Robert Downey Jr. has contributed to the reinvention of an iconic British character in director Guy Ritchie’s innovative take on the world’s greatest detective in “Sherlock Holmes.”
In the decade since Robert Downey Jr. succeeded in cleaning up the drug abuse that landed him in jail, he’s been busy picking up where he left off: acting, in an astounding variety of roles. His reinvention of himself led to terrific performances in “Wonder Boys,” “The Singing Detective,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Fur” (under a lot of fur), “Iron Man” (inside a metal suit), and “Tropic Thunder” (in blackface).
Now he’s contributed to the reinvention of an iconic British character in director Guy Ritchie’s innovative take on the world’s greatest detective in “Sherlock Holmes.” Downey’s Holmes is not one we’ve seen before. He’s still a thinker, deducing the world around him left and right, but he’s also a scrapper, ready to take on any opponent in a bare-knuckle boxing match. He doesn’t own a deerstalker, but instead sports a natty fedora. And he never once utters the word “elementary.” But he does, as Holmes in the novels did, partake in a little casual drug-taking – a “seven percent solution” of cocaine to water. It’s actually only suggested in the film, but with his own history of cocaine use well reported, Downey was asked how he approached that aspect of his character.
“The seven percent solution was never a high enough percentage for me,” he said, laughing. “It was kind of a weak, tepid solution, if you ask me. But this is a PG-13 movie, and even if it wasn’t, if you go back to the source material, Holmes is never described as being some strung-out weirdo. And in Victorian times, it was absolutely legal and acceptable. You could go down to your corner pharmacist and grab all of that stuff. We thought it would be irresponsible not to make reference to it. A lot of the flaming hoops we had to jump through were how do you take what comes from the source material, how do you amend it, and how do you not whitewash it and still be respectable to it.”
Putting on a perfect British accent is part of what makes Downey so good in the role. But he also credits past experiences in England, including working with director Richard Attenborough, in helping to shape him for it.
“Fortunately I spent some time there in the late-’80s playing Chaplin,” he recalled. “And I had a great tutelage in all things British from Lord Attenborough. So I felt like I kind of passed go.”
But Downey goes back to Holmes' creator Arthur Conan Doyle for his real inspiration. After all, there’s some of Conan Doyle’s actual dialogue in pretty much every scene.
“There’s an esoteric element to this, in that sometimes you just feel like you’re in the right groove, you feel the history and the legacy of something,” he said of the novels and the novelist. “You feel like you are being silently approved of from some other place and time. You can’t beat Doyle’s words. It was an interesting way to get the job done – to honor him, yet still being entertaining.”
Although the many plot strands involve a heinous villain with thoughts of world domination (Mark Strong) as well as a love interest, of sorts, for Holmes (Rachel McAdams), and there’s a generous dose of slam-bang action (fistfights aplenty), the film really centers on the quirky but comfortable relationship between Holmes and his partner Dr. Watson (Jude Law).
“We really efforted and efforted,” said Downey, referring to him and Law getting the right tone in presenting them as a kind of old married couple. “It’s funny, I’m used to hearing, ‘Oh, you and so and so’ – and it’s always female – ‘had this great chemistry.’ But now they’re talking about Jude and I like we should be doing romantic comedies together. But this film is not a comedy; it’s a love affair, of sorts, and Holmes and Watson are aspects of all of us. We were just a good team.”
“Sherlock Holmes” opens on Friday.