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Downey embraces chatterbox talent

‘A Scanner Darkly’ star goes the distance to memorize rambling lines
FILM SCANNER DARKLY
This image, provided by Warner Bros. Entertainment, shows actor Robert Downey Jr. as Burris in a scene from the animated film \"A Scanner Darkly.\" The original video image of Downey went through a process called interpolated rotoscoping, a versatile kind of tracing animation, to reach the final animated version of the movie, which opened in theaters Friday.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a scene in the new film "A Scanner Darkly," Robert Downey Jr.'s character enters the house he and his friends live in, wheeling a mountain bike on its hind wheel. He is stoked.

"Total, total, total, totally, total, total ... total providence," says Barris (Downey), a conspiracy theory-riddled man with no apparent job. Barris is excited because he's just purchased the new 18-speed from a neighbor for just $50.

It devolves into a comic scene, where he and his friends (played by Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves) become paranoid that Barris has been ripped off. It concludes when he decides to "abort the plot of these albino shape-shifting lizard bitches."

Such verbal gymnastics are Downey's calling card — an actorly trademark he has sharpened over the years, one that's become increasingly prevalent in his films.

Downey's motor-mouthed dialogue fills pages and pages of script in the Philip K. Dick, animated adaptation "A Scanner Darkly," just as it did in last year's hyper-verbose noir "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." He also chats for almost his entire time on-screen in 2005's "Eros," a three-part film for which Steven Soderbergh directed Downey's segment.

In a good place
At 41, Downey says he's hit a "great period" in his career, and recognizes a big reason for that is his particular gift for the gab. Last week, he announced plans to publish a memoir — and that sense of reflection permeated a recent interview with The Associated Press.

"85 percent of communication is nonverbal, but that 15 percent verbally, I was able to hone over a series of years for a variety of reasons," he says. "I just really dig it. I pride myself on it because I'm ... good at it. You got to pride yourself on what you're good at — what else do you got?"

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Downey, wearing a bright orange jacket with matching sneakers, generally speaks as rapidly and as energetically as his characters — and, likewise, sometimes comes precariously close to blather.

When it's pointed out how his characters' jibber-jabber can both reveal and conceal their nature (Barris, in "Scanner," shows his true colors in the only scene where he is silent, whereas Harry Lockhart in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a rambling open book), Downey replies:

"Absolutely. Is one the on or the off position? It depends."

A method to his madness
He continues, rapping on the rhythm of speech: "And then, what does 101 mean? And what about ten-ten? And what about triple-0, triple-one, ten-ten? That to me, is where it starts getting really cool, because there's a math to it."

There is, in fact, method to Downey's madness. Though he often appears to be ad-libbing on-screen, it's usually the result of intense study. To memorize his dense dialogue, Downey writes the first letter of each word on a note.

He says that he sits, staring at the letters "until you can do it backwards and forwards, in your sleep, patting your head with someone knocking at the door and the TV on, while you're brushing your teeth."

Downey, whose performance in 1992's "Chaplin" was Oscar-nominated, admits his preparation was not always so thorough.

"It's that cruddy, molassesy step between really being prepared beyond a shadow of a doubt, and doing just enough, just in time," he says. "Both of them work, just one of them feels better."

"Scanner" director Richard Linklater is mystified by Downey's practice.

"I never quite got it," Linklater says. "It never would have helped me memorize anything. But for him, it worked. Robert's got a really fascinating brain and a really fascinating process."

Downey proves his memorization, too, by gleefully reciting (verbatim) a line he learned two years ago for "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which is about a two-bit New York thief that gets wrapped up in a Hollywood murder mystery.

"What's wrong with the girls out here?" he quotes, referring to Los Angeles women. "It's like somebody took the East Coast and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on."

Living for today
Downey currently lives in Los Angeles with his second wife, producer Susan Levin. He also has a 12-year-old son from his previous marriage to Deborah Falconer.

He is, of course, well known for his drug problems through much of the `90s, which included several trips to rehab and prison. That period ended in 2002; since then, a clean and sober Downey has enjoyed a vibrant career.

Later this year he'll star in "Fur" with Nicole Kidman, and he's currently shooting "Zodiac," directed by David Fincher.

With "A Scanner Darkly" largely about a futuristic drug called Substance D and the culture of drug abuse, it's a film that invites journalists to ask Downey about his drug-addicted past. Why revisit a troubled time?

"It's an old adage, if you're really OK ... that you don't regret the past or wish to shut the door on it. Which is to say" — Downey pauses, grabs a pen and writes, "T-N-S-I-M-G."

Holding up the pad, he smiles and translates: "There's no shame in my game."