How many of you knew Robert Downey Jr. can sing? That too, very well. I didn’t. So when someone sent me this video currently doing the rounds of the web, of RDJ singing with Sting at his 60th birthday bash at the Beacon Theatre in New York, I was floored. I had known him only as the Iron Man or Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, one of the better actors in Hollywood. And well, here he was, an obviously talented singer who could give many in the current music industry a run for their money. That got me searching the Internet.
It turns out RDJ has sung on several soundtracks in films such as Chaplin, Too Much Sun, Two Girls and a Guy, Friends and Lovers, The Singing Detective and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as well as his album The Futurist. Still, singing on stage at a live performance with a musician like Sting was a risk. He could’ve missed a beat, lost the thread and made an ass of himself. It would’ve gone viral and he would’ve been an object of ridicule. How would that have affected his acting persona? Whatever qualms he might have had, RDJ took the risk to express himself. This is something every startup can relate to.
Here are three lessons from the actor-singer.
- Pick your horse: A creative person is rarely a one-trick-pony. On the contrary, such an individual tends to be multi-faceted, very good at several things at once. Like RDJ. Besides singing and acting, he trained in classical ballet at a young age. But he picked acting to focus on. He didn’t have much success with it either for a long time. Enough and more time to get distracted and go in different directions. That could’ve been one reason why he struggled with drug abuse, rehab and mental health issues. In 2004, he even released a music album, The Futurist, on Sony Classical, for which he did the cover art himself and also designed the track listing label on the CD with his son. But he didn’t carve out a music career, he went back to acting. He had picked his horse, and that’s a lesson for every creative entrepreneur. You have to pick the one thing you are best at, or want to excel in, and focus your energies. Multiple interests are fine but there has to be a single focus.
- Persist: RDJ made his screen debut at the age of five in 1970, appearing in his father Robert Downey Sr.’s film Pound. His first lead role came in 1987 in The Pick-up Artist. In 1992, he narrowly missed the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, as it went to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. To play Chaplin, RDJ got a personal coach to help him imitate Chaplin’s posture and way of carrying himself, and learnt to play the violin and tennis left-handed. Despite all that effort, he lost the big prize. That was a big blow but he refused to give up. He had countless personal setbacks, drug addiction, and even prison time. But he persisted with his acting career. In 2008, he starred in Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, both critically and commercially successful films, and became a household name.
- Get back on your feet: RDJ’s father had once gone on record to say how he had allowed his son to use marijuana at age six and grow up “surrounded by drugs”. As RDJ recalled in an interview http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20142040,00.html: “When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.” Downey Jr was arrested several times on drug-related charges, including cocaine and heroin abuse, between 1996 and 2001. He went to many rehabs, but had repeated relapses and his movie career was almost over as nobody was ready to bet on him. His first post-rehab acting job came in August 2001, lip-syncing for an Elton John single. Only after Mel Gibson paid an insurance bond for Downey was he able to return to the big screen with the 2003 film The Singing Detective. Even for Gothika, the producer withheld 40 percent of Downey’s salary as insurance against his addictive behavior until the production was over. Thanks to his family, therapy, meditation, twelve-step recovery programs, yoga and Wing Chun Kung Fu, RDJ has been drug-free since July 2003. He went on to ‘become’ Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. In October 2011, when RDJ was honored at the 25th American Cinematheque Awards, he chose Mel Gibson to present him with his award for his life’s work. In his speech, instead of talking about himself he spoke of how Gibson helped him through his hardships, and won a standing ovation from a moved audience. Inspiring, isn’t it?