It seems nobody wants to admit that The Wrestler is a very sweet film. When I first suggest it to Mickey Rourke one recent afternoon up at the Riviera Theatre after a screening, he careens into a kind of pinball machine of topic avoidance. “This was a hard movie to make,” he said, in a thoughtful tone that grew expansive. “It was the hardest goddamned movie I ever made,” he said. “It’s the movie I’m most proud of and if I never made another movie, at least I fuckin’ made The Wrestler,” he laughed. “It’s the best performance I ever gave, and it was a privilege to work with Darren,” he said, referring to the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky (Pi, The Fountain), a magic name to kids in film studies these days.
Despite the undisputed rigors of making the film and the few brutal scenes that seem to be what everyone else remembers, the fact remains that Rourke-as wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson-spends most of the non-self-destructive segments of the film encouraging his fellow athlete performers, playing with kids, and, most memorably, clowning around as a deli clerk. I insist, again, that it was sweet. “That was something we felt obligated to be accountable for,” admitted Rourke, whose long hair wreaths a face grown much knobbier than in the days when he played smooth mugs like the slick, ingenious Charlie in The Pope of Greenwich Village. “We did it because the character is such a loser, he’s in such a state of hopelessness that we had to find these little rays of light,” said Rourke, although reluctantly.
“That isn’t exactly true,” said Aronofsky later the same day. “The sweetness came entirely from him-from Mickey. I just found it in him and I had to put it up on the screen.”
It’s maybe not what you expect from either a film about the dreg ends of professional wrestling, or from the bad boy named Mickey Rourke. Emerging in the early 1980s, Rourke exploded into filmgoer consciousness as the arsonist in Body Heat, a noirish Lawrence Kasdan thriller that established William Hurt and Kathleen Turner as well. His roles in films like Diner, Rumble Fish, and even the critically beleaguered Angel Heart were mostly charismatic triumphs. By the late 1980s when he went to make movies like Barfly, however, his reputation for being difficult-some said endangering-began to hover over the purity of purpose he brought to even these characters. (He was and is a Method actor.)
Most people think he languished in limbo after a bizarre interlude where he returned to professional boxing, but he was in many good films in the last decade, including Bob Dylan’s Masked and Anonymous and, of course, Frank Miller’s hyper-violent Sin City.
Then this offer came. Rourke plays down the script as motivation. He wanted the director and wasn’t disappointed. “He’s a special kind of filmmaker; he takes risks, and I like that. You know, Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando always said that: Why take physical activity that’s not interesting? You take something that’s either going to be great or you’re going to fall on your face with it. Yeah. And [Aronofsky] allowed me to make these kinds of choices, too. Well, at least most of the time.”
In public they even admit to a bit of bickering on the set, but it seems like it was good-natured. And Rourke worked. “There was only a seven-week shoot,” he said, but that’s not even half the picture. “There were seven months of gaining 35 pounds of muscle and then four months of wrestling practice,” Rourke explained. “So that was brutal. I had three MRIs in two months. And they allowed me to rewrite all my dialogue, and I rewrote the speech at the end to make it personal.”
Apparently, Aronofsky cooperated with Rourke’s exacting acting standards. In the film, Rourke, who is well under six feet tall, seems hulking and enormous and his gait is lumbering. Some of that was achieved by working with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s cousin Afa the Wild Samoan. “I didn’t know nothin’ about wrestling,” said Rourke. “I had a boxing background for 17 years, but wrestling is very different. It’s like the difference between rugby and ping pong. I had to break my ass and he helped me. I couldn’t’ve done the movie without him.”
But Aronofsky worked directly with him, too. “Well, I wanted to, you know, watch the body language,” he explained. They tried using a Lee Strasberg technique called “people, places, and objects.” “And you always work on animals,” said Rourke. “We used to say, ‘What animal is The Ram?’ And Darren brought all these pictures of animals, and we saw a rhinoceros. Because it’s strong, it’s powerful.” And it worked-go back and look at the film and try not to think of a rhino.
But Aronofsky’s interventions for Rourke began even before the filming. Originally conceived as a film with Rourke, Aronofsky discovered he couldn’t raise money for the project as long as the infamous Mickey was the star. “So I fired him,” explained the director. “And I hired Nic Cage.” Suddenly investors clambered aboard. “But I couldn’t sleep,” said the young bespectacled director. “I couldn’t sleep for a month. So I fired Cage. He was mad at me for two weeks, but now we’re okay.”
It seems the best choice was made. The film won honors in Venice, Toronto, the Golden Globes, and doubtless will take Oscars, as will (likely) the bad boy with the sweet face.
In other interviews, Rourke has offered dismay at the connotations of the word comeback, but a month ago at the Riviera, he was pretty clearly happy to be back. Even doing press stuff was okay. “I was out of the loop and I couldn’t get a job for 13 years, and I’m really, really grateful to have an opportunity to have a second chance,” he admitted. “Darren had to fight tooth-and-nail for me and then I got replaced. And for me, because of the way I behaved for the first 15 years, I have to handle myself as a professional, you know, proper-like. So I had to make some severe changes in myself and in my life, and it took me 10 years to change. So to have a guy like this have enough faith in me and trust me-that’s what it’s all about. A lot of people don’t even have one chance in life. I’ve been able to be slowly welcomed back. And I’m just really grateful to be able to become the actor I’m going to be. : And I’m really having fun acting again. I really love it, and I want to keep doing the best work I can.”
You have to admit-that’s pretty sweet.
Mickey Rourke will be honored with the American Riviera Award at the Arlington Theatre on Saturday, January 31.