What’s your action? (Robert Downey Jr wisdom)

Three pieces of wisdom from Robert Downey Jr’s January 2020 appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast.

What’s your action?

Gentle reader: As 2020 commenced, I knew very little of Robert Downey Jr (save for the vaguest of biographical details, taking in: acting; addiction; Elton John video; Iron Man rebirth; and comedy genius in Tropic Thunder).

All this has now changed, thanks to Robert Downey Jr’s recent appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. This is one of the most winningly charming chats it has ever been my good fortune to hear. I don’t know how you could emerge from this hour-plus-change without a smile on your face and at least a tiny bit of love in your heart for Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr is charm personified. I know this is hardly news to most people. My wife assures me that he is always like this. To meet him or to hear him speak, she says, is to love him. I am also told that this podcast sees him on only around 40% of full beam. Just how charming is this gent when he is firing on all cylinders?

He is also fiercely intelligent, but wears it lightly. In this too-short conversation, he shares so much wisdom. I want to focus on three topics he covers: confidence; knowing your action; and taking a break.

1. Confidence

Actor_Robert_Downey_Jr._photographed_by_the_California_Department_of_Corrections

“It baffles me,” says Downey Jr. “Confidence – what does it really mean?”

Confidence has to come from within. It’s the easiest thing in the world to advise others that they should be more confident, yet the hardest for them to put into practice. But just occasionally, life might lend a little hand. You’re suddenly on a roll. Confidence might blossom. This can be a good thing. But only up to a point.

Robert Downey Jr recalls an epic example. Around a decade ago, he suddenly had runaway success with film after film (yer Iron Mans, yer Tropic Thunders, yer Sherlock Holmeses):

“It just felt like I was hitting triples no matter what I did. And people were like ‘Are you really as confident as you seem?’ And I was like I guess right now I am, yeah.”

In such moments, your boundless and seemingly unstoppable might feel like the natural order of things. You’re gliding from win to win. It’s only right. This is you, after all! But, Mr Downey Jr advises, it is best to retain a little perspective here. It is life and the universe that are setting the pace – not you. The true natural order of things will be restored soon enough. Pride comes before a fall. He says:

“So, confidence, you know. There’s been times when I felt I’m in possession of it. And then you want to let go a little bit, because it’s only ever the moment and life guiding you. And the wind is so at your back there. Are you just jumping over the waves and all that by yourself? You bet I am. But there’s a physics to the moment. The wind’s at your back and then the wind does what the fucking wind does and it changes and you’re left there thinking: ‘What?’ So I think it’s great to be in full possession of what you would call supreme confidence and then see what happens if you don’t hold onto it so hard, because it’s great, but it is a bit of an illusion, because like everything else, it’s always changing. And every day the reset button, the space bar, gets pressed, and it’s like: ‘Now what?'”

2. What’s your action?

Michelle_Phillips_and_Warren_Beatty_(1975)

“What’s your action in this scene?”

Robert Downey Jr cites these words as one of his most valuable lessons in acting and in life. These words came from a wise elder. Namely one Mr Warren Beatty (while they were both working on The Pick-Up Artist):

“One of the great lessons I learned from [Warren Beatty] was: just boil down what it is you’re doing, whether there’s a camera around or just ‘what am I doing today?’ Today I’m showing up and I’m trying to be honest and also to listen and learn. But really my action today is I’m beginning a process of promotion.”

I love this idea. It’s all about getting to the essence of what you are doing in the moment. The naked and unvarnished truth of why you are really there, and of what you are both really expected to and actually likely to do. What are your true motivations in any given moment?

3. It’s not about time

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Life seems to be about relentless forward motion, now more than ever. But does it always have to be?

Robert Downey Jr considers the excellent example set by Eddie Murphy, who took an extended, decades-long break from stand-up comedy to concentrate on the serious business of being a father and family man. Murphy recently chose to bring this self-imposed exile to an end. Late last year, he returned triumphantly with his incredible Netflix movie Dolemite Is My Name, and his acclaimed turn hosting SNL.

It’s clear to Downey Jr that Murphy disappeared because he wanted to, not because his talent had dried up. He asks why more people can’t follow Mr Murphy’s example**?

“It’s just incredible – our culture never encourages taking a break. Never encourages saying ‘don’t chase that thing, because you’ve got it in your hands.’ I love the idea that if you’re good at what you do, then it’s not about time. It doesn’t matter when you decide to pick up the mantle again.”

Gentle reader: I would urge you to bask in this lovely podcast, and to allow the charm of Mr Downey Jr to warm your soul. Then, it might also do you good to pose his question (via Mr Beatty) to yourself: What’s your action?

May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.

FOOTNOTES

* There are no end of reasons to love Dolemite Is My Name. For me, one of the greatest aspects of this film is the revelation that Wesley Snipes has for his entire life been an incredible comedy secret weapon, hiding in plain sight. Even if Mr Snipes had no dialogue in this film, just what he does with his eyes would be enough to earn him a reputation as a comedy great, in my view. Here’s a lovely little scene to give you just a taster…

** Clearly, there are rather pressing economic imperatives for most of us not to take an extended break that might last for years. But I love the idea that we should acknowledge that life doesn’t always have to be about relentless forward motion. We can step back from time to time. Our value to be of service to this world will still be there when we return.

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