From early on in his life he was always a rambunctious kid growing up to an artistic, creative dad who also broke the rules and made films his own way. Robert decided to quit school and asked his dad for permission, his dad said ‘Either show up every day or quit. Do whatever you want, but do something productive.’
At 17 he decided that his future would lie in being an actor. Being very bullish about it he believed he was the best at it and there’s no one that can act better than him. An egomaniac with an inferiority complex? I’ll let you decide.
Hi intention wasn’t set on making the greatest films of all time. The films he liked were popcorn movies, fun, disposable pieces of entertainment that were meant to do just that – to entertain. Making art house pictures wan’t his speciality albeit performing in a few throughout his career. He may not have walked the walk of a typical leading man but he was always desperate to be in a movie and by God he would make sure he was the best thing in any film he would be in.
Heading to New York as a late teenager with dreams of aspirations as an artist he recalls the conversation he’d had with his dad who told him that he’s carried him for too long and not to bother calling him up or asking him for money or telling him that he’s hungry. It was a transitional point, a sobering point in his teenage years to gain independence with a chance to do something for himself and a chance to show that he had the talent and drive to become an actor.
Robert never got trained in drama school; it was all on the job. Plus he couldn’t afford to take acting courses. He’d fake it to try and fit in with the kids who were learning at a performing arts school just by hanging around and smoking weed in the stairways when they’d just gotten back from class studying the Sanford Meisner process.
He had no real idea about how to begin a career as an actor within the studio system. For him, based on his father’s experience of making low to no budget films making movies was part of the hustle – trying to grab financial support on the fly and thinking on your feet.
Eventually he would land parts on the stage which led him to extreme paranoia of having to be good. He’d get to the theatre an hour before every show, stretch out on a mat and run over actions and transitions in his head. This paranoia, he believes, gave him discipline. Stage fright to him was like a pleasant pain in the stomach, when you know you’re about to do something you want to do, especially if your parents or peers are there watching you. They might say ‘it was weak’ or ‘it was good’ and sometimes you’d learn the most from your worst experiences.
Robert stuck at it, continuing to work in part time jobs while performing in minor roles on the stage. He would eventually land an agent and soon afterwards he was in front of the camera for his screen debut in Baby It’s You – a romantic drama in which the final cut saw him only in a minor role where most of his scenes were cut out and his performance was more in the background than in the foreground. After telling his friends that he was now officially a major talent and film star, his friends would soon dub the film ‘Maybe It’s You.’
He had better luck in his next role in Firstborn – a drama in which he had a handful of scenes and his frantic mannerisms and manic, rapid fire delivery were evident even then which showcased his potential as an actor who could dominate a scene with even a fleeting appearance.
But Robert was struggling to make the impact on the screen he was desperate for and he began to experiment with drugs which eventually started getting out of control and with his big break still eluding him, things were getting desperate. Luckily, help was at hand through a phone call…
Tuff Turf was an American drama set in LA, it wasn’t a classic movie by any means but it gave Robert his screen time and it wasn’t long before other roles began to come in. But what the film also represented was a start of a pattern that would rear its head several times in his career. In Robert’s head, acting came easily to him. He had charisma that the camera catches perfectly and his lazy but high-octane delivery marked him out as a natural. But this ease meant that drink and drugs weren’t getting in the way of his acting career.
Robert was certainly on the fringes of the Brat Pack of the 80’s and was considered an honorary member especially when given the role as the cool kid Ian in Weird Science but he was on the fringes of getting himself fired for his self destructive behaviour on set, apparently defecating in actors trailers much to the chagrin of his fellow stars. But he would often get away with it perhaps it was his lovable roguish charm which even the legendary producer Joel Silver wasn’t immune to. Not only would he not fire Robert from Weird Science, he would play a huge part in Robert’s comeback 20 years later.
When he went to audition for Mussolini: The Untold Story he still had purple dye in his hair from Weird Science and at the audition they didn’t think he’d be suitable for the role but after Robert read one scene they wanted him to read more but his vibe told him to get out of there and make them think and so he left and they called that day saying he was magical. Robert’s take on the experience is that it doesn’t matter whether or not you can act. If you can go into a room and make them want to have you around for six or eight weeks, that’s what will really get you a job.
In the next several years Robert would perform in various genre films from romantic comedies to edgy dramas one of those being Less Than Zero which his character more or less reflected what he was going through in life and could end up being. He portrayed a junky gay guy and the role in his words was like the ghost of Christmas future. The character was an exaggeration of himself. Then things changed and in some ways he became an exaggeration of the character which lasted for longer than it needed to last.
The film got mixed reviews but some critics hailed Robert’s performance in the film. At one point after the screening for Less Than Zero in Georgia a lady came up to Robert physically shaken and said that two of her friends went into rehab after seeing him in the movie. He got the chills run down his spine and then realised why he does what he does.
Albeit giving good performances and playing more of a supporting role to his films, Robert soon began to realise that they were underperforming and were hurting his reputation. Hollywood was a business and therefore he needed a hit, a blockbuster, which would bring him some box office success and clout. And teaming up with Mel Gibson on the war caper Air America looked about as sure a thing as you could get. But by the time the movie was done, the only positive thing that came out of making that movie was meeting Mel Gibson. The film bombed at the box office and would leave him disappointed, if not entirely surprised.
He would then start in the romantic comedy Soapdish portraying a young prick producer in an Armani suit. During filming he said that it would be really nice to be in a great film, but it’s not time yet. If he would ever wind up being in a great film, it would mean so much more to him but he knew that he was going to get much better. He wasn’t wrong. His performance was much better than anyone else but the film wasn’t a success. Career-wise he was depressed and it just wasn’t happening for him. He tried to play the studio game and he got burned.
And then the chance to become Chaplin came by when Robert found out that Richard Attenborough was making a biopic of the loveable tramp. He announced to the director that he was going to play Chaplin and that he was the one actor who could play him. Richard wasn’t convinced but he gave Robert a chance. He did prefer an English actor to have played the character of Chaplin but he couldn’t find anyone and he knew that casting the right actor was going to be hard. Having to find the actor with the right height, the right features, the right accent (Cockney), with the agility to pull off the stunts Chaplin used to do and replicate his distinctive stance was a challenge.
But Robert continued to pester the director about the part and auditioned for him in full costume and makeup, being caught off guard by being asked to improvise and act certain physical scenes. Eventually Richard realised the Robert could provide the fire in the characters belly and the turmoil behind his eyes. He had the passion that the character had back in the days and Robert had the ability to convey that determination to achieve what he set out to achieve. This was a part that would devour Robert – and one that would finally see him mature as an actor. He spent copious amounts of time reading, researching, obsessing over every details about Chaplin which began to leave him with bouts of depression. Being so competitive, Robert thought that he couldn’t be as gifted and imaginative as Chaplin and this gnawed at him. The director Richard came to his aid on many occasions and guided him with steady hands and show him what he was fully capable of.
Robert was nominated for an Oscar for his performance but he lost out to Al Pacino’s performance in Scent of a Woman. While Robert was widely praised for his performance in the film and rightly so, the movie itself was somewhat panned by critics. Yet after the film Robert was going to capitalise on the acclaim that he received and jumped on to make a supernatural comedy called Hearts and Souls, then appear in a small role in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and after for a supporting role in Oliver Stone’s controversial Natural Born Killers. Later on he would return for another romantic dalliance in Only You opposite Marisa Tomei followed by a comedy drama Home for the Holidays – a film he would remember for all the wrong reasons.
In Restoration, Robert was at his best when a lot was demanded of him. There was a part of him that was very restless which easily turns into discontent. The more the director asked off him, the better he performed and for this particular role he did demand a lot. On the film Robert had five different coaches teaching dialogue, writing and Oboe playing. But he was able to absorb a huge amount of tasks of pretty high difficulty rating and really nail them. But off set, Robert would still struggle with his addictions and his behaviour was becoming erratic. With Restoration flopping at the box office Robert began to think he was box office poison and said that if anyone wanted their film to have a lousy opening weekend then to just throw him in it since he’s never been in a film that was a big hit.
At one point in his life he was so heavily in dept that the IRS lodged a tax liens totalling over $1 million against his income. It didn’t help that he was in and out of rehab and also spent some nights in jail. Robert admitted at the time that he would’ve happily given up work as an actor but one of his close director friends insisted that he come on board a project of his. The director’s, James Toback, intuition was that interesting people are more interesting right after they have suffered. And that it opens them up even further. So after performing opposite Mike Tyson in Black and White Robert moved on to star opposite Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys.
Having marital difficulties and still fighting addiction Robert broke his parole and ended up getting a three year jail sentence. But there seemed to be an attitude of acceptance on his part. An acceptance of responsibility. Sean Penn would visit Robert in prison and recalled that his humour was well intact and he seemed like a guy doing time, one day at a time. Looking back at it Robert would say that serving time in jail is an unimaginable awful situation and what you have to do is protect yourself and amuse yourself in that order. It felt like a dangerous monastic boot camp and that is why he doesn’t complain on film sets so much now.
Robert came out of jail three months earlier but still came out broke. His wife then separated from him and was living with another man. Thankfully his talents have always been in demand but Hollywood was still wary of hiring him because of his previous addictions. He kicked off with TV appearing in Ally McBeal turning up on set at 6am and attending a 12-step rehab meetings after work. But after 8 episodes he felt compelled to move on because of his belief that staying within the TV parameters would not propel him forward with his career. Unfortunately his addiction caught up to him again and he was caught doing drugs which ended with him being sentenced to 12 months in a live-in rehabilitation centre and 3 years probation.
Robert would go on to say that people who don’t take drugs often forget that no one takes drugs because they want to break the law, or end their marriage, or wind up crusty and homeless. People take drugs because drugs make them feel better. And some people have a deeper need to feel better than others.
Robert was uninsurable at the time and when it came to gambling on him Mel Gibson came to the rescue with a part for Robert in The Singing Detective based on the BBC’s mini series written by Dennis Potter. Since, at the time, no other actor showed an interest Mel proposed for Robert to take up the helm which he believed Robert would be perfectly suited for about a man climbing out from the darkness of his soul and has to tackle his demons. During the filming Robert was covered in Make up to represent the skin condition the character had. If he had a 20min break he would get his tennis racquet and go and exercise to get his cardio going. This, for him, was purely to maintain his sanity.
The movie received a mixed reaction when released at the Sundance film festival. It may not have been a hit but it proved to the world that Robert was back in business. He began to find it a lot easier to act when he was not tearing himself up inside. For him to act was to play an instrument but how could he play the saxophone when it was filled with Crisco as he put it. At that moment he was only going to put into his body cigarettes and coffee which were his last two addictions and he believed they would go sooner or later. At that point of his life he was going for progress not perfection.
Another industry friend who was willing to take a chance on Robert was Joel Silver who’d worked with him previously. He agreed to cast him in Gothika opposite Halle Berry who was on a hot streak at the time just coming off Swordfish and Monster’s Ball which won her an Oscar. Times were still tight for him. Money from Gothika and his next movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was going straight on to pay his debts. After getting married to the woman who produced Gothika alongside Joel Silver her guidance would make Robert think more long-term about his film career. She would tell him that his mission was to stay within the mainstream and then deviate to do things that are of interest to him. Being around for ages he never got the chance to be the lead in a big hit movie.
He started to learn kung fu and be involved with power-flow yoga. It was the support he needed to keep him down the straight and narrow. Robert was quoted saying ‘Life is really hard and I don’t see some active benevolent force out there. I see it as basically a really cool survival game. You get on the right side of the tracks and you now are actually working with what people would call magic. It’s not. It’s just you’re not in the fucking dark any more, so you know how to get along a little better.’
The film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was enjoyable to work on but sadly it was a flop at the box office. Talking about the box office disappointment Robert thought that it’s all part of the same thing. Looking for the highest degree of difficulty and disappointment – which becomes better quality. He sees life as being really messy and either the cosmos has order to it or it doesn’t and he chooses to believe it does. So to judge or to compare is a really dangerous pastime. He believed he held the record for being the actor who had done the most movies and to still be getting paid the same amount he was three movies in. It was his lot in life to be patient and wait and be disappointed because it wasn’t about his day job anyway. It was about what he was here to do.
He may have shot himself in the foot but creatively he was beginning to gain a good reputation and playing interesting characters and starring in interesting films albeit supporting roles. Films such as Good Night and Good Luck directed by George Clooney; A Scanner Darkly with Richard Linklater at the helm and Zodiac directed by David Fincher.
Robert always imaged himself playing a superhero and when he had the chance of playing Tony Stark as Iron Man his chances were minimal to say the least. It was unlikely that a studio would grant a multiple picture deal to an actor who has had as many problems as him. A story was circling around that Marvel Studios were under no circumstances prepared to hire him for any price. Robert was desperate to star in the film that he was willing to screen test for the role, something which he hasn’t done for a long long time. It was a role that he really wanted and after Chaplin was the one he had gone after the hardest. He knew he could do it and he knew how to prove it to people. The director John Favreau said Robert wasn’t the most obvious choice, but he understood what makes the character tick. He found a lot of his own life experiences in Tony Stark. He was somebody who’s had it, lost it and now has it again, and it’s like a pit bull who’s got his jaws on a chew toy. Nothing would take this away from him again.
Robert had to train physically for the part being the skinny guy that he normally is. He was well over his forties, wasn’t anything close to Mr. Buff Guy and had to go through an excruciating process of working out so hard and so often just not to look like the skinny guy that he was.
Of course, Iron Man went on to becoming a box office smash and it’s success launched Robert into the stratosphere.
Next, he was convinced of playing the character of Kurt Lazarus in Tropic Thunder were he played an actor who has been hailed as one of the greatest of all time, takes his craft incredibly seriously and for this new film gets a controversial cosmetic operation to turn his skin black.
Talking further about getting into character, Robert said ‘Give me an accent, I’ve got a character. I don’t have to do anything else. Put whatever clothes on me you want. If I’m worrying about the pants or the hair or the dialogue, I must a) not have an accent; or b) not be in a good movie.’
It was an incredibly brave role fo him to play and his agent tried to dissuade him from doing it. He had just starred in one of the biggest films of the year and here he was taking a risk when he would have been asked to play it safe. But that wasn’t Robert’s way. The controversy he feared failed to materialise. And his depiction of the character on various media outlets seemed to generate a lot of interest in the film, which went on to enjoy huge success and Robert was also nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA for his performance.
Robert went on to play Sherlock Holmes for Guy Ritchie and more recently Dr. Doolitle for Universal Pictures. He has become a huge star in his own right as well as a bankable actor but he would’ve never achieved the status that he’d gotten to if it wasn’t for his persistence in keeping on his path and sticking with what he believed in.
Mel Gibson has a fantastic phrase: ‘You gotta hug the cactus.’ And Robert believes that that is what it is, the faith that there’s value in hugging the cactus and that it’s necessary and unavoidable.
He had led a life of drama, troubles, fun, action and excitement. It’s been never quiet, always eventful, but one thing has always remained constant for the actor – ‘Go for broke and exempt all cliches if possible.’