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Downey Jr. discusses ‘Dolittle’ role decision

Downeys say they ‘wanted to step up game a little bit’

By Josh Rottenberg, Los Angeles Times
Published: January 26, 2020, 6:08am

“I’ve had several careers,” Robert Downey Jr. said on an early January afternoon, sitting beside his producing partner and wife, Susan, in a cavernous soundstage on the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles. “There was one career where I was happy to be working. Then there was one where I was so happy to be able to be working again. And now there’s one where I’m working — and it’s working.”

Robert and Susan Downey have been together through much of that journey — through rough times, good times and ridiculously amazing times — from the period when Robert was struggling to regain his footing after years of substance abuse and multiple stints in rehab and jail through his stunning comeback as Tony Stark in 2008’s “Iron Man,” the first in what would become a decade-plus string of Marvel superhero blockbusters.

Now, the two, who have been married since 2005 and co-founded the production company Team Downey in 2010, are embarking on a new chapter. Having concluded his run as Iron Man in last summer’s juggernaut “Avengers: Endgame,” Downey, 54, finds himself looking ahead to life after Marvel. But when you’ve already ticked off nearly every box imaginable for a Hollywood actor — promising wunderkind, “Saturday Night Live” cast member, tabloid fodder, industry pariah, two-time Oscar nominee, global superstar — what worlds are left to conquer?

“Robert is in an unusual place where, even though he’s had such a massive career, there’s such a strong association with this particular character of Tony Stark,” said Susan, 46, who first met Robert on the 2003 supernatural horror film “Gothika,” on which she was a producer. “So there’s a lot of scrutiny of: Well, what’s next?”

The answer, apparently, is talking to the animals.

In his first post-Marvel role and the latest and biggest Team Downey production to date, Downey stars in “Dolittle” as Dr. John Dolittle, an eccentric Victorian-era Welsh veterinarian who is drawn out of his hermit-like existence following his wife’s death and, with the help of his menagerie of animals, embarks on an adventure to try to save the queen of England. The $175 million film opened Friday.

For the Downeys, who have partnered on both smaller films like the 2014 drama “The Judge” and big, splashy franchise fare like the two “Sherlock Holmes” films, “Dolittle” represents a leap into uncharted territory. Directed by Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”), the film attempts to breathe new life, through touches of oddball comedy and cutting-edge visual effects, into a property that dates back to author Hugh Lofting’s 1920 children’s book “The Story of Doctor Dolittle.”(The franchise’s history on the big screen is somewhat checkered: 1967’s musical “Doctor Dolittle” flopped but, after aggressive studio lobbing, scored a much-maligned best picture nomination, while the 1998 version starring Eddie Murphy and its 2001 sequel fared better at the box office.)

Downey — whose typically idiosyncratic take on the character was inspired by the 19th-century neo-Druid Welsh eccentric William Price — says it was never set in stone that “Dolittle” would be his first post-Marvel movie. Indeed, the film was originally slated to be released in April 2019, two weeks ahead of “Avengers: Endgame,” but was bumped back nine months and underwent extensive reshoots, with directors Jonathan Liebesman (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) and Chris McKay (“The Lego Batman Movie”) reportedly coming on to help work out what Downey calls a “really technically challenging Rubik’s cube from beginning to end.” (The film, which has received largely negative reviews, will do battle against Will Smith’s “Bad Boys for Life” and Universal’s best-picture-nominated “1917” at this weekend’s box office.)

“We’re not particularly strategic,” Downey said. “Also, release dates change all the time, so imagining that if I do this it’s going to wind up right here is like pretending you know what time a cat is going to scratch its nuts or something. I just thought: something light, something that’s enough of a departure for me where I feel challenged.”

Actor Rami Malek, who performs the voice of Dolittle’s gorilla sidekick Chee-Chee in the film, says that Downey jumped into the role with his usual spirit of embracing risk and cozying up to the unknown: “I’m not sure Robert knows exactly what it’s going to be while he’s doing it — and that’s the magic of it: the discovery,” Malek said.

For the Downeys, who have two young children together, “Dolittle” is just one of a number of recent and upcoming productions that are pushing the duo further into film as well as television. “We’re thinking about, how do we challenge ourselves and each other moving forward?” Robert said. “Is there something we could direct together? Is there a story from when Susan was in film school that I could write and she’d direct it? We want to step up our game a little bit.”

The two are executive producers of the upcoming HBO limited series “Perry Mason,” with Matthew Rhys as the 1930s Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer, and last week announced a first-look deal with the network. An eight-part documentary series called “The Age of A.I.,” hosted by Downey, is currently running as a YouTube Original. A quirky, dystopian series called “Sweet Tooth,” based on a comic book from DC’s Vertigo imprint, is slated for Netflix.

And a number of movie projects are at various stages of development, including a film about a real-life quack doctor who transplanted goat testicles into men to restore their virility, a third installment in the “Sherlock Holmes” series and a documentary about Downey’s father, the pioneering filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.

Susan Downey says that such eclecticism is a reflection of the Downeys’ far-ranging interests. “We don’t really make our choices based on, ‘Oh, this is commercially viable and fits this slot,'” she said. “We sort of just look at the whole picture of, what’s the story, what’s the journey, what’s the challenge? Does it give us the opportunity to do something we haven’t done before?”

Director Jon Favreau, who remade Downey’s career when he cast him in 2008’s “Iron Man” and later directed him in “Iron Man 2” and the indie “Chef,” says the actor’s restless creative spirit will continue to propel him as he charts his post-Marvel career. “I think it might have been freeing to have that character resolved in ‘Endgame,’ so that now he can move forward as Robert,” Favreau said. “But he doesn’t shy away from the legacy of Tony Stark. If anything, I think it helps signal-boost whatever he’s exploring and whatever he’s curious to do.”