Robert Downey Jr. And Susan Downey On 'Dolittle' NPR's Scott Simon talks with Robert Downey Jr. and producer Susan Downey about their new adventure movie Dolittle. The actor plays a Victorian-era physician who can talk to the animals.
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Robert Downey Jr. And Susan Downey On 'Dolittle'

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Robert Downey Jr. And Susan Downey On 'Dolittle'

Robert Downey Jr. And Susan Downey On 'Dolittle'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When we first see Dr. John Dolittle in the latest film to bear his name, he's disheveled, unshaven and depressed. Robert Downey Jr. is the latest actor to portray the medical man who can talk to animals and understand what they say in response. In the film "Dolittle," he presides over an all-star cast of characters and voices that include Michael Sheen, Tom Holland, Antonio Banderas, Jessie Buckley, Craig Robinson, Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Marion Cotillard and more.

Robert Downey Jr. joins us from Malibu, along with Susan Downey, to whom he is married and is one of the film's producers. Thanks both very much for being with us.

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: Howdy.

SUSAN DOWNEY: Hello.

SIMON: Dr. Dolittle's a character drawn from the stories that Hugh Lofting sent home to his children from the trenches of the Great War. He's been played previously by Rex Harrison, Eddie Murphy. Why did both of you think it was time to bring Dr. Dolittle back?

DOWNEY: Well, interestingly enough, we live on what was an old dog and horse rescue in Malibu. And all of the sudden, the alpacas are looking at me and the Kunekune pigs and the goats and the chickens. And I was like, oh, you know what? Maybe there's something there.

SIMON: Yeah. I mean, I've read you're surrounded by, I guess, a spot Dr. Dolittle would find very companionable.

DOWNEY: Right. The difference being is that I also interact with humans, which...

SIMON: (Laughter).

DOWNEY: ...At least at the top of our story, he has zero interest in. And also, you know, Susan had said it's the opposite of Tony Stark. This is not a ectomorphic individual. He has no desire to interact with people ever again because of this interesting backstory that was written up to make ours just a little bit different from the others.

SIMON: Susan Downey, why is Dr. Dolittle such a wreck when we first meet him?

(LAUGHTER)

DOWNEY: Well, he was always an odd guy. But what happened was earlier in his life, he had met one human who actually got into his heart. And her name's Lily. And she was this incredible adventurer. And together, they traveled the world. And they were finding and saving animals together. And then they would bring them back to this incredible manor that the queen had gifted Dolittle.

But unfortunately, one day, there was this adventure that Lily had always wanted to kind of figure out and solve and go on. So she set off on her own - well, actually with Poly, who's voiced by Emma Thompson. And she didn't return. She died at sea.

SIMON: Robert Downey Jr., you're - supremely accomplished actor. What kind of challenge is a Welsh accent?

DOWNEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: Oh, my Lord.

DOWNEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: It almost broke me, sir. I hear Michael Sheen said his Welsh friends heard it and said that they were not embarrassed at all...

DOWNEY: (Laughter).

DOWNEY: ...Which is a glowing endorsement.

DOWNEY: That's the bar...

DOWNEY: (Laughter).

DOWNEY: ...That they're not embarrassed?

SIMON: That brought a - that brings up a question I had for Susan Downey. I mean, there you had on set Michael Sheen, a great actor who...

DOWNEY: Oh, boy.

SIMON: ...Happens to be Welsh.

DOWNEY: Yeah.

SIMON: Did it ever occur to you to say, hey, why don't you guys just switch?

DOWNEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: It'd be so much easier.

DOWNEY: You know what? Is it too late? Because I really would love to see what Michael would do with this role.

SIMON: What's it like to play with so many co-stars who are CGI? I mean, Emma Thompson's voice, but I'm assuming there's not a trained parrot sitting on your arm.

DOWNEY: Correct. We would either have green props - we had animal actors, who are an astonishing bunch and were just fresh off one of the "Star Wars" movies and do - you know, they're very busy.

SIMON: When you say animal actors, you mean animals who are actors?

DOWNEY: No, no, no, guys in green suits.

SIMON: Oh.

DOWNEY: Guys and gals in green suits. You're right. I need to be more clear. I mean, I'm learning from Susan.

SIMON: I mean, I was just so - you found a parrot who could imitate Emma Thompson. I mean, I...

DOWNEY: (Laughter). Honestly, the whole thing is technical. You know, cinema's this very odd thing that I've grown up in where you're always manufacturing what's missing from the shot. So this was just a little bit more of a sudoku version of the usual. And it was a really interesting kind of frequency and vibe shooting this movie because, you know, the sentiment of it is really - it's not like a lot of what is even mainstream filmmaking right now.

SIMON: When you say it's not like a lot of contemporary filmmaking at the moment, I mean, I realize you have an occupational interest to protect. A lot of films are just things blowing up.

DOWNEY: Yeah. And I definitely was part of the - if it's a problem - the problem or the resurgence of that kind of storytelling where, even just from my own experience, sometimes in act three, you just go, all right, now it's just going to be the sound gets louder. And everything gets cacophonous. And hopefully some of the story points tie each other up or down.

But again, it's that - it's more the metronome of it. It's not trying to be a mind-blowing action sequence. We were trying to do something, obviously, for a large audience that felt there was some smallness to it.

SIMON: Yeah. Susan Downey, as a producer of "Dolittle," is it hard to complain about the ego of the star when you're married to the star?

DOWNEY: (Laughter).

DOWNEY: The great thing for us is that our personal and professional life are very obviously interwoven. And one of the things that Robert always points out is that because you're making a movie and there's, you know, time and money on the line and all that kind of stuff, you're forced into conflict resolution. You are forced to keep moving forward.

And I think that we've carried that, you know, kind of both directions in our lives. And I have such admiration and respect for Robert and what he does and what he brings not just as an actor but as a filmmaker. He definitely takes his role as sort of head of the acting department, as he says, very, very seriously. And he kind of, in some way, we've also said, like, hosts the movie - makes sure the experience for everyone is good.

And for Team Downey, honestly, that's so important in anything that we do because it is our lives - you know, we're not punching a clock - it's so important to us that the experience that we're providing for people and having for ourselves is a good one. You can't always truly control the outcome of something you make, so you have to make sure the process is great.

DOWNEY: This is Susan Downey's two-year gestation. And the child is being delivered on January 17.

SIMON: Robert Downey Jr., Susan Downey, who star in and produce the film "Dolittle," thank you both so much for being with us.

DOWNEY: Thank you.

DOWNEY: Truly a pleasure.

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