Interview: 'Iron Man 3' Star Robert Downey Jr. Opens Up About Contracts, Phase Two, And His Colleagues

Sitting down with Robert Downey Jr. is as cool as you think it would be. The guy is smart, funny and comes off as incredibly open about, well, everything. So when a bunch of journalists got a chance to chat with the actor to discuss Iron Man 3, he gave us loads of information. How is Tony feeling post Avengers? Will there be an Iron Man 4 and how is Downey feeling at the end of his Marvel contract? Does he prefer being part of an ensemble or the lead? What kind of impact has Joss Whedon had on Phase 2? How is Iron Man 3 director Shane Black versus Iron Man 1 and 2 director Jon Favreau?

Downey Jr. brings up his own expectations for Iron Man 3, Oliver Stone and much more. It's a fun, light read with the star of one of the biggest franchises on the planet. Read it below.

This was a roundtable, so unless it says "/Film," one of my colleagues asked the question:

Did you have any trepidations about coming back to this character for the fourth time, essentially?

Robert Downey Jr.: I was kinda looking forward to it. I don't want to say "kinda". That's tepid. You know that thing of it's spring break or summer or winter and you have these plans? You want to go to Sedona, right? So push that peanut down the road a little bit. This is, to me, the kind of grab bag wish list of things we've always wanted to do and haven't had the chance. I put so much onus on Iron Man 3. Iron Man 3 was supposed to answer all the questions for an audience. Cure all my uncomfortable moments in the past playing this character and get in every idea that fell by the wayside the last three movies. Then we shot the movie and I feel like there's still a number of other things we have to do.

So there will be an Iron Man 4?

I don't know.

What was it like working with Shane Black again and how much of a force were you pushing for his involvement?

Well, we all know each other fairly well now. Without coming to me, they said Shane was going to be in the running for this. They said they had narrowed it down to a couple of choices. I liked both their choices. Shane still — and I say this as a testament to the fact that we've shot the movie and have started to cut scenes together — he still has a place in my heart. He turned out to be a great choice.

You've mentioned in past interviews that previous Iron Man films involved a lot of figuring out the script as the production was going on. Was this a similar approach?

It's two-fold. As we were finding our way and trying to build towards the possibility of Avengers, there was a lot of armature and things we had to deal with as far as, "What are we going to exactly do?" and "What are we going to exactly say?" But there was a lot of, "What are we doing in act three?" "Where are we ending all this?" I think that, by the time Shane had teamed up Drew Pearce, the overall arc of the turns and acts and themes and all that stuff in the story remained relatively unchanged, which is amazing. They really kind of made just exactly the right size sandbox for the whole thing, but there's some new kind of twists in it architecturally. That's just the way Shane writes, you know? Nothing is arbitrary. Everything has some meaning at some point later in the story or speaks to a theme. That's the hardest stuff to try and grab when you're already shooting. That said, I respect him so much that I did not respect his day to day writing at all and I just looked at scenes at the beginning of the day as, well, they had to put a bunch of words on this or they couldn't have a call sheet. These are called sides. I call them three-piece. Three pieces of paper with print on them. Which must be annoying to an excellent writer, but that's just the way I've been conditioned. I get a good script and go, "This is good! I mean, we're not going to shoot it, but..."

/Film: We've seen Tony Stark go through a lot in The Avengers. How did the events of that movie wind up helping him change for this one?

Well, we had to do something, you know? I thought, "Isn't it odd that he had this experience? And why was he suddenly just in New York for one summer?" We know why he was there. Stark Tower. But what he was doing there was really building an architecture for a third act set piece. I wanted him back home and I thought, "What if that happened to any of us? Wouldn't we be a little tripped out? You'd be watching your back." Then I thought about this 21st century reality and kind of oddball zeitgeist of America and terrorism and all he weirdo stuff that this country seems to generate and co-create. So I thought should be a little freaked out.

We always had this idea where we wanted Tony and Rhodey to be at this place two miles away from where his house is called Neptune's Net on the PCH. I really wanted to see them at Neptune's Net with their suits just parked outside like motorcycles. They're inside and just two guys. I didn't even know if we could get Neptune's Net. There's licensing. It's like saying, "Let's go shoot at Spago!" I was like, "Is it? Did you ask them?" I wanted that kind of sensibility and so did Shane. We both wanted them just sitting on a couch with a martini. I go, "A martini? Hold on now!" "Alright! Just sitting on the couch. Pepper comes home. There he is." Shane had all these iconic images and I had my own. The studio and Kevin [Feige] had an equal amount of theirs. It turned into this really surprising and entertaining and really deep and cool movie.

We saw a scene where Ben Kingsley is beginning his broadcast and how much goes into set-decorating and atmosphere. The notion of a media terrorist is an interesting one as is the notion of Stark standing in for America and a terrorist striking against the biggest opponent. How has Kingsley been to play against as the Mandarin?

For some reason or another, I'm thinking about Oliver Stone and I'm thinking about — many years back — doing Natural Born Killers. I think that, unlike his own vehement take on demonizing the media — and I'll backtrack and say that I'm not sure the biggest opponent needs to be toppled — I do think it's evocative, that kind of paranoid idea that a terrorist is manufactured to blah, blah blah. People like that. It's why I like The Manchurian Candidate. I like the possibility of something like that going undetected until it's up and running. I think it's scary and it occupies, I believe, a part of the American paranoid psyche. I think it's in there.

There's a sense that Stark's pride gets in the way, taunting the Mandarin and giving out his address.

I know. It's that problem, too, where you're like, "What are you going to do about it?" If you're a little bit traumatized, you become a little more reactive, right?

Is the taunting partially related to the fact that Stark has taken down aliens and he's just not scared of a human being?

The actual reason is because of something in particular that happens which makes it personal to him. Otherwise he probably wouldn't have run his mouth.

There was a lot of groundwork that Iron Man 2 had to lay for The Avengers. Since Iron Man 3 is the start of Phase Two, is there still a lot of groundwork that has to be laid out for future films or is this one more able to tell a story all its own ?

Yeah, more than any of the other three that I've been involved in. It seems to be very uninhibited. I'm just not used to working this way. Fortunately, Shane and all the other creatives and myself banged out a story that, quote unquote "earned" it. We had The Avengers and had something where we all loved how it turned out. We thought, "Let's not get indulgent now, but let's go back to Tony and Pepper".

It was also really, really great to have Happy come back. Jon [Favreau] was just so great. He was standing on the set and we had designed this workshop. He says, "All I have to do is put on a suit and crack jokes. This is going to be great." He's actually very integral to the story and all that stuff. But it is true, this one is Tony's journey from A to Z, chasing the bad guy. It's a bad guy who draws him out to places that he's never been before and I think that that was what was attractive to Shane. He said, "I'd like to see him crashing in mid-America. I'd like to see him interacting with some kid who kind of doesn't really relate to him as anything but Iron Man.

You obviously have a strong grasp of Tony Stark and where you'd like to see him go. Does that expand to the entirety of the cinematic Marvel Universe? Do you have insight into projects that you're not acting in?

I think I do. I also live with a producer. Before Iron Man came along and she was working with Joel Silver, it was kind of foreplay for us. We'd be like, (whispering) "What's that project? Look at the trailer!" We find this stuff to be catnip anyway and I love spitballing on stuff. It never ceases to amaze me how little of my input they actually require.

/Film: At a certain point during the production of this movie, Joss Whedon was hired as a sort of universal overseer. What did he bring to Iron Man 3?

I think, honestly, what he brought was momentum. It's a twofold thing. When you have something that's just an unprecedented smash, you can sort of relax for a second, but you're also following that. He brought us a lot. He brought us a lot of comfort and a fair amount of performance anxiety (laughs).

The Tony Stark character is very linked to you. That's not to say they couldn't one day recast the role –

I'm sure they've thought about it. I feel like I got sold to Disney for $4 billion.

Does the fact that you're so connected make you want to stay around as long as you can?

Yeah, but, quiet as it's kept, that's how I've always been. The thing about playing this kind of inherent narcissist, whenever you kill one of Tony's egos, another one just pops up. I've had that experience, but I've found the whole thing to be a very quieting journey for me. It's been remarkably humbling. You realize you're just kind of part of this thing. I think the problems begin when any one person involved in anything — particularly anything successful — decides that they have some sense of ownership to it.

This is really something that Stan Lee scratched down going on 50 years now. He touched on something really, really cool with Iron Man and, strangely, Iron Man was sort of second-tier superhero who laid the groundwork for these other guys and gals. Where I'm at right now is that I've always thought of myself — particularly since I've been married to this high-functioning Jewish girl from the Midwest — I think of myself as being a company man. I like showing up and I like doing press. I like being able to say, "I'm going to take a break because I don't want to burn out." I don't want to be doing a roundtable or a press conference and have people say, "He looks tired!" I want to be there. i want to communicate and kind of experience this. The funny thing is that, though I can be quick-witted, I tend to have a slow take experientially for things. These five or six years have not been enough time for me to process what has happened.

It seems that you must getting towards the end of whatever contract you originally signed. Are you going to sign on for several more or will you take it one at a time?

I don't know. I honestly get uncomfortable with leverage. I was annoyed for awhile about having a contract where, in success, not very much changes for you. But then I got to thinking, "What was I really doing before I got 'Iron Man'?" Then I think, "Don't lead with that, Robert! You're a big prime mover!" I go, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." I get that. I can talk about that for two hours. But I'm a big believer in being really straight and saying, "Okay, let's really look at this." I not going to pretend I'm over it and whatever. Obviously, it's better to have a contract run out than it is to have one go on indefinitely. But I guess that's why contracts have limits on them. Let's just say that me, the agents and the lawyers are having a bit of a ball right now. I don't like this whole — and I think it's a particularly Western thing. Well, maybe not anymore, because we're being outpaced by the east business-wise — of "We've got him! Let's screw him to the floor!" Is that what gets you off? Making people feel bad? It shouldn't be, "Man, they really put the screws to us, brother." It's like, "Weren't we excited about the future a couple of years ago. Now we're just laying the boots to each other. It's just so digesting. I'm an artist!

In the Iron Man movies, you are naturally the lead. In The Avengers, however, you've got those other guys co-starring. Do you miss having them around?

I don't have to be the lead in Iron Man if that's going to make everyone comfortable. But hell is other people (laughs). Somebody said that and sometimes I think, "What if that guy's right? All I do is hang out with other people! And I'm another person to them?"

Is working with other actors still the same when you're doing a massively scaled project?

Yeah, it's entirely the same thing. They come and say, "Robert, we have this project" — and the next movie I'm doing is as much of a departure from a genre movie as you can imagine — but I think that people underestimate that everything really is just like everything else. We're talking about the story and we're talking about the themes. It's the same things, it's just the red carpet that's shorter.

Is it ever really shorter for the movies you're in?

Thank you. You know, it's so weird. Or not weird. I live for it. It's just part of the job that I think I'm strangely suited for. I like hell. I like other people. I like being out. I like going, "Oh, you're here! I'm in town promoting this." Particularly if I like it. It's been a good run with Marvel and now Disney.

The Avengers is now one of the most successful movies of all time. How did that raise the bar as far as action sequences for Iron Man 3?

Again, there's people who are, strangely, smarter than me making these decisions, I'm told. The funny thing is, Iron Man 3 is simultaneously a much smaller storytelling style, but it also feels just personally — because I'm not on the mountaintop with Thor and Loki in Cleveland — I mean New York — with Cap and Black Widow and Hawkeye and all that. I'm in every second of every action scene in this movie. I've never done so much action in my life. The scope feels really, really big. Again, I think Marvel's intention is to defy expectations again. Let's not just start with this thing that starts and gets to a big bang at 11. It wouldn't be nice counterprogramming for The Avengers.

Iron Man is very grounded in reality but, over the course of the films, they've moved to a very different world. How has playing Tony against that been?

The nice thing is that it is fairly compartmentalized and, I think, pretty seamlessly so. If there's one person that I would think of just in the third person who could have the world be one way and then wake up in the morning and be another way, it would be him. He lives in this cocoon of his own world anyway. All he really cares about is Pepper and his Dummy. He doesn't care about any of his material stuff except some robots, this girl and his one friend. I think he became friendly with Bruce [Banner] maybe a little more than the others but it's like he went and did a big action movie and then came back and lives in Kansas or something.

Can you compare working with Jon Favreau to Shane Black?

They're very similar. You also can't really work with one without reaching out to the other. Jon and I reached out to Shane on several occasions and Shane definitely would refer back to Jon on a lot of stuff. Jon has an incredible sense of showmanship and Shane is much more kind of introverted. When he does become ectomorphic, it's very entertaining. For instance, we were night shooting and he just went running across this thing. He caught his head on something and dislocated his shoulder. He just sat there and we were like, "Well, back into the emergency vehicle." He was like, "Just two more shots! I'll stay, I'll stay!" I said, "You have to go to the hospital."

Jon is very smooth and Shane is a little more like myself and a bit spiky at times. But I've also changed. There's the Jon that directed the first Iron Man and the Jon that directed the second one and the Jon that has done all the things he's done. What I'm really happy about is that, as things have changed, that Shane has stepped in and run with this obviously fantastic opportunity. I'm just so comforted that nobody has suffered for all of it, including the franchises and the movies themselves. Jon and I have offices across the street from one another. Shane and I are still speaking. It's a nice relationship, you know? Again, i think it's a testament to Kevin and the real central people at Marvel. They're very, very thoughtful about their choices.

Iron Man 3 opens May 3.