Robert Downey Jr. can’t quite remember why he was on the phone to Guy Ritchie the first time Sherlock Holmes was mentioned, but it was to give him some advice about the trailer for his comic thriller RocknRolla, not to bid for the lead in his $80m Victorian detective caper. But Downey does remember that when the conversation finally swung round that way, Ritchie told him he’d be too old for it anyway.
Nevertheless, within weeks of that chat, a press conference was held in the Freemasons Hall in central London, announcing the news that Downey had signed to play the eccentric sleuth. Just over 12 months later, the film is imminent, and what at first looked like stunt casting now appears to be a stroke of crazy genius. Once a cadaverous codger with a deerstalker hat and fogey pipe, Arthur Conan Doyle‘s most famous literary creation gets a jolt of adrenaline with Downey’s firecracker performance, cutting a psychedelic swathe through the fog of Old London Town.
He talks exclusively to Rotten Tomatoes about the challenge of playing the most brilliant man there never was…
Robert Downey Jr.: Well, I never thought I could or couldn’t, actually. I just remember talking to Joel Silver and saying, “Dude, where’s our franchise?” Joel Silver and Mrs. Downey had done Guy’s film previous to Sherlock, RocknRolla. Rather, they had put up the dough and had enjoyed the results. In the meantime, [producer] Lionel Wigram, had, I guess, been trying to figure out – like the rest of us, once we got it going – how come Sherlock Holmes had not been snatched up and done already? I remember in the 80s, 90s and on through nowadays, all search engines were on high alert for what the next franchise could be. So I guess it had been hiding in plain sight all along.
RD: Absolutely. That, to me, was the whole point. The realisation I had was that Holmes and Watson were the first action duo – I dare anybody to predate them. So I thought, Wow, this really is a two-hander. And while the script had the relationship there, I’m sure, initially, it was geared toward reintroducing a generation to Holmes himself. And maybe it was, partially, to share the load, or take off the pressure, but I think more so because it was my first instinct, I said, ‘Well, this is a movie about two guys.’ The movie, just as the books, is told, through Doyle as Watson, describing Holmes and his adventures. At a certain level, Doyle is Watson. It’s hard to make that come through in the script, because usually when studios take a property, they decide to spin a point of view on it. Well, this one didn’t need to be spun, we just needed to find the right guy. So we were pursuing Jude, and, understandably, he was cautiously optimistic. I asked him to come over to… where were we staying? What’s the coolest old-school hotel in London?
Robert Downey Jr. with Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes.
RD: Claridges! Of course. And I had a feeling it was kind of a perfect match, as all of the females on my team all of a sudden needed to be in the hallway for no reason when he was coming up in the elevator. So I thought that it could really work for everybody. I knew that it was gonna work out, because two seconds after we started sitting down and having a coffee, we were already talking like we were shaping and workshopping every and anything that was possible with these guys. And, most of all, we were looking back into the massive database of books and short stories regarding those two fellows.
RD: Very much so. And that just goes back to Doyle. Doyle was a serious spiritualist. He was in touch with a lot of intuitive folks. I know there’s some square, maybe it’s Berkeley Square, in London where he had a spiritual society. As a matter of fact, in the 80s, when I was doing Air America, I used to go to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Spiritual Society and listen to mediums as they shared the intimate goings on of the recently deceased with their mourning loved ones.
Continue on to page 2 as Downey shares his curiousity about spiritualism, the rumours about Brad Pitt’s Moriarty and what we can expect from Iron Man 2.
RD: It was a curiosity. Yeah, I was a kid. By the way, I don’t believe in it or not believe in it. It is what it is and there are certain realms of activity where you can get information.
RD: That’s still the case. I like it when you take something in a movie that obviously lends itself to making a couple more. It’s the same thing we did with Iron Man. At the end of Iron Man he reveals his identity. So we did not disappoint the audience by using all the same Texas Hold ‘Em cards as the studios, which usually wind up making a decision that is for the quote-unquote best.
RD: Yeah. I mean, the rumours have changed a couple of times, and I definitely talked to Brad about it. There’s just really no telling where it’s going to go. But the good news for us is that I think that this version of Holmes, if we’re lucky, will really be a done and dusted calling card for whoever winds up being Moriarty, if we continue.
Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes.
RD: I think we’ll know December 28, to tell you the truth. We’ll know a few days after the movie opens if it’s going to perform, generally, well enough to continue.
RD: My take – Jon [Favreau] was in agreement, and Marvel supported us – was that once you tell an origins story pretty well, that’s usually where things start to get dull, and one or two or three things start to happen over and over again. So, we made Tony Stark’s challenges very much outside the usual realm of activity. As much as anything else, it’s much more of a side job for him the second time around. And the great thing, too, is that the Marvel universe is wild; it’s so far out. That’s the big balance to strike. It would be so easy to go so far out it would intergalactic and nothing would be grounded in reality any more.
RD: I think what worked for Iron Man is that it almost seemed like something from the cover of Popular Mechanics. These kinds of suits were starting to be made in the States and Japan, so people were responding to Iron Man almost as though it was a more of a high-tech James Bond. So how could we start to introduce elements of the storylines in the comics without becoming too outlandish, where it wasn’t rooted in some kind of reality? That’s my big thing, and the only thing that’s really been of been of any benefit with my – quote, unquote – successes recently, is that they have allowed people to trust my instincts more comfortably, and to give me a little more creative leverage. And that’s all that matters, because all the other stuff comes and goes.
I’m really, really, really hell-bent on protecting what’s beautiful about my relationship with Marvel and my relationship with Jon Favreau first and foremost, then, secondarily, Iron Man at large. And the tertiary element is always the audience: what would I pay to see if these schmucks had me roped in to come see the movie again? Because I kinda know I’m going to go anyway, and I hope that I’m not sorry I went.
Sherlock Holmes is released on 25th December in the US and 26th December in the UK and Australia. Iron Man 2 follows in 2010.