Robert Downey Jr. still gets emotional watching Sr.
“I shouldn’t have watched the last 20 minutes, I can’t handle it,” the superstar actor and producer said Sunday upon taking the stage for a post-screening Q&A inside the DGA Theater Complex in Los Angeles. After wiping away tears, Downey Jr. sat opposite producer-wife Susan Downey for a conversation about their Netflix documentary about his filmmaker father, Robert Downey Sr., that was moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s executive editor of awards Scott Feinberg.
Downey Jr. wasn’t 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 like Tom Holland, Zendaya, Adrien Brody and Oscar winner Travon Free also took in the screening. But Downey Jr. was quick to point out that the filmmakers didn’t set out to tug at the heart strings.
“We weren’t trying to make some tear-jerky thing. It’s just the way that it unfolded was really evocative,” he explained, crediting Smith as “our fearless director” and adding, “We were just trying to strike the right balance.”
That 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 passed away from Parkinson’s disease on July 7, 2021. He made nearly 20 indie films in his career and many are featured in the doc including Sweet Smell of Sex, Chafed Elbows, Putney Swope, Pound, Greaser’s Palace, Hugo Pool, and Two Tons of Turquioise to Taos Tonight.
He proved to be a unique doc subject in that rather than open up his life and sit for extended interviews, he pretty quickly hijacked the production and opted to direct his own movie within a movie.
Sr., now streaming on Netflix, was just named the year’s top documentary by the National Board of Review. It currently sits as 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 look that up or was that a headline?” she asked. “Everyone thinks that I’m so eccentric that I’m completely walking around in a bubble of unawareness,” he quipped. “You know, I’ve got a phone.”
Despite his blockbuster success, he also said he found it quite surreal to be see large scale promotions for Sr. across Los Angeles. “You think you’re just driving past Westwood and there’s a picture of me and my dad,” he noted.
Feinberg asked the pair to share the 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 wasn’t gaining much traction. Then, Team Downey’s Emily Ford started conversations with Smith who had shown interest in doing a project about Downey Jr.
“They were all excited and had started conspiring and then they brought it to Robert and he’s, like, ‘No, but I’ll do something on my dad,’” Susan Downey recalled.
Downey Jr. explained that response. “This whole project sadly started off for me, honestly, it was an avoidance pattern. How do I deal with the fact that this larger than life character who I spent so many years influenced by, is not well?” he said. “It turned into this like Gordian Knot because he became so obsessed with the project. Susan [asked], ‘What is this project?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, but we can’t stop.’ It really could have gone to hell in a hand basket.”
Added Susan Downey: “[Robert Downey Sr.] was already actively looking to be engaged and to have a project to be doing, so I think that helped. Then the second thing, which you all see in the movie, is that pretty quickly, it didn’t matter what we wanted, this was his way to do that. 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 responses. To do it by making a movie or his version of it, it just kind ends up making sense.”
Sunday’s conversation, presented by FIJI Water, was part of LA3C, an inaugural two-day culture and creativity festival put on by The Hollywood Reporter’s owner Penske Media. While the music portion of the festival took place downtown at Los Angeles State Historic Park and featured big name acts like Maluma, Snoop Dogg, Lil Baby, Seventeen and Free Nationals, other Penske Media brands hosted insider events across the city.
Sponsors for LA3C include Facebook, U.S. 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 couple also shared with Feinberg how and why they approached the subject of addiction in the doc as both Downey Jr. and his father struggled with substance abuse in their lives. “It’s incomplete if you don’t,” said the Iron Man star. “I also hate puff pieces. There’s so many examples of it right now where everyone’s trying to get their narrative out there. I won’t give the example but there’s just so much of it that you kind of 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 great impact on their lives. “If anybody has ever dealt with someone with addiction, you know it has nothing to do with someone else,” she replied. “They have to be ready. If you can be a small part of creating an alternative world for them that says, ‘Hey, I’m here. If you are clean, great.’ But there’s no credit I will ever take other than basically saying, ‘Here’s what I need to have happen,’ or more importantly, ‘What can’t be happening.’ But it’s entirely that person.”
In reference to a similar discussion they had with one another, Downey Jr. called it “the clearest conversation I’ve ever had in my life.”
Back to the documentary, Downey Jr. also said that for much of the production, he forgot cameras were rolling. “I didn’t even know if this thing was going to come out so I wasn’t thinking about it the way you would where you’re like, well you’d better make sure that stupid fucking beanie you’re wearing looks right on your [head]. I wasn’t thinking about any of this,” he admitted.
He did have a list of questions on the brain that he wanted to get answered by his father before he passed. But as viewers can see in the doc, not all of those get answered in the final scene the two men share, which just so happened to be the last time they were together.
“It’s really raw,” he says of the scene. “Even standing back there watching 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’s even grateful for those unanswered questions. “I wouldn’t say Chris was happy that it went this way but it’s much more like real life. We don’t get the answers we want when we want them. This is not a Disney+ thing going on here. This is a real life. Things are inconclusive. Things are unfinished. There’s a lot of uncertainty and you have to make peace with that.”