Robert Downey Jr. is Sherlock Holmes in so many ways. Although purists may find his portrayal of the famous sleuth more showboat than series crime solver, audiences delighted in his turn in the first Sherlock Holmes and are eager to see him and Jude Law’s Dr. Watson go at it again in director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Downey Jr. sat down with Movie Fanatic to talk about the finer points of playing Sherlock, his thoughts on others’ portrayal of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle creation and how actor Jared Harris’ portrayal of the villain Moriarty is the stuff of legend.
Movie Fanatic: Your portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is so unique in the panorama of Holmes performances. Do you check out others and how they tackled the role, or is that a distraction?
Robert Downey, Jr.: I know that there are some quintessential performances that have happened. Whenever I watch someone doing something, even if it doesn’t turn out so great, I admire their intentions. I’ve heard more about the [new TV] series than I’ve seen, but I’m intrigued by it. I think it’s important that we’re all part of the same collective, honoring this great writer and his stories.
Movie Fanatic: When developing your characterization of Sherlock Holmes, do you stick with the storyline you’re given for this particular story, or do you go to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at all to fill in some blanks?
Robert Downey Jr.: You have to take the focus off yourself and put it on the shape of the scene and the intention of what everyone else needs. Well, you just keep Doyle in mind. I just respect the guy, more and more. Oftentimes what’s required, particularly if you’re in any central position, is that you just have to let go of the things that are darling to you. You have to give people something to actually write music to, so that you’re not just running your mouth, all the time.
Movie Fanatic: Did you feel like you had to take your Sherlock Holmes to another level, because A Game of Shadows is a sequel?
Robert Downey Jr.: After the first one worked out pretty good, we were doing the press tour and talking about things that we would like to improve and other directions we could go. And then, there was the reality of doing it. Anybody who’s ever been involved in making the second part to a first thing that worked, there should be a whole online support team. We happened through it. There’s so much to learn and the greatest disguise was us disguising ourselves as consummate, by-the-numbers professionals, when in fact, we’re all incredibly eccentric. And, Warner Bros. has given us the opportunity to try to do something that’s complicated and needs to tick a bunch of boxes. The great thing was that, this time, we also had Noomi [Rapace] and Jared [Harris].
Movie Fanatic: Did you have any opportunity to improv as the material feels so fresh?
Robert Downey Jr.: The goal is to make a well-written scene seem like it’s improvised, and come up with things that you find in the room, that you couldn’t have known until you get into the real situation. You just try to improve things, as you go along.
Movie Fanatic: Sherlock Holmes, both the first one and this, is pure mystery and action. But, one could argue that it is also a bromance between Holmes and Watson. Are you particularly close to Jude, or even Guy Ritchie, your director?
Robert Downey Jr.: Jude and I are pretty close, and Guy and I are practically brothers, which makes things really interesting. There have been times when I’ve wanted to lop off his head with a machete, but it’s just because I love him so much [laughs].
Movie Fanatic: Did you enjoy dressing up in drag?
Robert Downey Jr.: Honestly [laughs], I thought I looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dwarf brother, or the lead singer of The Cure, Robert Smith.
Movie Fanatic: A legend in the Sherlock Holmes world is the villain Moriarty. You have your villain in Game of Shadows with a stellar performance from Jared Harris as Moriarty. What was he like and how did he contribute to the process?
Robert Downey Jr.: Everything Jared Harris did, in the course of making this movie, was essentially thrown at him with very little time to prepare. It was shock and awe. I think what he brought with him was something that was just so particularly him, while still being this character. It honestly is the main reason that the movie works, but it was also an exercise in trial by fire for him. He was really quite nice. Once in a while, he would say, “I really just beg of you, if I could even have a semblance of knowing what I might say, I guarantee you that I could do a better job with it because I wouldn’t be like you, for this long scene that you just wrote, wearing an earwig where someone’s telling you what to say, in the other room. I would actually know what I was going to say.” I’d be like, “Interesting. Yeah, everyone has their own process.” Guy told him that he wanted him to go home and come back singing a German aria, the next day. Nobody learns a German aria overnight, except Jared Harris.
Movie Fanatic: You, Jude and Guy have a rhythm from the first Sherlock Holmes and now in A Game of Shadows. How did Jared take to being the new kid on the block?
Robert Downey Jr.: Jared would come in and we’d have a scene that we would be shooting in two days, and he’d be like, “Is this going to pretty much stay like this?” I was like, “Not a word of it.” He’d say, “Can I have something that I can study the night before?” I’d say, “I’m going to venture a no on the possibility of yes.” It would be like that. The stakes were so high, in every scene, and there were complicated camera shots. It’s pretty terrifying. What Jared kept pushing toward wasn’t personal. It wasn’t like, “I don’t want to be embarrassed. I want to do a good job. I want to come off great. I want great dialogue.” It kept going back to this archetype that he was trying to represent.
Movie Fanatic: Your wife, Susan, is a producer on the film. Did that allow for a more democratic filmmaking process?
Robert Downey Jr.: Yeah, it was a democracy in the truest and most frustrating and most rewarding sense of the word [laughs]. I mean anybody was allowed to come in and say, “You know, I'm just not cool with that.” It would be like, “Who's that?” “Oh, I'm just cleaning the trailer, sir.” And we'd just listen. It was nuts.