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"I hated the ’90s. The ’90s fuckin’ sucked,” says professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson early on in The Wrestler — and he should know. Over the hill and past his prime — his steroidal body a palimpsest of battle scars, his graying hair dyed a Nordic blond — Robinson hasn’t seen the inside of a major arena for the better part of 20 years. Nowadays, he gets top billing by scraping bottom, trading blows with other used-to-be’s and might-have-beens in school gymnasiums and banquet halls, earning a cut of the door that’s barely enough to cover his trailer-park rent.
As it happens, the ’90s weren’t much kinder to the actor playing Robinson: Mickey Rourke. By the end of that misbegotten decade, the one-time Hollywood A-lister was living in a $500-a-month studio apartment and subsisting on a meager income generated by the sale of his motorcycle collection plus whatever acting jobs he could scrounge up from the few producers in town who weren’t afraid to hire him. His flirtation with a boxing career had come to an end. His tabloid-catnip marriage to model Carré Otis had hit the skids. There were reports of arrests and of plastic surgeries gone awry. It was said he had walked off the set of one movie after a producer refused to allow Rourke’s pet chihuahua to appear with him in a scene.
“The thing is that I am the one to blame for all that,” Rourke says as he lights a cigarette in what I’m pretty sure is a nonsmoking suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, the day after The Wrestler’s North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. His chihuahua, Loki, issues a bark from a nearby cushion. “I used to blame other people, but I’ve got nobody else to blame except for Mickey Rourke.”
That’s more or less the same thing Rourke told director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) when they first met to discuss The Wrestler. Or rather, it was what Aronofsky told him. “He sits down and, for the first five minutes, he tells me how I fucked up my whole career for 15 years behaving like this, and I’m agreeing with everything,” Rourke recalls. “Yes, I did. That’s why I haven’t worked for 15 years, and I’ve been working real hard not to make those mistakes.” After that, Aronofsky pointed his finger at the actor — something, Rourke says, that not so long ago would have prompted him to say, “Don’t do that, okay, buddy?” — and laid out the ground rules.
“He goes, ‘You have to listen to everything I say. You have to do everything I tell you. You can never disrespect me. And you can’t be hanging out at the clubs all night long. And I can’t pay you.’ And I’m thinking, ‘This fucker must be talented, because he’s got a lot of nerve to say that.’” Then Aronofsky told Rourke that if he did all of those things, he would get the actor an Oscar nomination. “The moment he said that, I believed him,” says Rourke. “The first day of work, I believed him more. The second day of work, I believed him even more.” (As for the finger-pointing, “I’m from New York — we point a lot,” Aronofsky tells me later. “Like any good marriage, you want to be as up-front as possible about what the issues are.”)
On set, the actor-director relationship continued in a similar vein — which, for Rourke, who has worked with some of the industry’s most notoriously demanding, perfectionist auteurs (Francis Coppola, Michael Cimino, Tony and Ridley Scott), was par for the course. Aronofsky, says Rourke, “knew how to push my buttons. The way I work, I normally get a scene on the first or second take, and then I can do other things — improvise, whatever. So, I do a take, and I nail it. I look over at Darren and I think, ‘Okay, we’re moving on.’ And he walks over to me and says, ‘Do it again.’ I say, ‘Didn’t we nail it?’ And he says, ‘You nailed it. You can do it better.’” Then Aronofsky points his finger again, this time pressing it right against Rourke’s chest for emphasis: “Do it better.”
“And you know what surprised me?” Rourke says. “I did it again and I did it better. That was the way we worked. He knew that if he challenged me, that’s what I wanted. A lot of people don’t like that; me, I need it.”
The result, which has already been widely hailed as Rourke’s career-capping/redefining/resuscitating turn, is a characterization of rare intensity and pathos that bristles with the lived-in authority of someone who knows what it means to live with his back against the ropes. “I’ve seen this side of life. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this side of life,” Rourke sighs. As you watch the Ram onscreen — reduced to working the deli counter of a New Jersey supermarket after a heart attack takes him out of the ring, playing the electronic avatar of himself in an ’80s-era Nintendo wrestling game — the line between performer and performance all but disappears. Finally, we’re left with the sense Rourke has always given in his best work, of an actor who so thoroughly immerses himself in a role that he isn’t merely playing the character but living it, moment by moment, from the second he gets up in the morning until he goes to bed at night.
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