Robert Downey Jr. Oppenheimer Best
SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 09: Robert Downey Jr. receives the Maltin Modern Master Award during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 09, 2024 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF)

Oppenheimer is the rare Robert Downey Jr. movie where he isn’t top billed — but Downey said Friday that it’s also probably the best movie he’s ever been part of.

In a conversation with Leonard Maltin as he accepted the Maltin Modern Master Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Downey joked frequently about his comeback from addiction — and expressed wonder and delight at the second act of his career that began in the late 2000s with Zodiac and Iron Man. (When Maltin asked if he’s a workaholic, Downey quipped, “I’m a something-aholic.”)

Downey spent more than a decade after his Iron Man casting anchoring the Marvel Universe as billionaire investor turned superhero Tony Stark, but walked away after 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.

“I will never be as cool as Tony Stark, but it was it was so great to be associated with someone like that for a while, you know? And then it wore off,” he told Maltin.

Between Endgame and Oppenheimer, he made 2020’s Dr. Doolittle and Sr., a documentary about his film director father, who gave him his first role in the film Pound when he was five.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, for which he has an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, is a reminder that he can disappear into serious roles. He plays Lewis Strauss, the jealous nemesis of Cillian Murphy’s Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb.

Robert Downey Jr. on Oppenheimer and Mozart

“I wouldn’t be here tonight if I hadn’t participated, with Cillian as the head of the acting department, under the tutelage of Chris Nolan — there’d be no reason to have me here as a modern master, because what have I done for you lately?” Downey said, to audience laughter.

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Both Cillian Murphy and Downey’s old friend Rob Lowe at were on hand at Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theater to celebrate Downey’s career. Downey told Maltin that Murphy was a natural choice for the lead in Oppenheimer, especially he and Nolan have worked together so many times before.

Downey said casting him as the scheming Strauss was a bigger swing, in some ways, but that he was very happy to be lower on the call sheet, in service of the film.

“A visionary filmmaker can see things that other people can’t see,” said Downey, saying Oppenheimer was “very exacting, very rewarding — and I think it’s probably the best movie I’ve ever been a part of.”

He also said Nolan explained the dynamic between Strauss and Oppenheimer by citing the one between Salieri and Mozart in Amadeus.

“And I was like, [imitating whiny voice], ‘But I usually play Mozart,'” Downey said, to more laughter.

The script, based on American Prometheus by Kai Bird Martin J. Sherwin, recounts the real-life efforts of Strauss to undercut Oppenheimer after Oppenheimer guided the Manhattan Project in the creation of the A bomb.

“It turns out that there was plenty of historic animosity to draw on,” Downey said. “And I also just thought about every time that somebody had embarrassed me in public or I felt less than or looked over or walked past or not acknowledged or on the outside, or people didn’t know that my voice or opinion mattered.”

He also thought back to one of his earliest roles, in Less Than Zero, in which he plays Julian, an addict rejected by his father. (He described playing a drug addict, years before his own addiction took hold, “was a bit of a Ghost of Christmas Future.”)

His unsympathetic performance in Oppenheimer illustrates how personal grievances can undercut progress and peace.

“I thought, can humanity survive all these petty grievances that these egotistical, usually men have with each other?” Downey asked. “It ended up being a great learning experience.”

Murphy said of Downey from the stage: “Robert works incredibly hard to make it look so so easy, because all the great ones do. But he’s not just a great actor, he’s kind of a unicorn, because he’s risen to the level of superstar that few of us can comprehend.”

Main image: Robert Downey Jr. accepts the Maltin Modern Master Award during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival . (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF)