Rourke mania: Darren Aronofsky directs portrait of aging wrestler

Fame and acclaim have been in such an advanced state of hibernation for Mickey Rourke lo these last two decades that their abrupt re-emergence over his new picture, The Wrestler, has left him a mite misty-eyed, reeling from the predicted probability of an Academy Award nomination for his unsparingly real title portrayal.

The situation first presented itself at this year’s Venice Film Festival, where The Wrestler was screened only two days after its completion and walked off with the Golden Lion award for Best Picture. Rourke would also have walked off as Best Actor if the Venice jury chairman, director Wim Wenders, had had his way—but Wenders’ vigorous campaigning could not topple a longstanding festival rule which insists that one film is not allowed to win both awards. Rourke happily contented himself with finally being the star of a prize-winning picture.

The extravagant hosannas went into a second chorus when the Fox Searchlight picture was unspooled for the New York Film Festival, and, at the press conference which followed the screening, Rourke seemed visibly moved by the enthusiastic reception.

“If I knew 15 years ago that it was going to take 15 years to get back in the saddle and work again because of the way I handled things, I really would have handled things differently,” he confessed, choking back emotion. “Doing things differently this time around, understanding what it is to be a professional, be responsible, be consistent—those are things that weren’t in my vocabulary back then. Change didn’t come easy for me—until I lost everything, and then I realized, ‘You better change, or you’re gonna blow your fucking brains out. Either you change, or you’re just a piece of shit. I thought it was a weakness to change because of the armor I’d put on my whole life. I’m okay with it now—yeah, it took me 15, 16, 17 years out of the game—but it’s really nice because I get to come back and work with these people here.”
And, with that, festival honcho Richard Peña put the proper button on the press conference by declaring, “Everyone who loves film is very grateful that you are back.”

In 1991, at the height of his Hollywood power, Rourke blithely surrendered stardom for boxing, feeling that he “was self-destructing…[and] had no respect for myself being an actor.” True, as a pro boxer he won all his fights against minor opponents (and had one fight end in a draw), but his age kept him away from top-level fighters and national prominence. All he had to show for four years in the ring were a broken nose, toe, ribs, a split tongue and a compressed cheekbone. Acting started looking good to him circa 1995, but age (and, now, looks) kept him out of the upper echelon.

Coming at this point in time, The Wrestler—a.k.a. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (born, though he denies it, Robin Robinson)—has proved to be a real gift to the 54-year-old Rourke from Darren Aronofsky, a nearly-40 director with four films to his credit. It’s hard to overlook the fact that both the role and the actor have remarkable, genuine synchronicity, both going for a redemptive, 11th-hour comeback in the same vehicle.

In the case of the banged-up title character, it’s about talking himself out of a meager, hand-to-mouth retirement for one last “anniversary” showdown with his arch-nemesis in the ring. Recognizing the bright light at the end of the tunnel, he tries to right things in his clumsy fashion with the two important women in his life—reconciling with his long-estranged, lesbian daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and suggesting settling down with his pole-dancing pop-tart girlfriend (Marisa Tomei).

Given where the actor is coming from and where the character is going to, director Aronofsky is teasingly slow at the outset in showing the audience what the ravages of time and an onslaught of fists have done to the face of Mickey Rourke—in much the way Clarence Brown milked the moment when “Garbo Talks!” in Anna Christie.

“I didn’t go into making the movie with that idea of hiding his face,” Aronofsky admits, “but I think, as I was shooting, it sort of emerged. I was, like, ‘Oh, something good’s happening here, and I could really prevent the audience from getting a good look at him for a while. I realized that would be a little fun thing to do. You’re going to spend a lot of time with this guy—in fact, you could spend the full 110 minutes of the movie with him—so you gotta pace yourself. You gotta pace it.

“People are curious about Mickey—what he looks like, who he is. He’s such a unique personality out there. There’s nobody like him, and I think that’s very exciting.”

The die was cast the moment it occurred to Aronofsky to cast Rourke. He just can’t pinpoint it. “I’ve always been a fan of his—a crazy fan—but I don’t know where the initial idea of Mickey came from. It just emerged, and I got real excited about it because I love working with actors who are unexpected. I did it with Ellen Burstyn [Requiem for a Dream]. I did it with Hugh Jackman [The Fountain]. It’s very fulfilling when you have actors on the set who really want to be there—for the right reasons.”

Rourke, for several reasons, wasn’t the first choice for the role—and, for those same reasons, he wasn’t the easiest person to stay first choice. Aronofsky now says that the story that Nicolas Cage was the original choice and bowed out in deference to Rourke “is a bit overblown,” but he concedes that Sylvester Stallone was on his short list early on. “I was thinking it’d be interesting to see him go back to the ring in some way because he’s so good in the ring. Then he did Rocky Balboa, the latest Rocky, and it kinda ruled it out for me because it was about an older guy going back to the ring. There were enough connections there that I didn’t want to go near it.”

Aronofsky’s instincts about the rightness of Rourke were confirmed at their first huddle. “We met in an Italian restaurant in the meat-packing district,” the director recalls, “and he was very upfront that he’d been in therapy for 12 to 15 years. I think the result of that was that he was aware of what he had done to himself. He was very, very thoughtful about what he wanted: He wanted a chance to get back. I felt he was ready to undertake the workload that was ahead of him—you know, it’s a lot of work—and he just knew where he was. He had a self-awareness of what he had done to himself and to his career, and he wanted to do what it takes to come back. I think there were a lot of reasons he took the turns he did. I’ve heard him talk about it abstractly, and I’ve heard the press talk about it in different ways. I just don’t think he understood. I think he had a tough time dealing with success.”

Once the notion of Rourke was intrinsically set in Aronofsky’s noggin, the real battle began—to find funding for the star he’d anointed. “When we started to raise money for the film, we went all over the world, and there was literally only one financier willing to take a risk—Wild Bunch. They didn’t give us enough money to make it, but they gave us something, which was a million, and we figured out how to make the movie with that amount of money. It was a tough thing to do. We had to do it for no money. No one made any money off of it. It was purely an artistic endeavor.”

Pulling Rourke back into the world spotlight by his bootstraps could be construed as a profile in courage for Aronofsky. “Or stupidity,” the director suggests with a half-laugh. “For an independent filmmaker, there’s a lot of lessons here, and one was it reminded me how important it is to just stick to your guns and your vision. No one thought Mickey could be sympathetic. He hadn’t had a chance to be sympathetic in 20 years. They didn’t want to finance this movie with him. They liked the script, but they didn’t want to do it with him, and I just couldn’t see another way of doing it.”

Despite the history and the resonance that Rourke brings to the role, there was one unusual way in which he was completely miscast—the sport itself: Wrestling is the direct antithesis of boxing—and a poor relation, at that. Not only did he have to unlearn years of ring training, he was more vulnerable to injury. “What I didn’t know, and what I wasn’t prepared for, is that you really do get hurt,” Rourke told the New York scribes. “I got hurt more in the three months doing the wrestling than in 16 years in boxing. I think I had three MRI’s in two months doing this movie.”

Aronofsky backs up the actor: “In boxing, you want to hide where your punch is coming from, and in wrestling you want people in the nosebleed seats to see it coming from three miles away. So it was actually twice as hard for Mickey because he had to learn how he moved. When he’s in the ring, he moves totally different than wrestlers. And also, he had to get over his prejudices against wrestling. The first place we were going to train him was a wrestling school that took place in Gleason’s Gym over in Brooklyn, and he wouldn’t do it. He was, like, ‘I’m not training in a boxing gym.’ He was embarrassed to be in front of all the boxers, wrestling.”

To find a suitable place to train Rourke, the director took the fall and sacrificed his own space: “I had a little office in Brooklyn, and it was barely big enough to fit a ring in it. We moved all the desks out of the way, and basically that turned into his gym.”

Aronofsky is hard-pressed to name three wrestling pictures, let alone his three favorites. “There have been a couple of good documentaries on the wrestling world, but most films that deal with wrestling make fun of it—like what Barton Fink was writing in that Coen Brothers movie. Barton Fink was hired to write a wrestling movie. Remember? ‘What’s so difficult, Fink? There’s a bad guy. There’s a good guy.’”

The director believes that heretofore there have been no serious wrestling movies simply because the sport isn’t taken seriously. “I think people basically roll it off saying, ‘Oh, it’s fake,’ and they forget all about it. But what was interesting to me was that whole line between real and fake. What is real? What is fake? The film is very clear that wrestling is staged, but is it fake when you’re a 260-pound guy jumping 10 feet onto a concrete floor? Even if you’re trying to protect yourself and your opponent, damage is happening to you.
“Then, you meet these guys who’ve been wrestling 10 or 20 years ago, and they’re just riddled with injury. They are true athletes. It’s just they’re almost more like stunt men, so there’s that line of real and fake. The other line of real and fake is ‘The Ram’ doesn’t know what’s real and what’s fake. When he’s in the ring, for him that’s real life, and so that kind of real and fake comments on the whole wrestling thing.”

One perk of keeping Rourke in the picture is the title tune by Bruce Springsteen, says Aronofsky. “The reason he did it—I can’t take any credit for it—was Mickey Rourke. He loves Mickey. He’s a fan, and he was excited that Mickey had an opportunity to do this film. He wanted to help in any way he could, so he wrote this beautiful song.”

Yes, there’s a grassroots groundswell for Mickey Rourke, of all people and at long last. “I think he’s kinda humbled by it—but thrilled,” assesses Aronofsky. “He called me up a week after Venice and said, ‘What did you do to me? There’s paparazzi outside my door right now, and five weeks ago I couldn’t get a ham sandwich!’