A Slap From James Woods During True Believer Taught Robert Downey Jr. A Lifelong Lesson

Hollywood legend holds that during the filming of Charles Vidor's film noir classic "Gilda," Rita Hayworth slapped co-star Glenn Ford so hard that she broke two of his teeth. This is obviously not an ideal situation. Stage and screen combat is an important discipline, one that allows actors to feign violence without actually, you know, dislodging dental work. There is another level, however, but this is typically indulged in action films. Think Sylvester Stallone getting hit so hard in the chest by Dolph Lundgren while shooting the climactic boxing match in "Rocky IV" that his heart swelled to a dangerous degree, forcing him to be flown from Vancouver at low altitude to a hospital in Santa Monica, California.

Accidents will happen. Egos, also, will run amok. Get two actors in a charged scene where they're desperate to ramp the stakes up to an Oscar-clip level, and the situation could get a tad out of hand. This is evidently what went down between James Woods and Robert Downey Jr. during the filming of Joseph Ruben's terrific legal thriller "True Believer."

Bringing your A game to a B movie

Woods is at his live-wire best as a William Kuntsler-like civil rights attorney who's keeping the electricity on by negotiating plea deals for moneyed drug dealers. It's principled work in theory (these men are simply supplying a demand in a deeply corrupt system that targets people of a darker skin tone), but there are greater injustices he could be addressing. It's just that those clients don't pay as well, if they can pay at all.

Robert Downey Jr. co-stars as an idealistic clerk scrambling to convince Woods to take on the clearly crooked conviction of a young Korean man. He's both the last thing Woods' character wants to deal with, and the exact influence he needs to rekindle his righteous flame. "True Believer" is a B movie at heart, but the conflict between Woods and Downey, two of the hardest chargers that ever stepped in front of a camera, is incendiary. And it led to Woods hauling off and smacking the crap out of Downey.

Actors like Woods and Downey are of a very different breed

As Downey told film critic Kenneth Turan in a Q&A for Interview:

"Well, we were doing a scene together, and I was right on the edge of not acting but really making something happen, you know? It's like trying to really make something spontaneous or great happen. I was saying my lines, and he was just looking at me, kind of like, 'You're getting there. You're getting there.' And then I laughed because it was like masturbating. He got this weird look and cocked his head a little bit to the side, and he just reached over and f***ing cracked me right in the middle of the take."

Downey could've taken offense and phoned his agent, but he was in the moment, and understood what the smack was about. "He was saying, 'Here is the point where you can't let the door close,' and he put his foot in the door by slapping me, and something great happened." Is that actor BS? Absolutely. But when you're dealing with performers who operate at that dizzying frequency, you let them sort it out. They exist on a completely different intellectual/emotional plane, and their madness almost always results in on-screen gold. Give "True Believer" a spin, and you're bound to agree.