Mickey Rourke disappeared from the public eye years ago. And for a half hour, the packed house at the Times Center on December 8th thought he’d pulled a similar act on his talk with New York Times reporter Lynn Hirschberg and director Darren Aronofsky. But he eventually made an entrance in a pinstriped suit and purple John Lennon shades that he wore despite the dimmed auditorium setting. There’s serious Oscar buzz for Rourke’s turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Despite his bad boy image, Rourke wouldn’t blow this shot at career redemption with a missed appearance.
Rourke all but shoved the moderator off the stage as he entertained the crowed with expletive-laden self-deprecation. But mostly Rourke offered effusive praise for the director who inspired what he called the best work of his roller coaster career. He’d never seen Aronofsky before they had a meeting in the Meatpacking District (“Uh-huh. I’ll always call it the Village.”). Despite Aronofsky pulling up on a green bicycle and wearing a yellow helmet, Rourke “could just tell he had a huge set of balls.” Initially reluctant to do a wrestling movie with a director “whose only exercise comes from buttoning his suit,” Rourke came to see him as “one of the greats who only come around every thirty years. To me, he’s the new Coppola.”
He needed the help. The years Rourke spent boxing hindered rather than prepared him for the role. Boxers look down their disfigured noses at wrestlers. The broad, theatrical fighting moves of WWE matches are anathema to the hunched stances and quick, intricate jabs required of successful boxers.
Six grueling months of training humbled him. His trainer, a former member of the Israeli army (who would “put that cap thing on” whenever they hit the gym during Shabbat) had to push him up and guide him down the stairs of his TriBeCa walkup. He bonded with the wrestlers he met and learned the business, for better (a backstage camaraderie that brightens the often bleak film) and worse (life-altering injuries, a dependence on “vitamins” that Rourke mentioned with a wink).
Rourke has not seen The Wrestler. He won’t for “a few years” He never looks back on his movies until they’re long gone from the theaters since he only looks for their flaws. As Aronofsky said, “he is a man who is absolutely impossible to compliment.” The actor even tried to leave the stage when Hirschberg announced she would be showing a clip from the film. After the moderator shot him down (perhaps out of fear he would never return) he compromised by sticking his fingers in his ears and closing his eyes.
Whatever confidence Rourke lacks in his performances has not changed the work ethic behind them. A graduate of New York’s Actor’s Studio, the Times called him “one of the few true method actors of today.” Aronofsky noted the rewarding challenge of such an understated actor playing a character whose trade demands hamming it up. “Anger is easy,” Rourke said of the Ram’s wrestling scenes and tempter tantrums. It was the longing and regret called for in scenes between Randy and his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) that took an emotional toll. The actors met on camera. Aronofsky explained that “the daughter is a woman who only knows her celebrity father through imagery and that’s just how Evan knew of Mickey.” It’s the kind of authenticity that permeates the film and has made its star an awards season frontrunner.
Whatever praise that Rourke continues to receiving on his comeback tour is unlikely to go to his head. A member of the audience recalled that Rourke had once said in an interview that he could teach anyone to act in fifteen minutes. “Sorry, I was all messed up when I said that,” he admitted. “I think had a court date the next morning.”