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Christopher Nolan Was ‘a Little Afraid’ of Robert Downey Jr. When They First Met for ‘Batman Begins’: ‘I’d Heard Stories About How Crazy’ He Was

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Robert Downey Jr. made headlines earlier this month when he revealed that he first met his “Oppenheimer” director Christopher Nolan back in the early 2000s to be potentially cast as the villain Scarecrow in the director’s 2005 superhero tentpole “Batman Begins.” Downey said Nolan wasn’t too interested in casting him, which Nolan fully admitted in a recent interview with the actor for The New York Times.

“I 100% knew you weren’t the guy [for Scarecrow],” said Nolan, who eventually cast his “Oppenheimer” leading man Cillian Murphy as the Batman villain. “In my head that was already cast. But I always wanted to meet you … I was a huge admirer of yours and therefore selfishly just wanted to take the meeting. But I was also a little afraid of you, you know. I had heard all kinds of stories about how you were crazy. It was only a few years after the last of those stories that had come out about you.”

Nolan and Downey’s first meeting was well before Marvel cast the actor as Iron Man, which led to Downey’s career being revitalized after a series of legal troubles through the turn of the century. The actor was arrested in 1996 for possession of heroin, cocaine and an unloaded gun and given three years of probation. He was then jailed for nearly four months a year later after skipping a court-ordered drug test. He skipped another test in 1999 and was sentenced to three years in prison. Downey served 15 months, then was arrested again four months after his release for drug possession.

Downey’s history with the law made him a tough sell to Marvel for the career-defining role of Tony Stark. He was former Marvel Studios’ president David Maisel’s top pick, but “my board thought I was crazy to put the future of the company in the hands of an addict.”

“I helped them understand how great he was for the role,” Maisel said last year. “We all had confidence that he was clean and would stay clean.” 

Nolan said on “The Late Show” earlier this month that Downey “playing Iron Man is one of the most consequential casting decisions that’s ever been made in the history of the movie business.” He doubled down on this opinion during his chat for The New York Times.

“The truth is, I think Jon Favreau casting Robert as Tony Stark is one of the most significant and consequential casting decisions in Hollywood history. It wound up defining our industry,” Nolan said when asked about how he got over his initial worries about Downey. “Coming out of COVID, you say, ‘Thank God for Marvel movies.’ And it’s one of those where, in retrospect, everybody thinks it was obvious. But he took an enormous risk casting [Robert] in that role.”

Nolan would go on to cast Downey as Lewis Strauss in “Oppenheimer,” a role that has already nabbed Downey best supporting actor prizes from the Critics’ Choice Awards and Golden Globes. He’s widely considered the frontrunner to win the Oscar.

“You’re always looking to work with great actors, but you’re also looking to catch them in a moment in their lives and careers where you’ve got something to offer them that they haven’t done before, or haven’t done in a long time,” Nolan said about casting Downey. “I just really wanted to see this incredible movie star put down all of that baggage, that charisma, and just lose himself in a dramatic portrayal of a very complicated man. I always wanted to work with him, really. Once I stopped being afraid of him.”

Head over to The New York Times’ website to read Nolan and Downey’s joint interview in its entirety.