Robert Downey: A futurist knows

December 19, 2013, 3:00 PM UTC
Photo: Nigel Parry

Robert Downey Jr. has become one of the most powerful players in Hollywood.

But the 48-year-old actor admits he’s not much of a networker. “I think about people, and I have a conversation with them in my head,” he says. “But I tend to not reach out.” In an interview about his career and the future of the movie industry, the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes actor tells Fortune about the real-life discussions (Elon Musk!) that have influenced his thinking about technology, business, and entertainment. Edited portions of the interview will appear in the January 13 issue of Fortune; a lengthier excerpt of the Q&A follows.

Q. This isn’t the first time your image has been on the cover of a business magazine. Tony Stark’s face has graced the cover of a few news titles.

A. Yes! I wanted to close the circle.

Elon Musk has been compared to Tony Stark, and parts of Iron Man 2 were filmed at a SpaceX facility. Did you ever meet?

The genesis of that goes back to preproduction for Iron Man I, when SpaceX was in a smaller facility and Elon Musk was not a household name. As part of my research, I wanted to interview two people: John Underkoffler [the chief scientist at computer interface company Oblong] and Elon. I thought it was really interesting that he literally had decided to become a rocket scientist. And although the similarities kind of end with a certain — what would you say? — just an amazing self-agency, you know, that I think Elon really embodies. I was looking to Under­koffler for straight technology [advice]. You remember in Minor­ity Report, the character is wearing those gloves and moving the screens around? He and his company built that into a reality, so I was taking some cues from him: If Tony had designed his own software and his own programs and the machinery to operate them, what sort of language would he design to be able to ma­nipulate his environment? And over the course of all these mov­ies, that’s been as much a part of Tony’s character as anything else.

The spirit of Elon was really inspiring to me because Tony goes from doing one thing so well and so successfully, and goes to do something that’s a lot more risky and much more far reaching.

And then in the second Iron Man, Tony Stark has a conversation with Elon Musk about doing a project together. I think it’s electric jets if I’m not mistaken.

Were there any other business leaders or powerful people who inspired your performance?

There’s a little bit of Howard Hughes in there. But in this character, in this potential franchise, I saw a huge business op­portunity for myself. What was required of me was to put myself forward in a different light than I had been previously imagined, and to imagine being perceived as a bit more dashing, a bit more masculine. Essentially you aspire to a persona that puts you into a different light, which you can equate to more opportunity.

Was that empowering for you?

Sure. You know, grace is something that by my own power, by my own spirit of invention, by my own work or even luck, I couldn’t attain. That to me is kind of at the heart of fortune.

Because there are several kinds of fortune. There’s the fortune that is predictable, and then there’s the kind that people love to say is unprecedented. But every fortune, every big business, every big political or industrial or artistic move is unprecedented before it becomes the norm.

So, you know, it’s so interesting too. And I make a bit of a point of studying the kind of less-Western [view of] this sort of thing, and I always find that it’s kind of about, you know, “the way is the way is the way.”

It’s one thing to participate in something that is a hit; it’s another to replicate it in another realm. I was super-fortunate in the people I was surrounded with. When [director] Jon Favreau and [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige launched Iron Man it was this brand-new thing that had just enough money to try to compete with what the other studios had been doing well for ages, and our skin was really in it, and if we failed, no one would be surprised. So we felt like college kids who think, Let’s see if we can do this startup and make it fly. Pretty soon after that, I was lucky to work with my long-suffering wife [producer Susan Downey] and Guy Ritchie and Joel Silver in taking Sher­lock Holmes and reinterpreting this original superhero, whose superpower is his brain, and that turned out very nicely too.

So, once you’ve replicated something, the onus is to — then you want to go back and you want to kind of reverse-engineer and say, “What is it that was in common with the processes on both of those projects?” And the funny and hilarious and humiliating thing is you know it when you’re in it, but it’s incredibly elusive.

In 2004 you released an album titled The Futurist, What was the inspiration?

I had some time on my hands, I wasn’t working much in my, ahem, chosen profession. An aspect of fortune is that, when it’s raining, then you gotta work inside the barn, you know?

And there is always something I’ve noticed with every person I know to a man, to a woman, they are always multifaceted. And I find that a certain sort of dysthymic, existential depression sets in on each and every one of us when we might not be doing what we wish, but we’re not doing what we can. Because there’s kind of a typically Western affixing to, you know, this is what I want, and this is what I should do, but oftentimes working on any part of yourself constructively is for the highest good and will help you ultimately achieve those other goals.

I wrote a lyric “a futurist knows” — like, a futurist knows what’s coming for us. Except I said, “a futurist nose,” like the nose on your face. It is that kind of intuitive part of us that, when we’re relaxed, we can predict a felt sense of where our lives are going.

The funny thing was around about the time of writing that song and then going into a year or two later prepping for the first Iron Man, I found myself really drawn to those thoughts and those ideas.

Would you make another album?

Sure. The crossover, usually from cinema to music, is taken less favorably than perhaps it used to be. Yet there are some iconic people who are music entertainers appearing in film more regu­larly. I saw [Maroon 5 singer] Adam Levine in Can a Song Save Your Life? and I called him and befriended him because I real­ized that he’s one of those people who can make that transition. Justin Timberlake I haven’t seen Inside Llewyn Davis, but I hear that he can, too.

But I think this is just a time when the borders, probably a byproduct of the information age, the borders are — you can blur them without as much squelch or as much feedback as you might — provided you do it well. As far as for my own explanation, I was raised singing in madrigals and composing music and doing musicals off-Broadway and have been, you know, thinking about writing a musical for some time. So I mean, I’ve kind of always been — I’m a little bit stupid when it comes to composition or execution, and I’m not a very good player, but I write well enough and I can sing pretty well.

You have a production company, Team Downey. What is your vision for it, and how do you and Susan think about your roles as leaders of that organization?

Susan had a perfectly sound (producing) career before we met, and she started producing the films I was starring in. And then the real aha moment was when we decided what we really would like to do is develop our own material do to together. And we had just had our first experience with that in this film called Judge, which will be out next fall. And our vision has always been we kind of tend to like and talk about the same hundred movies when we’re referring to films we would like the films we’re doing to be like. And so we realized we had a very kind of simpatico sensibility.

Ultimately really it comes down to it’s kind of like being a venture capitalist for a bigger organization in that, you know, we are in a relationship with a studio (Warner Brothers) and not only do we not want to lose them a penny, we want them to feel that we’re one of their great earners, and also that they really appreciate our sensibilities artistically.

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What I’ve had over the last decade or so is a crash course in producing, which on some days I would tell you is the absolute worst job in the world because certain aspects of it are like being a volunteer fire person. And it’s very thankless.

There’s — I guess the glory in it is that you’re someone who really cares about helping other people achieve their goals. And so it’s been the exact opposite of being a kind of a self-centered actor.

When you call up someone like Adam Levine, are you looking at talent through the lens of Team Downey?

Some part of me knows that there’s an entrée by virtue of the fact that I actually have an entity where we could develop something. But the real this is, you know, and I think one of the keys to me that I notice with people who are — kind of make their own luck and are fortunate people and tend to do well is they do step out of their comfort zone, and they do put in a phone call to someone that they’re I guess more than likely imagining wouldn’t mind speaking to them either.

It’s still kind of like high school in a way. You know, you wonder — like you never want to wind up on someone’s phone sheet as a you know, “later.” Or, like, priority three. But I also think that one of the great things about being in any industry where you have any prominence whatsoever is that you have — there’s a supposed kind of connectedness, you know? And I find that I really don’t reach out enough. You know, I think about people and I have a conversation with them in my head, but I don’t — I tend to not like reach out and want to make new connections. And it’s something that I’ve been efforting to change because I think that that’s where all the new adventures in people’s lives come from.

You’ve worked in film as an actor for almost three decades, and now you’re producing movies. How has the industry changed, and where is it going?

It’s changed for me in that I feel I’m part of the furniture, and the thing about being someone no longer on the outside looking in is that all those projections become kind of null and void.

I always love listening to what people are complaining about. You know, “Oh, it’s just driven by these big tent-pole pictures and blah, blah, blah.” But there are a lot that flies in the face of that. And I think these last few years have been very interesting in that some of the kind of middle- to smaller-budget films have really gotten a heck of a lot of attention.

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The prime mover usually is an individual who takes the influence they have and applies it in a different direction. I think Matthew McConaughey is a great example of that this year, you know? I think in moving projects like Mud and Dallas Buyers Club into a position where they might not have had kind of opportunities and visibility, they did if not for him, you know?

I don’t know that anyone can accurately say where any industry is going at any time. If you’d said 10 years ago that Matthew Mc­Conaughey would be the most interesting actor of 2013 or that someone like me would be at the top of the heap for box-office genre movies — I think neither he nor I would have believed it.

Back to Elon Musk. Are you an investor in Tesla (TSLA)?

The funny thing is, I didn’t really have the money to invest at the point at which I would have gotten in on the ground floor But you know, the truth be told is for someone who’s as kind of let’s call it daring on occasion for lack of a better word as I am in other aspects of my life, I’m extremely conservative with my investments.


A shorter version of this interview appeared in the January 13, 2014 issue of Fortune.

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