Robert Downey Jr. Once Called His ‘Less Than Zero’ Character an ‘Exaggeration of Myself’

These days, Robert Downey Jr. is on top of the world. The 55-year-old is one of the highest-paid actors in the world, earning millions for playing Iron Man in Avengers: Endgame and other MCU films, as well as turns in movies such as Dolittle. But not so long ago, he’d been largely written off. 

After rising to fame in the 1980s, Downey scored an Oscar nomination for playing Charlie Chaplin in 1992’s Chaplin. He went on to star in movies such as Natural Born Killers, Home for the Holidays, and U.S. Marshals. But drug addiction and troubles with the law nearly torpedoed his career. In a 2003 interview, he pointed to his role in the 1987 movie Less Than Zero as one trigger for his escalating substance abuse. 

Robert Downey Jr. played a doomed drug addict in ‘Less Than Zero’ 

Robert Downey Jr
Robert Downey Jr | Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

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Downey got his feet wet as an actor as a child by appearing in films made by his father, Robert Downey Sr. In the 1980s, he landed roles in movies such as Firstborn, Tuff Turf, and Weird Science. He also became loosely associated with the Brat Pack, a group of young actors that also included Emilio Estevez and Rob Lowe. 

It was when he was filming Less Than Zero (a movie based on a book by literary Brat Pack star Bret Easton Ellis) that Downey has said his drug use became more serious. In the movie, he plays Julian Wells, the best friend of Andrew McCarthy’s main character. Julian is a drug addict who is cut off by his wealthy parents and forced into prostitution by his drug dealer Rip (James Spader).  

Robert Downey Jr. said his drug use got worse while filming ‘Less Than Zero’ 

Sarah Jessica Parker with Robert Downey Jr
Sarah Jessica Parker with then-boyfriend Robert Downey Jr. | Barry King/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Downey began experimenting with drugs and alcohol at a young age. His father first encouraged him to try marijuana when he was 6 years old, according to a 2008 report in The Guardian

“You’d have to go way, way back,” the Sherlock Holmes star told The Guardian in 2003 when asked about the origins of his addiction. But he named Less Than Zero as a turning point. 

“Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends,” Downey said. “Maybe I’d turn up hungover on the set, but no more so than the stuntman. That changed on Less Than Zero. I was playing this junkie-f****t guy and, for me, the role was like the ghost of Christmas future. The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character. That lasted far longer than it needed to last.”

Downey went to rehab several times before his high-profile 1996 arrest. When he was stopped for speeding, officers found a handgun, cocaine, and heroin in the car. A few weeks later, he made headlines again after wandering into a neighbor’s house and passing out in a child’s bed. He was in and out of prison and rehab for the next several years before getting sober in 2003. 

How to get help: In the U.S., contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 1-800-662-4357.