Downey's role provides reality check

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / April 24, 2009
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Back when he was filming "The Soloist" last spring, Robert Downey Jr. felt poised for something big. "Iron Man" and "Tropic Thunder" were about to be released. Buzz was building about career resurrection and massive box office potential.

But now he was digging into a different sort of character: Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, a storyteller grounded more in realism than fantasy or farce. And Downey, known for taking up more than his share of the screen, suddenly had to play small.

"It kind of seemed like the writing was on the wall," Downey said by telephone from LA earlier this month. "I was pretty much as confident as all get-out. And he wasn't required even to be a confident person. . . . He's not your street-beating, gumshoe guy with a card in his hat."

Hence, a strange and formidable acting challenge: playing credibly and quietly in the shadow of somebody else. It's Jamie Foxx - as Nathaniel Ayers, a mentally ill homeless man with a staggering musical gift - who gets to gobble up the scenery. Downey plays the journalist who discovers Ayers and shares his story with an enthralled city. So he has to be, on film, what a columnist is on paper - part of the story, but not the story.

"Everything that was tantamount . . . to a comfort zone for me was pretty much not allowed," Downey said, describing the struggle to gain a foothold on his role. "[Don't] be endomorphic and talk too much. Don't be too funny. We don't need any sexy beats here. You know? And it's not heart wrenching soul-stripping drama. It's a story. It's a character study. And it's a character study of someone who is not a character. It's a character study of someone who is studying someone else."

And the role, Downey notes, has served as a sort of reality check, in a Hollywood culture where you are what you earn. "You have a billion-dollar box office year and you start wondering if there isn't more to you. Maybe I'm more than I thought," he said. "Nope!"

That, of course, is something of an overstatement. Downey's "Soloist" performance was always expected to earn him top-order recognition; when Paramount Pictures abruptly changed the film's release date from November 2008 to this spring, chatter centered around Downey's lost bid for a lead-actor Oscar. (He wound up getting nominated for his supporting role in "Tropic Thunder." And he says of the date-swapping flap, "Bothered me at the time, don't care now.")

It's also not fair to suggest that Downey doesn't play a character with depth; indeed, the Steve Lopez in the film is more complex and conflicted than the real life version, on whose best-selling book the movie is based. In the book, Lopez is married with a young daughter, confident and not-quite-bereft of column ideas. In the movie, he's divorced, estranged from his son, in a rut at work, in denial about his life. One of the first night scenes he filmed, Downey recalled, was a dialogue-free study of Steve alone in his apartment, doing a sad pas de deux with a glass of red wine.

"[Director] Joe [Wright] really wanted to not have him be happily married as he is now," Downey said, "but rather go back to the time when he was between comforts and get a sense of that faux celebration of your independence."

That need for personal change, Downey said, added a layer of pathos to Lopez's encounter with Ayers. "It made Nathaniel an object of transition as well as a subject of his own observation," Downey said, sounding the intellectual notes that made him such an interesting choice to play a superhero elsewhere.

So Lopez has an arc, an epiphany or two, and far more screen time than anyone else; it's a starring role, no matter how understated the character might be. But in Hollywood, being the story is often what matters most.

"It's always about ego, " Downey said. "My challenge is to hold my own space and remember what purpose I'm serving. And I'm serving a purpose. My purpose is to be of service."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at