Although he’s spent years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and he turned his experiences with a homeless, mentally ill Juilliard dropout into a bestselling book, Steve Lopez isn’t used to being the focus of attention.

So imagine how uncomfortable he found it to have a celebrated Hollywood actor asking to rifle through his closet.

But that’s just the situation he found himself in, as Robert Downey Jr., cast to play him in the film adaptation of his book The Soloist, was looking for some way to connect to Lopez as a character.

“He said, ‘I need some piece of you. Can I go through your closet?’” Lopez remembers. “He said it so many times, I started to be a little concerned with what he was really up to.”

When asked about the odd request, Downey demurs. “You’re supposing that he let me into his closet,” the actor says. “He never even dignified it with a response.” In fact, according to Downey, Lopez spurned all attempts at close study.

“He wanted to tell me that to impersonate him would be to do a disservice to the movie,” Downey says.

Or, as Lopez puts it, “I was a little concerned that if he played me, this would be a really boring movie. But I felt a little silly telling Robert how to think about approaching a role, because he’s a great actor. He didn’t need to hear it from me.”

But Downey, who’s famously portrayed well-known faces from both real life (Chaplin) and fiction (Iron Man) found it just as much of a challenge to portray a man that the vast majority of moviegoers had no familiarity with.

“They’re all similar in that there’s no way you can’t go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing, and it’s very hard to not go right if your heart’s in the right place,” he says.

Lopez is more than satisfied with the results. “I didn’t want him to feel obligated to try and represent me, necessarily,” Lopez says.

“But each time I see the movie, I see some new way in which he’s captured some little nuance. Each time I see it, I appreciate the depth of his performance all the more.”

As for the closet-rummaging, it never took place, but Downey did pick one piece of Lopez he thought he could use to channel the character: His nose. Lopez was even brought down to the studio’s effects department to have a cast of his nose taken in order to make a prosthetic one.

“Although I’m not in the movie business, I knew my nose would not fit on Robert Downey Jr.’s face and that this was a bad idea,” Lopez says. “Fortunately he cha­nge­d his mind.”

• The Soloist opens in theatres across Canada next Friday.

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