Robert Downey Jr: To The Edge And Back

Robert Downey Jr is the boy who had everything, lost it and found it all over again, who went from Oscar-nominated actor to junkie jailbird to king of the box office. Over dinner at his home in Malibu, he tells his extraordinary story to Esquire

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When you arrive at Robert Downey Jr's house for dinner, a security guard tells you to park alongside "that fleet of covered cars", and an assistant escorts you to the house. So far, so Malibu. You say the traffic wasn't terrible. She says, "Ugh, the 405" and, "Oh, if you could just remove your shoes, I'll take you in." And you think – we're here already? This is the house?

It's a beautiful parcel, no doubt: a bunch of green acres that dips gently towards the sea with some studio apartments at one end that were once groomsmen's quarters (the previous owner rescued horses). But the house itself is remarkably unremarkable. A cozy, 3,000sq ft home that has no aspirations to be in magazines; a place of cats and comfort, of children and toys, and funny, funky art, much of it by the French street artist Dran. If it weren't for all the staff – there's a chef pottering away in the kitchen – it'd be easy to forget that a movie star lived here. A huge movie star.

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Not that I was expecting some McMansion full of fountains and topiary. But some kind of starchitect deal maybe? A place with a bit of snap and flash about it, to match his fees, his Star Ranking, his famous fast-talking swagger. After all, in Malibu, the rich build dream homes as a rite of passage. It's a way of announcing their arrival, if only to themselves. And there's no disputing Downey Jr's arrival. In roughly a decade-and-a-half, he has gone from junkie also-ran and Inmate P50522 to the highest-earning actor in Hollywood for two years running. Last year alone, he clocked up $75m, thanks mostly to Iron Man 3, which made $1.2bn worldwide. So, he's not neighbours anymore with "Figueroa Slim", "Sugar Bear" and his other "cellies". Now he's neighbours with Rick Rubin and Beck and Jackie Chan, or so he's heard. And didn't Tony Stark live in Malibu, too?

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Here he is now, in the doorway with his two-year-old son Exton in his arms. He looks trim, in a striped top and loose brown trousers. "We're all in here, come join us," he says. And we wander into his boy's rumpus room, with his teepee full of toys. It's a picture of familial domesticity: Robert, his wife Susan, heavily pregnant with a baby girl, and the nanny Sidney, all of them watching a channel called Home & Garden Television while persuading little Exton it's bedtime.

"I have this great uncle who gave himself the middle name Exton," Susan explains. "He used to call himself Ex 2000 because a ton is like a thousand?"

Robert laughs. "He sounds like a rapper from Madison, Wisconsin."

Susan's a producer. They met working on Gothika, a Halle Berry movie from 2003, and Robert took an instant shine ("pretty damn cute for a boss!" he once said). And they've since built an empire together. It's a formidable partnership. She produced both of Robert's Sherlock Holmes movies to date, both Iron Man 2 and Due Date in 2010, as well as several others that didn't involve her husband. And in 2010, they launched Team Downey, a production company with beautiful offices in Venice, California. Now, Team Downey is releasing its first movie, The Judge, an intense family drama starring Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton and Vera Farmiga. Downey Jr's the lead, but that's almost not the point. This is Team Downey's first baby. That's why I've been invited over today. It's a special time.

"We thought dinner made sense," says Susan, "given the movie's familial themes."

A lot of Hollywood actors start production companies – Clooney, Pitt, Wahlberg, Stiller – because it's a natural progression for the entrepreneurial types. But for Downey, it's something more – a fresh milestone in what is already the greatest Second Act in Hollywood. The classic story of a man who had it all, then lost it all before winning it back with a vengeance – all under the klieg lights of public scrutiny. Once routinely described as "the greatest actor of his generation" for films like Less Than Zero (1987), Chaplin (1992) and Natural Born Killers (1994), Downey Jr squandered everything in the late Nineties, when he let his inner junkie take the wheel, leading to a litany of rehab, court dates, jails and prisons. Downey but not outey, he bounced back to make smaller movies like A Scanner Darkly, A Guide To Recognising Your Saints (both 2006) and Zodiac (2007) — and that would have been a perfectly happy ending.

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But it's as though the Rocky music came on circa 2005, the year he married Susan. As his Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie says, "Look, none of this happens without Susan. It's one of those special marriages." First came Iron Man, then Sherlock, both four-quadrant tentpole franchise blockbusters (the Hollywood holy grail: jargon for sequel-spawning hits popular among all demographics). And now he's going from player to patron, from art to commerce and it's all going swimmingly. In the annals of "Getting Your Shit Together", Downey's story ought to be chapter one. Because the phoenix just keeps rising. The Rocky theme keeps playing. The Robnaissance is a tale that's impossible not to cheer on.

There's a crash in the kitchen.

"Come on, let's investigate!" Robert bounces out of his seat and leads the way. "This is Ron, by the way," he says, introducing the chef. "He came out and fed us for the whole of Sherlock Holmes. Just feeding Guy Ritchie was a full-time job."

He pours me a root beer (the strongest beer you'll find at the Downeys), and Susan retires to the kitchen to read magazines. We settle in at the dining alcove, a hemispherical booth with modular interlocking table elements that Downey designed himself. With me at the edge, though, he has to jump up on the seats at the other end and run around the circle. "Made my bed! I gotta lie in it!"

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"OK, gentlemen," says Ron, putting two plates before us. "This is a shaved Brussels sprout salad, three kinds of beets and some roasted Japanese pumpkin with Moroccan spice and cider-vinegar mustard dressing."

"Excellent," Robert says, smiling, before turning to me. "Now, please tell me you have a complicated relationship with your father."

***

The Judge is the kind of concise and crafted family tale that Downey Jr made before he became Captain Blockbuster. He plays Hank Palmer, a slick, fast-talking Chicago lawyer, who represents the guilty "because the innocent can't afford me". When his mother dies, he has to return to the small town in Indiana for the funeral, to face the fractious family dynamics he'd left in such a rush as a younger man. His father (Robert Duvall) still doesn't much like him, but as he faces a triple whammy of cancer, dementia and a murder charge – a case complicated by the fact he has been the town's judge for 40 years – his estranged, city-slicker son may be his only hope.

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"It started with Dobkin," says Robert, tucking into the salad. Known for Wedding Crashers (2005) and Fred Claus (2007), the director David Dobkin brought them the initial story, and as Robert says, "the missus had a feeling about it. Susan Downey! How long had we been developing The Judge?"

"Two years!" she says from the kitchen.

"We'd sit around a table in Venice at our offices and chew on it, and then we go back to our A game. 'All right, Iron Man 3, let's talk about it!' And Dobkin would be like, 'Um, hey, see you in a couple of weeks?'"

They wound up with what Robert calls "a Swiss watch of a script" and a stellar cast. Duvall, in particular, is brilliant. In one scene, Downey finds him throwing up in the toilet and shitting himself – a proud man being ravaged by age and disease.

"I heard Duvall turned the part down at first," Susan says.

"Oh, I believe it," says Robert. "It's a dangerous part to take. It's risky to be that vulnerable."

For Robert, however, it was business as usual. Hank Palmer is a classic Downey Jr character, a version of that persona at which he's so good – the swaggering, smarter-than-thou rogue, quick-witted and insouciant, perhaps a tad self-adoring, and always effortlessly confident. It's almost a schtick. Tony Stark is one version, Holmes another. And in The Judge, it's Hank Palmer facing off against the heavies at a local bar with, "Where were you when they were distributing testicles?"

We didn't see much of that guy in Downey Jr's first wave as an actor – he would disappear into films like Less Than Zero and Chaplin, playing characters that notably didn't generate sequels. But for the roles that changed his fortune, which audiences turned out for time and again, that guy came swaggering to the fore. Perhaps he's the guy the fans really wanted all along. Because who doesn't want to be that quick, that confident, that witty?

By all accounts, Robert is that guy. It's really not much of an act. "Yeah, that's him," says Jon Favreau, the director of Iron Man, and a close friend of Downey's. "That's the thing about Robert – you get a good sense of him through his work. He's kind of what you hope he would be. But there's a vulnerability underneath the swagger. And that's in his performances, too. He's a feeling person. That's why he has so many deep and sincere friendships. He tends to hang on to people, which isn't always the way in this town."

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Robert himself, however, insists his persona is all an act. "You can manufacture the elements of confidence, given prep," he says. "And I have as natural a biorhythm as anyone, of times when I know I'm cooking with gas, and times when I know I should be on the bench."

This is the guy who told a magazine last year that he used to win races at school by just deciding that the best athlete wouldn't pass him, and that at commercial auditions, as a teenager, he would tell other actors waiting to audition to head straight home – he'd already nailed it.

"That was then," he says. "I think for the first 30 or 40 years of someone's life, acting 'as if' will do."

We're on to the grass-fed filet mignon now, on a bed of mushrooms, with an almond-milk béchamel sauce and nut gratin on the side. There's a brief lull as we chew and groan. As far as I can tell, he's not this quipping alpha male with a witty retort up every sleeve. He's much warmer and more approachable than that – it's not the Robert show, it's dinner and he's a gracious host.

But he does have this way of talking that takes some getting used to – it's dizzying. He'll make a point within a point, qualified by parentheses within parentheses, with any number of half-finished metaphors and tangents and snatches of improvised dialogue along the way. Once he's finished, who knows where he started? You want to leave breadcrumbs.

When I ask him whether sobriety made him more ordered, his answer goes on for pages: it includes an impression of Sally Field in Norma Rae (1979); a Socratic dialogue about the higher good; the verb "whack-a-moleing"; and a reference to the Amish people that I still don't understand. As he says, "I'm not really an anecdote guy."

"He's a poet," Favreau says. "His speech patterns are like a songwriter. And you kind of have to go on the ride with him. But when he brings that aspect of himself into performances, it brings a spontaneity and unpredictability that makes him riveting."

***

The Judge isn't the only father-son Team Downey story. They're also developing a live action Pinocchio project with Downey as Geppetto. "It's about how we're all lifeless, until we're activated by the acknowledgement that our parents give us," says Robert. "What makes us valid is how we're loved and how we're raised." 

Downey's own upbringing has provided plenty of fodder for armchair psychologists, especially in the Daily Mail. He grew up in the crucible of artistic subversion in the Sixties, thanks to his father, Robert Sr, a towering figure – 6ft 3ins, a former amateur boxing champion and a hugely respected underground filmmaker, who's best known film, Putney Swope (1969), took a satirical swipe at advertising and racism. The likes of Abbie Hoffman and Hal Ashby would drop by his loft in Greenwich Village. And when he moved to LA, after splitting up with Robert Jr's actress mother, Elsie, he hung out with Peter Sellers and did coke with Jack Nicholson. Robert Jr was there for all of it.

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"I have memories of that time," he says. "It was great. But everything's better when you're done with it. My upbringing is now a period piece. I found myself watching Boogie Nights last night, and remembering the first time I came out to LA to visit my dad. There's something about a place during a specific time that's delicious." He thinks. "But I'm sure some of that junk DNA is there to misguide and romanticise every hurdle you've scraped your coccyx on, you know?"

One of those scrapes is the time his father handed him a joint aged nine. It's the story that gets wheeled out as a defining moment for Robert Jr, the future addict. But he shoos away such simple formulas.

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"Firstly, I'm sure I was younger," he says. "But more importantly, nothing really comes back to 'a point at which'. You know the saying, 'If you stick around a barbershop long enough, you're going to get a haircut'? And nowadays, you could easily say, well, we have one example where that is a perfect recipe for ultimate success and personal satisfaction. Because I couldn't be any happier now. Just don't try this at home. It's like Jackass, do you know what I mean?"

He moved in with his dad in LA after the divorce, and went to Santa Monica High with the Sheen/Estevez kids. And for a few years in the early Nineties, his career looked golden with an Oscar nomination for Chaplin and the acclaim of his peers. But he was high for all of it, and eventually the drugs undid him. There was the Goldilocks Incident, where he was found sleeping in his neighbour's child's bed; and the time he arrived at an audition for director Mike Figgis, barefoot and with a gun sticking out of his bag; and the time he was found naked and hallucinating in his Porsche.

From 1996 to 1999, he juggled probation and prison. Shortly after winning a Golden Globe in 2001 for his part in Ally McBeal, he relapsed, and was cleaned out by the tax man. And there was one more "no contest" plea to a cocaine possession charge, in 2001, before he finally cleaned up. Close to Independence Day in 2003, he stopped at a Burger King on the Pacific Coast Highway and threw his drugs into the sea. He was 38.

***

I want to ask about the trouble years, but now doesn't seem the right time. We've moved to the kitchen for dessert, to join Susan and chef Ron, who has whipped up some ridiculous peach and basil ice cream concoction. And right there on the table is this big plastic burger, a gift from Burger King for putting the brand in Iron Man. It came with a card entitling him to free Burger King food for life, but he has no idea where he put it. "Dude, you know when things are so important that you misplace them so no one else finds them?"

What was it that made him turn the corner at Burger King that day? Was it ambition? His Chaplin director, the late Richard Attenborough, once told him, "One day your ambition will supersede all of your other impulses and will set you straight."

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Downey shrugs. "It's too simple a formula, again. It's like hearing a bunch of really good fables on multitracks, overlaid with each other," he says. "If you tune in to any one of them, it's a good lesson. And in the moment I could say, yeah, sure." He looks at Susan, his brow furrowed. "I don't know Downey, am I ambitious?"
Susan laughs. "Yeah! But not in the ruthless sense. It goes beyond just his career. He wants to create sanctuaries for creative endeavours, non-profits, you name it."

Susan may be the key here. Robert has credited her before with helping him quit drugs. And they have a particular chemistry. According to Guy Ritchie, "It's one of those special marriages where they occupy different enough space to harmonise disparate polarities. They're ticking all the requisite boxes necessary for… I'm loathe to say success, but it works tremendously efficiently and not very egotistically."

Ask Susan how he turned things around and she says "he got out of his own way." Robert concurs heartily, and sails off on a riff of esoteric generalities and musings, but no specifics. He was never a blamer, he says. He owes a debt to his many mentors, "Dickie" [Attenborough] among them, but also Favreau, Ritchie and his Wing Chun Sifu (a martial arts coach), who'll be over in the morning. A major motivator, as he approached 40, was the awareness that he hadn't yet had a real hit, a bona fide box office smash. Even his praised films tended to fizzle financially, like Less Than Zero or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). And his frustration was mounting. "When things are unrequited for a long time…" he begins, and then trails off.

I ask, does it get too comfortable?

"No, not comfortable. Hellish."

So you craved commercial success?

"Yeah, but you've got to play to win. Not play with winning in mind, but if you're not playing, then what are you complaining about? In the information age, it seems that everything just appears, and just suddenly are, even though they weren't. But there is a vapour trail behind that moment. It's about suiting up, showing up and playing."

He wasn't playing when he auditioned for Iron Man. He was so prepared his stated goal was "devastating the competition". It worked. He and Favreau created a money-making juggernaut, and afterwards he was a shoo-in for the part of Sherlock. As Ritchie says, "He had a warm breeze at his back."

"I'm past the point of dancing in the end zone now," he says. "Trust me, Susan saw plenty of that. When things turned, nobody was more stoked about it than me. But then it's like the crowd leaves the stadium, and the staff sweep the aisles and they go, 'We got another game here tomorrow – and you're not playing.' It was just a moment."

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One of many moments, though.

"Yeah, and by the way, I definitely don't have an imposter complex about it. I'm no more or less significant than anyone else. So it's like hey, why not me?"

What does "highest-earning actor in Hollywood" mean to you?

"It means, 'This too shall pass.' Would I like that Forbes thing to read the same stats next year? Sure. I'd like to get it two years after I'm gone. There's an old therapeutic saying, 'The only thing I ever let go of had claw marks in it.' You ever heard of a welterweight interim champ just say, 'Anyone want this thing?' It's like, 'No, who's next? Come and take it off me.'"

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So it is a competition.

"Of course not!" He winks. "But it's always the folks doing well who imply it's not."

***

Until Iron Man, there was no sign that Downey Jr might become a mainstream star. He came from his father's underground scene. And in his Chaplin years, he looked like he might mature into a "serious actor" in the mould of Daniel Day Lewis or Sean Penn. Even after prison, his first few films look very much like a man taking the long road back of artful, respected indies with paltry audiences.

And yet, Downey Jr sees his mainstream success as a result of his indie roots. "My dad's scene has informed everything that I've done," he says. "I was steeped like PG Tips, for so many years, in, 'This is what we do, and the way we do it is a little bit off.' So, every time there has been an a-ha moment in a movie that I've contributed to, that's what it's about – mild subversion within the framework of commercial entertainment."

It was what made Iron Man so fresh, this playful, independent spirit. You could see the creative tension between Downey's persona, and the superhero role; between his knowing, ironic amusement, and the earnest, and often corny heroism that Marvel requires, the very conventions a Downey Jr character might joyfully satirise.

He also cites his father in connection with his funniest character – Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder (2008). "After Iron Man, I was home for what, six weeks, before Tropic Thunder? And I was in this condo in Kauai [Hawaii], getting into full blackface at 6am, and thinking, 'Am I about to squander all of the goodwill? No, dude. I'm going to be as confident as I can. This is an homage to Putney Swope, this is an homage to my dad.'"

One thing Lazarus proved beyond doubt is what an improvisational force Downey is. Those who work with him knew that already.

"We used to have these lunches on the Sherlock Holmes set," Guy Ritchie says. "Susan and Robert would put them on. And Robert would play stand-up comedian for us. Not that he needed the acclamation as a performer, but it was stunning, how he'd channel all these different characters, just made up out of the ether. He'd have the patois down. And it seemed like he wasn't even there, at times, he was acting as a medium. He used to do that character, Lazarus, as a saucier from New Orleans. None of us could eat our food. And if we had, it would come up again. He's a genius."

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What this amounts to on set is that he seldom just reads his lines. He tweaks and fiddles and rewrites, so much so that Jon Favreau learned that his best strategy was to just stand back. "If he's onto the scent of something, then I try to be a good golf caddie and provide him with what he needs," he says. "The last thing you do is put him in a box. You're just not getting your money's worth."

For Ritchie, there were pros and cons to Downey Jr's improvisational prowess. "Most of the time, he was fine, but not always," he says. "He could be tricky. It came out of wanting to improve what's on the page. I mean, we'll often tear it up and start again, but at some point that has to stop."

But there were no hard feelings. Downey hangs on to people. "At the end of the first Sherlock, I considered him to be one of my best friends," says Ritchie. "I was getting divorced, and he was a great mate. Anyway, I wouldn't want to get in a fight with him, because he looks like he can bang!"

You can tell how well the Downey Jr story resonates by the way it has become a running gag in his movies. Again and again, he or his co-stars will come out with lines that apply equally to the actor as to his characters – it's a wink to the audience. In the first Iron Man, when Gwyneth Paltrow discovers his alter ego, Downey says, "This is not the worst thing you've caught me doing." In Iron Man 3, he says, "After a brief soirée in an Afghan cave, I said goodbye to the party scene. These days I'm a changed man. I'm different now. I'm, well, you know who I am." And even in The Judge, a straight drama, there's a nudge here and there to his past. For instance, when Hank Palmer gets kicked out of court and says, "Not my first time."

Downey's eyes are twinkling. "Well, largely, they're not a wink-wink thing. Even with Tony [Stark, Iron Man], that was just naturally what came out about the character. I like to have the aesthetic distance of, 'I don't know what you're talking about.'"

But the audience hears the subtext. We know his story, it's why we root for him. Jon Favreau says it best. "The growth he went through definitely informed Tony Stark's arc in the movie – somebody who hadn't made the best choices with their life and success, but then turned it around and then made it about something bigger. That's what being a hero is. And I think that's the type of story people like to be inspired by in their lives. That's why Robert connects with people."

***

It's getting late. Susan's gone to bed. It's just me and Robert now, with his two cats – D'Artagnan and Field Marshal Montgomery – hanging out in the living room, drinking espressos. And I still want to ask about those bad choices, the trouble years. But every time I get close, he slips and evades.

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"Dennis Hopper asked me down to Venice Beach, long before I had offices there," he goes on. "He'd probably been off the sauce for ten years then? And he had an art show, he had made a movie, but every single article was like, 'So, did you really shoot yourself in the foot when you were on peyote once?' This was a dynamic guy with a story here and now that was much more compelling than the person he ceased to be some time ago."

But Hopper would cackle about the old days. He enjoyed it. Don't you feel any nostalgia for your druggie years, the recklessness of it?

"Oh, please. I really don't. And the further I get away from it, the better I like it. Because essentially it is misspent time on Earth. Is there some hilarity when you're just peaking on mushrooms and rolling around in your friend's yard in Topanga? I can flash to that and go, 'Yeah, man!' But that's not what I'm here to do. Hey, I don't regret it. I'm not shutting the door on it. But from this place, man, where you have a real life, and you have kids, and you do what you're supposed to do? I put my head down on the pillow at night and I have no apologies to make to anybody. It's a sense of honestly being right-sized. This is where I end."

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What about prison?

"It's a metaphor for life."

But it was real for you.

"Most of us are living our metaphors. Listen, it was a logical series of events, and I was aware of where it was leading. I saw it, and I tried to avoid it without adhering to its missives. It's like saying, 'I love my wife, but I'm banging the maid.' Do you know what I mean?"

Was it transformative?

"Most people will tell you that the punitive attempts of the state to correct their shortcomings was of little or no benefit, unless it happened to time out with their own personal a-ha. As I sit here, I wouldn't even pick the joint, or being put in an institution, as one of the worst things that ever happened to me. I honestly wouldn't."

Seriously?

"Dead serious. It was very real. I found myself dropped into this situation, knowing that I shouldn't be there, and I'm talking all my Spideysenses. The Spideysense in my butthole is tingling!"

Especially your butthole.

"Nah, that's all overrated. Most of that stuff is consensual."

I just can't see how being locked up is unimportant.

"OK, here's what I think is significant about it – or anything that you think is going to be part of your life forever because you're scarred and traumatised. I want to go back and thank Judge Mira who sentenced me, and say, 'How can I be of service to the Malibu Municipal Court?' But guess what? The Malibu Municipal Court doesn't exist anymore. It's not even there! And that's life, you know what I mean?"

There's no resolution?

"You play this big scenario in your head, like, 'I had a plan here! This is me, closing the circle here, universe!' And the universe is like, 'Yeah, that circle? Well, it doesn't really mean anything.'"

He's resisted every easy explanation he could take of his life. The joint his father gave him wasn't the reason he became an addict. Ambition wasn't his inspiration to clean up. Prison wasn't this overarching life trauma. Downey Jr may appear to have this epic storybook arc, but the way he sees it, his life is too complex for neat narrative devices. It's full of loose ends, ambiguities and mystery.

***

He's at a glorious point in his life. At 49, on the fulcrum of middle age, he has about as clear a perspective on his past and his future as he's ever had. And with 80-odd movies to his name, a second family, and enough money not to care about money, his priorities have naturally been changing, away from himself and on to others.

There was a time when he'd look at a project and think, "The director will benefit greatly, but everybody else is a fixture. So pass, basically." But he's a producer now, so he's all about the director benefiting greatly. He needs no invitation to sing the praises of David Dobkin. "I just get so excited by trying to enhance everyone else's experience that it ceases to have any personal ambition for me at all," he says.

That's why in a couple of days, he'll start promoting the hell out of The Judge. He likes promotion anyway, he likes the chat shows, the red carpet, the fans. He even likes the interviews. "My publicist's going to fire me, but I promised Howard [Stern] that I'd do his show for every movie from now on."

And on the way, he'll be thinking about his next venture, which might not be a movie at all. "Sometimes when you've had your time in the sunshine, you go, 'Cool, now what gives all of this stuff meaning?'" he says, petting "Monty", who has climbed on his lap. "I'm thinking about Redford in Sundance. How he thought he'd put up a tin roof, and the tree house restaurant got fungus and died, and everything that could have gone wrong did. And Paul Newman. Man, what did you do? You made a salad dressing. And popcorn, too? And hey, when did the lemonade come in…? But you know what, that's not even what I mean…"

He doesn't like the word "legacy" but that's what he's thinking. It's a measure of how far he's come. "Newman made that move but everybody's got that in them. What it comes down to is, basically – I got mine. Maybe you heard of me. But here's what I'm thinking.'" And he shrugs. "That's where I'm at, too. I got mine. I'm good." 

The Judge is out on 17 October

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