Robert Downey Jr. and the dark art of looking bad

Actor’s interview walk-out tarred both him and the journalist involved, but publicists are likely happy.

robert downey jr, avengers, avengers: age of ultron, iron man, krishnan guru-murthy

Robert Downey Jr.: “Are we promoting a movie?”

Robert Downey Jr.:

The recent controversial exchange between Robert Downey Jr. and a British journalist has been bugging me for a while, but not quite enough to venture outside the confines of my normal tech commentary. Now that Downey Jr. has potentially libelled the journalist in question, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy, I can’t help myself any longer.

If you missed it, the problem began when Guru-Murthy asked Downey Jr., who is dutifully doing the promotional rounds on Avengers: Age of Ultron, whether his time in prison a few years back had made him a liberal. The actor turned frosty at the unexpected question and asked, “Are we promoting a movie?”

Here’s how the conversation went after that:

  • Guru-Murthy: “You’re doing a promotional round of interviews and that’s why you’re talking about the movie, but we also would like to talk a little bit about you. I don’t know how comfortable you are talking about yourself at the moment.”
  • Downey Jr.: “You have as much time as anyone else will.”
  • Guru-Murthy: “Well then, let me just ask you a few more questions and you can answer them if you want to and not if you don’t want to.”
  • Downey Jr.: “Your foot’s starting to jump a little bit, you better get to your next question.”
  • Guru-Murthy: “[Pauses] The reason I’m asking you about your past is you’ve talked in other interviews about your relationship with your father and the role in all of that of the dark periods you went through, taking drugs and drinking and all of that. I just wondered whether you think you’re free of all of that or whether that’s something…”
  • Downey Jr.: “[Interrupts] I’m sorry, I really don’t. What are we doing?”
  • Guru-Murthy: “I’m just asking questions, that’s all.”
  • Downey Jr.: “Right. Bye [gets up].”

Here’s the video:

It’s hard to get an empirical sampling of how public opinion skewed after this, but the internet opinion seemed to side with Downey Jr. He is, after all, a beloved and entertaining actor who even helps out sick kids. The interviewer is just another sensationalistic journalist looking for attention, or so some of the tweets and comments said.

Perhaps it’s that perception that fuelled Downey Jr.’s attack on Guru-Murthy during a follow-up radio interview with Howard Stern. It’s worth noting the actor had no trouble talking about his personal life, including his relationship with Sarah Jessica-Parker, with Stern:

“I just wish I’d left sooner. I’m one of those guys where I’m always kind of assuming the social decorum is in play and that we’re promoting a superhero movie, a lot of kids are going to see it. This has nothing to do with your creepy, dark agenda that I’m feeling like all of a sudden ashamed and obligated to accommodate your weirdo shit. I’m a 50-year-old guy … and I’m completely un-evolved when it comes to simple boundaries. [I thought,] ‘You know what? You’re weirding me out. You’re a bottom-feeding muckraker.”

Here’s the audio:

Downey Jr. also referenced a similar interview Guru-Murthy did with Quentin Tarantino in 2013. That conversation went off the rails when the interviewer asked the director, who was promoting his film Django Unchained, whether movie violence could be linked to real-world violence.

Tarantino had a similar reaction and refused to answer: “I’m not your slave and you’re not my master. You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey… I’m here to sell my movie. This is a commercial for my movie, make no mistake.”

The full video:

Guru-Murthy, for his part, defended both incidents and his celebrity interviews in general in an article for The Guardian. He wrote:

We don’t do promotional interviews on Channel 4 News. We agree with PR people that as well as talking about a new movie for a while we want to ask wider ranging questions on relatively serious topics, and we don’t guarantee to run any answers in particular. When Robert Downey Jr’s PR man rang up asking what we wanted to talk about, we said we had no particular agenda, but would ask about the new Avengers superhero movie and his recovery from jail and drug abuse to Hollywood stardom.

For the uninitiated, Guru-Murthy is a “proper” news journalist and not the sort of fluff interviewer found on Entertainment Tonight. He has helped created documentaries on troubles in South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As he says in his rebuttal, he and his employer are not in the business of promoting movies. When they do cover entertainment, they try to find interesting stories about the people behind them.

Despite knowing that, the PR handlers for both Tarantino and Downey Jr. agreed to go ahead. In Downey Jr.’s case, Channel 4 was even given double the regular allotted time, according to Guru-Murthy.

My assessment, for what it’s worth, is that Tarantino and Downey Jr. both came across as petulant brats in their respective interviews and the ensuing fallout as a result.

Many journalists have faced or will face similar interview situations, where they’re not in agreement with the subject about what topics are or aren’t off limits. Sometimes, those limits are established beforehand, or PR handlers will attempt to anyway.

In Guru-Murthy’s case, it seems like the parameters with Downey Jr. – or rather lack of them – were agreed upon in advance, in which case all of his questions were fair game.

If anything, I was impressed with the calm, poise and professionalism the interviewer managed to muster in the face of increasingly hostile subjects. I was especially impressed with how he didn’t lose his cool when both Tarantino and Downey Jr. tried to dictate that their interviews were just “commercials” for their respective movies.

As Guru-Murthy wrote in his rebuttal, “I’m not” promoting a movie even if Downey Jr. was. How he managed to stay level-headed despite such chest puffery is beyond me.

It’s offensive that certain celebrities – and indeed, some company executives – believe the role of the press is to help them make even more money, and that interviewers who try to do anything else, like ask questions that might have more substance than puff, are guilty of a “creepy, dark agenda.”

The whole situation, in both cases, is unfortunate because neither the celebrities nor the journalists are likely at fault. Tarantino and Downey Jr.’s respective PR handlers knew who they were dealing with – and if they didn’t, they weren’t doing a very good job of researching the interviewer. That the likelihood of different, substantive questions arising wasn’t communicated to the interviewees suggests a PR agenda was at play.

Regardless of whose camp one falls into – the celebrity’s or the interviewer’s – the result is the same. The PR people got what they wanted – publicity – while someone else ended up looking bad.

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