"I'm just not the hero type, clearly," swaggering billionaire weapons contractor Tony Stark explains to the press in the first of this summer's bumper crop of comic-book films, Iron Man, "with this laundry list of character defects and all the mistakes I've made, largely publicly." Stark, who by the way clearly [does] think he's the hero type, is played by another sort you might not associate with saving the planet: Robert Downey Jr.
Fifteen years after he was nominated for an Oscar for his uncanny portrayal of Charlie Chaplin and seven years after his last of several well-publicized trips to either rehab or jail, Downey, 43, is finally claiming the career he was always meant to have, one befitting a fiercely talented, eccentric and magnetic leading man. Later this summer, Downey will appear as an Australian Method actor who is overly committed to playing a black soldier in Ben Stiller's raucous satire of filmmaking and war movies, Tropic Thunder. And in the fall comes another plum role, as a journalist who discovers a schizophrenic Juilliard violinist (Jamie Foxx) living on the streets of Los Angeles in Joe Wright's drama The Soloist. Downey's career feels a lot more than six years removed from 2002, when Woody Allen said he couldn't afford to cast the unstable actor in Melinda and Melinda because it cost too much to insure him.
Supine on a love seat in his home at the end of a leafy cul-de-sac in Brentwood, Calif., Downey attempts to explain his improbable comeback. Like many of his stories, this one meanders poetically and involves, oh, several hundred kung-fu metaphors. "I've just been at the ready, and when the opening was there, I hit it," Downey says. "Guard your centerline, watch the lead elbow, look for an opening, make contact, exchange, advance or retreat and stay connected." He's fit, mellow and reflective after a morning of power-flow yoga with his teacher Vinnie Marino, part of what could be called Team New Downey, a large coterie that includes yogis, massage therapists, martial-arts instructors and people who know about herbs. "I need a lot of support," Downey says, "like Lance Armstrong. Life is really hard, and I don't see some active benevolent force out there. I see it as basically a really cool survival game. You get on the right side of the tracks, and you now are actually working with what some people would call magic. It's not. It's just you're not in the f___ing dark anymore, so you know how to get along a little better, you know?" Um, sort of. "That's O.K.," he says. "I'm not imagining that you're going to follow all this until you hear it [on playback] later."