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Intellectual action: Downey as Doyle’s famous sleuth, with Law (right) as Dr Watson.

Intellectual action: Downey as Doyle’s famous sleuth, with Law (right) as Dr Watson.

Sherlock Holmes: martial artist

Sherlock Holmes: martial artist

He’s played Iron Man and Charlie Chaplin, but Oscar-winner Robert Downey Jr says his greatest challenge may be his next role: Sherlock Holmes.

The 44-year-old actor will star as the great sleuth in the Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes, opening on Christmas Day. Scottish-born author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories about Holmes, and over the years there have been countless stage and screen portrayals of the detective, who first appeared in print in 1887.

Intellectual action: Downey as Doyle’s famous sleuth, with Law (right) as Dr Watson.

The coming film, which was first inspired by a comic book that producer Lionel Wigram wrote to help build support for a Holmes movie, promises to give the Holmes franchise a provocative twist—by adding a dose of martial arts, something that most portrayals of the hero have ignored. Downey, who did many of the fight scenes himself, says that the film hews very closely to Doyle’s original descriptions of the British investigator, which focused on his superb martial arts skills as well as Holmes’ close relationship with his friend and sometime roommate, Dr John H. Watson (played by Jude Law).

Downey spoke about playing an “intellectual action hero" from London, where Ritchie is shooting several weeks’ worth of additional scenes for the film. Edited excerpts:

Sherlock Holmes is a big leap from the previous characters you’ve played. What got you interested in the role?

As I remember it, I went in for a meeting with (producer) Joel Silver and said, “Dude, where’s my franchise?" And this came up as the answer...And Holmes was like a cross between two previous parts I’d done, Tony Stark (alter ego of Iron Man) and Chaplin, which I loved.

Iron Man wasn’t a big enough franchise for you?

Iron Man was not enough. I wanted something else. And Sherlock Holmes was such a no-brainer even as a stand-alone project, but particularly with Guy (Ritchie)’s reported interest and involvement.

How did you and Ritchie make the film—and the character—more accessible to a modern audience?

Well, I had a fair amount of leeway after Iron Man.... So we were sitting in a meeting discussing what to do and we thought, “Why do a stodgy version of it?" Doyle never writes a three-page action sequence, but after the fact he will talk a lot about the physical contact that happened. Doyle talks about how Holmes is a stick fighter and a master of baritsu (Doyle’s altered spelling of the real martial art bartitsu). So Guy (Ritchie) made those traits a big part of the character.

While Sherlock Holmes isn’t a superhero like Tony Stark, it sounds like he still fights a great deal—at least in this movie. How does your character approach action differently?

Holmes always thinks his fights through and wins them in his head before he even physically gets into them. That embellishment is really central to the way action plays out in the movie.

It sounds like the film mainly focuses on the fight sequences and martial arts.

Yes, but not to the exclusion of the real centre of the story, which is his relationship with Watson.

To prepare for the role, as well as that important relationship with Watson, did you watch previous portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, in movies, on television?

I watched some of the old movies, but to tell you the truth, the more you watch the old stuff, the more you realize how not traditional it is—it’s not like the stories at all. Part of the tableau in which Holmes is always thought of is him, in profile, with a deerstalker hat and with a curved pipe in his mouth. Nothing about that has anything to do with Doyle’s description—in one description, Doyle says he is wearing a hat, but it’s more of a moleskin cap. The oversized pipe came from something that theatre actor (and playwright) William Gillette used in his portrayal—and now it’s always used on stage. When I see Holmes portrayed with those two props now, I always think, “Really? That’s not what the writer meant."

So how did you prepare?

I really wanted to portray Holmes as Doyle wrote him. When I played Chaplin, I flew all over the planet looking for clues, but the definitive Western expert on Holmes (Leslie S. Klinger) lives 20 minutes up the road in Malibu. So I went and hung out with him, I read through his book, a definitive annotated Sherlock Holmes, which was probably the modern data centre for us.

Did you read a lot of Doyle’s stories?

I read them all.

Were you a Sherlock Holmes fan before you signed on for the movie, or did you pack in all that reading afterwards?

I honestly knew nothing about the character—just that he’s a detective and that he’s a weirdo. But there are all kinds of misconceptions about him. Many have said that he’s a huge drug fiend, but it’s clear reading the stories—he’s not. It’s just that none of those behaviours were considered strange or illegal at that time, so he partakes in drugs, but he doesn’t abuse anything. He just overindulges in them when he’s bored, and when he’s not bored he puts them down.

Why do you think Sherlock Holmes is such an enduring character?

Look at Hill Street Blues or CSI—there have been so many legacies that respond to Holmes’ character. He can be a little cocksure and full of himself, but Holmes is also like that freaky roommate everybody has once in their life, that guy who is a math genius but could never pay his part of the rent. And at the same time, he has this dedication to doing the right thing to the exclusion of doing all other things. He sacrifices everything so he can become better at what he does. As a character actor, I found that trait endlessly compelling.


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