By Fred Topel | Image property of DreamWorks Pictures
The Soloist was only intended to be a sympathetic docudrama about homeless cellist Nathaniel Ayers and the reporter who helped him rediscover music. It ended up being a last hurrah for journalism. Robert Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, the reporter whose series of features on Ayers led to Ayers’ improvements.
Robert Downey Jr. on The Soloist
“Particularly when we were doing this last year, the newspapers were seeming like they might be becoming outmoded and all these layoffs and stuff,” Downey said. “So initially in the story Steve [Lopez] and his wife and she’s his ex and they don’t work, but I think what [director] Joe [Wright] did and the biggest probably change we made was to let Catherine [Keener] not only be my love interest/ex, but also my boss. I think that covered some interesting ground, but also the thing of where you’re in this position where you’re having to let go of people who do their job really well. Hence Steve’s thing and doing this series about Nathanial became sensationalized and maybe that was good and maybe there was some kudos or some cache to that for him as a journalist, but it transcended that.”
If it seems to the cynic that the movie itself is just a vehicle for actors to play disabled characters (Ayers is schizophrenic) and feel good about supporting the homeless, the story goes further. “Because their relationship transcended the book and even the movie, they’re still hanging out now. It’s not like once the movie rights were bought he said, ‘Hey, my job is done’ or whatever in that typical LA fashion that that might occur. I think that’s what attracted us too. We knew that these were good people who became friends in the most unlikely circumstances.”
Lopez himself asked Downey not to impersonate him, but the fact that he didn’t was just a coincidence. “I never listen to anything anyone says about what I should or shouldn't do. I know he said it would be a mistake to impersonate him and there wasn't time and it wasn't my job. I felt like my job was to observe and report and Joe Wright said I needed to witness this movie which was very odd, because I had so been the center of attention in a very overt way in a couple things I'd done before. So to me, it was about having the humility to do what we are supposed to do as actors all the time, which is just be there and imagine that that's enough.”
Downey did try to do his method thing though. “At a certain point when we weren't quite sure what the boundaries were, I asked him if I could cast his nose, and we cast his nose. I said, ‘Let me see what Steve's nose looks like on me. God, I kind of like that.’ And Joe said, ‘Robert…,’ because I'd gotten used to all of this armature. I had had a suit on, or was African-American, and my mask was really easy. So I was asked not to do that.”