2006, Robert Downey Jr was one of the most talented but least successful actors in Hollywood.
He’d been making movies for almost thirty years without a single financial hit, unless you count the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy ‘Back to School’ in which Downey Jr. had a small part. So when Iron Man’s director Jon Favreau finally got Marvel to agree to let him at least screen test for the role of Tony Stark, Downey Jr was ready, beyond ready. This was his ticket to the big time after years and years of critical acclaim and not much to show for it.
In GQ’s cover story this month we get a glimpse into how he snagged the role that changed his life (he’s since pocketed a $50 million payday for ‘The Avengers’ grand slam, made two Iron Man sequels and scored with two Sherlock Holmes films). I love these types of stories because they remind us what’s possible when luck meets preparation and a frustrated existence gives way to destiny:
Even after the film’s director, Jon Favreau, passed on the word from Marvel that it wasn’t going to happen, Downey refused to listen. (Favreau later explained that Marvel had actually been even more definite: “Under no circumstances are we prepared to hire him for any price.”) Downey persisted nonetheless, and eventually he was told he’d at least get a screen test.
He had three weeks to ready himself. The way Downey describes what happened in that period seems itself like an origin montage from a superhero story: a time of focused preparation and of “spiritual/ ritualistic processes” that he still considers private and prefers not to detail. He worked on the scenes over and over: “The missus says she could’ve woken me up in the middle of the night and I’d have recited the audition dialogue in double time.”
“It was all shock, awe, conquer—it was about devastating the competition,” he says. When he walked into the room at Raleigh Studios, he was ready. “Right before the first take I felt like I almost left my body—a sudden surge of nerves,” he says, and remembers wondering whether they had noticed. “Then, all of a sudden, it was like coasting downhill on an old Schwinn Cruiser, like I could do no wrong.”
The rest is history – Robert Downey Jr is now remarried, has a one year old son and can write his own ticket. Given the state of his personal life, health and career just ten years ago, this has been quite a remarkable turn of events. Very cool to witness.