The intense, funny, always creative world that was the 'Iron Man 2' film set was an experience that no one involved will ever forget. Not least Robert Downey Jr. the man who brings Tony Stark aka Iron Man so vividly to life.
It was a blast, he says. Although at times, Downey Jr. admits that the artistic process on set can seem a little crazy, especially for the newcomers who joined the actor and director Jon Favreau this time around.
“Our process is crazy,” he jokes. “Ask anybody and they’ll say ‘I don’t know how they get these results from that process..’ In a way, it’s like asking somebody to step inside a washer/ dryer with you – you tell them, ‘look, there’s going to be a lot of tumbling and stuff and yet you’re going to come out looking like you’re in a tuxedo..’ It doesn’t make sense but it works.”
It certainly does. Iron Man was released to universal critical acclaim and went on to dominate the box office in 2008 and the sequel – with a stellar cast that includes Gwyneth Paltrow back as Pepper Potts, Samuel L. Jackson (who made a brief appearance as Nick Fury in the first movie) and Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell bringing to life new characters - is one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year.
Downey Jr and Favreau set out with one clear aim – to make Iron Man 2 bigger, better, more exciting than the first one, which told the ‘origin’ story of how Tony Stark the playboy arms dealer comes close to death before realising that he wants to embark on an entirely different path with the ultimate weapon, the Iron Man suit, and use it for good.
“You might imagine that with the origin story complete there’s no where to go except a re-hash of all the exciting bits we’ve covered,” says Downey Jr. “But no, because if you look at the Marvel Comics, there are so many interesting characters and relationships.
“For instance, we only scratched the surface of Tony’s relationship with Pepper in the first film. And we have Scarlett, Mickey, Sam Rockwell coming on board and Sam Jackson’s character becoming more central.”
The actor reveals that one of the central themes in the film is partnerships; Tony Stark’s relationship with Pepper Potts (his former personal assistant now promoted to CEO of his company), his friendship with Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Terence Howard in the first film, now played by Don Cheadle) and the growing influence of Nick Fury (Jackson) who reveals that Iron Man’s destiny is linked to S.H.I.E.L.D, an international law enforcement organisation, which, like the Iron Man character, comes from the original Marvel comics.
“We wanted to explore the relationship between Tony and Rhodes more the last time but there was a lot of origin story to tell,” he explains. “And with Don in the role there’s a kind of reinventing of that relationship.
“And this is a film that is ultimately about partnerships in several ways. There’s three sets of partners that Tony is avoiding or pushing away – and there’s a very good reason as it turns out – but he’s pushing away his legacy with S.H.I.E.L.D, he’s pushing away the power of ‘two heads are better than one’ with Rhodey and he’s not really acknowledging that although Pepper is his professional employee, there’s something there that he will never find with anybody else.”
Another new recruit to the Iron Man team was the writer Justin Theroux, who worked with Downey Jr. on Tropic Thunder, the satirical comedy directed by Ben Stiller. Downey Jr.’s hilarious performance as an actor who takes his role in an action picture far too seriously earned him an Oscar nomination. He clearly likes Theroux’s style and lobbied for him to come on board.
“The first thing you need to know about Theroux is that he’s an artist and he’s a renaissance man,” he says. “And there’s a lot of good writers around but you know, Tropic Thunder was an indicator to me of just how good he is.
“By the time we were shooting the third act of that film I knew that Ben had hired someone who he had a long standing relationship and that he is someone who knows about how a great script works, where everything you’ve set up is being paid off in the third act. It’s like fine tuning a Ferrari engine and he’s great at it.
“In addition to that, I like his voice as a writer, I like the take he has on stuff, I love his sense of humour and I just knew that he was our guy for Iron Man 2. So I pushed for him and everyone else agreed.”
Theroux also shared the same mindset with the rest of the key collaborators on Iron Man 2 – push and push until you get the very best ideas and execute them. “Like the robots,” says Downey Jr. “They are the coolest, most nimble robots that exist, even if again they look a bit retro. It’s like Tony can tell them anything and they can go do it – like ‘go grab a bottle of wine..’
“I think the Marvel team, Jon and I, Justin, the cast, everyone, we always respected the fact that there was no reason to settle for anything other than the best.
“And the other thing about Theroux is that he’s a real student of the game. By the time you’re talking about Iron Man he’s basically looking at the history of technology in the collective unconscious. He’s just that kind of guy.
“It’s the same on other projects, too, you mention a project and he’s spent a summer studying it – because he’s spent pretty much every summer doing something more interesting than the rest of us!”
Iron Man 2 picks up six months after the first film ended and Tony Stark is under a lot of pressure. The military and politicians want him to reveal the secrets of the Iron Man suit to them and he’s constantly under the microscope of media attention. There’s also a threat in the intimidating, violent persona that is Ivan Vanko waiting menacingly in the wings.
“We set ourselves up for this one by having Tony say he was Iron Man last time,” he says. “So you have a story at the end of which you give away the trump card that usually every other franchise doesn’t. And I think we got a lot of brownie points for that because it was somewhat unexpected.
“But the question is, how do we keep doing the unexpected? And the answer is that we keep going deeper into the reality of what it would be like if you were that guy and that had happened to you and you had said you were Iron Man.
“And I said I would probably really need a drink. I would also probably feel really high on myself and feel like I had it all going on and I would feel invincible but I would also know that pride comes before a fall and particularly with the likes of Nick Fury, played by Sam Jackson, telling me that there is a much larger universe than I can ever understand.”
Downey Jr. played a key part in helping to recruit Mickey Rourke for the role as the main villain in Iron Man 2. And once Rourke was committed to the film, he immersed himself in preparation and even took himself off to a real prison in Moscow to research his character, an ex-convict with a serious grudge against the Stark family.
“Jon felt this strong connection to the idea of Mickey being brought into the loop,” he explains. “And I thought, ‘that’s great and I’ll back you..’ But I didn’t say anything to Mickey until I knew that was the direction Jon was heading in.
“And Mickey had his concerns and some hesitation but the interesting thing about the guy was no sooner was he cast when he was literally spotted in a Russian prison doing research!
“Mickey is sweet and smart and very contrary to any other perception of him – he’s an actor, an artist, he’s complex and he’s as tortured as any of us on our most tortured day, so there was something very dynamic about putting us up against each other.”
He also enjoyed with working with Sam Rockwell, who plays Justin Hammer, a character Downey Jr. describes as “Stark’s nemesis.” Hammer is an arms dealer, just like Stark, and he’s out to steal his crown.
“Justin and Jon were really, really emphatic that he was a key character in the movie and having Rockwell there to play it was just great because he’s so game and he’s not really intimidated by anything or anybody.
“His character is a little eccentric, which I think makes him more likable. He may well be one of the more likable bad guys that I’ve seen on screen for a long time.”
Another welcome addition to the cast was Scarlett Johansson who not only embraced the considerable physical challenges of playing her character when she’s in Black Widow mode, but also crafted a beautiful, subtle performance as the seemingly meek and mild Natalie, who takes over from Pepper Potts as Stark’s personal assistant.
“Scarlet was a dream. And she’s so game and had a great time doing it, unlike some of us older curmudgeons,” he laughs. “There’s very little you could do to get under her skin, she’s jut constantly professional. And Natalie is so complex and kind of unreadable and Scarlett played her to perfection.”
The relationship between Favreau and Downey Jr. remains the key collaboration at the very heart of the Iron Man films and it’s a whole barrel full of contradictions – but it clearly produces spectacular results. It is, says, the actor, a sometimes volatile but always enjoyable journey to work so closely with Favreau.
“Jon and I are kind of insane,” he smiles. “But we’re also grounded and we’re trying to be better people and we’re really open minded. We’re really idiosyncratic and we gave each other the freedom to say ‘you know, I’m upset with you about what’s happening here.’
“And Jon would be like ‘baby, what’s wrong? Why are you angry all of the time?’ We’re like a dysfunctional family that won the lottery! So I almost pity everybody who came on board thinking that they were going to be involved in this big, light thing. We treat it like Shakespeare and yet we don’t memorise our lines – it’s a nightmare.”
All joking aside, there is clearly a special bond between the two of them, forged in the creative heat of making two films that they care deeply about. “I think one of the things that was appealing about the first Iron Man was that it had this character, Tony, who uses every ounce of innovation he has to save his own ass out of a situation that he got himself into.
“And he comes back from that a changed man. And, you know, Jon and I have come back changed from our experience of doing this together. We take what we’re doing very seriously but we don’t take ourselves particularly seriously. And we really, really take it upon ourselves to make sure that people enjoy the experience of Iron Man.”
And Downey Jr is keen to continue the adventure with a third Iron Man film and appearances in the inter-linked films that are planned by Marvel Comics, like The Avengers.
“Absolutely. There’s still so much story left to tell,” he says. “I think the next story is the one where you can start going as far out as the comics went. And with the advent of films like Avatar – and I’m a big fan of sci-fi – we can explore and do different things. I think we’ve grounded the first two so that the audience will believe wherever we take them.”