Humbled Mickey Rourke makes gutsy return to Hollywood

Rourke gets back in the ring with The Wrestler

"I hated the '90s. The '90s fuckin' sucked," says professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson early on in The Wrestler—and he should know. Over the hill and past his prime—his steroidal body a palimpsest of battle scars, his graying hair dyed a Nordic blond—Robinson hasn't seen the inside of a major arena in the better part of 20 years. Nowadays, he gets top billing by scraping bottom, trading blows with other used-to-bes and might-have-beens in school gymnasiums and banquet halls, earning a cut of the door that's barely enough to cover his trailer-park rent.

As it happens, the '90s weren't much kinder to the actor playing Robinson: Mickey Rourke. By the end of that misbegotten decade, the onetime Hollywood A-lister was living in a $500-a-month studio apartment and subsisting on a meager income generated by the sale of his motorcycle collection, plus whatever acting jobs he could scrounge up from the few producers in town who weren't afraid to hire him. His flirtation with a boxing career had come to an end. His tabloid-catnip marriage to model Carré Otis had hit the skids. There were reports of arrests, of plastic surgeries gone awry, and of the actor walking off the set after a producer refused to allow his pet Chihuahua to appear with him in a scene.

"The thing is that I am the one to blame for all that," Rourke says as he lights a cigarette in what I'm pretty sure is a nonsmoking suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, the day after The Wrestler's North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. His Chihuahua, Loki, barks from a nearby cushion. "I used to blame other people, but I've got nobody else to blame except for Mickey Rourke."

Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler
Niko Tavernise
Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler

That's more or less the same thing Rourke told director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) when they first met to discuss The Wrestler in New York. Or rather, it was what Aronofsky told him. "He sits down, and for the first five minutes he tells me how I fucked up my whole career for 15 years behaving like this, and I'm agreeing with everything," Rourke recalls. "Yes, I did. That's why I haven't worked for 15 years, and I've been working real hard not to make those mistakes." After that, Aronofsky pointed his finger at the actor—something, Rourke says, that not so long ago would have prompted him to say: "Don't do that, okay, buddy?"—and laid out the ground rules.

"He goes, 'You have to listen to everything I say. You have to do everything I tell you. You can never disrespect me. And you can't be hanging out at the clubs all night long. And I can't pay you.' And I'm thinking, 'This fucker must be talented, because he's got a lot of nerve to say that.'" Then Aronofsky told Rourke that if he did all those things, he would get the actor an Oscar nomination. "The moment he said that, I believed him," says Rourke. "The first day of work, I believed him more."

On set, the actor-director relationship continued in a similar vein. "He knew how to push my buttons," Rourke says. "I do a take, and I nail it. I look over at Darren and I think, 'Okay, we're moving on.' And he walks over to me and says, 'Do it better.' And you know what surprised me? I did it again, and I did it better. He knew that if he challenged me, that's what I wanted. A lot of people don't like that; me, I need it."

The result, which has been widely hailed as Rourke's career-capping/redefining/resuscitating turn, is a characterization of rare intensity and pathos that bristles with the lived-in authority of someone who knows what it means to live with his back against the ropes. "Unfortunately, I've seen this side of life," Rourke sighs. Watching the Ram onscreen, the line between performer and performance all but disappears. But The Wrestler, at least where Rourke is concerned, almost didn't happen. Although Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel developed the project with Rourke in mind, they found it impossible to secure even the modest financing required for a sometimes-violent wrestling movie starring an actor who hadn't headlined a major motion picture since the first George Bush was in office.

Shortly after Rourke and Aronofsky's first meeting, "they called me up and said they couldn't do the movie with me," Rourke says. "The investors wanted a $20 million actor to do the part." Rourke, meanwhile, was secretly relieved, "because I knew that Darren wanted me to revisit these dark places, these painful places. And then there was the physical part—the two months of training—and the not getting paid."

So, Rourke returned home to Miami, only to receive a phone call from his agent a few weeks later saying the role was once again his. "My reaction," he says, only half-jokingly, was, "Oh, fuck! Can't you get me something else?"

"With luck, Rourke could become a major actor; he has an edge and magnetism and a sweet, pure smile that surprises you," wrote Pauline Kael in her review of Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), in which the actor played the compulsively gambling and girl-chasing hairdresser Robert "Boogie" Sheftell. That was a movie that launched at least a half-dozen careers, but Rourke stood apart from the crowd, and he won the Best Supporting Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics for his efforts.

Rourke's "edge," as Kael (and others) termed it, was a welcome trait in a decade that gave us lots of clean-cut, boy-next-door movie stars like Tom Cruise and Matthew Broderick. Even among the talented ensemble of Francis Ford Coppola's Brechtian Rumble Fish, which included the young Matt Dillon and Nicolas Cage, Rourke carried the greatest gravitas. And while he went on to be perfectly convincing in white-collar roles like the Wall Street power player who cooks three square meals for (and on) Kim Basinger in Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986), he was never better than as a certain breed of sensitive, soft-spoken hustler-vagabond-dreamer—the guy more likely to be roughed up in some back alley than to be the one doing the roughing.

Already, though, there were stories that Rourke could be difficult to work with (Basinger famously, if somewhat enigmatically, dubbed him "the human ashtray") and hostile to those in authority.

"I look at these guys like Matt Damon, George Clooney, Sean Penn—they're all very bright, educated guys who understand that it's a business and there's politics involved," Rourke says. "I wasn't educated or aware enough. I thought I was so good I didn't have to play the game. And I was terribly wrong."

So, in 1991, Rourke effectively turned his back on the industry, returned to his childhood home of Miami, and resurrected his adolescent dream of becoming a professional boxer.

By the time Rourke retired from boxing in 1994—the same year in which Otis filed, and later dropped, spousal-abuse charges against him—it was difficult to determine what had taken the bigger beating: his career or his once smooth, beautiful, boyish face.

In person, Rourke now seems more pussycat than mad dog, and he looks better than he has in years: the cheeks less puffy, the tan less bottled. Not bad for a guy supposedly nearing 60 (the actor declines to comment on his variously reported age). But every once in a while you can catch a flicker of the deep-set anger and rage, particularly when the subject turns to his childhood.

Rourke, who was born in Schenectady, moved at an early age with his mother, brother, and sister to the mostly black inner city of Miami, following his parents' divorce. He doesn't reveal much about those years (though he has alluded in past interviews to abuse at the hands of a violent stepfather), but what he does say paints a vivid portrait. "It was horrific. It was shameful," he says. "Let's put it this way: I would have preferred never to have been born. When you have things like that happen, you either go to prison for your whole life or you act out and self-destruct."

The self-destruction would eventually come, but at the time Rourke threw himself into sports. He was good in the ring, and a professional career seemed in the offing, until a couple of bad concussions set him back. It was then that Rourke, who had never given any thought to acting, auditioned for a role in a University of Miami production and got the part. By the time the play closed, he had resolved to go to acting school "and learn how to do this shit. So I got on a plane and went to the Village."

Eventually Rourke found his way to the Actors Studio, where he learned the Method and dedicated himself to his newfound trade with signature obsessiveness. "I wanted to be like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Chris Walken, and Harvey Keitel," he says. "I wanted to be a really great actor. And if I worked really, really fucking hard, maybe one day I could do that. And I worked really, really hard. For weeks on end I slept on the couch at the Actors Studio, working on scenes nonstop."

Yet at the height of his fame he was never satisfied. "I was waiting for the great picture, and it didn't happen," says Rourke, who was offered—and turned down—roles in Beverly Hills Cop, Platoon, and Rain Man, among others. "And I was living way above my means. I bought a big house, and because I was always turning shit down—formula stuff, Hollywood stuff—I got in a jam, so I had to do a movie called Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man [1991]. They paid me a lot of money, and I went fuckin' bonkers because I sold out, and I hated myself for it. Some kind of anger kicked off, about the fact that I'd put myself in a position to have to do that movie. The demons took over."

And they reigned for most of the next decade, until the actor slowly began to re-emerge from his personal and professional inferno. Vincent Gallo took a chance on Rourke, giving him a role as a bookie in the offbeat Buffalo '66 (1998). Another actor-director, Steve Buscemi, followed suit, casting Rourke way against type as a transvestite inmate in the underseen prison drama Animal Factory (2000). Then Rourke's friend Sean Penn put him opposite Jack Nicholson in a three-minute scene in The Pledge (2000), and he was brilliant. As word got around about his new professionalism, bigger roles in bigger movies came Rourke's way, until there he was, handily stealing the show as the disfigured, partly CGI vigilante, Marv, in Sin City.

But The Wrestler is something else entirely—a movie in which Rourke appears in almost every frame of every scene, and where, as German filmmaker Wim Wenders commented upon awarding the film the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, he more than once breaks your heart.

Rourke says his comeback has been "a game of inches." Come February, that game may well land him in the end zone of the Kodak Theatre. But no matter what happens, Rourke says there's no danger that he'll ever revert to his hell-raising ways. "Look, a little time bomb's always gonna be in Mickey Rourke, okay?" he says. "But I used to have bad people around me. Now, I've got people around me who have my best interest at heart. I'm always going to be a volatile cat. If someone disrespects me, it's always going to be on, so I try not to put myself in positions where that's going to happen. I do everything I can to avoid that, because let me tell you...to live in a state of shame for so many years, to be a has-been...it hurts...it really did hurt."

Rourke chokes on those last few words, then takes a deep breath and asks his assistant to re-light his cigarette. "I'm so amazed that I'm getting a second chance," he says. "I said this to somebody recently: God's got a plan for us all. I sure as hell wish I would have looked at his instead of mine."

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