Mickey Rourke was jailed on a recent trip to Russia. That wouldn’t be news, except this time the hell-raising actor was doing research. His voluntary three-hour lockup in Moscow’s notorious Butyrka Prison was part of his preparation to play Ivan Vanko, an inventor-turned-convict-turned-bionic-bad-guy, in “Iron Man 2.”
Rourke, who won a Best Actor Golden Globe with his comeback “The Wrestler,” is making the most of his career resurrection. Following years of erratic behavior and unemployability, he’s now working steadily and seriously on roles large and small. He did a two-day cameo in the action saga “The Expendables” for his friend Sylvester Stallone, who cast him in “Get Carter” when Rourke was “dead broke.” He’s preparing to remake the English crime drama/romance “Mona Lisa” with grunge filmmaker Larry Clark, and has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy by agreeing to play Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan in a film written and directed by John (“Conan the Barbarian”) Milius.
None of those roles is as buzzed-about as Iron Man’s implacable Russian nemesis, a role Rourke helped create in collaboration with director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux. “I wanted to redeem him as much as we possibly could without shaking up the Marvel people,” Rourke said in a phone interview.
“I didn’t want to do a one-dimensional bad guy like you’d see in a comic book,” Rourke said. “Get some schmuck to do that. Hollywood always does that, especially when it’s a Russian bad guy. I wanted to add layers to it, represent where he’s coming from, and have a sense of humor.
“I want to challenge myself and challenge the audience to say, ‘I see something redeemable in him.’ That makes it more interesting and not so silly.”
That meant taking on a considerable amount of homework. Rourke insisted that the character needed to speak Russian, though he found that “very difficult for an English speaker. They use the mouth and tongue and palate very differently. It’s a lot harder than French or Spanish.” It took two months of coaching to master the Russian dialog and accent.
His tour of the Moscow prison and his time inside provided insights into the difference between convict life there and in the United States, he said. He also interviewed Russian prisoners.
“I talked to one guy who just got out after 13 years. There’s a whole subculture of what the tattoos represent over there. They’re secretive; different symbols mean different things. You might have a tattoo of a cat, eyeballs on a certain place on your body, Soviet Union tattoos intertwined with Russian organized-crime tattoos. It tells what prisons he’s been in, what time he’s done, his status inside the prison,” Rourke said.
He incorporated his research into Vanko, who fights bare-chested, flaunting his extensive criminal past. Rourke created every aspect of the character’s look except the armor.
The 57-year-old actor looks almost as buff in his new role as he did in “The Wrestler,” thanks to a grueling gym regimen. It took all his strength and stamina to carry around the villain’s 42-pound metal exoskeleton and flail his electrified bullwhips.
“It was very cumbersome. I walked 10 feet and tried to do the bullwhips, and it was exhausting.” Rourke’s trainer put him in weighted suits for 10 weeks of intense training. “We’d go uphill on a treadmill for 40 minutes. Then we’d do boxing, moving forward, backward, sideways for two minutes with the whips. We’d do four rounds,” whips flailing. “I hit myself in the forehead a couple times. It wasn’t bad. It was easier than math.”
The hardest part of the role was pretending to me tech-savvy, Rourke said. “The guy’s supposed to be great on the computer. I don’t even know how to turn one on. They have a scene where I’m supposed to be using the computer, typing really quickly. I wouldn’t know a computer if it hit me in the head.”
Rourke’s next movie, the Tony Scott mob thriller “Potsdamer Platz,” opens with him in his grave, explaining in flashback how things spun out of control during a routine hit. The back-from-the-dead scenario has an eerie resonance with the actor’s own career, he noted.
“I was out of this business for about 14 years for a lot of crazy reasons. I’m really enjoying it the second time around.”