Robert Downey Jr's Modern Times

U.S.A. Today; 1/10/1992; Monika Guttman, Gayle Jo Carter

UNTIL NOW, Robert Downey Jr., 27, had been just another semi-famous young actor wondering if his big break would ever come. Downey (Chances Are, Air America, Less Than Zero) gets his chance this weekend in the title role of Chaplin, about the silent-film era's comic genius. The reviews have been mixed, but his performance already has won high praise: Hollywood handicappers group him with Denzel Washington (Malcolm X) and Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross) as a potential best-actor Oscar nominee. In L.A., the New York City native talked with us about his future, his new wife and why Hollywood is a bad place for meditating.

Q: Would an Oscar nomination for Chaplin mean something to you?
A: Of course. Please. Being nominated is such a fantasy. But, then, playing Chaplin was a fantasy. In fact, I'm trying to think of what isn't a fantasy right now. Perhaps the fact I'll be taking out the garbage tonight, or picking fleas off the cats' necks.
Q: How many cats?
A: Four. Big Persians. I love them.
Q: What have your cats taught you?
A: Independence. And how everything has a personality. Everything. Anything that's sucking air has a personality. (Laughs.
Q: You've mentioned that you feel more balanced in life these days after a wild youth - drugs, casual sex. What makes you feel that way?
A: I got married (to movie actress Deborah Falconer . I've always had some part of me that's desired to be just domestically set up. Having moved around a lot as a kid, being really nomadic, I just want, like, a family, a little house, a little piece of land somewhere. All of that stuff.
Q: It just hit you suddenly?
A: Well, the kind of stress that I was under during the filming of Chaplin made me realize: ''You know what? You're going to die. And what you die of depends on what you do. While you're working, while you're not working. Just every day. And who you're with and what kind of surroundings you fancy.'' I've outgrown a lot of things I used to think I wanted, which was to be the Dionysian maverick. Now, forget it. I want to have healthy children. I don't want surprises unless I make them.
Q: How did you meet your wife?
A: I'd known Debbie a long time, and we'd always liked each other. Everything that's happened in my life that was good happened quick. I feel confident in its being good.
Q: So the cats just weren't centering you enough.
A: Exactly. So now I have four cats and a wife. That ought to do it.
Q: It's been ... what? A few months?
A: Seven.
Q: The newspapers didn't say much.
A: No. We did it very quietly. I think that if subconsciously you want hoopla, you get it. That whole thing of ''Oh, we're doing a very small wedding'' is followed by (whispers to the side ''Thursday, 4 p.m.'' Then again, I've never been in that group who have people knocking down their door, waiting around for them. Which is good. I think I'm a bit more accessible; I don't feel that far away from asking people what kind of tea they want after brunch (he once was a waiter in New York .
Q: So what about the other things you decided you wanted: the family, the house, the little piece of land?
A: Not yet. We still have an empty living room. But I'm coming to the end of my love affair with L.A. I notice things, like if you're healthy, and your eyes still burn all the time, it's probably not you. My eyes burn; my lungs hurt. But I'm not part of that crowd that wants to live in that 70-square- mile area of Montana where you might as well be on the back lot of Paramount. I'm an urban addict, and I don't like bugs, really.
Q: Somewhere that's not L.A. ...
A: A sacred space. Somewhere to be quiet. You can't meditate in this city. It takes me being away from here for a few days to even get clear on what to do with an inner life. Yeah, I want an inner life. Everyone has one, whether they want it or not. There's a lot more going on in life than movies and elections.
I've created an optimum situation for myself. Through clogged spots and burned-out pistons and all the confusion you bring into your 20s. And all the hope. I'm satisfied. In a completely insatiable way.
- Monika Guttman

On playing Chaplin
''I was born to play this part. I've never taken anything so seriously,'' Downey Jr. says. Apparently, ''Chaplin'' director Sir Richard Attenborough and Chaplin's daughter, Geraldine, agree. Attenborough predicts Downey will have ''a future like no one else in the industry,'' and Geraldine thought he'd captured her dad's nuances. Though funny at times, ''Chaplin'' is more often a serious depiction of the Little Tramp's life as he struggles for recognition in Hollywood and handles a scandalous private life: His first three wives were 16, 16 and 19. He settled on Oona O'Neill in '43. She was 18; he, 54. Says Downey: ''I think he's misunderstood, even by those closest to him. He's an enigma, and he's supposed to remain an enigma.'' So how did Downey manage to portray him so well? ''Most of all, it was an opportunity to put myself on the line for something and have that blind faith in something. I felt so honored.''
- Gayle Jo Carter

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