Poor RDJ. As a dedicated film fan, there’s a very good chance you’ve been in love with him at some point, but Channel 4 presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy is probably someone you’re less keen on. He’s a reassuring and a hard-as-nails political interviewer who works hard for his audience, but his reputation is laced with several disastrous entertainment interviews.
The jury is still out on whether interviewer or interviewee won in the cases of Richard Ayoade in 2014 or Quentin Tarantino in 2013, but Tarantino certainly took the award for enthusiasm. In Downey Jr.’s case, it’s Avengers: Age of Ultron week and in the midst of the final publicity push, he walked out on Guru-Murthy’s intensely political and personal line of questioning. Some might see it as Downey Jr. being stroppy or Guru-Murthy being unreasonably personal, but did either of them have the right to behave as they did?
The fact is you always get to choose whether you want to talk about your personal life. Downey Jr. pretty politely – “uh, are we promoting a movie?” – and then impolitely – “I’m sorry, I really don’t… what are we doing?” – indicates that he’s not comfortable talking about his incarceration, and then Krishnan Guru-Murthy goes for the dad-drug-dark-times question. Downey Jr., like any human being, still has power of consent, of personal autonomy. Just because you are asked a question, it doesn’t mean you have to answer it. Just because you are in an interview setting, it doesn’t mean that your interviewer has all the control; Guru-Murthy wants Downey Jr. to bare his soul and to make broad political statements, but that doesn’t mean he needs to give him what he wants.
There is a sense of trying to “out” Downey Jr. here, to pin him down when he’s already politely declined to go there. He’s breathing heavily, he’s shifting, he’s looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world. He’s making it clear that he’s seconds away from leaving if Guru-Murthy continues, but he’s staying if Guru-Murthy backs off.
So the more curious question is: what exactly is Guru-Murthy actually pushing for? Little is unknown about Downey Jr.’s personal life that he could really expand on. Before his return to the big time as Tony Stark, Downey Jr. was trying to rebuild a career he had effectively destroyed with several arrests and stints in rehab and jail. In the years since, during his rise through better and better projects, he has spoken openly about the origins of this addiction, largely that his parents give him his first joint aged 8 and that drugs became a bond between him and his father, something they have entirely reconciled.
Last year, his son Indio was arrested for possession of cocaine, a fairly haunting rerun of Downey Jr.’s own past as an addict; something that will undoubtedly be off the table. What more can he say on any of these subjects? It can be surmised that he’s doing OK, worried about Indio and loves his father, and we are an intelligent enough public not to need to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
These points are not to illustrate that Guru-Murthy isn’t a good interviewer – for the most part, he absolutely is – but that sometimes, a great interviewer gets it wrong because of ingrained problems with a sense of ownership over the very minds, voices and views of actors. In this case, in search of a new angle, of a deeper issue, Robert Downey Jr. was being asked to talk about something he just don’t feel he has or wants to have any authority on. This is a press junket for a blockbuster, not a therapy session or a court hearing, and Guru-Murthy fundamentally misjudged the tone of the interview. RDJ does have a dark past, but it isn’t news.
Would you do that to anyone other than an actor? Politicians have gotten off lighter, and they will have been well prepared – Downey Jr. probably is only vaguely aware of Guru-Murthy and his interview style. Fundamentally, it’s a case for his producers to stop sending Guru-Murthy to interview entertainers, because he doesn’t respect the difference between entertainment and political journalism, and this makes for terrible interviews. When he hounds a politician, it’s well-deserved, but no one, least of all their fans, wants to see a celebrity interrogated for something that happened years ago.
If an actor has done something worthy of harsh questioning, then they deserve everything they get; we can all accept that those in the public eye do have influence over their audiences and they need to take a certain amount of responsibility for the fans that got them there. However, if it’s a case of rehashing old questions and unnecessary stress, then it’s only going to be a mess. The best entertainment journalists – Graham Norton, Jimmy Fallon, even Mark Kermode – are able to be funny – they contribute to a give-and-take that makes for a great conversation. They know that by not pointing out the elephant in the room – that really the goal is to help your subject look good and plug a new product – you’re actually creating your own entertainment, you’re creating art that brings joy. Digging out deep personal revelations can be inconsequential just as easily as it can be magic. Fundamentally, unlike watching Farage or Cameron take a good beating, it isn’t what your public wants to see. What Guru-Murthy arguably miscalculates here is his right to ambush Downey Jr., or more accurately, the need. He assumes far too much about our right to know, and far too much about our desire to see RDJ squirm.
One can only assume that this week has been fairly punishing, and this interview will be another in a long line in which he has been expected to consistently deliver the Tony Stark persona – something the interview almost touches on before swerving yet again into therapy territory. Walking out, Downey Jr. looks furious, upset and apologetic at the same time (no mean feat), and explains “it’s just all a little too Diane Sawyer for me”. This isn’t the interview he was ready for. This is a fluffy entertainment zone, not a hard-hitting dig into RDJ’s past. He has answered these questions on numerous occasions including Oprah, The Frank Skinner Show and Inside the Actors Studio. He has made himself intensely vulnerable, and shown himself to be an entertaining and generous interviewee, but here it is clear that Guru-Murthy has not earned the trust he needs to ask such intensely personal questions, nor has he set the stage for this level of intimacy before the interview starts. Guru-Murthy hasn’t done the work, and Downey Jr. shouldn’t be expected to give more of himself than has been earned.
To analyse what is essentially a public spat might seem trivial, but it is important, because these disastrous interviews are going to happen time and time again, and each time we’re going to have to consider what that means for the notion of a working actor vs. a working celebrity. It is this type of interview which indicates a general sense of ownership over actors’ lives, which led Kristen Stewart to controversially refer to seeing tabloid pictures of herself making her feel like she is “looking at someone being raped”. Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t need protecting, but it was good to see him walk out. It was good to see him value his own emotions and consent over politeness and implied contractual obligations. Commenters need to recognise in this situation a common social problem, the very human conflict between protecting yourself and being polite, and for just a minute, we need to recognise that even stars like Downey Jr. deserve some compassion.
After all, he’s only promoting a movie.