TORONTO - For a few days at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where Mickey Rourke’s “The Wrestler” stunned audiences and started a bidding war, the onetime pretty boy/movie tough guy could be seen shambling around swanky Yorkville, his 17-year-old miniature Chihuahua, Loki, snuggled in his arms.
There Rourke was, all 52 bruised and battered years of him, his mop of hair streaked blond, his face puffy and battle-scarred from his storied stretch (‘91-‘95) on the pro boxing circuit. Open collar, pinstripe suit, fancy shoes - the guy who used to sell as many postcards as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in European souvenir stalls, taking the noon air with his pooch and his personal assistant/cook/friend and fellow Chihuahua owner, J.P., in tow.
Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest "The Cat" Miller
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 17 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
“She’s always traveled with me. She just had a stroke, and she gets quite upset if she’s not with me,” Rourke says of his little dog - not allowed in the hotel restaurant to which Rourke has repaired to drink tea and talk “The Wrestler.”
“If we’re home it’s OK, but when we’re in strange places she gets upset,” he explains. “She’s the most important thing - I mean, my grandmother just died, my brother died, so she’s the one I love most in this life.”
So maybe Rourke would have been good in “Marley & Me.” Who knew?
As for “The Wrestler,” it’s one of those iconic performances, one that nobody else could have, or should have, done. (Nicolas Cage was on board for a very short time.)
Rourke’s scarifyingly physical portrayal has already garnered a Golden Globe acting nomination, and in all probability will put him in Oscar contention, too. Like the actor whose star burned bright several decades ago - the arsonist in “Body Heat,” Boogie in “Diner,” the Motorcyle Boy in “Rumblefish,” the kinky Wall Street sexaholic of “9 ½ Weeks” - Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a figure whose glory days look long out of reach.
In “The Wrestler,” directed by Darren Aronofsky and shot in New Jersey - with three days of the “hard-core” wrestling matches filmed at the New Alhambra Arena in South Philadelphia - Randy is a boozer, a pill-popper, a womanizer. He’s a mug who lives in a trailer park, and who decides to hit the comeback trail to make some bucks and make peace with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). There’s also a stripper with a heart of gold, played by Marisa Tomei.
The parallels between “The Ram” and the Rourke are all too clear.
“Well, I had a lot to tap into, unfortunately,” concedes Rourke, who was tabloid gravy for much of the 1990s: barroom brawls, busted movie deals, assaulting his then-wife, Carre Otis (the charges were dropped), resisting arrest. “There was a part of me that didn’t want to make the movie, because basically it was shamefully close. ...
“We call those the dark, painful, lost years,” he adds, half joking. “I mean, I knew I was angry and I knew I was raging and I knew that I hung out in the company of very bad men. What I really didn’t realize is how badly it affected me. ... I was way out of control.”
Rourke’s director, Aronofsky, says that he and his star never discussed the similarities in the story arcs of the player and the part.
“I didn’t feel it was my position to do that,” Aronofsky said on the phone recently. “Mickey actually brought it up maybe a month ago, in a text message. He was talking about how much he actually felt a connection to the Ram, but we didn’t talk about it beforehand. I knew he wasn’t a moron and that he would get it. ... It was unspoken.”
So say “comeback” to Rourke and, well, sit back:
“As far as everybody going, ‘This is your comeback,’ I can’t even say those words. I’ve been on the bench for 15 years. ... That was a long time to be living in shame,” he says. “I’m the one to blame, but ... I didn’t want to change. I didn’t think I had to. And then when I realized I had to, change came very hard to me. Because the armor and the strengths that I cultivated were a weakness. So, I’m OK with it now, that if somebody gives me a dirty look I don’t go over and mess them up about it. ...
“But it took me a long time. And there were reasonable reasons that I went around like that, but there comes a time when it ruins your life and you have to put a lid on it. And you have to look in the mirror, and it’s usually at a point when you’ve lost everybody in your life.”
So Rourke looked in the mirror, and found a therapist, and decided to change.
And Aronofsky, coming off his own failure, the space-and-time-traveling spiritual epic “The Fountain,” decided to risk hiring Rourke - famously hotheaded and unreliable - for “The Wrestler.”
“He sat there and told me how I screwed up my career, straight to my face,” recalls Rourke, grinning, about their first meeting. “I sat and agreed with him. Then he pointed his finger at me and said, ‘Nobody wants you to do this movie. I believe in you.’ And I’m thinking, look at this guy, he’s got a lot of nerve pointing his finger at me like that. ...
“And then he says: ‘You have to listen to everything I tell you. You have to do everything I tell you, and you can never, you can never disrespect me.’ And then he says, ‘And you can’t stay out every night going out picking up women.’ And then he goes: ‘And I can’t pay you.’
“And then I knew what he was made of.”
Asked for his version of this conversation, Aronofsky laughs.
“He’s turned it into such a myth that I don’t know if anything’s true anymore,” says the director, who experienced his first Rourke epiphany as a teenager, watching the 1987 Alan Parker thriller “Angel Heart.” “I just wanted to be very straight and honest with Mickey, because I knew how tough it was going to be to get the film made, the way films get financed in today’s world. You know, if you’re not a movie star it’s hard to get a movie made. And in many ways, Evan Rachel Wood had more box-office value than he did.
“So I just wanted to make sure that he was going to show up and do the work. ... What impressed me the most about him was that he was very aware of where he was with his career, what he had done to his career, and he really wanted a chance to come back.”
And so Aronofsky set about raising the $6 million he needed for his shoot - not much by Hollywood standards, but not easy to collect, either.
“Every financier in the business said no to it,” the director recalls. “And it wasn’t just because Mickey had no box office. A lot of people didn’t think he could be sympathetic.”
But Aronofsky saw it: The Ram, when you watch him working the deli counter at a supermarket, struggling to reconnect with his daughter, hawking autographs at fourth-tier fan events and dragging his hulking, scarred, steroid-pumped frame back into the ring for another round of body splashes and flying forearm smashes - well, it’s impossible not to ache for the guy.
“I’m just so happy that people are connecting with his character and really feeling him,” says Aronofsky. “That’s been, for me - and for Mickey - the great victory.”