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Robert Downey Jr. talks with Steve Lopez

The actor stars in 'The Soloist,' inspired by The Times columnist's reporting.

January 11, 2009|Steve Lopez

When I met a street musician in downtown Los Angeles nearly four years ago, a guy playing a violin that was missing two strings, I wasn't sure I'd ever write about him. But as I got to know more about this gent, one column led to another, and then to a book called "The Soloist," and then to a movie in which Robert Downey Jr. plays yours truly.

Downey and I spent some time together in 2007 and then again earlier this year, when the movie was in production, but I never felt that he needed a great deal from me. He seemed to be looking for a little piece of my personality or my psyche, but as a creative force of nature he was in the process of constructing a character who was true to me and yet wholly original. Thanks for that. The guy he came up with is cooler than the real Steve Lopez.

Recently, Downey, who's in London working on a new film, and I had an e-mail conversation about his approach on this and other movies.

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Anybody who goes from "Iron Man" to "Tropic Thunder" to "The Soloist" and now to "Sherlock Holmes" obviously has great range. But is it a coincidence that you've often played a journalist ("Zodiac," "Natural Born Killers," "Good Night, and Good Luck"), or is there something about the profession that appeals to your artistic curiosity and made you want to play a columnist in "The Soloist"?

Actors and journalists are similar in that they both essentially provide a service. The ones I've gotten to know a bit, and come to admire over the last 25 years, seem to have a genuine drive to simultaneously tell a story and observe life on life's terms. That gives you a lot to chew on -- and also makes them pretty fun to hang out with when you are researching.

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You asked if you could look through my closet before filming started, so you could have some piece of me to work with. How do you go about constructing an original character based on a real person?

Well, for "Chaplin," the more I attempted to re-create the man, the more frustrating it became, so it was basically nine months of detective work just to get up to speed. At the end, the character I portrayed was still miles away from the icon we adore but close enough to the truth, I guess. Playing [Paul] Avery in "Zodiac" was much more specific in that he represented a dying breed of sorts, whereas in "The Soloist," [director] Joe Wright and I used you as a conduit for the ideas of faith, friendship and honor, so it was much more introspective. I still wanna look through your closet anyway.

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You told me that Jack Nicholson is a great actor in part because he's a great writer, meaning that he tinkers with scripts as he fits them to his character. How often do you do the same, and can you give an example?

Jack is so good that he can even play someone named Jack and still create an aesthetic distance. I'd imagine many of my peers tailor text to suit their own rhythms or instincts. I do it as often as allowed; it's a way to participate directly in how the scenes come across and either punch up similarities or differences from one's self, I guess.

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When I told you about a loved one who struggles with an addiction problem, you said the secret of recovery is to "find your ambition." What did you mean by that?

Simply that there's a Catch-22 there. You can't find something that you're clouding, you can't cloud something you're trying to find. Once I stopped anesthetizing myself, I realized how much more I could accomplish. Before, it was just a dream.

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Many of the characters in "The Soloist" actually have some form of mental illness and live on skid row. In making this movie, what did you learn about them, about Los Angeles or about yourself?

I relearned a pretty basic lesson that status and dignity frequently don't go hand in hand. That Los Angeles is a dark and beautiful city and that I was very, very fortunate to have worked on this film -- and that I would never forget how much I learned from them.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com

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