Robert Downey Jr. doesn't work out like us regular folks. Adulation bathes him from the moment he arrives at his Los Angeles martial arts studio. He opens the front door and is greeted by a framed photo of himself with his trainer and his 16-year-old son, Indio. The inscription reads: SIFU, INDIO AND I ARE AVAILABLE FOR PERSONAL PROTECTION. He takes another step. Before you can hum the opening bars to "Cult of Personality," there's an even larger blowup of a 'Los Angeles Times' story, about some dude named Robert Downey Jr. slaying all the bad guys in his mind. Six-pack abs would be so much easier if this kind of positive reinforcement were available at the Y.
Downey is carrying a small black box. The box's contents are not readily apparent. He puts the box down gently and pulls on a prison-orange hoodie. The effect enlarges his brown puppy-dog eyes to Japanese anime proportions. He bows to Eric Oram, the owner of the studio.
"Good morning, sifu."
Sifu is what instructors are called in Wing Chun, a martial arts discipline that has been Downey's religion since 2003. That's around the time he dropped the drugs that molted him from Oscar nominee to celebrity death pool nominee. Wing Chun is considered the sensitive artist's kung fu – Bruce Lee was its first celebrity spokesman – because it's all about balance, peace, and, if all else fails, ass-whipping. These skills are particularly important in Hollywood.
We step onto the mat. While Downey has been practicing Wing Chun for almost seven years, I have been practicing Wing Chun for almost seven minutes. "Seriously, don't worry about looking like an idiot," he tells me. "It's like life: The less self-conscious you are, the better it works. And remember, lots of ice and Advil afterward. Trust me on that one."
We do breathing exercises, stretch a while, and then toss a small ball around, working on reaction time. Downey muffs one. He shoots Oram a busted schoolboy look. Oram flashes a sadistic smile.
"That's 10," he barks at Downey.
Downey drops and gives him 10 push-ups. Many former addicts talk of trading the addiction of drugs for the addiction of exercise. Downey's one of them. The more he sweats, the more he enters an opiate-free nirvana. "I love this," he whispers. "Isn't it awesome?"
I'm just trying not to hurl. We move to a hand-to-hand fighting exercise. "You don't want to fight the truck," says Oram, a bald man with intense eyes and even more intense eyebrows. "You want to step out of the way of the truck. Once you step out of the way, you can start throwing rocks at the truck." Downey nods and tugs at his hoodie.
"This is all about focus," Downey tells me between reps. "Wing Chun teaches you what to concentrate on, whether you're here or out in the world dealing with problems. It's second nature for me now. I don't even get to the point where there's a problem."
Oram raises his hand to punch, and Downey slaps away his elbow and then counters to Oram's neck. The two do an elaborate, fistic dance for five minutes. There's just one hitch in Downey's giddyap. He repeatedly raises his right hand to block a phantom ear punch Oram never throws, perhaps a leftover ghost from having to protect himself in the jails he frequented in the late '90s. No amount of Wing Chun can make that go away.
After an hour, we're done. Well, I'm done. Downey keeps working. He pounds on a wooden dummy blocking with one hand and then delivering a combination to a padded face. He lets out a series of grunts and grimaces. A grin slips across his face.
"The word to describe Robert is hard," says Guy Ritchie, Downey's director on Sherlock Holmes. "I know that's fucking ridiculous in describing an actor, but he can really scrap. He's done time in jail, which didn't exactly soften him up. He has a real physicality that is pretty fucking amazing."
In the Arthur Conan Doyle books, Holmes dabbles in martial arts, so Ritchie, Downey, and Oram took some liberties and collaborated to make Sherlock a buff badass. During a key fight scene, Holmes boxes with a behemoth, and Downey was reluctant to punch the British stuntman full in the mouth at first.
"I was like, 'I can't or he's not going to be able to play with his kids this weekend,' " recalls Downey. "And Guy was basically saying, 'He doesn't have any kids.' "
Downey complied. By the end of the day, the stuntman's face was red and swollen.
No one gets beaten up that bad at the martial arts center today, but Oram finally has to tell Downey that's enough.
"Sifu, I'm worried about my exam," says Downey, after a shower. He hopes to move up the Wing Chun achievement ladder from green to brown belt – one level away from black belt.
"You will do fine," says Oram solemnly. "Or you won't."
Oram and Downey have a classic codependent relationship that goes something like this: Oram teaches Downey three to five days a week, Downey stays clean and sane, and Oram comes to his movie sets, where he serves as confessor, guru, and fight consultant. He then gets to plaster Downey's name and picture all over his gym and literature.
"When he first came to me, insurance companies wouldn't bond him for movies; he couldn't get roles," Oram says. "I told him if he didn't show up to a lesson, I was going to chop off his toes and feed them back to him. One day he didn't turn up, and I told him goodbye. Then he had a couple of producers call me and vouch for him, saying, 'He was with us in a meeting; he didn't have a phone. It's our fault. Don't cut his head off.' He has committed himself to it ever since and turned his life around."
"Wing Chun is all about guarding your center line," Downey tells me, talking about the place where touchy-ouchy martial art meets philosophy of life. "Don't fight force with force; use two hands at the same time; concentrate on your own thing; and after you have that dialed in, effect the balance, look for openings, look for arms to be crossed."
So that's the secret to his newfound prosperity?
"Oh, yeah, dude," says Downey.