|Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
NEW YORK -- Train wreck with a possible happy ending -- that's the story of Mickey Rourke's career.
Rourke was an A-lister in the 1980s, the centre of such films as Diner, Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Barfly, Angel Heart and 9 1/2 Weeks.
He was a huge star, and in the days when talent was still a part of the equation.
Things changed. Rourke's movie career went south, and in 1991 he made a move to pro boxing -- the sport that he says occupied his adolescence. He was already too old to make boxing a career, but from all accounts, Rourke, who is somewhere between 52 and 58, depending upon who you ask, was a skilled fighter.
Around the same time, he was making bad decisions about movie roles, turning down a role in Pulp Fiction and other big projects to take on turkeys such as Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. He flamed out amid the usual stories of bad behaviour on set and off, explosive love life, dissipated living. It was probably fun while it lasted.
In the past few years, Rourke has quietly been staging a comeback. Whether it has been as organized as that sounds or not, Rourke is back on the scene now, big time, in the new Darren Aronofsky-directed movie, The Wrestler, opening here on Christmas Day.
In The Wrestler, Rourke plays an aging fighter long past his glory days who just can't find a life outside professional wrestling. (Rourke and Aronofsky showed the movie to an audience that included Rowdy Roddy Piper, and he and other wrestlers have praised the film.) It's a raw, spare, close-to-the-knuckle performance from Rourke; an Oscar nomination for him looks like a dead cert.
To get to the obvious, Rourke's washed-up wrestler role looks a lot like Rourke's washed-up actor real life.
Of that, he says, "You know, I was on the bench for 13 years, and after like, 10 years go by, all you have is hope, and you start thinking, 'Man, is it really f----- over, like everybody says it is?' And in a town like L.A., you're reminded every day. You go out for a pack of cigarettes at 2 in the morning and there's a lineup of like, five or six people, and some jerk's gonna go, 'Hey! didn't you used to be ... ?' And you hear it 24/7. Or someone will come up and mention 9 1/2 Weeks, or Angel Heart, and yeah -- that was a long f----- time ago.
"It's like a fighter talking about old fights in the gym."
And all the rabid fan sites dedicated to Rourke? Did they help in the dark times?
No, says the actor, because they were all based on the past.
"That's what you did. What you did 20 years ago -- you can't pay the rent on that. You can't get laid on that. You can't go get a drink on that. You're yesterday's news. You get treated differently."
Rourke had almost reached a point where he'd given up.
"There were small things along the way," he concedes.
Mickey Rourke at the screening of The Wrestler at the Toronto International Film Festival. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea
"Sean Penn went out of his way to give me a day on The Pledge
. Stallone saw me in a restaurant one day when I could hardly pay for my spaghetti, and put me into Get Carter
. Tony Scott put me in Domino
and Robert Rodriguez in Once Upon a Time in Mexico
. It's a slow way back. I sold all my motorcyles, nine of them. It's funny, because everybody talks about a comeback, but when you've been out of work a decade or so, you're wary of it all."
Rourke puts the blame for his wrecked career squarely on himself.
"When I had a chance, I behaved so terribly. I wasn't accountable, I wasn't professional," he says.
"It wasn't that I was misunderstood. It was because I had a fuse burning inside of me that I didn't know how to put out.
"I didn't have the knowledge of how to do that, until I went and got information about why I behaved the way I did around authority figures. Only until you do that can you make a change.
"I thought I could change in a year, year and a half. I didn't realize it would take 10 years of working on it consistently.
"Before, I didn't care if there were repercussions."
Rourke set about mending fences, and one of the relationships he renewed was with old friend Bruce Springsteen.
Rourke wrote him a letter; the result is a song Springsteen wrote specifically for The Wrestler.
There's a scene in the movie that has Rourke's character -- Randy (The Ram) Robinson -- working at a supermarket deli, white apron and hair net included.
The Ram is doing his best to embrace civilian life, but a customer recognizes him, and the wrestler freaks out over how far he feels he has fallen.
"I was right there," says Rourke of the scene's emotion.
He describes his attempt to find construction work when things were bleakest for him, explaining that he figured he could work in the San Fernando Valley or somewhere else where people wouldn't recognize him.
But the friend he thought would help just laughed him off.
"I remember thinking, 'I can't even get a f------ construction job.' It was close."
Rourke credits his agent, David Unger of ICM, for bringing his career back to life.
"He took a big chance on his career by taking on a guy like me, with my reputation, and the baggage that came with me.
"I did a lot of damage out there."
Maybe so, but when Rourke gets up to leave the interview room, the reporters present applaud him spontaneously.
Over many years and literally thousands of interviews, this is something we've never seen happen before.
So it's nice to be back, then?
"Painfully nice," Rourke says.
September 17, 2008: Aronofsky and Rourke passionate about The Wrestler -- and wrestling
Review: Aronofsky's The Wrestler an instant classic
The Wrestler in our SLAM! Wrestling Movie Database
Photo gallery from The Wrestler screening at Toronto International Film Festival
The SLAM! Wrestling Movie Database