‘You Have a Big Mouth and a Crazy Mind’: Robert Downey Jr. and Jodie Foster Reunite to Discuss TV Triumphs and Being ‘Surprisingly’ Open to Iron Man Return

Jodie Foster and Robert Downey Jr.
Photographs By Mary Ellen Matthews

Jodie Foster and Robert Downey Jr. have a long history. Their careers have intersected over time, starting when Foster directed Downey in her 1995 Thanksgiving comedy “Home for the Holidays,” where he played the sweet-natured but rebellious black sheep of the family. More recently, both were nominated in supporting categories at this year’s Oscars — Foster was nominated for her role as an encouraging swim coach in “Nyad,” and Downey won for playing a villainous government official in “Oppenheimer” — and played key roles in HBO limited series. Foster was a hard-bitten cop in “True Detective: Night Country,” writer-director Issa López’s reimagining of the crime franchise that centered on Alaska Native communities. Downey tackled four roles — a CIA agent, a university professor, a congressman and an indie filmmaker, each representing a facet of the American power structure — in Korean director Park Chan-wook’s adaptation of the post-Vietnam War novel “The Sympathizer.”

Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: My first question for you — when Dylan McDermott and I were misbehaving during the rehearsal process [of “Home for the Holidays”], you got momentarily irate, because we were so out of control that it was louder than the rehearsal itself. Do you remember putting us in check?

JODIE FOSTER: I don’t. But I was used to working with children, so that’s something I do well. I say to them, “If you move, I’m going to step on your foot really hard.”

DOWNEY: This is part of the trouble — and the great opportunity — when you start so young. We are preconditioned to take direction. Not necessarily to do as we’re told, but, yeah, we take direction.

FOSTER: I think it’s a gift having started young — and abusive …

DOWNEY: I love the abuse part.

FOSTER: … rolled up into one.

DOWNEY: I remember what a singular experience I had with you as a director. I didn’t get any screen time with you. And “Home for the Holidays” has become one of these films that everybody watches at Thanksgiving. Maybe you had a sense that it would be something that so many folks would relate to.

FOSTER: I was almost 30 at the time, and I had ambivalent feelings about Thanksgiving. It was a little too intimate. I was stuck in a room with a bunch of people that hadn’t chosen to be there — we were just born together. Very often, there’s terrible, racist things that pop up, and there’s nowhere to go. It’s part of your DNA, and somehow you love them, but you also can’t stand being in the same room with them.

DOWNEY: At one point [in the film], I flipped the whole turkey. And it hits the only truly miserable person.

FOSTER: We had to inject the whole cavity of the turkey with as much juice as we could get in there, so that when it fell on her, it was an avalanche of disgustingness.

DOWNEY: It was one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever done.

FOSTER: All perfect because of you. You have a big mouth and a crazy mind that loves the freedom of being in the moment, which is not who I am, but who I wish to be—somebody that’s free like you.

DOWNEY: I was pretty out of my mind the whole time we were shooting, but I remember it feeling like one of the most relaxed performances in the history of cinema.

FOSTER: What I was thinking about when I was thinking about going to meet up with you is that we started in the same place — as child actors — but we have opposite trajectories. You came to the table with this freedom, and you didn’t have the discipline part necessarily down for a number of years. Then increasingly over time, in your martial-artist way, you’ve become this extraordinarily disciplined person that still has the fun and the joy.

DOWNEY: You wrote me a letter once. In it, you talked about Chaplin and his precision. And it turns out it was one of the most prophetic things. You’ve impacted me so greatly.

FOSTER: I started out as “You just do what people say, and you just follow this path, and these are the goals that I have, and these are the things that I want to do.” And I really realized as I got older that, as helpful as that was for my career, it was unfree. When I got older, I learned how to be freer instead of so disciplined.

Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety

DOWNEY: Well, it’s apparent. In “Night Country,” there’s so much precision. And yet I saw you give yourself the freedom to play a character that I see none of you in. And that you chose this project, it’s just bananas to me. And with Issa López.

FOSTER: Well, the world is hopefully growing and changing in the right direction. We’re getting better instead of worse and becoming more conscious. That’s what I hope, anyway. And what you hope with movies is that you’re part of creating an atmosphere where people can challenge themselves. And very often now, when I’m in my 50s and 60s, I ask myself the question of “Why isn’t that guy talking? Why are you talking?” This is also true with “The Sympathizer”: It’s really important to reframe and re-center who does the talking and who tells the story. Vietnam, for example: “The Sympathizer” really deals with that time. And I was around then. You weren’t quite around then, but I was around then.

DOWNEY: It was the event that most affected my formative years.

FOSTER: I was a young person, but there was that conflict of figuring out, should you be on the side of your country? And were we on the right side? Would we regret this? And what would history say? And Park Chan-wook — it’s just so visually stunning.

DOWNEY: Director Park had a really strong take on it. He asked if I wanted to play all the white guys. Finally, it’s telling the story from the perspective of what the Vietnamese called it: “the American war.” When you sat with Issa López, from the time you had the first meeting with her, how did that go?

FOSTER: She was such an exciting voice. And the second I met her I knew that this was the vision we needed. She is totally clear about what she wants. And she’s the first person on a dance floor, which I love. We’ve become close friends. I think she’s my favorite director that I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with a lot of big guys.

DOWNEY: You made that big reach of saying, “Let’s have this character be a challenge to empathize with.” But you do win us back.

FOSTER: This is the beauty of having limited series. You can expand on a story. I was thinking of “Killers of the Flower Moon” — extraordinary movie, three-and-a-half hours long. And I thought, “I wonder why they didn’t do it eight hours long” — to be able to explore all these other people, and give them another perspective. The great thing about limited series is you can have that novelistic idea of going off into tangents and tying them together.

DOWNEY: You have a very high capacity for pain once you’ve committed to something. But the crazy thing is, I just kept hearing, “Jodie loves being in Iceland.”

Mary Ellen Matthews for Variety

FOSTER: There’s live music everywhere. The food is delicious. They have geothermal baths everywhere. Instead of going to a pub, you go to the baths. But 58 nights outside in subzero temperatures is tough. You have the clothes on and the little hot pads. I had hot pads in my hat. However, you still have to breathe.

DOWNEY: Because it’s so cold it feels like your teeth are going to crack.

FOSTER: So you have to do exercises where you breathe into your hands to get your lungs ready for the fact that you’re going to hit this cold winter. When you take on a limited series, you immerse yourself in the culture. And if you do it right, that informs everything you’re doing. With Issa, the only thing she knew was that she wanted it to be in the Arctic Circle. The second she started doing the research, all the pieces came together, because 85% of people above the Arctic Circle are Native people. On “The Sympathizer,” what’s so great about it is you have the Vietnamese perspective, and the perspective of first-generation people that are coming [to the U.S.]. The complexity of that was so well observed by Park Chan-wook, who doesn’t come from America.

DOWNEY: Like Vietnam was, Korea is still divided. So he’s said that he’s never felt that there’s been a story he could relate to more.

FOSTER: Did you guys come up with your four characters together?

DOWNEY: Having just come from “Oppenheimer,” I was like, “I just want to play.” I wanted the four characters to be a little two-dimensional. The congressman was probably my favorite, because it was every midcentury politico.

FOSTER: Bright teeth and that perfect little combover.

DOWNEY: And these huge lifts, so I was always taller than everyone. And for the auteur, I was thinking about Polanski.

FOSTER: When you have four characters all in one scene — how does that work? It’s very technical.

DOWNEY: [The production said,] “We’ve got to shoot this in two days, and we have to make sure Downey doesn’t go crazy, and that we don’t lose the pixie dust.” I shot Claude [the CIA agent] in the morning, the congressman in the afternoon. The next day, came back, shot the professor in the morning and the auteur in the afternoon. I’ll shoot this back at you: You look at the schedule and you go, “Those two days are what I’m afraid of.” What part of the “Night Country” schedule did you always have circled, like, “That’s going to be hell”?

FOSTER: Falling through the ice.

DOWNEY: Had to be.

FOSTER: Because I kept saying, “How are we going to do it?” And they’d be like, “Oh, we’ll see.” Because it’s at the end. But we’re not really falling through the ice, right?

DOWNEY: You want to be game, but of course they’re not going to …

FOSTER: Yeah. So we shot that on a big tank. And it’s entirely dark, maybe 150 feet down. I work with a free diver, who’s like, “This is how we hold our breath in a way that allows us to keep going down. I’m going to be off to the side. When they say ‘Cut,’ I can swim to you and save you.” They weighted every jacket so I couldn’t get to the surface, and I had big boots on. The thing I hadn’t anticipated was that I couldn’t see anything in front of me. It was actually my worst nightmare. Usually, it’s the opposite when you designate something like, “This is going to be bad.” But when I got there, it was bad.

DOWNEY: Here’s the funny thing: “Nobody cares what you went through, Robert. We liked it when we saw it.” I cared, because I was really apprehensive. As long as nobody else cared, maybe I should care a little less.

FOSTER: Unless it’s dangerous. Then you should care. You’ve done your share of crazy, unsafe stunts that are out there, and you’ve been in a suit.

DOWNEY: Yes. I love it.

FOSTER: Would you think of putting the suit back on again for Tony Stark?

DOWNEY: It’s just crazily in my DNA. Probably the most like-me character I’ve ever played, even though he’s way cooler than I am. I’ve become surprisingly open-minded to the idea. Between “Nyad” and [“Night Country”] and, for me, “Oppenheimer” and then “Sympathizer,” it really is crazy because we look pretty good. I was actually looking at the stills we were taking, making sure: “Do we still look kind of OK?” I’m like, “We look pretty good.”

Production Design: Keith Raywood