Robert Downey Jr. still gets emotional to watch Sr.
“I shouldn’t have watched the last 20 minutes, I can’t handle it,” the superstar actor and producer said Sunday when he took the stage for a post-screening Q&A at the DGA Theater Complex in Los Angeles. After wiping away tears, Downey Jr. to producer-wife Susan Downey for a conversation about their Netflix documentary about his filmmaker father, Robert Downey Sr., moderated by The Hollywood Reporters executive editor of awards Scott Feinberg.
Downey Jr. was not alone in feeling overwhelmed with emotion. In the final moments of the Chris Smith-directed film, much sniffling could be heard inside the theater where celebrity guests such as Tom Holland, Zendaya, Adrien Brody and Oscar winner Travon Free were also in attendance. But Downey Jr. was quick to point out that the filmmakers did not set out to tug at the heartstrings.
“We weren’t trying to make a tearful thing. It’s just the way it unfolded was really evocative,” he explained, crediting Smith as “our fearless director” and adding, “We were just trying to find the right balance.”
It was no easy feat. Filmed over three years, Sr. is an intimate exploration of the maverick director’s colorful life and rebellious career, as well as his relationship with his son before he died of Parkinson’s disease on July 7, 2021. He made nearly 20 indie films in his career, many of which are featured in the documentary as well Sweet Smell of Sex, Rubbed Elbows, Putney Swope, Pound, Greaser’s Palace, Hugo Pool, and Two tons of turquioise to Taos tonight.
He proved to be a unique PhD subject in that instead of opening up his life and sitting for lengthy interviews, he rather quickly hijacked the production and chose to direct his own film within a film.
Sr., now streaming on Netflix, was just named best documentary of the year by the National Board of Review. It is currently Downey Jr.’s best-reviewed project on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, a “surreal” fact that he pointed out on stage. Even his wife was surprised. “Did you make it up or was it a headline?” she asked. “Everyone thinks I’m so eccentric that I walk around in a bubble of ignorance,” he joked. “You know, I have a phone.”
Despite his blockbuster success, he also said he found it quite surreal to see campaigns on a grand scale Sr. over Los Angeles. “You think you’re just driving by Westwood and there’s a picture of me and my dad,” he noted.
Feinberg asked the couple to share their origin story for Sr., and Susan Downey explained that their production company, Team Downey, had been working on a project focused on another (unnamed) Hollywood father-son duo, but it didn’t get much attention. Then Team Downey’s Emily Ford started talks with Smith who had expressed interest in doing a project about Downey Jr.
“They were all excited and had started plotting, and then they brought it to Robert and he said, ‘No, but I’m going to do something with my dad,'” Susan Downey recalled.
Downey Jr. explained that answer. “This whole project unfortunately started for me, honestly, it was a pattern of avoidance. How do I deal with the fact that this great character that I spent so many years influenced by is not doing well?” he said. “It became this Gordian Knot thing because he became so obsessed with the project. Susan [asked], ‘What is this project?’ And I thought, “I don’t know, but we can’t stop.” It really could have gone to hell in a handbasket.”
Added Susan Downey: “[Robert Downey Sr.] was already actively looking to be engaged and have a project to do, so I think that helped. So the other thing, as you all see in the film, is that pretty quickly it didn’t matter what we wanted, this was his way of doing it. He ended up participating because he had the way he was willing to participate, which again, now in reflection makes sense because this is a guy who always communicated through his movies, much more than ever articulating any answers. To do it by making a movie or his version of it, it just ends up making sense.”
Sunday’s conversation, presented by FIJI Water, was part of LA3C, a two-day culture and creativity festival organized by The Hollywood Reporter’s owner Penske Media. While the music portion of the festival took place downtown in Los Angeles State Historic Park and featured big names like Maluma, Snoop Dogg, Lil Baby, Seventeen and the Free Nationals, other Penske Media brands hosted inside events across the city.
Sponsors for LA3C include Facebook, US Bank, Homedics, NYX Professional Makeup, Maker’s Mark, Redken, ViX+, Anheuser-Busch (Golden Road Brewing, Michelob ULTRA, Bud Light Seltzer, Stella Artois, Cutwater Spirits, NÜTRL Vodka Seltzer), Rockstar Energy Drink, Contraluz Cristalino Mezcal and Arrowhead Water.
The pair also shared with Feinberg how and why they approached the topic of addiction in The Doctor when both Downey Jr. and his father struggled with substance abuse throughout his life. “It’s incomplete if you don’t,” said Iron man star. “I also hate puff pieces. There are so many examples of that right now where everyone is trying to get their narrative out. I don’t want to give the example, but there’s just so much of it that you go, that just reeks of bullshit.”
Feinberg then asked Susan Downey about the coincidence that both Downey men turned their lives around while in relationships with women who had a major impact on their lives. “If anyone has ever dealt with someone with addiction, you know it has nothing to do with anyone else,” she replied. “They must be ready. If you can be a small part of creating an alternative world for those who say: ‘Hey, I’m here. If you’re clean, great. But there’s no credit I’ll ever take other than to say, “Here’s what I need to have happened,” or more importantly, “What can’t happen.” But it is absolutely that person.”
Referring to a similar discussion they had with each other, Downey Jr. it “the clearest conversation I’ve ever had in my life.”
Returning to the documentary, Downey Jr. also that for large parts of the production he forgot that the cameras were rolling. “I didn’t even know if this thing was going to come out, so I didn’t think about it like you would where you are. on yours [head]. I didn’t think about any of this,” he admitted.
He had a list of questions on his mind that he wanted his father to answer before he passed. But as viewers can see in the doc, not everyone gets answers in the final scene the two men share, which happened to be their last time together.
“It’s really raw,” he says of the scene. “Even when I was standing there looking at it 40 minutes ago, I was like, ‘Jesus.’ I’m still processing it, but it’s a luxury to have something like that documented as a touchstone to keep going back and thinking about it .”
He is even grateful for the unanswered questions. “I wouldn’t say Chris was happy it turned out this way, but it’s a lot more like real life. We don’t get the answers we want when we want them. This is not Disney+ going on here. This is real life. Things are uncertain. Things are unfinished. There is a lot of uncertainty and you have to make peace with that.”