Examiner: Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams solve the mystery of ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Published: July 27, 2009

Robert Downey Jr. is famous for playing the superhero Iron Man, but he also wants to be known for playing a different kind of hero: Sherlock Holmes, a character that Downey calls an “intellectual superhero.” He stars as the famous fictional sleuth in the movie “Sherlock Holmes,” which is scheduled for release on December 25, 2009.

Directed by Guy Ritchie, “Sherlock Holmes” also stars Jude Law as Holmes’ sidekick Dr. John Watson and Rachel McAdams as Holmes’ love interest Irene Adler. Downey and McAdams were among those who took the stage July 24 for a “Sherlock Holmes” panel discussion at Comic-Con International in San Diego. As is the custom at Comic-Con, audience members were treated to sneak-preview footage. Greeted by enthusiastic cheers from the audience, Downey gave a brief introduction before the panel started. Here’s what the “Sherlock Holmes” stars had to say.

Downey: I’ll make this quick: 122 years ago, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave birth to a character [Sherlock Holmes] — he was probably the first superhero. He was an intellectual superhero. And he was also the first Western martial artist, I’m told. (This is so fun. I love you guys so much.) And he became one of the most recognizable images, icons, names on Earth — so much that a lot of people actually think or thought that Sherlock Holmes was a real guy.

I’d like to counter what Josh Brolin said. I think the studios are giving me too much credit, thinking that I’m smart enough to play this guy, but they cast me anyway. Nonetheless, there’s been a myriad of TV shows and films and series done on Sherlock Holmes. But I was scratching my head thinking, “I can’t believe this hasn’t been brought back into mainstream nowadays.” If I was at Comic-Con and they said they were reinvigorating Sherlock Holmes and doing a trilogy or something like that, I’d be blown away. I thought, “Why haven’t they figured it out just yet?” Casting. And Guy Ritchie at the helm, because what we have in Guy Ritchie is a badass, gentleman Englishman who understands how to reinvigorate something like this“.

We have the ever delectable, seriously gifted Rachel McAdams playing Irene Adler, the only woman who worked Sherlock like a rib. And, of course, Jude Law as Watson. I cannot wait for you to see footage from “Sherlock. Holmes.”

Robert, how did you develop the Sherlock Holmes character for this movie?
Downey: [He says jokingly] Every time we were in doubt, [“Sherlock Holmes” producer] Susan [Downey, Robert Downey Jr.’s wife] and Rachel [McAdams] and [“Sherlock Holmes” producer] Lionel [Wigram] and [“Sherlock Holmes” producer] Joel [Silver] and I and Jude [Law], we would go back to: What did Doyle say [about what] these people said and did how these people described each other? Because there are trillions of pages of data about Holmes, Watson, Adler, the adventures they go on, where they live, what their likes and dislikes are. So we really just went right back to the source. That’s how we reinvigorated it: by deciding to change less than what had been changed previously.

Rachel, can you talk about playing Irene Adler?
McAdams: Irene is really fun, because she’s totally a different kind of woman for the late 1800s. She’s very independent, she’s very active, she kind of lives in the underworld. There’s only one story where Irene is introduced— “A Scandal in Bohemia” — and it’s a really fun story between her and Sherlock. She happens to beat Sherlock at his own game, and it’s the first time that a woman has ever done that. So we did film this kind of strange love affair, very unique love affair, and we played on that. We [Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes] are very competitive with one another, we’re trying to outsmart each other all the time, and yet trying to have this odd, normal relationship, which is nearly impossible. It was fun.

Robert, what was it like doing a period film and playing Sherlock Holmes, given that this character has such a rich history?

Downey: I was saying to Joel shortly after the success of “Iron Man”: “Dude, where’s our franchise?” He’s like, “Give me a minute.” And shortly thereafter, things had kind of come together. And Lionel — if you don’t mind me saying it — had been trying to garnish some interest around “Sherlock [Holmes].” And actually, there was a graphic-novel-type comic book in the works about it. And when people started seeing him [Sherlock Holmes] in that light, it made it a little more palatable, because sometimes when something hasn’t been done for a long time, nobody wants to admit it that’s because we didn’t think of it or we didn’t have a vision of it. And so that presentation got it going. And Joel got excited. And me and the Mrs. [Susan Downey] … we like separateness within unity, and we love working together.

We knew it had to be done period. We knew we had to roll up our sleeves and do it justice. Because what would be lamer than doing a version of Sherlock Holmes, if given that opportunity to sail or dump the franchise for future takers, by making a version of that isn’t quite smart enough? So we really wanted to make it, without it being too clever for its own good, we wanted to root it in what we love about these characters. And we wanted it to be as exciting as what’s required nowadays for a movie that we can come sell soap to you all here.

And a big part of it too — not to but McAdams on the spot — we really searched far and wide to find the right foil [in Irene Adler]. She’s not a heroine; she’s more of a vixen, adventurous. And that was a very important thing, because Jude and I had great chemistry, and we needed our very important third wheel. So casting was a big part of it. And we worked our asses off on this! We worked weekends, we worked everywhere, we really, really took it seriously, and that’s why we’re so proud.

McAdams: I really think that Robert is the modern-day superhero. You should see him work. It’s incredible. I know you see it all on screen, but to see him work over three months. [She turns to Downey] You’re so ripped in this film!

Downey: Not anymore!

McAdams: You’re on vacation, right?

Downey: Yeah, but not on the acting side. We had fun.

McAdams: We did.

Robert, what did you like about the Sherlock Holmes character?
Downey: I like a challenge, and I hadn’t really done a dialect of specific nature for a while. I mean, you could say “Tropic Thunder” was … But it kind of reminded me of doing “Chaplin.” I always get really pissy when I actually have to work hard for a living. I don’t know why; we’ll talk about it later. But sometimes it’s not about rolling off a log. This was a lot about … getting the right team of people together. I don’t know what question started me on this tirade, and I’m going to stop …

Robert, what was it like working with Jude Law … and his moustache?

Downey: [He says jokingly] This is the question we’ve both been waiting for, thank you. You know, we really didn’t get along. Dude, it’s the best ‘tache ever! Here’s the thing: if you’re really weird and [have been] following me around in different phases of facial hair, right before we started filming, I had a big, ‘70s porno ‘stache going on … but I was not rockin’ it. After I say, “We’re doing this right by the book,” I started looking for text that would support me doing what I felt like doing. There was none there. Holmes was clean-shaven. Watson was another story.

When we had the [“Sherlock Holmes”] wrap party in the lobby of a fabulous boutique hotel in Manhattan, Jude came down, having shaved his moustache, having worn it for the better part of four months. He was strangely unrecognizable to himself. That guy knows how to rock a ‘tache!

Robert, what was it like doing kung fu and other martial arts for “Sherlock Holmes”?
Downey: Did you say kung fu? I’m not trying to incite a riot right now, but I could windmill through the lot of you, one right after the other. I can do all this stuff, and Sherlock can do that, and an actor [Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler] just lays waste to me seemingly at will. What’s that about? She’s got more weapons and things flying out of places and dastardly stuff she does. So I guess what I’m really getting at is that no matter what “hard body” I think I am, don’t ever mess with a girl. If you don’t walk away from something today, it’s really embarrassing getting your ass kicked by a girl. Unless you’re a girl, but even then, you’re still getting your ass kicked.

McAdams: That’s Guy Ritchie’s fault, because every three scenes, he’d go, “Haven’t you kicked him in the nuts? We haven’t done that for at least 10 takes!”

Downey: Yeah, there was a lot of testosterone there on the set. How did you feel about that? That was real fun, right?

McAdams: It was great.

Downey: It was great. [He says jokingly] If you rock so hard, why doesn’t someone ask her a damn question? You’re going to give me all kinds of narcissistic personality disorders!

How much did you use the “Sherlock Holmes” books as a reference when you were doing this movie?
McAdams: I combed the 10 pages I was in, over and over. I read it backwards and upside down. [Irene Adler] was in one story, so I relied heavily on that, and I just played around with it from there. I had her in the circus, I had an adoptive brother that died, I’m fighting for his revenge. You fill all these little things in your head, so it’s all urgent and dire. But I spent a lot of time with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene.

What did you find most challenging about your roles?
Downey: [He says jokingly] This is how sick I am: I don’t think there could be anything that is too challenging for me or even most challenging. I have an illness of confidence. [He says seriously] What was tough? You know what I think was tough? We had a strong script; rather, we had a really strong structure. Therein, it was really up to us how far we wanted to explore and how exhaustingly we really wanted to do rewrites and all that other stuff. McAdams and I would really slave away over a hot, empty piece text in the trailer when essentially, they were set up onstage, and we were wondering what else we could do. And sometimes we walked into stuff that really worked.

But I guess the challenging thing was it was controlled chaos. It was very civilized; it was largely a British production. I was a little embarrassed coming back to the States. It’s like [in the U.S.]:” Work! Work! Work! Die! Die! Die working!” And they’re like [he says in a British accent], “Would you like a spot of tea?” So there was this rhythm that was created, where this opportunity that was on us. Lionel [Wigram], Susan [Downey] and I really spent so many hours just thinking.

And that goes back to the other question. “Let’s look at this description of Holmes. Let’s look in the ‘Holmes Encyclopedia.’ Let’s look in this list of quotations.” And we always found stuff there … The big challenge was recognizing how tough it was to get it right and doing it anyway.

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