Robert Downey Jr, The Biography, By Martin Howden. (John Blake Publishing, London, 2010.)
Another Karori library quick grab. Drawn to it because Downey is contemporary, has had well-known drug problems, and there’s something charismatic about him. Ironically, this authorised biography shows him to be a complete arsehole. It didn’t take me long to dislike him intensely: his self-absorption, lack of interest in anything outside his own orbit, his pretentiousness – he’s a foul-mouthed git who thinks he’s the epitome of school-of-hard-knocks cool. As far as my own novel is concerned, I certainly didn’t want to base my protagonist on him in any way. But I read the whole damn sycophantic, cloying thing, just in case there was any stuff about working on set, parties – the film star lifestyle I could assimilate and use in the novel.
Some points of interest:
Important opening for US actors: In the US there’s ‘pilot season’: ‘a potentially lucrative time for actors when the major TV producers record an episode of a promising new show in a bid to get commissioned for a series.’ (p33)
Downey looking for an anchor: As a way of trying to maintain some balance, some point of focus in the unreal world he was brought up in and had chosen to make his career in, he got into spiritual stuff: human energy systems, auras and projections of consciousness. (p34)
His own take on LA: (p43) ‘If you come [to LA] with character defects that haven’t been realised, they are going to come to life.’
Fan behaviour: In 1988, he had been enlisted, along with then girlfriend Sarah Jessica Parker, to encourage young people to vote in the 1988 presidential election. When he gave speeches on the subject, fans in the crowd would hold up posters of the latest film he was in. (p77)
On set demands on actor: While filming Restoration, Downey had rehearsals, a dialogue coach, writing coach, and an oboe coach. (p125)
Test audiences matter: Restoration was delayed more than a 1 year due to reshoots and poor test audience reactions. (p126)
Director behaviour: On the set of Natural Born Killers, director Oliver Stone kept the cast and crew edgy by playing loud industrial music all the time on set. (p121)
One-dimensional actors: Allan Eastman, director of Danger Zone, the 1996 film which starred Downey. ‘There are a lot of famous actors who are only the characters they play. That’s one of their tragic flaws. They have to become something so they can be something.’ (Of course, he said Downey was a brilliant exception.) (p128)
Risks actors take on set: In the 1999 film Black and White, Downey played Brooke Shield’s gay husband. Mike Tyson had a role in the film and the director and Downey agreed to improvise a scene where Downey’s character chats up Tyson, without Tyson knowing beforehand. Unsurprisingly, Tyson hit Downey in the face (Yay!), grabbed him around the throat, slammed him on the ground and called him a ‘cum drinker’. (p156)
Fan behaviour again: While in jail, he received 100 letters a day from admiring female fans. (p164)
Incarcerated actor behaviour: While in jail Downey created a shrine to himself – letters, photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings about himself taped to his cell wall. He did drawings, with crayons and felt markers on paper bags and envelopes, and tried to sell them to his celebrity friends. (p164) He did wonder what he’d do after his release. ‘[I] worried about whether I would still have a career when I got out.’ (p189)
Choosy actor behaviour: At a press conference to promote Kiss Kiss Bang Bang he refused to answer questions about prison or his recovery from drugs. He saved it all for Oprah. (p209)
Daily filming schedule. ‘I’m used to coming to work and the call sheet saying, “seven am, scene 14b, this costume”. Then they say, “Action!” until you’re done.’ (p220)
Grateful actor: ‘Nothing is more boring than acting, because as an actor you never have to be proactive about scheduling. You get the call sheet – Here, we have to do this scene today.’ (p221)
Multitasking actor: Sony gave Downey a recording contract. He put out an album. (p221)
Actor who can’t get enough: After Iron Man’s success, Downey ‘took great pleasure’ in googling himself. ‘I love all that shit, personally, Sorry. I just love it. Because it’s a hoot.’ (p234)
Profound actor: ‘I mean, if the cosmos is a loving, healing thing that also spins real fast and erupts and does violent stuff, and if there really is some kind of order to the whole thing, then everything that’s led up to this moment has to be part of it, or the math doesn’t work. But in this transition phase, I really am trying to live as much like a lizard as I can. Hot rock, sun, fly, tongue.’ (p235) Spare us …
Inside the fame bubble: ‘You’d be lonely, people make up hate websites, chase you, want your autograph. Make a small mistake and everyone knows about it.’
So there’s some stuff here I can use: the loneliness of being a film star; how fans act – hate websites, chasing autographs, holding movie posters, letters. The perks – recording contract, the narcissism – mementoes of success, magazine articles, etc (what would my protagonist keep?), googling yourself. All the demands of getting a role right – the coaching, the sacrifices for truth in the performance. The sense that he really is living on planet Downey, an isolated not-terribly-well-connected-to-reality-type figure who talks in new age expletive-laden cliches. The attempt to manipulate media – talking only to Oprah (probably a gag clause involved in the appearance).
Not a mine of information, but some of this stuff can be worked in.