EXCLUSIVE: After festival premieres in Telluride, AFI and New York, the Chris Smith-directed documentary Sr. just started its run on Netflix. What began as a docu about Robert Downey Sr, the ’60s counterculture director of avant-garde films including Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace, Sr. evolved into much more as the process stretched over three years due to the pandemic and the decline of the subject’s health.
Robert Downey Jr., who spurned Smith’s offer to make a docu about his life and career, became more of a central figure onscreen, along with producing with wife and Team Downey partner Susan Downey. On full display is all the mad wit that informed Downey Sr’s films (Paul Thomas Anderson considered him a formative influence and put Downey Sr. in Boogie Nights and Magnolia). Sr. became something you don’t see often: candor from two generations of a film family that got chewed up but managed to come out the other side intact, bonding and healing before Downey Sr. succumbed to Parkinson’s in July 2021 at age 85. Here, his Jr. describes what the journey means to him.
DEADLINE: When I watched this documentary about your dad, I was a little jealous. My own father died abruptly when he opened the door at the worst possible moment during Hurricane Sandy. I thought, “How fortunate that you saw what was coming and got to create this bonding experience with your father?” People will watch and understand both of you better now, but this is something you’ll have forever.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR: Well, it’s a game of seconds and inches, and like you just described your dad departing this world in a very unpredictable way, I think if any of us can do something like this, it helps. It works for all of us. Because it’s all just kind of a captured metaphor at the end of day anyway, some kind of grace fulfillment.
DEADLINE: So this film began with Chris Smith, director of Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond and exec producer of the huge hit Tiger King, asking to tell your story in a film. You say, “No, let’s do my father.” Then, Sr decides to do his own cut with your cinematographer and fellow producer Kevin Ford. And suddenly we have a film within a film, but also something more poignant. At what point did you and Chris realize this was an opportunity for a famous father and son coming to terms and creating closure on your sometimes rocky relationship, as your dad’s health declined due to Parkinson’s?
RDJ: Everything is a calculated risk, and this had a lot of slippery elements — one being his declining health, the other being his disinterest in what Chris Smith and I thought we were doing. And his increasing interest in enlisting Kevin Ford to come over in the non sequitur side of things and somehow embrace the formlessness of it while knowing what our intention was the whole time.
Dad came out to the Hamptons three times over three years, and the third time he came out we didn’t film much because he was really not — it wouldn’t have been respectful. There’s a few snippets of it where I’m feeding him ice cream and that was all shot at that point on Susan’s iPhone, because she just captured it in a fly-on-the-wall kind of way. Basically, from jump I realized he was not going to make it easy for us to execute our creative plan. I think in a way the obstacles he unconsciously threw up were –nobody wants their winter year incarnation wrap-up video. Because, you know, when they say it ain’t over until it’s over, nobody wants to acknowledge when it’s over. I even said to him at several junctures when we needed a bit of gallows humor, “Dad, Act 3 doesn’t work until you bite the dust,” and he said, “Hey, don’t rush me. I’m working here.”
DEADLINE: So you addressed that elephant in the room. Your dad was such an observer of simple things many might look past, like baby ducks in a pond near his New York apartment, and it was funny to see him in director mode, constantly asking the cameraman, “Did you get that? Did you get that shot? Did you get that shot?”
RDJ: I have to say too there’s a certain point in the process I realized only seeing it in its finished form, with audiences. For some reason, I can’t really process this, watching it alone. I need to see it at these screenings and events and festivals that we’re always creating a narrative that we can try to make sense of. But I think at a certain point he was aware of his lifespan, you know, that “rage, rage against the dying of the light” and all that trying to sum up his life, his loves, his losses and his many, many, many missteps, and his flagrant disregard for safety and conformity and sanity that just having survived I think was enough of a statement. Being able to talk to him about every stage of his life as it correlated with one of his films, I was able to make sense of it.
The two big things that were revelatory for me — one was finding out that he didn’t really have any support until he was in the stockade, and that came from a stranger.
DEADLINE: This was when your dad got thrown in an Army jail for yelling at a sergeant who panicked when the cargo plane they were on crashed from engine failure, and his jailer gave him some paper and a pen, and told him to stop sitting around, and write something…
RDJ: It was the first time he ever said he had creative support, encouragement from anyone his whole life; he came from a complicated, self-centered family. And then as I was reminding him and myself of what happened with he and his second wife, Laura Ernst, when she got Lou Gehrig’s disease, when he was her life partner and her caregiver.
DEADLINE: You could see the influence of that in his film Hugo Pool, where Alyssa Milano plays a pool cleaner who falls for a young man who has ALS, played by Patrick Dempsey. You acted in that and several other films your dad made. This documentary was more a collaboration of equals, as opposed to an actor taking direction. How did those terms change your relationship?
RDJ: Well, he was used to having the final word on the directions, literally direction of what things would be, and the introspection required for him to know that we were essentially trying to document his life as an artist, a man, a father, a husband, brother while he was short on time. I think an important moment was the minute he said, “I think we’ve got to face it and let the Parkinson’s be a character in this story.”
DEADLINE: His explanation for all his eccentricities is often laugh-out-loud funny, but it was different when he talked about his wife having to hit his hand when he was at a restaurant and the other one began shaking uncontrollably due to the Parkinson’s. Also, the moment where he had to sit down, when he got a little dizzy while walking. It gave perspective.
RDJ: I’m glad you said that because that was another moment. It was like, do we try to edit around reality, or do we try to edit reality in, and see if we can actually manage to hold and understand? Because nobody really knows. Dad knows more than anyone else involved in the project. What is it like to be looking at the void with a camera on you? Understandably, it looks to him like, “Get that camera off me and point it over there.”
RELATED: ‘Sr.’ Trailer: Robert Downey Sr. Documentary From Chris Smith Heading To Netflix
DEADLINE: Before I saw the documentary, I saw the trailer. Now, trailers are made to get people to watch movies, and you each had a past history with substance issues. I was surprised at a moment that seemed to promise a “You have to answer for Santino, Carlo” moment when you said you wanted him to address the problems with drugs that you each had. He refers to his as “15 years of total insanity,” and it makes him very uncomfortable to talk about it. It was handled sparingly in the film, and why not? Your identity is Iron Man, and Sherlock Holmes and thank God, the other stuff is far in your rearview mirror. How did you decide how much to open up that door and which of you, your dad or you, was more reluctant to spend much time on something that obviously is going to grab headlines, but who wants to go back there?
RDJ: Well, here’s what I think. Unlike the ’90s or the aughts, the pandemic and endemic nature of addiction, what’s going on with fentanyl now … the information age has gone in lock step with the drug culture as it continues to thrive and find new ways to kill. So, you know, it’s basically like talking about cancer. It’s like Brighton Beach Memoirs — you used to have only whisper it. Now, I think most cultures understand. It’s in the AMA as a brain disease. That is what it is. It is a disease, and it’s almost like, if you’re afflicted with it, until you deal with that disease you’ll never know what disease is going to really kill you next. And what a joy to be able to arrest one disease, so you can have some sort of dignity for the rest of your life, and I think that’s the thing.
He survived one brain disease and then ultimately met his death by another. But that’s the honestly kind of — we can make it as salacious as we want and there’s plenty of that. Like in the ’80s and ’90s, you know, I can’t tell you how many artists I admire who there could have been so many interesting interviews with them, but all [interviewers] ever wanted to know was, you know, “Were you really on acid and cracked out when you blah, blah, blah?” Oh Christ! It almost became a reason to not have to have more interesting conversations, but it’s still uncomfortable because nobody wants to admit complete defeat over trying to deal with something like alcoholism or addiction.
I still think there’s this section of our culture that thinks it’s a moral weakness. And also, you feel bad about all the crazy shit, so then there’s the guilt button. I don’t really know if my dad ever made peace with those many lost years, or if what he was able to do and that living amends to his second wife Laura [was related to that]. I know from Rosemary Rogers, his third wife and the widow who survived him, it’s not like he all of a sudden became the dream partner. She called him the Bob Job.
DEADLINE: What does that mean?
RDJ: He was a lot of work. As pleased as my long-suffering Susan Downey is with the prerequisite of my undying devotion, sobriety and monogamy, it’s not like all of a sudden I’m just some uncomplicated hell of a guy. But part of this Sr. thing, when I watch it with audiences, is that more often than not they aren’t saying, “I love this documentary — you and Chris and Kevin and everybody did about your dad.” They immediately go, “I just lost my sister to Parkinson’s,” or, “My mother was a charismatic type, just like your dad.”
And if you look at this year even, if you want to go to the very top of the tree, it’s what Spielberg is doing with The Fablemans. It’s what Jonah Hill is doing with Stutz, and Iñárritu is doing a version of with Bardo. There is a return to the more evocative, revealing, personal — the kind of things that most publicists would say, “I worked my whole career to avoid you doing this.” No risk, no reward, and the reward of Sr. has been, it’s a phenomenal thing to be getting the kind of feedback that we’ve been getting from the people across the board. Industry insiders, outsiders, friends, family, strangers, long-lost friends who knew my dad in a different time. It’s been quite a little mini phenomenon.
DEADLINE: As one who interviewed you many times for magazines, in good and bad times, I didn’t think you needed to open the door further than you did. I remember the last interview we did for Playboy magazine. I leaned in too much to a past you put behind you, and it was disrespectful to you, and you called me on it. You said, “h“How long should Dennis Hopper have to answer for things in the past when he’s done such incredible work as an artist?” I think about what you said, each time I see you on screen. I am not objective here; I feel proud of how you turned around your life, and I didn’t want you to answer it all again in the documentary. It’s the past, and the movie is about your father, and you only by extension. It’s the stuff that journalism focuses on for clicks these days, but it is not your identity.
RDJ: I’m really glad you said that, and also, it takes two to tango. I probably overreacted a bit, and so my side of the street is not entirely clean.
DEADLINE: You are being kind. You deserved better from me, or it wouldn’t still bother me.
RDJ: I want to go back to what you said about Dennis Hopper. It’s been one of these years where I was on location in Santa Fe shooting Oppenheimer, and Alden Erenreich and I became quite close. He is one of those guys who eats life. He goes, “Hey, there’s this place up in Taos where Dennis Hopper started this kind of crazy art community and he was there right after he was doing Easy Rider.” Blah, blah, blah. I go, “Great. Let’s go. We got a day off, let’s go.”
When my dad was shooting Greaser’s Palace, some dope deal had gone south between Senior’s crew and Dennis Hopper’s — it was kind of like Hollywood motorcycle gang and there was this big moment of confrontation that I remember. I was 5, 6 years old. It was like all this tension on set and all wound up culminating at a place called the Dragon Room, and it turns out the hotel I was staying at while we were there was 50 yards from Pink Adobe. We went to Mabel Dodge Luhan House, this artist community up in Taos that Dennis Hopper had developed. And there was such a sense of calm and of integrity and of legacy, and I suddenly realized that there was this whole other side to these characters.
Call it my dad, Hopper, Hal Ashby, all these guys who kind of lived hard. But there was, and I’ll only say this once and it won’t be with a capital I, there was this collective innocence going on. And 50 years later, I was able to go back to some of these places and see this other side. Which is, these were people who were given a big voice. In many ways, they were underdeveloped as humans, but they were artists and they did the best they could, and it was pretty f*cking good if you look back at it now.
It doesn’t mean it was any fun to be them when they were in the thick of it, but our culture is the better for it. So, I don’t know. Make of that what you will. It’s a weird equation to try to get out on the back of a napkin and have it make sense, but that’s the feeling I got five decades later.
DEADLINE: What do you miss most about being the center of the Marvel Universe?
RDJ: What I miss most? Being in the trenches with Kevin Feige throughout; the beginning, with Jon Favreau, it’s like a beautiful dream now; the middle, with Shane Black on Iron Man 3, we’d just had Exton and shot it mostly in Wilmington N.C. It was idyllic and subversive. And The End, when I realized I’d made so many close friends in the MCU cast, and the Russo Brothers helping me embrace Tony’s arc.
DEADLINE: I remember when we did the Playboy interview together the first time when you told me that when you struggled as an actor and were broke, you called home for money and your dad was like, “l“Look, great to hear from you and good luck.” You were on your own. The documentary makes it clear his main priority was to scrape together the money to make the next film; it made me wonder if it was tough love but simply that all the money went into his films. Was the latter the reason he said no?
RDJ: I think so, and I don’t know what he was going through at those times and also when my folks split up I really went over into Camp Elsie [Ann Downey] for a bunch of years, because I chose to do that. I don’t know. Was it some mid-century lingering — don’t look for a handout, ask for a hand up? I don’t know, but looking back on it there are kind of some tough-love decisions. That’s the weird thing, to have been beyond permissive on the one hand but then be kind of a hard mind, stoic, kind of conservative on the other. I guess we’re always just trying to figure out how to balance ourselves. It’s rare that any parent gets it right. Senior was an example of somebody who got it about as wrong as you could and yet…
I did this movie called Restoration once. In London, I just ran into the director, great talented guy, Michael Hoffman. He directed Soapdish and then we did Restoration. Anyway, Restoration is entirely a metaphor for recovery set in Charles II’s England, and at one point the lead character winds up in this Christian retreat, and it says on the entryway on a plaque, ‘Behold, I have refined thee in the furnace of affliction.’
Going back to Greaser’s Palace and that old-time religion, it’s so funny that that saying comes back to me as a kind of a cosmic explanation much more often than you would think a piece of set dec ever could. I don’t think any family would ever decide let’s see if we can refine our children in the furnace of affliction, but there’s something to be said for it. I would not suggest it as a mode of family healing, but we’re talking about it and we’re still here.
DEADLINE: Indeed. I recall you telling me in great detail how much you prepared for your Iron Man audition, knowing some of the decision makers didn’t want you and so you needed a knockout for Jon Favreau to cast you. And you crushed it and changed your life and created an arc for blockbusters that continues today. You went beyond a costume and infused that character with your acting talent, and it helped set Phase One Marvel movies apart from anything else. But it was so different from the movies your dad made. I wondered what did he think about you playing Iron Man, which didn’t seem like a movie he’d go out of his way to see?
RDJ: Another full-circle story. I exchanged my previous obsession with an obsession for this role and landing it — and lest we forget, it was Favreau who was pushing for me but knew he had to play the politics or he would have no leverage moving forward.
Then we proceeded to launch a historic run of what is now the cinematic universe with Favreau and I essentially doing our version of a big-budget Senior movie. With all the templates of a genre film, with our intention of making it as marketable as possible. And that year I got invited to the Time 100 event in the city. You could bring one person and say how they influenced you. I brought my dad and I said how strangely being raised by him in his counterculture world, once I finally sobered up it wound up really informing the approach we took in trying to reinvent the genre. And I said, Dad, you have any comments on this?” And he took the mic and he said, “I’m not your father.” He brought down the house.
It’s the only time my dad and I had both been wearing tuxedos, and I laid this kind of vindication of our ne’er-do-well counterculture family’s rise to the middle. We clawed our way to the middle. And when I asked him what he thought, he had a punch line.
DEADLINE: And he publicly disowned you.
RDJ: You want to talk about the ultimate double entendre, you got it right there.
DEADLINE: This superhero model you, Favreau and Feige ushered in, the films get bashed by some directors. Just recently, Quentin Tarantino implied that the characters are stars, not the actors playing them. After all that Tony Stark meant to you personally and the MCU, and how that success spread to actors including Chadwick Boseman, can you give a perspective that belies a genre being used as a bit of a punching bag by famous filmmakers? I don’t exactly know where I’m going, but I think you get it.
RDJ: I think I do. I think our opinions on these matters say a lot about us. I think that we are in a time and place that I unwittingly contributed to, where IP has taken precedence over principle and personality. But it’s a double-edged sword. A piece of IP is only as good as the human talent you get to represent it, and you can have some great IP even if it’s coming from an auteur or a national treasure of a writer-director, and if you don’t have the right kind of artist playing that role, you’ll never know how good it could have been.
I think that creatively it is a waste of time to be at war with ourselves. I think this is a time when everything is so much more fragmented now that I think you have this kind of bifurcation. Throwing stones one way or another … and I’ve had my reactions in the past when people said things that I felt were discrediting my integrity … I go, “You know what? Let’s just get over it. We’re all a community. There’s enough room for everything,” and thank God for Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water. That’s all I have to say. We need the big stuff to make room for films like Armageddon Time.
I’m not talking about trickle-down entertainment. I’m just saying that things are always changing and I’m at a place in my life where I’ve now gone back to back, working with Chris Nolan on what was an exceptionally transformational experience for me; having been in pre-production post and bringing Sr. to market; and the next thing I’m doing is a series with my Mrs. and the director Park Chan-Wook, based on a Pulitzer book called The Sympathizer. It’s already a transformative, literally playing five different roles experience for me. So, I would just say, before we cast aspersions on each other — undergo your own renaissance and see if it doesn’t change your mind a little bit.
Reinvent yourself before you decide that somebody else doesn’t know what they’re doing or that something is keeping you from doing your best, or that something is better than something else. You know, we’re in this age now where Favreau said it best: We used to try to make waves in a lake, and now we’re just trying to catch people’s attention as things are moving by quickly in a stream. I think that’ll change again, but this is just where we’re at. And to accept it and be grateful that you get to participate is the right place to start.
DEADLINE: There is another laugh-out-loud moment when you called the director Paul Thomas Anderson the son your father always wanted, and noted how they liked to rub your nose in it. And footage of your father that PTA shot as Senior describes his earned aversion to flight, train travel and elevators is hilarious. Talk for a moment about the dynamic between the three of you.
RDJ: Paul Thomas Anderson is as much a national and industry treasure as you could ever ask for. He’s found a way to have longevity in a way that eluded my father, and yet the fact that he took some small inspiration and developed such a paternal relationship with my dad … sure I had my jealous moments, but I know where I stand, and I just respect and admire both those guys.
However, I am a little tad bit jealous of the laughs they had because I feel like those were two guys who were able to get to the root of each other’s funny in a way that is a rarity. I celebrate that in the film. I also just thought that it was a good line to say. Sometimes in Sr. I was just saying, “w”What’s the button we need here,” or “What’s going to give them something to cut away to and how can I pass the baton to this great sequence of this film footage we have of them?” And by the way, major thanks to PTA for letting us include him in this story. What can I do but take the knee to that guy?
DEADLINE: I have long marveled at your electric wit and ideas, and seeing Sr., I know where you got it. How much is directing a priority for you?
RDJ: It is probably the only thing that I’m required to do to finish this set of life lessons. You were talking about Senior and PTA, right? So, the natural thing is, “w”Well what about you, kid?” You know my dad always said anybody can act but few can direct, and nobody can write. So maybe part of the reason he wasn’t always such a huge fan of these big genre films I was doing is he probably by his own words would say, “Well, why don’t you write something that you could direct, and whether you’ll act in it or not is irrelevant because anyone can act.” I don’t know if I entirely agree with that, but it does seem to be the thing that I’m preoccupied with now. It might be my new obsession. Not sure. I’ll have to get back to you on our next discussion.