Downey relishes being back at work

The film on the table is "The Singing Detective." But, and this is a fairly large caveat, because the star is Robert Downey Jr. there are a few other items on the table as well. Such as his trials with drugs and prison.

This is his first film job after being released from behind bars (his second, "Gothika," comes out next month), and he was still on probation when he began the project. His struggle to fight drug addiction has been well publicized, as have the many interventions and relapses, but Downey says he has finally mastered his addiction and is ready to work.

"I've gone through prison, but now I'm done with that phase. It's about a process of maturation," he says, and continues after a hesitation, "as long as you survive." Recovery has not been simple, he says. "It's not an easy process to extract yourself from something that dangerous - you get hijacked," he says, but adds that having a son has motivated him to move on. He says simply, "it's nice being clear and happy."

He measures his progress by the change in his attitude. He says he is no longer as cavalier or "snooty" about the roles he is offered. The biggest shift is in his willingness to work at getting work.

"I could never be bothered to hustle before," he says, but now he realizes a bit of humility can go a long way. "Now that I'm getting out of my own way, I'm getting lots of offers."

He acknowledges that his past is still problematic for producers - he was recently dropped from Woody Allen's new film. But he says a little extra care is all he requires. "I'm like an exotic pet," he adds.

If ever there was a film to test an actor's mettle, this is it. Downey's character, Dan Dark, appears in the opening scenes as a scabrous, raging man who is paralyzed by psoriasis and at the mercy of a relatively indifferent hospital staff for his care.

Unlike the 1980s TV miniseries on which it's based, this crime writer comes to terms with his own demons through work with a therapist (played hilariously by the film's producer, Mel Gibson) and ultimately leaves the hospital, his skin clear and his previously wrecked marriage on the mend.

Downey says the work under pounds of latex was excruciating, but satisfying. "I like doing the hard stuff," he says. "When something is easy, like tai chi in the park, I fall asleep. These kinds of roles challenge me and get my attention."

The film itself has had a difficult route to the big screen. Gibson shepherded the project for more than a decade, based on a script written by the original author, Dennis Potter, before his death in 1994.

"It's really a story about redemption," says the film's director, Keith Gordon, who is aware die-hard fans of the BBC original will have trouble accepting the more upbeat tone of the new film. But Potter himself changed his feelings about the story, which he viewed as a critique of popular culture and the ways in which it prevents people from having a meaningful life.

Potter wanted to introduce himself to a new generation, but with a different philosophy about life, says the director. "He wanted to revisit it in a softer, warmer way," says Gordon. "It's sort of a 'Beauty and the Beast' kind of story in that, no matter how dark your demons are, if you confront them, you can master them."

He acknowledges the detractors. "Is that hackneyed? Yes, maybe. But then, Potter didn't do it in a hackneyed way."

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