The True Story of Elon Musk, Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark

When setting out to write this book on Elon Musk, I wanted to try and make the story accessible to as many people as possible. Yes, it’s a book full of electric cars and rockets and technology, but it’s much, much more than that. Musk’s life feels at many times like the stuff of a modern Shakespearean tragedy. There’s great suffering, back-stabbing in the boardroom, near-death experiences, tumultuous romance, fortunes won and lost and won again and a main character who may well be the most interesting man alive.

It’s been so gratifying to receive e-mails and other messages from people who devoured the book in one sitting. I always meant this to be a gripping tale first and foremost and a tome about business in the background. Many people helped make this possible along the way, including Elon, his family and a handful of the celebrities in his circle.

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Robert Downey Jr. was one celebrity who provided some deep insight for me into the grandeur of Elon’s world. During our interview, he provided the most detailed account ever of how Elon came to inform and inspire the way Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark in the Iron Films. And here’s a taste of that. This is the start of Chapter 8 – Pain, Suffering and Survival:

AS HE PREPARED TO BEGIN FILMING IRON MAN IN EARLY 2007, the director Jon Favreau rented out a complex in Los Angeles that once belonged to Hughes Aircraft, the aerospace and defense contractor started about eighty years earlier by Howard Hughes. The facility had a series of interlocking hangars and served as a production office for the movie. It also supplied Robert Downey Jr., who was to play Iron Man and his human creator Tony Stark, with a splash of inspiration. Downey felt nostalgic looking at one of the larger hangars, which had fallen into a state of disrepair. Not too long ago, that building had played host to the big ideas of a big man who shook up industries and did things his own way.

Downey heard some rumblings about a Hughes-like figure named Elon Musk who had constructed his own, modern-day industrial complex about ten miles away. Instead of visualizing how life might have been for Hughes, Downey could perhaps get a taste of the real thing. He set off in March 2007 for SpaceX’s headquarters in El Segundo and wound up receiving a personal tour from Musk. “My mind is not easily blown, but this place and this guy were amazing,” Downey said.

To Downey, the SpaceX facility looked like a giant, exotic hardware store. Enthusiastic employees were zipping about, fiddling with an assortment of machines. Young white-collar engineers interacted with blue-collar assembly line workers, and they all seemed to share a genuine excitement for what they were doing. “It felt like a radical start-up company,” Downey said. After the initial tour, Downey came away pleased that the sets being hammered out at the Hughes factory did have parallels to the SpaceX factory. “Things didn’t feel out of place,” he said.

Beyond the surroundings, Downey really wanted a peek inside Musk’s psyche. The men walked, sat in Musk’s office, and had lunch. Downey appreciated that Musk was not a foul-smelling, fidgety, coder whack job. What Downey picked up on instead were Musk’s “accessible eccentricities” and the feeling that he was an unpretentious sort who could work alongside the people in the factory. Both Musk and Stark were the type of men, according to Downey, who “had seized an idea to live by and something to dedicate themselves to” and were not going to waste a moment.

When he returned to the Iron Man production office, Downey asked that Favreau be sure to place a Tesla Roadster in Tony Stark’s workshop. On a superficial level, this would symbolize that Stark was so cool and connected that he could get a Road- ster before it even went on sale. On a deeper level, the car was to be placed as the nearest object to Stark’s desk so that it formed something of a bond between the actor, the character, and Musk. “After meeting Elon and making him real to me, I felt like having his presence in the workshop,” Downey said. “They became contemporaries. Elon was someone Tony probably hung out with and partied with or more likely they went on some weird jungle trek together to drink concoctions with the shamans.”

After Iron Man came out, Favreau began talking up Musk’s role as the inspiration for Downey’s interpretation of Tony Stark. It was a stretch on many levels. Musk is not exactly the type of guy who downs scotch in the back of a Humvee while part of a military convoy in Afghanistan. But the press lapped up the comparison, and Musk started to become more of a public fig- ure. People who sort of knew him as “that PayPal guy” began to think of him as the rich, eccentric businessman behind SpaceX and Tesla.

Musk enjoyed his rising profile. It fed his ego and provided some fun. He and Justine bought a house in Bel Air. Their neighbor to one side was Quincy Jones, the music producer, and their other neighbor was Joe Francis, the infamous creator of the Girls Gone Wild videos. Musk and some former PayPal executives, having settled their differences, produced Thank You for Smoking and used Musk’s jet in the movie. While not a hard-drinking carouser, Musk took part in the Hollywood nightlife and its social scene. “There were just a lot of parties to go to,” said Bill Lee, Musk’s close friend. “Elon was neighbors with two quasi-celebrities. Our friends were making movies and through this confluence of our networks, there was something to go out and do every night.” In one interview, Musk calculated that his life had become 10 percent playboy and 90 percent engineer.10 “We had a domestic staff of five; during the day our home transformed into a workplace,” Justine wrote in magazine article. “We went to black-tie fund- raisers and got the best tables at elite Hollywood nightclubs, with Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio partying next to us. When Google cofounder Larry Page got married on Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island, we were there, hanging out in a villa with John Cusack and watching Bono pose with swarms of adoring women outside the reception tent.”

Excerpted from Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Published by Ecco, a division of HarperCollins © 2015 by Ashlee Vance