While doing research for an article on the real-life martial arts inspirations behind Marvel superheroes, I saw that Robert Downey Jr. was an avid student of Wing Chun Kung Fu, and even incorporated a little of it into the most recent Captain America movie.
After checking out his training over the past decade or so though, it's clear that he's no casual fan, he's downright obsessed. The reasons why paint an incredible portrait of RDJ's struggles with substance abuse, his journey to where he is now, and how Kung Fu provided the foundation for that road to recovery.
In the mid-90s, Downey was struggling in his personal life. He was arrested multiple times for drug-related charges, and made several unsuccessful attempts to recover through drug treatment programs. His career suffered as a result. His erratic behavior caused him to lose movie and TV roles, and even the productions that wanted him couldn't get companies to insure him.
At his lowest point, Robert Downey Jr. knew he needed help. He turned to Kung Fu instructor Eric Oram, founder of the LA Wing Chun Academy, and asked him for help. RDJ believed that martial arts could provide him with the focus and discipline he would need to overcome his vices.
Despite RDJ's reputation at the time for being a volatile and unreliable personality, Oram agreed, but only if his new student committed to this lifestyle change 100%.
"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 said in an interview with MenÃ¢ÂÂs Journal in 2011. "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."
Just a year after starting his training, the improvements in RDJ's life were massive. Diving into it whole-heartedly, the actor was training up to six times a week, and has managed to live a clean life ever since.
"This is all about focus," Downey told Men's Journal. "Wing Chun teaches you what to concentrate on, whether you're [training] or out in the world dealing with problems. It's second nature for me now."
12 years later, and it's been a night and day transition for Downey. "It's difficult to recognize the Robert that [first] stepped into my academy," Oram said last December.
Wing Chun has not only become a central piece of RDJ's recovery from addiction, but it's also played a big role in his acting career. The martial art techniques he's been learning have found their way into many of his biggest films.
For example, in Iron Man 3 Tony Stark has a Wing Chun training dummy in his house.
And more recently, RDJ has been working Wing Chun fighting techniques into the choreography of the Marvel movies he's a part of.
Wing Chun's influence on RDJ is perhaps most apparent in the two Sherlock Holmes movies, with huge aspects of his character's fighting style based around Kung Fu stances and movements.
To this day, Wing Chun remains an essential piece of Downey's day-to-day life, not just for the physical benefits, but also for the health and well-being of his entire self.
RDJ himself put it best when he told Oprah that:
I canÃ¢ÂÂt even say how much itÃ¢ÂÂs impacted my ability to stay well and focused ... ItÃ¢ÂÂs a spiritual practice. ItÃ¢ÂÂs grounded me.