Robert Downey Jr. pretty much owns the role of Iron Man, but many other roles as well. His abilities go way beyond playing a snarky billionaire with a metal suit in a blockbuster superhero film. Like other things you might not know about Robert Downey Jr., he's acted in films like Tropic Thunder (2008), Sherlock Holmes (2009), Only You (1994), and The Judge (2014). Downey, son of director Robert Downey Sr. and actor Elsie Ford, has also had TV roles, including a stint on Ally McBeal.
Moviegoers should count their lucky stars he was able to overcome personal issues and get back in front of the camera, because he's pulled off an array of memorable characters.
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
Dozens of famous actors have donned the deerstalker hat to play Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes at some point in their career, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch. Robert Downey Jr. gave a unique spin on the pipe-smoking detective in director Guy Ritchie’s 2009 version, believing they both shared a personality that was “quirky and kind of nuts.”
His commitment to the project was admirable because he lost weight (at the urging of Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin) to gain a more authentic “giant and skinny” appearance, which he accomplished via the incredibly lucky break of accidentally ingesting an intestinal parasite.Awesome performance?
- Photo: DreamWorks Pictures
It’s a credit to Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in the 2008 film Tropic Thunder that his career is still in good shape even after appearing in blackface. Playing a method-acting Australian actor who undergoes “pigmentation alteration” surgery to portray a Black Army sergeant was as challenging as it was risky. But the film was a satire, and the whole point was to make fun of actors who take themselves too seriously, and Downey received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for the role.
Some people still criticize the blackface element, but in 2020, Downey said on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast that although he hesitated at first, after carefully thinking about it, he decided to take the role and makes no apologies for it:
I get to hold up to nature the insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion... And 90% of my Black friends were like, "Dude, that was great." I can’t disagree with [the other 10%], but I know where my heart lies. I think that it’s never an excuse to do something that’s out of place and out of its time, but to me it blasted the cap on [the issue]. I think having a moral psychology is job one. Sometimes, you just gotta go, "Yeah I effed up." In my defense, Tropic Thunder is about how wrong [blackface] is, so I take exception.Awesome performance?
- Photo: TriStar Pictures
Chaplin garnered Robert Downey Jr. his first Academy Award nomination in 1993 (Al Pacino won best actor that year, for Scent of a Woman) in no small part because Downey prepared thoroughly for the role of the iconic Charlie Chaplin. Not only did he learn to play tennis left-handed and competently rock the violin, but he also changed his posture and profoundly altered other physical characteristics to become a carbon copy of the Little Tramp.
He achieved such a magnificent impersonation that he was almost indistinguishable from the man in the historical footage director Richard Attenborough included in the film. Downey told the Los Angeles Times in 1992:
I know I was not the studio’s dream to play Chaplin. There are five or six people I can think of, without actually naming them, who would have been considered more viable for this role. But I know that I was supposed to play this. I’ve never had anyone back me the way [director Richard] Attenborough did and I’m so proud that I made the film without having a real nervous breakdown. But I know that he (Chaplin) also had a hand in this, that somehow he and I are connected. You don’t do something like this where his spirit doesn’t check in.Awesome performance?
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Robert Downey Jr. is excellent at shining through in an ensemble cast, and in David Fincher’s Zodiac he had the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal and (pre-Hulk) Mark Ruffalo to contend with. As The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “His cast is uniformly splendid, but if the Zodiac killer got away with murder, then Downey ought to be charged with grand theft larceny given how often he steals his scenes away from his competent co-stars.” In the story, which revolves around the search for a California Bay Area serial killer, Downey plays reporter Paul Avery. Initially skeptical, Avery becomes so shaken by the acts of the suspect (which include threats directed at him personally) that he spirals into substance dependence and eventually flees to Sacramento.
Downey’s performance helped the film earn its way onto dozens of critics’ Top 10 lists for 2007, though Downey was a bit exhausted by Fincher’s exacting directorial style. As he put it in an interview, "I think I'm a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags."Awesome performance?