“I know very little about acting. I’m just an incredibly gifted faker.”
Michael Keaton doesn’t drive the Batmobile as his day-to-day ride, Daniel Craig doesn’t drive souped-up spycars, but the Audi R8 you see in Iron Man (2008) indeed belongs to none other than Robert Downey, Jr. himself, and even features a vanity license plate reading “Stark.” It’s hard to believe now that Iron Man was seen as the star’s comeback role after a long career slump, given what a major leading man he has become in the years since.
Born in Manhattan on April 4, 1965 to actor/filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and actress Elsie Ann Downey, “RDJ” got an early start in film, featuring in those directed by his father, notably in Pound (1970) and Greaser’s Palace (1972). By age ten, Downey Jr. was studying classical ballet in England before returning to the United States to study at the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center, and eventually winding up living with his father in California, where he would drop out of Santa Monica High School to begin a full-time acting career. During his early years he actually wound up roommates with 1969 (1988) co-star Kiefer Sutherland while the two were still struggling to find their place in the industry.
Robert Downey Jr. had little trouble finding work in his early years, featuring in off-Broadway plays like American Passion (1983). Just a few years after dropping out of high school, Robert would be cast on Saturday Night Live (1985). For many actors, this would be the moment that truly makes a career. Unfortunately, RDJ had the misfortune of joining one of the least popular SNL casts in the history of the show, with Rolling Stone magazine naming him the worst of an already less-than-stellar cast. For the next season almost everyone from the 1985 cast would be dropped.
Fortunately, Downey had film to lean on, playing opposite James Spader in Tuff Turf (1985), featuring as one of the bullies in Weird Science (1985), and landing his first starring role in The Pick-Up Artist (1987). Next came the dark tragedy Less Than Zero (1987), proving that RDJ was more than just a comic lead.
By the time the next decade turned around, Robert Downey Jr. had gone from failed SNL cast member to one of the hottest leading men in Hollywood in just a few short years. The early 90s saw several major roles for the actor, including Air America (1990), where he shared the screen with Mel Gibson, and Chaplin (1992), a biopic on legendary silent film star Charlie Chaplin. The film drew on Downey’s comic and dramatic abilities. RDJ devoted himself to becoming the character, even learning how to play tennis left-handed, and working with a personal coach to practice Chaplin’s body language. The film would earn Downey a nomination for best actor at the Oscars.
By the middle of the 1990s, Robert Downey Jr. was one of the most popular, most bankable, and most critically acclaimed actors in the industry. Unfortunately, substance abuse problems would sadly sidetrack his career starting in 1996. A number of arrests and embarrassing public incidents led producers and directors to think twice about casting the actor, and by the 2000s, he was seen as an insurance risk. Woody Allen had hoped to cast Downey in Melinda and Melinda (2005), but found that he couldn’t get bonded with the actor attached.
The good news is you can’t keep a good actor down forever. Downey staged a comeback over the coming years, starring in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the first film directed by Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black. The film was only a modest commercial hit, but critics loved it. Downey had proven that he was ready to come back in a big way. Soon he was cast in A Scanner Darkly (2006) Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and Zodiac (2007).
In 2007, Marvel was gearing up to launch the “MCU,” or Marvel Cinematic Universe, a series of overlapping superhero movies with a large, recurring cast returning to play their characters across multiple films. Director Jon Favreau hoped to use Robert Downey Jr. as the centerpiece of this new franchise as Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, in the film of the same name. Any doubts that Downey could be relied on to carry the biggest film franchise in cinematic history were put to rest when he put on twenty pounds of muscle in five months to develop a superhero’s physique.
Eleven years after the release of Iron Man (2008), Downey featured as Iron Man once more in Avengers: Endgame (2019), finally bringing his character’s arc to a close.
The Iron Manmobile
In Iron Man, Tony Stark’s vehicle of choice is an Audi R8. Stark actually drives a number of Audis throughout the series, including a V10 Spider in the second film, and a V10 Plus in Age of Ultron (2015). Robert Downey Jr.’s is the one featured in the first film, a V8, gifted to him by the carmaker after the film wrapped production.
Type 42 Audi R8s were still a brand new model at the time of the first film’s shoot, being built on the Audi Le Mans quattro concept car which had made a scene at the 2003 International Geneva Motor Show. The concept car was designed by Julian Hoenig and Frank Lamberty, with the R8 being a version designed for mass production.
While Robert Downey Jr. has had his shares of ups and downs, when you’ve been gifted with a rare Audi R8 for carrying the most successful film franchise in Hollywood history, you have to admit that the ups have been a little higher than the lows have been low.
“I think you end up doing the stuff you were supposed to do at the time you were supposed to do it.”