Ask a young moviegoer to name a larger-than-life genius played by Robert Downey Jr. and they’ll probably name Tony Stark or Sherlock Holmes. The actor himself, however, might cite Charlie Chaplin. Downey earned his first Oscar nomination for channeling the Litttle Tramp in Chaplin (1992), which was produced and directed by Richard Attenborough, the esteemed British actor and filmmaker who today, at age 89, still presides over the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
The actor’s affection for Attenborough as a mentor gives him common ground with Ben Kingsley, who portrays the nefarious terrorist the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 (opening May 3). Kingsley, you’ll recall, won an Oscar for the title role in Attenborugh’s most celebrated film, Gandhi, in 1982. Here, Downey talks about that bond in the third installment of our five-part interview with the brightest silver screen star in the Marvel Universe. (Part 1 was posted Monday, Part 2 followed Tuesday.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You mentioned Don Cheadle as one of the returning players who has a key contribution to the new film. What about the newcomers to the ensemble? Ben Kingsley, for instance, plays Mandarin, a Marvel character that first appeared in 1964 and is considered the hero’s signature archenemy.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Sir Ben is probably going to steal the movie. There are a lot of contenders who may, but right now he’s probably at the top of that list. He came in as, obviously – speaking of training – as such a technically proficient instrument. And then what proceeded to happen was the release of more vintage, old-school Favreau [improv] stuff with a Shane Black twist on it. It was kind of frightening to witness, I’ll tell you that much.
With Sir Ben, had you known each other before? I can imagine you both bonding over your connections to Richard Attenborough.
We hadn’t worked together so we shared only Lord Attenborough, and yeah, of course, there was a connection. We took some pictures together to send Dickie, which must be the strangest visual for him to see — the two of us playing the bad guy and the good guy. We shot them out in front of a mansion in Miami, it was a magical place, actually.
Was it the Vizcaya Museum [and Gardens]? That’s a wonderful site, I grew up not too far from there…
Yes, Vizcaya, exactly! It was an interesting place, very cool. And it was an interesting time. As you know, I busted my ankle [in August] and we shut down for a little while, and it ended up being great for us. It was the first time [on any movie] in my personal history we got the creative luxury of being able to stop about two-thirds of the way through and really recalibrate everything and prepare for all of the hurdles ahead. And the mainstay of the Ben/Mandarin was kind of up next and straight away throughout, and then lots of Rhodey stuff and lots of fight stuff.
That’s obviously not the way Hollywood shooting schedules unfold these days, but it makes perfect sense that there’s benefit to take a breath and look at what you’ve got. It’d be nice if they could build that into the process – but, you know, without the part where you get injured.
Well, if there was some way for insurance companies to benefit from it? Maybe. [Laughs] Actually I’d like to thank the insurance company, actually. It was a pretty ghastly claim, I’m afraid, [as far as their payout to cover costs incurred by the production delay]. I’m icing the ankle right now in fact.
A random tangent: Star Wars is returning and the next trilogy will be under the Disney banner – the same flag that flies over the Marvel Universe. So it occurred to me that Tony Stark, Han Solo, and Captain Jack Sparrow are Disney heroes now. That’s a pretty edgy group compared to Prince Charming.
Wow, I had not thought of it like that. It’s good for the universe. Office party!