Darren Aronofsky, the talented director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream, has performed several miracles with his new film, The Wrestler, which is about a has-been who wants a second chance to regain his former glory. First, Aronofsky’s made one of the best films of 2008; secondly, and most importantly, Aronofsky has given actor Mickey Rourke a chance to resurrect his once promising career and give us the best performance of the year, one for the ages. Academy Award-winner Marisa Tomei also stars as a heart-breaking foil as a stripper who’s facing similar challenges, and Evan Rachel Wood plays Rourke’s daughter. I recently got a chance to sit down with the director and all three stars to discuss the film.
How did this movie come about?
Darren Aronofsky: No one has ever done a film on wrestling and I thought it was curious because it’s such a big American phenomenon, so we just started working on it.
What was it about wrestling that attracted you?
DA: Everyone hears it’s fake, so they think it’s a joke. But if you’re a 250-pound guy jumping off the top rope as the film shows, it’s not so fake. That whole line between what is real and what is fake became sort of the theme of the movie, and then the way the character of Mickey’s kind of confuses what’s real and what’s fake-it just became a big theme.
Why did you choose to work with Mickey Rourke? He was a risky choice.
DA: I think I was most attracted to the fact that no one’s cast him as a sympathetic character in 20 years, yet I remember all those great tough guy vulnerable performances he did back in the day and I was excited to see if it was still there.
Mickey, how did you feel when you were first approached by Darren?
Mickey Rourke: About a year and a half before that, I heard that Darren wanted to meet me. I didn’t know if it was for this role or if he just wanted to say hello. I’d heard a lot of stuff about him. I’d heard a lot of good things that were very comparable to Francis Ford Coppola; you know, that he’s sort of very innovative, he was his own man, he sort of likes to break new ground.
It’s a pretty physical performance-you had to gain weight and you’re physically punishing yourself in this movie. Was any of this daunting or challenging to you?
MR: Yeah, it really all was because I didn’t know anything about wrestling. I used to do boxing, where I had to lose 20 pounds in 12 weeks, and now I had to gain 35 pounds in about six-and-a-half months. I really didn’t like wrestling. I was hoping if I got a chance to work with Darren Aronofsky it would be like, you know, some other kind of movie. : He’s gonna hate me for saying this, but I wanted to work with a really tough director : and I mean tough, not that he’s tough on actors, but that he’s so well prepared and he’s so passionate and he demands nothing but your best. You could say I gave him 110 percent but he got like 210 percent out of me just because he’s not big and tough but he knew how to tap into me and challenge me. And the most important thing, to get the most out of me or any other actor, is we gained each other’s trust and respect on a daily basis.
Marisa, how did you get involved?
Marisa Tomei: I had known about the script and Darren knew about me and a meeting was arranged and we talked about it. There wasn’t a script for him to show me at that point-he had one but he didn’t want to show it to me yet. A few weeks later, he invited me to be a part of it.
Evan, I read in the production notes that the first scene that you have with Mickey was the first time you ever met.
Evan Rachel Wood: Yeah, the three of us just kind of agreed that because the characters were supposed to be distant and separated and awkward that Mickey and I wouldn’t speak until we were on camera. So, I never saw Mickey out of character in wardrobe-I mean, I never saw him in real life and we never spoke between takes. And then my first day on set, Darren said, “Go in the house and then walk out the door and make a left and Mickey will be right there,” and that’s how we did it. I didn’t think it would work, but it really helped a lot. I never looked at him as Mickey Rourke, so I was never intimidated. He was always just The Ram.
And a lot of the performers who are onscreen with Mickey during the wrestling scenes are real wrestlers.
DA: Every single wrestler in the film is a real wrestler and all the fans are real too. We didn’t have the money to put on these events. We shot Tuesday through Saturday so that Friday and Saturday nights we could put on real wrestling promotions. One of my producers became a wrestling promoter. We kind of leapfrogged over two nights until we shot the sequence, so continuity is really messed up in the film, but hopefully people aren’t noticing that the audience is changing.
I think the audience is too busy covering their eyes.
DA: That helps.
And Mickey, what was it like to work with these nonprofessional actors and wrestlers?
MR: I think that’s the only way it could have been. Darren surrounded me with some really great pro wrestlers who were out of work and they were very enthusiastic about being a part of this. I think that they’d never worked on a movie before, yet what these guys do is count on each other, so there’s a lot of camaraderie between them.
It’s almost like a dance, because it’s choreographed and yet when you have somebody 265 [pounds] picking you up and throwing you down, something’s going to snap, crackle, and pop. I spent a lot of time in the hospital getting MRIs because I wasn’t falling the right way and I really didn’t know nothing about wrestling. Then after about two-and-a-half to three months, I started to slowly pick it up.
I had an obligation [to the pro wrestlers]-I really wanted to make them proud of me because they really love their profession and a lot of their lives are not easy because there are certain physical specifications that you have to have to get into the WWE. You’ve got to be like 6’3″ and really all ripped up and you’ve got to do things to get that way. Not everybody is 6’3″ and 240, so these kids were happy just to be a part of something because the majority of them don’t reach the physical specifications. A lot of them are out of work and it really helped having them around because they really helped us show this movie and pay homage to a profession they really love.
In a way, you’ve hit on some of the themes of the movie with what you just said.
DA: Yes, he has.
This movie is so much about what’s going on in America today.
DA: [Smiling] That’s for you to judge.
The Wrestler opens in Santa Barbara theaters this weekend.