Out on the terrace at the Four Seasons, Mickey Rourke smokes a cigarette and chats with one of the handlers. Nattily dressed in a pinstripe suit with a clashing green vest, he looks the way you’d imagine Mickey Rourke to look, and it magnifies the extremes taken to transform him into The Wrestler. The torso-length blonde mane is gone and the gun show has left town. He still seems like he can break you in half over his knee, but minus Randy “The Ram’s” labored gait that’s like gravity working extra-hard to yank him into a crumpled heap.
The buzz around the movie is good and Rourke has decided to enjoy it. Sometimes it’s hard to get a question in. He can’t stop talking about the fight work, the culture of wrestling, the endless months of practice and exertion he put in to prove to director Darrin Aronofsky he hadn’t made a mistake. To show his director he understood what it took to make it happen, and that he was going to return to favor.
Here’s what Rourke had to tell Screencrave about what he considers the toughest gig of his entire career, and why he believes Aronofsky was the only guy ready to pull him through it.
First thing’s first, though: he has to pet the dog.
For reasons unexplained, someone in the room has brought along a snow-white teacup terrier. Rourke makes straight for it.
“Oh, you’re beautiful,” he coos. The owner asks if Rourke wants to hold it.
“Yes,” he replies, without hesitation, “they made me keep Lucky upstairs.” Lucky is one of Rourke’s five dogs. Six, actually. “ There’s a friend of mine who lives with me, he has one. A really annoying one.”
The owner tells Rourke the terrier’s a boy who goes by Timmy. Rourke retreats to the other side of the table with him, saying quietly “c’mon Timmy. We’ll change your name.”
The owner asks Rourke if he’s the alpha dog in his house.
“I’m always the alpha dog.” He grins. A minute later he crosses back around the table with Timmy cradled in his arms and returns him, ready to talk wrestling. Before this year, he admits knowing only one thing about sports entertainment.
“I knew that I didn’t like it. When I was I kid, some of the kids would go to the boxing matches and some of the kids would go to the wrestling. And I just went [to boxing]. Because wrestling was fake. I’m lookin’ at people going ‘it’s real.’ No, it’s fake. That was a big argument with kids on the block and shit. Never had no love for it until let’s see, we did three and a half months [of training]. About the beginning of the third month I went ‘this is my third trip to the hospital. My third MRI, and these guys have to be in shape.” Rourke appears to get tired just talking about it.
“I was gassin’ because it’s a different type of workout. It was like, really hard. I mean I couldn’t do some of the flips and stuff. One of the guys who was very athletic was doing these really interesting moves out the ring, across the neck, flipping over, scissors. I’d go in on Sundays and not tell Darrin.” Rourke’s admiration for the director would be a running theme in the discussion.
“What I wanted to do was really impress Darrin and have four moves that were really hard for any wrestler to do, who’s breathing, ya know? Cause we basically had to choreograph it so any half-assed athlete could do it and then I wanted to take it another step higher and really fucking bring it. I wanted Darrin to be really happy with me. And it worked out great. I had a new sort of respect for these guys, the wrestlers.” But that respect went well beyond the physical strain these guys endure on a nightly basis.
“What I liked about them is they’re a funny breed. There’s a lot of camaraderie. They travel together, they eat together, they screw together.” We didn’t ask for details. We just let him continue.
“They drink together, they talk about different supplements that’ll help each other out better. Even if a guy only has half a bottle of this [he’s like] ‘alright, I’ll give it to you.’ Cause they always need to keep that edge. They depend on each other for their livelihood. A lot of them travel in the same broken down car together, eatin’ in McDonald’s n’ shit. They’re sharing gas money, and at the end of the day, because they’re on the road so much, they don’t have much of a family life. Or whatever they do have, wife, girlfriend, kid, they’re not able to be that responsible for them. Then time goes by and they’re left alone.” Rourke discovered that the story of his character isn’t an isolated event. A lot of performers have paid a high price through the years.
“But [Randy’s] not giving up, he’s trying to keep that edge. That’s why he’s always in the gym sticking needles in his ass. Trying to beat the time-clock which is already passed where it should have been. And he’s trying to repair the relationships he’s had, one that he will never repair and one he doesn’t quite know how to. Because he’s never been consistent in his life. I can relate to that myself. There’s a lot of stuff I could relate to.” It’s well-known Rourke can be difficult on set. Aronofsky still pushed for him in the lead.
“I knew why Darrin wanted me to do the movie and why he fought really fuckin’ hard for me. I think there was a big part of me that didn’t want to do it. [Randy] is living in a state of disgrace and shame. He was somebody at one time, now he’s nobody. He can’t even fill up his car half the time. I’ve been there and it’s no walk in the park.” In the film Randy’s money troubles force him to get a part-time job in a Jersey supermarket. Not a big stretch from a screen idol descending into straight-to-dvd hell.
“It’s pretty shameful for a guy like Randy to be behind the counter, slicing salami for some blue-haired lady. He’s waiting to go to Madison Square Garden again, not working behind a counter with a hair net on. I don’t think Randy found that much fun, y’know?” Without giving away where the scene ultimately goes, Randy’s natural showmanship starts kicking in. He pours on the charm and teases customers, throwing hail-Mary passes with containers of mac salad.
“[Randy acts up] Out of boredom, I think. Also it’s like there again is another authority figure who’s four feet tall, telling him what to do. I don’t think he’s gonna go through the rest of his life listening to some midget tell him how to dish out cole slaw. That’s no way to live. And he’s trapped in that trailer with just…memories. I think it’s why he chooses, even when he’s not feeling very well, to have that last fight. I just think sometimes you gotta say ‘it’s not gonna happen for me, I might as well just step on the gas.” Rourke isn’t proud that an element of that factors into his involvement with the picture. He shrugs.
“The way Darrin works, Darrin knew more about me than I probably wanted him to or realized he did. I also know Darrin talked to half a dozen directors that I worked with in the past. He knew a lot more about me than I knew about him. All I knew were two movies he made and stuff that was comparable, when I asked people I respected, comparable to Coppola. [I learned] about his mind, and his being smarter than the rest of us, and directors like him coming around every thirty years. Sitting around talking to him, I knew what the man was made out of.” Almost right away, Aronofsky set the ground rules.
“He didn’t have to tell me ‘you have to listen to everything I say. You can never disrespect me in front of the crew.’ I wasn’t going to. But from things I’ve done in the past and how I’ve behaved I can’t blame him for repeating that to me, and I didn’t mind it. He said how hard it was going to be to make the movie with me and how I fucked a career up for fifteen years and he couldn’t raise the money. I have been working to change for over a decade and I still can’t get back in the game. I was thinking ‘this guy’s fishing in deep water here and he’s got his balls over the fence, fighting for me.’ So I decided right then and there that if this thing happened I was going to give him all of me.” Rourke really had no idea just how much the director would run with the offer.
“I was thinking to myself ‘I can’t wait until you get your hands on the next fish you work with.’ If you’re not in shape this guy will break you down.” In a way Aronofsky is known for being as exacting as much as Rourke is known for being a wild card. But he earned his star’s respect early and it piled on as the shoot barreled ahead.
“He was like a football couch. Like Vince Lombardi, he breaks your ass at practice so on Sunday you can win. He related to me that way and pushed my buttons that way and he challenged me to bring it. He’d say ‘I want you to bring it on this one,’ and I’d do it. Then he’d go ‘now I want you to really bring it,’ and I’d do it. Then he’d grab me and [he’d whisper] ‘bring. It.’ He wanted it so bad. And I wanted it to, but he wanted it just as bad as me. He worked with me a certain way and he worked with Evan a certain way, but he got performances. It wasn’t just me.” The filmmaker’s influence went far beyond Rourke.
“I remember looking at the crew and, we didn’t have chairs in the room. It was the first time I was ever on a movie set in my life where there’s no fucking chairs to sit down. And on this set I needed a chair. [Darrin] wanted to do the whole movie sort-of documentary style, all handheld. I remember one day, I was just huffing and puffing, I had just jumped over the top rope and there was something else they wanted to throw in extra. I was hyperventilating and [after a minute] I came back to do it again. I’m standing there looking at this camera operator and beads of sweat were just pouring off this guy’s face. I just said to him ‘what’s your name?’ I just wanted to know his name, cause he was bringing it. They all did that for Darrin.” To suitably learn all the moves and look the part of an aging ring hero, Rourke did four months of choreography and stunt training.
“[In the beginning] pretty basic. Then I saw this guy, who was very athletically inclined, out of boredom do this shit from outside of the ring, over the ring, the scissors thing, the reverse scissors. I was like ‘I wanna do all that shit.’ I think it paid off cause Darrin insisted that I do everything. Everything. Plus I was more coordinated than my double.” The moves didn’t come easy. A decade of boxing put Rourke at a severe logistical disadvantage.
“For fifteen, sixteen motherfuckin years everything was short and fast. And you move gracefully. You don’t move like this…” He raised up from his chair and pantomimes Randy’s ape-like shuffle.
“It took me a month and a half to stop moving like a boxer.” The training ring was conveniently located in Aronofsky’s loft, where he could perpetually hassle Rourke over his fancy footwork.
“He’d go ‘you’re moving like a boxer,’ and I’d go ‘fucking close the door!’ Finally I told the stunt coordinator ‘please, please keep him out of the room. Let me learn a few moves and then he can yell at me.’ [With wrestling] you’ve got to sell it to the audience. It felt so artificial. I’d never [telegraph] before I hit somebody.” On top of that, Rourke began a brutal daily workout regimen, eating seven meals a day and exploding his weight from 192 up to 235. More than 40 lbs of solid muscle.
“I walked by mirrors in the gym thinking ‘what the fuck is going on?’ Then my agent said ‘lose it quick.’ He goes to me ‘I know you like walking around looking like that.’ At that point I’d taken off ten pounds of it [after wrap]. He says to me ‘lose it. How are you gonna play a doctor or a lawyer looking like that?’ I said ‘I don’t wanna play a lawyer or a doctor. Those aren’t fun roles.’” Even now, back to his normal size, in his mismatched three-piece suit with that lime green vest, the only movie in which he could pass for a lawyer is Batman Forever. It seems like some of the neon hues he had to wear in The Wrestler were still hanging on.
“The look was from the eighties. They dressed a little differently than they do now. They had a lot more color. And they all wore armbands and shit and they all had really long hair, like a heavy metal look. Ya know [Randy] is trying to get back to those glory days, and he wants one more shot at wrestling at Madison Square Garden and instead he ends up in that room with all those geriatric wrestlers, one with a piss-bag and one selling his old boxing shoes.”
Randy gets his big match at the end, however, against an old foe (or “heel” as they’re called by the insiders). It led to one development where Rourke’s past as a fighter, not to mention his address book, came in handy.
“I used to come out [in my boxing days] to “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” So I asked Darrin if we could blast that. We didn’t have enough money for this so I called up Axl to ask him. He did us a really great favor and gave us “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” I’m so thankful to him for that. Slash gave us some riffs. We couldn’t afford either one of those guys.
“In Germany or Argentina or Oklahoma or in places where I’d fought. I’d always get nervous in the dressing room. When Freddie Roach was wrapping my hands. I’d go ‘it’s too tight’ and he’d go ‘it’s not too tight,’ and I’d go ‘it’s too tight,’ he’d go ‘it’s not to tight.’ I’d say ‘ I can’t breathe.’ Then the door would open and you’d hear the crowd and then it’s fucking terrifying. Then my music would come on and I’d be okay.” Rourke then wrote a letter to Bruce Springsteen and, sure enough, The Boss sent something back: that haunting theme that graces the trailer and closes out the picture.
Rourke takes a long sip of coffee.
“After about the sixth day, I think it was the scene with Evan Rachel Wood, it was a very emotional scene and we didn’t even know each other. I didn’t even know her name, I didn’t even know all three of her names put together. It was like ‘I think we got something special here,’ and I knew Darrin did. It was very rare I looked forward to going to work with an actor the next day and I was really looking forward to working with her or just going into another room with this pro wrestler guy and learn these sophisticated moves. It was the hardest fucking movie I ever made. It was just physically and emotionally draining and when I got done with the movie, it was the first time in twenty years I wanted to go to a wrap party.” Rourke stops and thinks about that for a moment.
“…But I couldn’t get off the couch for four days.”
The Wrestler opens December 18th 2008