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Robert Downey Jr. Leans Into His Supporting Role at SBIFF Tribute

Though Robert Downey Jr. was at the 2024 Santa Barbara International Film Festival to accept the Maltin Modern Master Award, the Best Supporting Actor frontrunner used a significant amount of his time on stage to fête his “Oppenheimer” co-star Cillian Murphy, who was in attendance.

“It’s been very seldom in my career that I’ve realized that I was born to play a supporting role in favor of somebody else rightfully having the spotlight,” Downey said before introducing the current Best Actor nominee to the stage to share some remarks about their time working together on the Christopher Nolan film. “I was afforded a deeply humiliating clinic on masterful acting in exceptional cinematic experiences.”

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About Murphy, he said “I’ve always known him and always respected him and loved his work and all of my peers know he’s great, but he had yet to have a vehicle where he could fully demonstrate the breadth of his capacity and I’ve never seen anything like it. And it is an honor to be way under him on the call sheet for ‘Oppenheimer.’”

In return, his co-star called Downey “the most versatile actor of his generation,” saying “Robert works incredibly hard to make it look so easy because all the great ones do,” to much applause. After explaining how he’s now found himself settled into the role of Downey’s straight man, Murphy got a laugh from the audience by saying, “Every minute that I spent with him on camera was pure bliss, even though his character wanted me to disappear into a black hole and never come back.”

Downey later provided more insight on how “Oppenheimer” writer-director Christopher Nolan described the relationship between the titular protagonist and his character Lewis Strauss. “He said, ‘Basically Cillian’s “Amadeus”—he’s Mozart, your Salieri—get into it.’ And I was like, ‘I’m usually playing Mozart,’” said the night’s honoree, eliciting laughter. “He’s like, ‘Cillian’s the guy for this, trust me. Whole fucking movie is about him and you’re playing the bad guy,’” added Downey. “Yep. Sounds about right.”

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 09: (L-R) Leonard Maltin and honoree Robert Downey Jr. speak onstage at the Maltin Modern Master Award ceremony during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at The Arlington Theatre on February 09, 2024 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF)
Leonard Maltin and honoree Robert Downey Jr. speak onstage at the Maltin Modern Master Award ceremony during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival.Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

Coming out of a decade as the highest paid actor in the industry as “Iron Man,” the figure who launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Downey felt humbled by the process of shooting “Oppenheimer,” feeling grateful that he was even offered the opportunity to play Strauss. “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,” he said. “There’d be no reason to have me here as a modern master, because what have I done for you lately?”

While he has kept busy since his career comeback in 2008, appearing as Tony Stark in 10 MCU films, Downey said of his recent work, “I’m not saying I’d gotten at all lazy, but it was more like rolling off a log for the last 10 years or so.” There was an element of “Oppenheimer” that intimidated him. “I wouldn’t say I was mortified, but Cillian has only seen me on this last film where if I’m not prepared within an inch of my life, I will probably evaporate,” he said. “You don’t roll off logs around Chris Nolan.”

Already having called the film “the best movie I’ve ever been a part of,” one of the last things Downey said in his acceptance speech, after his longtime friend Rob Lowe and Murphy handed him the actual statuette for the Maltin Modern Master Award, was a clarification of what his co-star expressed earlier. “Cillian is a straight man to no one,” he said, again to much applause. “He is just beginning to understand by the reaction he gets when he comes to places that he’s a fucking force of nature.”

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