Robert Downey Jr. has become one of the most powerful players in Hollywood. But the 48-year-old actor admits he's not much of a networker. "I think about people, and I have a conversation with them in my head," he says. "But I tend to not reach out." In an interview about his career and the future of the movie industry, the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes actor tells Fortune about the real-life discussions (Elon Musk!) that have influenced his thinking about technology, business, and entertainment. Edited portions of the interview will appear in the January 13 issue of Fortune; a lengthier excerpt of the Q&A follows.
Q. This isn't the first time your image has been on the cover of a business magazine. Tony Stark's face has graced the cover of a few news titles.
A. Yes! I wanted to close the circle.
Elon Musk has been compared to Tony Stark, and parts of Iron Man 2 were filmed at a SpaceX facility. Did you ever meet?
The genesis of that goes back to preproduction for Iron Man I, when SpaceX was in a smaller facility and Elon Musk was not a household name. As part of my research, I wanted to interview two people: John Underkoffler [the chief scientist at computer interface company Oblong] and Elon. I thought it was really interesting that he literally had decided to become a rocket scientist. And although the similarities kind of end with a certain -- what would you say? -- just an amazing self-agency, you know, that I think Elon really embodies. I was looking to Under¬koffler for straight technology [advice]. You remember in Minor¬ity Report, the character is wearing those gloves and moving the screens around? He and his company built that into a reality, so I was taking some cues from him: If Tony had designed his own software and his own programs and the machinery to operate them, what sort of language would he design to be able to ma¬nipulate his environment? And over the course of all these mov¬ies, that's been as much a part of Tony's character as anything else.
The spirit of Elon was really inspiring to me because Tony goes from doing one thing so well and so successfully, and goes to do something that's a lot more risky and much more far reaching.
And then in the second Iron Man, Tony Stark has a conversation with Elon Musk about doing a project together. I think it's electric jets if I'm not mistaken.
Were there any other business leaders or powerful people who inspired your performance?
There's a little bit of Howard Hughes in there. But in this character, in this potential franchise, I saw a huge business op¬portunity for myself. What was required of me was to put myself forward in a different light than I had been previously imagined, and to imagine being perceived as a bit more dashing, a bit more masculine. Essentially you aspire to a persona that puts you into a different light, which you can equate to more opportunity.