Robert Downey Jr.’s Cosmic Punishment
Credit: Vera Anderson / Getty Images
When Jon Favreau first raised the idea of casting Downey as Tony Stark, Marvel Studios was so against it that the 'Iron Man' director had to campaign just so that Downey could audition for the part – something he hadn't done since 'Chaplin,' the 1992 film that earned him his first Oscar nomination. Downey said no problem. "You say no if you don't want to do the job," says Downey. "If you want the job, you do whatever's required to meet the specs to have the job."

He started prepping. "I wanted to be perceived as just a little bit more handsome, just a little bit taller. It's all about colors. Sometimes if you're wanting to look just a little bit taller, then you want to dress with just more of a thin cut. Most of all it was to leave them with no option other than to hire me." Downey wore a tailored English suit and slipped on Hogan dress boots to add another inch. But that was all just frosting on the Pop Tart. He already owned the Stark character, a hard-drinking, out-of-control outsider whose swagger camouflages a lifetime of regret and superficial living. In short, the role was not a stretch.

The box office and critical buzz led to Downey being cast as Sherlock Holmes in the Ritchie remake, with Jude Law playing second-banana Watson – a billing hierarchy that would have seemed unthinkable just two years ago. In between those films, Downey scored his second Oscar nomination with 'Tropic Thunder,' playing the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude. According to Downey, the role was the "cathartic experience of my creative life," but in the wrong hands could have won a Razzie, not to mention a censure from the NAACP.

The question now is not whether Downey has the chops to continue as a major movie star, but whether he has the capacity to deal with the bullshit part of the job. It's one thing to always be the dissolute man of great promise; it's another thing to simply be the man.

He rhapsodizes about his experience playing a pompous architect trying to get home for the birth of his child in the recently wrapped 'Due Date,' with 'The Hangover' team of co-star Zach Galifianakis and director Todd Phillips. "My inner asshole was required, and all that stuff that sometimes falls out I was able to use constructively," says Downey. "Working with those guys was probably one of the great experiences of my life."

So far, so good. But then, unprompted, he starts talking about another film that did not take him to his happy place. "There are times when you know you're pushing it and you don't have a great vibe about where things are going creatively. You have to be collarbone-deep in molasses for four months and just go, 'I have no solace in my work whatsoever, and it's 12 hours a day of cosmic punishment.' " He stirs the contents of the black box looking like he might cry. "All I have is what I'm doing when I'm not working, and hopefully that has something to do with taking care of myself."

I ask him which film.

"I will not say its name."

Was it recent?

"Absolutely."

We talk about other things for a while, and I start eliminating movies. I've got it down to two.

Surely, it was The Shaggy Dog, right?

He leans forward and stares hard at me. He gulps down a triple espresso. "'Shaggy Dog' was a very, very important movie for me. It was a very enjoyable experience." He sounds sincere.

Jimmy walks in and reminds Downey of a pending meeting with Ritchie to discuss 'Sherlock Holmes 2' script revisions. We start to wrap things up, and I tell him through my powers of deductive reasoning that his cosmic punishment film must be 'Iron Man 2.' Downey flinches a little, like at the gym trying to ward off the imaginary ear punch.

"This is still art for commerce, at best," says Downey about his chosen profession. "I consider myself to be a pain-in-the-ass artist who's self-aware enough to still be tolerable. While I have a little bit of juice, I try not to rub it in anyone's face, because it's just disgusting. And I use the term 'artist' loosely."