Five Questions for
Hollywood loves a comeback kid, and you've probably heard that this year's prodigal son is Mickey Rourke, boxer-turned-Method-actor-turned-sex-
symbol-turned-disappearing-act. His coarse, redemptive performance in The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s brutal, devastating paean to professional wrestling is as good as the buzz. (The film already won the top prize at this year's Venice Film Festival.)
In the film, Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a pay-per-view draw back in the 80s. But now it’s 2008, and he’s living in a beat-up trailer (when he can afford the rent), pining after an aging stripper (played by Marisa Tomei), working at the local supermarket, and trying to make amends with his estranged daughter (a haunted Evan Rachel Wood). On the weekends, The Ram desperately attempts to resurrect his glory days by wrestling in high school gyms and small-town community centers, in front of die-hard fans who demand more and more gore to keep their fandom satiated.
It’s a tragic role, and it’s impossible not to draw parallels between “The Ram” and Rourke himself (especially for anyone who knows his early work in 80s favorites like Diner, Barfly, Nine 1/2 Weeks, and The Pope of Greenwich Village). The main difference is that The Ram is not likely to win an award for his work anytime soon. Despite the hard edges, one can’t help but root for this guy, on screen and off.
One recent Sunday afternoon, Rourke met with a passel of journalists in a hotel room off Union Square. Having heard the stories of Rourke’s—shall we say—quirks, those in the room didn’t know quite what to expect, but finally Rourke appeared, looking somewhat smaller than he did as Randy the Ram, and way more vulnerable. Now 52, and wearing a shiny silver jacket and designer shades (even in the dark room), Rourke was clearly humbled by his decade-plus absence from the spotlight, and touched by the sudden resurgence of interest in him and his career.
How did you get involved with The Wrestler?
MR: I wanted to make a movie with Darren [Aronofsky, director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream], but I didn’t really want to make a wrestling movie, because coming from boxing... I don’t know. I had some hang-up about wrestling, because it was pre-arranged, pre-choreographed, almost like a dance, instead of combat, real combat. Once I got over that hurdle, [I realized] it was okay, me doing that. It’s a movie.
How did you get yourself emotionally ready for this role?
MR: Just personal stuff. Personal, painful shit. I think that was one of the reasons that when I was replaced early on, I was okay. I knew [Darren] would want me to go there, to bring it. And I didn’t know if I wanted to work that hard with this fella, for free. [Laughs.] I was really relieved. But then I got a call from my agent who said, “You’re back in!” And I said, “Fuck.” Because the pay was shit, you know? But I think the smarter side of my brain said, “You better get your ass in shape and do this movie for free and work with this guy who has fought for you to be in this movie.” Thank God I did. He stuck by me. He really had to convince [the producers].
As a former boxer, how did you train for the role physically?
MR: [I had been] taught to move a certain way—gracefully—and now it was all lumbering bullshit. I didn’t feel natural doing it, and I had to take several years to learn how to land. But after I started getting hurt doing it, I started to realize these guys are really suffering, and I gained a respect for their sport. I’d go in on Sundays without telling Darren and learn three or four really hard moves that I shouldn’t have been able to pull off. But this guy was really patient with me. It was like competing with myself, and [competing] with time. This shit, I don’t know if I could have done in my 20s, and when we got done doing it, he said, "80% of the guys in the WWE couldn’t do that!"
You worked with a lot of real wrestlers in the film. What were they like?
MR: These wrestlers have a lot of camaraderie between them. They travel together, they fuck together, they do steroids together. They’ve got little moves—it’s a kind of secret society thing they have. In other sports, you’re more isolated, but these guys really like the company of each other.
You’ve gotta cross the line to get your body into a certain type of shape. These guys cross the line. Like the scene [in the movie] in the locker room where they are discussing the pharmaceutical end of it. That happens. I haven’t been in a gym yet where you’re not listening to that kind of conversation. And you go, “Oh, really, does that shit do that?” Hmmm. Okay.
How realistic is the script?
MR: This is not a movie where the guy wins the championship and there’s a happy fucking ending. These guys just fade away.
We were in LA doing a Q & A thing, and there was a wrestler from the 80s in the audience named Rowdy Piper. We were worried: Man, did we push the envelope too far with certain scenes? Did we disrespect anybody? But Piper came backstage and he broke down, actually. He was emotional about the identification with what happened to him. The wrestlers who have seen the movie have all been very positive.
How do you shake a character like Ram off at the end of the day?
MR: You really don’t. I mean, I don’t stay in character the whole time, but this one took a big chunk out of me. [The Ram] has got to jump off that high rope because it’s too painful living in that fucking trailer. And he’s NOT going to get a second chance.
How are you handling all the attention and the hoopla?
MR: It’s new… For a long time I thought, “I blew it, and it’s too fucking late.” Ten years is a long time to think something’s going to happen, and it don’t happen. It’s like waiting for a girlfriend to come back.
There is Oscar buzz around this role. There are also people who think you should have been nominated years ago—for example, for Barfly. This time around, do you think there is something different going on?
MR: When I walked into the Actors’ Studio and I saw Al Pacino, and Chris Walken, and Harvey Keitel, and Robert De Niro, I went, “Fuck, I want to be an actor one day like that.” [But] I wasn’t educated enough to understand that there was a business, I didn’t know about the politics or the kissing ass—you can be mediocre as an actor and be a fucking movie star. I’m not complaining about that, but I didn’t think those were the rules. Then again, I made up my own rules, so that was my fault.
After thirteen years of being out of work, I understand what the game is now. It’s like doing roadwork for a fight—you do your homework and you break your ass harder than anyone else. You bring it.
How were the other actors?
MR: Marisa [Tomei] is a real professional. But the heavy stuff is with the daughter [played by Evan Rachel Wood]. She’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with. Darren would say, “You really suck, she’s blowing you away.” I’d say, “I really suck. She’s blowing me away.”
Do you have any favorite entertainment that has really impressed you recently? Movies, plays—
MR [with a grin]: I saw some entertainment last night that sure impressed me... She was 5’10”, and had some high cheekbones.
[At this point, Rourke starts to fan himself. He’s clearly overheated.]
MR: Can we turn the air on in here? You guys hot? I just gotta rest a second. My batteries are low, hold on. I’ll tell you in a second. [To the reporter next to him, he says,] Will you rub my back? [She answers, "I’m not 5’10’’, and I don’t have high cheekbones." He smiles and says,] Where were you all ten years ago? When I needed a friend?
[After about five minutes, he’s back on track.]
You were responsible for getting Bruce Springsteen to write the song for the end credits. How did that happen?
MR: After about six days, I knew something magical was happening on the movie. It gave me the gumption to write Springsteen a letter. I told him we had no money, but we shot it in New Jersey. And we even shot an extra scene in Asbury Park! He wrote back, and then five months later he called and said, “It’s Bruce,” and I said, “Who?”—I think I was on my Vespa—and he said, “Bruce. Springsteen.” I was like, “Oh fuck! Oh! OH!” He said, “I wrote you a little something.”
I don’t think Darren had a clue what The Boss was all about. I took him to Giants Stadium—there were like 80,000 people there—and he was like, “Hmmmm, they really like him.” So we go backstage, and Bruce picks up a guitar and plays the [song on an] acoustic guitar for us. It was the first time we heard it, and I was like, he’s got words to it and everything! Man, he really got it. He didn’t see the movie, he’d only read the fucking script, but the song sums up the whole character. He did me such an honor, such a favor.
What’s up next for you?
MR: A movie called 13—it’s a remake of a French movie. With Jason Statham, Ray Winstone, Curtis Jackson [aka 50 Cent]—as he likes to be called, and he is a gentleman—Ben Gazzara. Ben’s older now—I like the fact that he’s still working, and he enjoys doing it. He comes to life. It’s like when the bell rings, when they say “Action,” Ben’s right there. (The rest of the time, he’s somewheres [sic] else.)
[Noticing the football game on the (muted) TV, between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles:]
The Manning brothers get too much coverage. There’s not an ounce of charisma between them… Did the Jets win?
They are on next.
MR: Who do they play?
MR: Oh, they’ll win. [Shrugs.] You gotta root for the old guy.
The Wrestler opens on Wednesday, December 17 in NY and in LA.
The film will expand to theaters across the country throughout January.
Watch trailers and learn more.