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Robert Downey Jr. Reflects on His Hollywood Journey After Oscar Win: 'There Are Ways to Heal' (Exclusive)

Following his Oscar win for 'Oppenheimer,' the star opens up to PEOPLE about his rollercoaster career

<p>Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP</p> Robert Downey Jr.

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr. is opening up about his rollercoaster Hollywood career shortly after winning his first Oscar.

Accepting the Best Supporting Actor award, Downey peppered his deadpan speech with emotional moments, addressing the years he spent in the grip of drug addiction in the late ’90s and early 2000s. He thanked his wife for "loving me back to life," along with his longtime lawyer, joking that the attorney had spent half of their 40 years together "trying to get me insured and bailing me out."

Shortly afterward, the Oppenheimer star, who next tackles four roles in the HBO espionage drama The Sympathizer (out April 14) was reflective talking to PEOPLE of his journey from an uninsurable actor to an Oscar winner.

"I think if you develop a moral psychology, things are a lot easier," Downey, 58, tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story. "And I think it's hard to explain away certain behaviors when there are ways to heal. So I both have a lot of empathy for, and I also am a little bit skeptical about anyone who doesn't lean into what they can do to improve the state of their compass. That's all."

Related: Robert Downey Jr. Has No Plans to Slow Down After Winning an Oscar: More ‘Tricks Up My Sleeve' (Exclusive)

<p>Al Seib/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images</p> Robert Downey Jr.

Al Seib/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

Robert Downey Jr.

Standing next to him, Downey's wife Susan adds: "I feel like anyone's journey, no matter how fraught or positive, whatever it is, it is your journey. There's nothing we would do differently."

Away from the spotlight, those close to Downey say he has kept a quiet focus on helping others.

"His ways are heartwarming," says fellow Avengers star Jeremy Renner, who was in the ICU last January following his horrific snowplow accident.

He notes that Downey checked in on him constantly. “We ended up having really great chats on FaceTime, like we were dating or something,” recalls Renner.

Most of the Iron Man star's good deeds are kept quiet. "He really does believe in giving back," Susan tells PEOPLE. "And he does it through his actions."

Related: Robert Downey Jr.'s Wife Susan Shares the '2-Week Rule' That Keeps Their 18-Year Marriage Strong (Exclusive)

"If he sees a performance he likes, he will go out of his way to get ahold of that person, especially anyone young and up and coming," she says. "If he knows somebody struggling, he'll reach out, so much to the point that people know to send people towards him, because he will make that time. It's just an appreciation for all he's gone through, for all the people who were there and stuck around through some of his more difficult times."

The couple, who have been married for 18 years and work together at their producing company Team Downey, have built a strong foundation at home. As a rule, they don't go two weeks without seeing each other, and family dinners are both joyful and punctual. "We all love his playfulness," says Susan, sharing how Downey often leads word or improv games with his kids at the table.

"Here's the interesting thing," she says. "I came from an incredibly stable household and Robert's was, let's say, less than that. And yet he's the one who brings the real kind of homey-ness to it, and I just make sure everything's working and running well."

<p>John Shearer/WireImage</p> Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey.

John Shearer/WireImage

Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey.

From stocking the house with supplies for pancake art to singing loudly at jam sessions with kids Exton, 12, Avri, 9, and Indio, 30, Downey leans in. "He really cares about whatever they care about," says Susan. "I think that he craves and therefore wants to provide the stability that probably he didn't necessarily have."

Downey tells PEOPLE his home life provides him with focus. "It just gives me, honestly, something to attach my neurosis to that's positive," he says. "And I love when I can ask [Susan] if she thinks we should paint the kitchen a different color or if maybe a new rug in her office, whatever. I'm not saying that I'm like a fledgling interior designer. But there's two kinds of people and I'm the kind that cares about the drapes."

Related: Robert Downey Jr. Stops 'Everything' for Family Dinner, 'Loves to Jam’ on Instruments with His Kids (Exclusive)

The Academy Awards presented another full circle moment for Downey when Oppenheimer swept Best Picture - with a familiar face at the microphone.

"It's crazy that Al Pacino, one of my favorite human beings on earth, presented Best Picture," Downey tells PEOPLE. "And it's also crazy that, I think, deservedly he won the first time I was nominated [in 1993 for Chaplin], for Scent of a Woman," he says.

The March 10 Oscars moment also invoked memories of his late father, a renowned provocative indie filmmaker who died in 2021. (Downey since released a Netflix documentary, Sr., in his honor.)

"Senior went to his grave going, '[You] got robbed for Chaplin.' He wouldn't say he really thought any of my other movies were very good or even that he thought Chaplin was any good, but he did know that I got robbed," Downey cracks.

But following Downey's Oscar win, "I think that he would feel that justice was done and that he can rest. But the problem is, he never cared about any of this s--- anyway."

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