One half of Team Downey, as they’re affectionately referred to, is Robert Downey Jr., star of Iron Man and figurehead of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The other half is his wife Susan, a producer who’s described in the business as the one who saved him from himself. They recently let slip the secret of their hugely successful marriage – and it may be simpler than you’d think.
In December 2009, right as Robert’s blockbuster Sherlock Holmes was about to hit cinema screens, he and Susan gave an interview to Harper’s Bazaar in which they were remarkably candid about their relationship. In fact, regarding their introduction to each other, Susan said, “The main thing I remember about meeting him was thinking how strange he was.”
Robert and Susan first met in 2003 on the set of horror movie <i>Gothika</i>. Robert, who’d been deemed nigh-on finished by the industry at that point, had wrangled a role in the film. How? Well, Robert incentivized producer Joel Silver by telling him he could pay the majority of the actor’s fee <i>after</i> the project finished shooting.
At the time, Susan was running Dark Castle Entertainment, part of Silver’s company Silver Pictures. Gothika was a Dark Castle project, and this brought Susan into contact with notorious bad-boy Robert. According to her, though, it wasn’t exactly a case of love at first sight. Indeed, apparently she didn’t find him particularly attractive or intriguing.
“I thought he was a brilliant actor, but it didn’t go beyond that,” Susan admitted. “I saw him more like a professor or someone’s older brother.” In truth, she also didn’t have much desire for romantic entanglements, as she was so laser-focused on her Hollywood career. “I was never a girl who thought about getting married,” she added. “Being in a relationship wasn’t my priority.”
By his own admission, Robert wasn’t a fan of marriage and relationships, either. “When I used to hear, like, ‘It’s my parents’ 175th wedding anniversary,’ I used to think, ‘No. I can’t. I just can’t,’” he confessed. “I used to have a bit of disdain for partnership, and I thought that I had carved my path in the other direction.”
It’s important to stress just how different the life paths of Robert and Susan had been. He grew up in and around show-business, of course, as his father was director Robert Downey. So from a young age he appeared in art-house films his father was making. And as a teen he dropped out of Santa Monica High School.
Robert has been very honest about how he was only eight years old when his dad handed him a blunt for the first time. And this started him on the road to a serious drug problem. Addiction ran in his family, as for many years his mother had issues with alcohol. Nonetheless, he achieved acting success in the 1980s – but his life was about to spin out of control.
In the early 1990s, when Robert’s portrayal of Charlie Chaplin received an Academy Award nomination, his life fell apart due to his addiction. The actor once drove through central Los Angeles completely naked, hurling invisible animals through the window of the vehicle. Robert subsequently wandered into a nearby home while high and fell asleep.
In the end, he spent just under 12 months in jail after missing a mandatory drug test. His acting career had been derailed, but somehow he earned a supporting role on popular TV series Ally McBeal. This would end badly as well, though, when he was arrested in a hotel room while in possession of a gun, large amounts of cocaine and, most bizarrely of all, a Wonder Woman outfit.
By contrast, Chicago-raised Susan Levin hadn’t even smoked a cigarette in her life. She became her class valedictorian and an honor student. Her mother was part of the Parent Teacher Association, while her dad worked at the Sears Tower. Susan subsequently graduated with the highest distinction at the University of Southern California.
Interestingly, despite their lack of chemistry to begin with, being in close proximity on the set of </i>Gothika</i> had an unexpected result. “Four of us would work out together after the shoot,” Susan revealed. “And one day, when we were on the treadmills, Robert goes, ‘Levin, you wanna go to dinner?’ and I said, ‘Eh, I’ll grab something to eat.’ So we agreed to go change and meet in the lobby.” When Robert emerged, Susan felt something new.
“And as he walked down the stairs toward me, I remember looking up at him and suddenly thinking, ‘He’s really cute,’” Susan explained. After this, their relationship developed rapidly, even though Robert was still using narcotics. Susan, who had a somewhat sheltered upbringing, admitted she was a little green when it came to drug dependency.
“I honestly didn’t know anyone who had drug problems,” Susan admitted. She stated that, at the time, she’d been “very structured, with firm boundaries.” Indeed, she even went as far as saying, “I was never a partier. I used to enjoy some red wine, but now I don’t do anything.”
So, how did this straight arrow end up with a troubled hell-raiser like Robert? “I think there’s something about running toward what scares you,” Susan theorized. She certainly learned first-hand about the true meaning of being in a relationship with an addict. “There were a lot of things that I was ignorant about that I have since become educated on,” she observed.
Susan decided she needed to trust her gut when it came to Robert. “I don’t have a history of making bad choices,” she asserted. Interestingly, and perhaps unexpectedly, her family didn’t caution her against the relationship, even if they may have been nervous about their daughter falling in love with someone who had such a checkered past.
“And if my parents had any reservations — whether they were scared about [his being] an actor or an addict or that he’d gone to prison or had a kid and an ex-wife, the whole shebang of things I claimed I would never want in a guy, and add some new things to it — they never shared them with me,” Susan said. To them, it seemingly only mattered that she was content. And that much was obvious.
In addition, Susan stressed that the Robert she entered into a relationship with wasn’t the same man who’d spent time in prison and derailed his acting career. “He was clean and sober – completely professional when he was working,” she recalled. “And, then, in the off hours, he was just a fun guy.” So, Robert was a new man.
Robert proposed to Susan just half a year after they began dating, but she revealed that she knew he was “the one” in half that time. “More than anything, I never doubted it,” she said. “There was something in my gut that knew really quickly. I knew three months in that this was it.”
Unfortunately, though, Robert hadn’t fully left his darkness in the past – and it reared its head around Susan. He refers to this part of his personality as his “Darth Vader side.” Susan said, “I did meet Darth Vader, for like a minute, right after the movie wrapped, and I said immediately, ‘This isn’t gonna work.’ I made it clear that to stay with me, nothing could happen.”
And giving Robert that ultimatum did the trick. Sometime early in July 2003, he stopped his car at a California burger joint and decided enough was enough. He tossed his stash into the sea that very day. “I think he saw what we had,” Susan explained. “There was something magical there, something we couldn’t put our finger on.”
Indeed, Robert and Susan believe that their union has improved them as people. And they feel they simply couldn’t have achieved that alone. “He always says that we became this third thing when we got together – something that neither of us could have become by ourselves,” Susan revealed. “And I think that’s true.”
Moreover, when it comes to his wife, Robert isn’t self-conscious in the least about professing his deep love and admiration. “There’s something about her that is so pure and… right,” he says. “But then there’s the other stuff too, the shadowy side of her that is delightful and that she shows only to me.”
Over the years, Robert believes he’s adopted some of the more sensible aspects of his wife’s nature. “I guess the only way to explain it is that I’ve become more like her,” he said. “Whatever I was hungry for when I met Susan, I couldn’t have known how much more satisfying what I got would be.”
The couple wed in 2005 and, while Susan continues to believe that her partner can be strange, this is now something that charms her. “He’s this incredible amalgam of contradictory traits that is never boring,” she gushed. “He’s completely eccentric but grounded. He’s someone who has lived so much life yet has almost a Peter Pan kind of never-grow-up quality.”
Guy Ritchie, the director of Sherlock Holmes, gave an outsider’s view on the Downeys’ relationship. He believed they were “the greatest illustration of a symbiotic marriage that I’ve ever seen. It’s a real yin and yang, and it’s made him a joy to work with. Robert would be a pain in the ass if he didn’t have Susan to police him.”
However, Ritchie was quick to explain that this didn’t mean that marriage had somehow eradicated Robert’s psychological struggles completely. It was still there, but his wife was essential in allowing him to tackle his flaws. “He battles with it now; there’s no denial or suppression going on,” said Ritchie. “He’s fully engaged in life.”
And in a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the Downeys gave more insight into how their contradictory personalities complement each other profoundly. Interviewer Benjamin Svetkey noted how, when speaking with Robert alone, his replies move a mile a minute and veer wildly from subject to subject. Svetkey described his manner as “brilliant but random.”
In contrast, Robert’s more straightforward in his thinking processes when Susan’s with him. Director David Dobkin, who helmed Robert’s 2014 movie The Judge, noted that, “It’s as if she has some sort of calming effect.” Robert refers to their relationship as the “Great Transition” and says Susan is behind all of it: “She is the font of all good things.”
Equally important, though, is Robert’s effect on Susan. “I was very focused, driven, rigid, work-oriented,” Susan admitted. “And then I had someone who came in as a tornado, this creative, beautiful ball of insane energy and passion. And it completely opened me up.”
A few years later, in a January 2020 interview with Parade to promote his upcoming Dolittle film, talk again turned to Robert’s family life. In fact, he revealed the secret to the happiness of he and Susan’s marriage – and it turned out to be rather simple. “We just genuinely love hanging out,” he said matter-of-factly, before delving into the differences in their approaches to life and parenting.
By way of example, Robert revealed that when the family go out, it will be he who does the driving. However, when it comes to decisions regarding their children, Susan takes the lead. “I defer to her,” he admitted. “I just wasn’t raised right, so chances are, I’m gonna have some caca take on things.”
In their home life, the differences in their personalities are obvious. While sitting in his home, Robert revealed, “I’m a little more the domestic type. I could just talk to you about the drapes and recovering those chairs. I love domestic maintenance; it just gets me off.”
As the interviewer noted, though, Robert’s own brain is full of data, facts, stories, and eccentricities as well. Indeed, the article described him as someone who “zips from one detail of his life and art to another and back like a pinball machine.” So, how does he cope with the unruliness of his mind? “I don’t,” he replied. “It’s like being in a hailstorm; you just put your hands up.”
When Team Downey isn’t shooting the latest Marvel blockbuster or navigating the choppy waters of Hollywood, they like to watch plays and stroll around together. They’re with their children a lot, of course, having family games of Yeti in my Spaghetti and Jenga. Walks on the beach are also a favorite.
The children are schooled at home and of course have their own favorite things to do. Five-year-old Avri loves tumbling, for example, while Exton, seven, is very much a fan of playing with his super-hero toys. Amusingly, Robert revealed that Exton had recently started playing with his Iron Man figure again, but he wondered if it was just to avoid hurting his dad’s feelings.
From time to time at weekends, Robert and the children have a late night. As part of the bargain with Susan, the next day Robert will get up late as well, although he’ll “then do what his wife asks of him for the rest of the day.” He does it happily and “as directed, like an old limousine driver from the 1970s.”
Martial arts also help keep Robert centered and focused. He does wing chun kung-fu every few days and has even begun to incorporate knives and swords into his training. “All I care about are Eastern martial arts,” he says, while revealing that he’s also taken up yoga again.
Robert’s clear about his reasons for practicing martial arts, though – and it has nothing to do with actual combat. For him, the sessions are much more of a spiritual exercise. “It’s transcendent,” he clarifies. “It’s a huge meditation. And it just happened to be the right thing for me.”20