Following his numerous appearances as Iron Man in some of the highest-grossing films ever made, Robert Downey Jr. is currently one of Hollywood’s most bankable movie stars.
But this wasn’t always the case. Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, Downey Jr.’s life was spiraling out of control due to drug addiction, and with numerous arrests and parole violations, it was no secret. At one point, Downey Jr. couldn’t even land a role in a major project because studios couldn’t obtain an insurance bond for the star.
In the mid-2000s, however, Downey opened up to martial arts and found that it not only transformed his body, but also his mind.
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“I can’t even say how much [martial arts] have impacted my ability to stay well and focused,” Downey Jr. told Oprah in 2011.
“It’s a spiritual practice. It’s grounded me and its primary purpose is to promote a sense of spiritual warriordom, and to respect your society and to be prepared to defend yourself and your society if necessary.”
Downey Jr. specifically turned to Wing Chun, a technique made famous by Ip Man whose more recent practitioners include Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Donnie Yen.
Created and widely implemented as a form of self-defense, Wing Chun combines the yin and yang of quick reflexes and powerful legs with a relaxed performance technique that emphasizes softness.
“I got my ass kicked by a wooden dummy for about three years until I finally understood the principle of don’t fight force with force,” Downey recalled.
Training the body – and the mind
The actor trained with Eric Oram, an American Wing Chun Master who has also worked with Christian Bale and Jake Gyllenhall. Due to Downey Jr.’s notorious past, Oram was at first reluctant to work with the star.
“I told him if he didn’t show up to a lesson, I was going to chop off his toes and feed them back to him,” Oram told Men’s Journal.
“One day he didn’t turn up, and I told him goodbye. Then he had a couple of producers call me and vouch for him, saying, ‘He was with us in a meeting; he didn’t have a phone. It’s our fault. Don’t cut his head off.’ He has committed himself to it ever since and turned his life around.”
Oram would later go onto choreograph fight scenes involving Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes and Captain America: Civil War, and he incorporated not just martial arts combat techniques but also the philosophy of using only the minimum force needed to win a fight.
As a result, Downey Jr.’s characters were never overcome by anger, which could lead to a lack of control, but always kept their cool.
“Honestly, particularly in the last fifteen years when I started taking martial arts seriously, half the stuff that I’ve been able to do right in my creative life are principles that I learned on the mat with my Shifu [Oram],” Downey Jr. told Joe Rogan earlier this year.
“Guard your center. Keep your eye on the lead elbow. Get to the blind side.”
“Half the time if I would be in a critical artistic situation, I would [solve it with martial arts principles], because Wing Chun problems are life problems, and life problems are Wing Chun problems.”