Robert Downey Jr.'s weird silence: Reporters aren't treating him like "a kiddie fiddler who’s running for mayor”

The actor stormed out of an interview last week when personal questions came up

Published April 28, 2015 9:19PM (EDT)

Robert Downey Jr.       (AP/Joel Ryan)
Robert Downey Jr. (AP/Joel Ryan)

Last week, Robert Downey Jr. walked out of an interview with Channel 4 reporter Krishnan Guru-Murthy after Guru-Murthy brought up questions about dark aspects of Downey’s past (such as the actor’s time in prison, his history of substance abuse and his relationship with his father). In an interview with Howard Stern today, Downey addressed the incident, and it seems he doesn’t regret storming out. Quite the contrary:

"I just wish I had left sooner,” the "Avengers" star explained. “I’m one of those guys where I’m always kind of assuming the social decorum is in play and that we’re promoting a superhero movie, a lot of kids are going to see it.”

“This has nothing to do with your creepy, dark agenda that I’m feeling, all of a sudden like ashamed and obligated to accommodate your weirdo shit," he added.

Calling Guru-Murthy a “bottom-feeding muckraker,” Downey railed against the reporter’s tactics, saying:

“The assumption is that there’s a button that because you’ve sat down there, you’re going to be scrutinized like you’re a kiddie fiddler who’s running for mayor. What I have to do in the future is I just have to give myself permission to say, ‘That is more than likely a syphilitic parasite, and I need to distance myself from this clown.’ Otherwise, I’m probably going to put hands on somebody, and then there’s a real story.”

While I acknowledge that press junkets are tough and that it’s hard to live your life in the public eye, it’s also hard not to feel like Downey is being a bit unreasonable here. Downey is the highest paid movie star in the world, starring in arguably the biggest franchise of the decade. This is a line of work he chose, and public scrutiny is part of the gig. If he wants to keep his movie star roles and his movie star salary, he needs to play the movie star game (as my editor put it, there are plenty of regional nonprofit theaters all over America where he can work if he wants to keep acting professionally yet maintain a lower international profile). And that involves interacting with press — even the parts of the interaction that you may not like (lest we forget, Downey went on Howard Stern to cuss Guru-Murthy out, so clearly he likes the perks of being in the public eye when it’s on his terms).

Here’s Guru-Murthy, defending the interview in the Guardian earlier this week:

“An interview with a movie star isn’t intended to be “news”. We do it to add texture to the normal diet of politics, foreign affairs and investigations in a Channel 4 News running order. Some are happy to engage, and seem quite relieved to escape the junket monotony engineered by the PRs. Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Samuel L Jackson and Carey Mulligan have all happily taken the chance to talk to me about things ranging from politics to sexism, from violence to Alzheimer’s disease. That’s what makes a movie star interview worth running on the news. We love to have talented people saying surprising and intelligent things about serious topics. Superheroes alone, no matter how Marvel-ous, don’t quite cut it.”

I’m not suggesting Downey should have to divulge private information simply because he is asked about it. Silence is his prerogative, and sure, Guru-Murthy is known for getting celebrities’ hackles up with probing interview questions. But to embarrass, insult and publicly shame a reporter for doing his job seems petty and cruel. Reporters aren’t publicists. The reporter’s job isn’t to promote Downey’s film, it’s to try and elicit the most interesting and newsworthy interaction for viewers, and if Downey isn’t giving him an inch — which really, he wasn't — then it’s fair game to move on to something that may be more interesting.

Some parts of celebrity-dom — like being stalked by paparazzi or TMZ cameras outside of work, for example — are obviously intrusive. But when an actor agrees to sit down and talk to a reporter in a professional setting, he or she is also agreeing to a certain interaction. There’s an implied contract that comes in taking a reporter’s call or sitting down for an interview that says: you may ask me questions, and while I may refuse to comment, or may not give you the answer you want, you still may ask me. The reporter's end of the contract is to remain professional while asking the questions, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that stars do the same: To hold up their end of the bargain by at least being polite when refusing to answer.

As Guru-Murthy puts it, quite aptly:

"'Are we promoting a movie?' asked Robert Downey Jr, clearly puzzled by how the interview was going. 'You are, but I’m not,' is what I perhaps should have said to clear up the confusion."

Downey doesn’t think an “Avengers” interview is the right place to talk about his personal life. But — and I acknowledge that as an entertainment journalist I may be biased here — the nature of celebrity journalism has changed with the advent of the Internet. As stars can increasingly promote themselves via social media or friendly games of beer pong with Jimmy Fallon that go viral, the entertainment press has had to adapt to that change, and to dig deeper to find the stories that stars themselves haven’t already shared with their many millions of Instagram followers. That story might not always be about a dark side of a star's personal life, but sometimes it will be. If a celebrity want to have full control over his or her public image, then he or she shouldn’t agree to press junkets, nor to the mega-franchises that rely on them.

By Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna Silman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Avengers Howard Stern Movies Robert Downey Jr.