Robert Downey Jr.: Back from the Brink

The Robert Downey Jr. we've all been waiting for is here

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Kwaku Alston for TIME

Robert Downey Jr.

"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."

Downey's return from the brink is a fighter's tale. Since getting clean in 2001, the man who was at one time referred to as the best actor of his generation and also (in TIME) as a "stark reminder of the strangling power of addiction" has labored to show Hollywood that he deserves another chance. "He's somebody who's had it, lost it and now has it again, and it's like a pit bull who's got his jaws on a chew toy," says Iron Man director Jon Favreau. "Nothing will take this away from him."

Favreau lobbied to cast Downey as Stark, Iron Man's alter ego, when Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures wondered if a younger actor with a blander past would be a smarter marketing choice for a potential franchise. In Iron Man, Stark's convoy of humvees is attacked following a weapons demonstration. Insurgents hold him captive in a cave and demand that he build them a devastating weapon. Instead, Stark builds himself a suit of armor with a new sense of purpose. "Tony Stark goes through a bit of a moral reawakening in this movie," Favreau says--a character arc that tipped the casting in Downey's favor. "You can't have a moral reawakening if you're in high school. You have to have done things in your life to be able to look back and say that I've made mistakes or maybe I should re-evaluate the way I approach things."

Downey prepped for three weeks for his one-hour screen test for Iron Man. "You run [the scene] until your subconscious can cough it up with ease," Downey says. "Then you run it to where, if you were woken up in the middle of the night, you could probably say it backwards. Then you write the whole thing out illegibly and see if you can scream through it as fast as you can, while only having a rough reference of what it is because it's written out like chicken scratch." Oh, and then if you're Downey, you probably improvise a couple of versions that are better than what's on the page and perform those too. "He really, really wanted it," says Susan, 34, his wife of 2 1/2 years, a producer he met while making Gothika in 2002 and by all accounts the crucial member of Team New Downey. "Other than Chaplin, it's the role he's gone after the hardest. He knew he could do it, and he knew he had to prove it to people."

Downey was born in New York City's Greenwich Village, the son of an underground filmmaker and an actress. They divorced when he was 13. Downey was acting in his father's films--and partaking in his father's drugs--before he hit his teens. He learned his craft by osmosis. "I did the entire Sanford Meisner process just by hanging around and smoking weed in the stairways with my friends who had just gotten back from class," Downey says. "They'd tell me the exercises. It seemed like inevitably they wound up screaming and crying--screaming at each other and crying at what was screamed. I would just call that Thanksgiving."

By the mid-'80s, Downey had a promising career in teen comedies like Weird Science and Back to School. A groundbreaking role as a drug addict in Less Than Zero followed, and then, in 1992, came Chaplin. After he finished the shoot, he couldn't bring himself to leave the Swiss location. "I felt like I had just knocked one out of the park. I thought, You know what? This is the big turning point for me," he says. But when he went back to Los Angeles, it became "this huge anticlimactic thing that basically took on different shades of awe, wonder, acceptance, bitterness or disassociation for the next--what year is it?--17 years. There was this kind of lull, and I never really found any momentum to focus my creative energy after that, so pretty expectable things happened."

Downey got married, had a son, Indio, now 14, and separated from his wife, and then it got ugly. In 1996 he was arrested driving his Porsche naked down Sunset Boulevard, throwing "imaginary rats" out of his window. Another night, he mistook a neighbor's house for his own and fell asleep in a child's bedroom. His life was a series of court dates and drug relapses. In 2000 he got caught in a hotel room with cocaine and a Wonder Woman costume. After another arrest a few months later, Downey was written out of Ally McBeal.

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