‘I’ll make this quick,’ says Robert Downey Jr, before launching into a preamble beginning: ‘A hundred and twenty-two years ago, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave birth to a character...’ RDJ is obviously not a man to embrace brevity, but he talks quickly enough to make you think that he does. ‘I have an illness of confidence,’ he cheerfully admits. It’s true; few people other than Downey Jr would have pegged the former troubled brat pack star as Sherlock Holmes, England’s most enigmatic fictional Victorian gentleman.
‘My take is what the purists would expect if the purists knew what they were talking about,’ he declares, displaying all of his aforementioned ill confidence. He describes Holmes as ‘probably the first superhero’ before correcting himself slightly: ‘the first intellectual superhero.’ There is little doubt that RDJ’s Holmes has as much of the Stan ‘Marvel Comics’ Lee about him as he does Conan Doyle – a thought to make ‘purists’ surely cringe. But, as he points out, liberties have always been taken with the Holmes legend.
‘He never wore a deerstalker cap,’ he says, ‘except maybe once for a minute. But even then it was described differently. And the long pipe is just something that William Gillette [an old stage actor] used to not obscure his face on stage.’ Yes, somewhere, a researcher has earned their money.
Having successfully bagged (and made watchable) Iron Man, Downey Jr is a man in demand. Having put behind him a history of arrests, pharmaceutical problems and more gossip column inches than most Hollywood stars manage in a lifetime, the 44-year-old actor is clearly in franchise-building mood. Still riding high on an Oscar nomination for Tropic Thunder, and with Iron Man 2 already in the can – a third is rumoured, and likely – he has good reason to look to the future. A sequel to Sherlock is supposedly on the cards (or so says IMDB), but surely that depends on the success of this one. The test will likely come in finding a new take on an old and much loved character – this is presumably where Downey Jr comes in.
The story is an original one, says RDJ, but it stays true to the universe of Conan Doyle. As he tells it: ‘there was a graphic novel-type comic book in the works, and when people started seeing it in that light it made it a little more palatable.’ Yes, Hollywood’s fixation with graphic novels and comics means that scripts now arrive in glorious technicolour. Needless to say, this Sherlock draws a lot on that old Victorian and comic book standby: the occult. The main villain is not Moriarty, but Mark Strong’s Aleister Crowley, a figure ripped straight from the column inches of Victorian scandal rags. ‘He was like a 19th century Alice Cooper,’ enthuses RDJ in the tones of a man who knows.
Naturally, certain familiar characters return. Rachael McAdams plays the role of Irene Adler, taken from the original Conan Doyle tale Scandal in Bohemia. In the books, she was one of very few women to ever fully intrigue the infamously misogynist Holmes. But surely the most important role goes to Watson, Conan Doyle’s alter ego.
Downey Jr is undoubtedly a shrewd man; it’s just that he talks like a Californian mallrat at times. Describing how he enticed his Watson, Jude Law, he recalls: ‘Joel [Silver, producer] was like, “Go sell ’im!” And he [Jude] walked down the hall – and he’s dressed in that kind of like fabulous, underdressed, super-expensive way. And I just said, “Dude”.’ See what we mean?
So what can we expect? Is this the great Watson-Holmes bromance? ‘We kept talking about Butch and Sundance,’ explains Downey Jr – funny, we don’t ever recall Holmes and Watson going out in a blaze of gunfire. ‘It means when people are so close that they almost can’t stand each other,’ he fumbles, correcting himself: ‘when they can’t stand on their own two feet without each other.’ Well, it wouldn’t be a Guy Ritchie film without a bit of tentative male bonding.
On the future, Downey Jr is sanguine: ‘I wouldn’t want to launch anything else,’ he freely admits. Feathering the nest with a pair of million-dollar franchises should be enough for anyone, but the family man isn’t ruling anything out. ‘In 10 years we’ll probably have another kid, maybe a Shetland pony or a non-alcoholic vineyard. I might need to really keep cranking them out,’ he laughs. With over 100 Conan Doyle stories to draw upon, he certainly has plenty of scope, and if anyone has the ‘ill confidence’ to pull off Sherlock Holmes, it’s Downey Jr – the rest is surely just elementary.
Sherlock Holmes is out in cinemas on December 24