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Mickey Rourke Interviewed: Plus Hollywood's Greatest Comebacks
Chris Roberts , January 15th, 2009 01:57

Chris Roberts gets personal with Mickey Rourke and The Quietus remembers more of cinema's greatest comeback stories

I'm sitting there thinking this is the most complex movie star, possibly the most interesting human being, I've met in a long time. The PR has already tried to wind it up four times, to which Mickey Rourke has said, each time, "Give us five, give us five". So finally, reluctantly, I say, "Well, we could go on forever". Rourke says immediately, "I hope not." I feel a little crestfallen. Rourke sucks on another Marlboro and strokes the tiny dog on his lap and goes, “Not you.” Another pause. "I mean, y'know…life in general."

Mickey is the real deal. Hollywood loves redemption stories. The brilliant, moving, cliché-subverting The Wrestler - the finest artistic hymn to losers since Bukowski died; a male midlife tragedy - doesn’t give us a redemption story, but Rourke's revival and shower of awards do. Offscreen he went from riches to rags, from beauty to ugliness, from cockiness to despair, in real time, in the real world.

Through the 80s, he was "the new Brando", "the new James Dean", a unique rebel actor and tough-guy heartthrob, his smirk and subtly suggested soulfulness lending grace and enigma to Diner, Rumble Fish, Angel Heart, Barfly, and other fine films. (The only topic off bounds with Rourke is Nine And A Half Weeks). But then a series of poor choices and dire films and a volatile, violent marriage riddled several bizarre years. In 1991 he quit acting for boxing, emerging brave but often bloodied. Some disastrous plastic surgery further mangled the legend. Broke (in every way), he returned to acting (which he’d previously described as "not a manly profession"), effectively reliant on favours for small gigs. He turned up on time and slowly regained the trust of directors. His waxy face is a car crash now, blotchy, blurry, half a pout and half a flinch, but director Darren Aronofsky ensures that The Wrestler possesses enough timeless literary/cinematic intelligence to make an advantage of it.

"I used rage to cover up my shame, for years", he muses. He seems both exhilarated and bewildered by the fact that people are now queueing up to interview him ("nobody wanted to take my picture for, like, fifteen years", he chuckles). "I'd had a big fucking house, pussy, anything anybody could want. I lost it all, my wife, my motor bikes, my career…I resisted going to therapy because for one thing I couldn’t afford it. But then…it was that or I was gonna suck on a bullet, y’know? I was so fucked up. Some shit happened when I was little that I was terribly ashamed of - issues of abuse and abandonment that made me feel insignificant and small. And I‘d tried to mask that by becoming hard. By blaming authority figures. By blaming the rest of the world. I was out of line. For years. Well, something had to change. I was living in a world on my own, there were no rules, the gloves were off and teeth would get broken. There will always be that jerk-off inside me, but I’m working on it, all the time."

Five years ago I interviewed Rourke around the time of the meretricious movie Spun, one of many dues-paying acts of penitence which meant The Wrestler isn’t quite the out-of-nowhere resurrection some think it is. (Anyone reduced from playing the iconic Motorcycle Boy to the likes of Another Nine And A Half Weeks, not to mention They Crawl, deserves our sympathy). As he walked into the Dorchester suite, his first words were, "That last guy was a fucking abominable prick! His stupid questions were out of a fucking teacup! Put a can on it. Right now!" There was clearly only one thing I could do to salvage the situation. "You’re wearing a Chelsea shirt!" I exclaimed. "Who’s your favourite player?" Five minutes later he was becalmed. "Whatever you wanna ask is fine", he muttered sleepily. "I’m just glad to be out of that other shit." As he left he asked me if he could borrow some cigarettes. "It’s your pack", I clarified.

One thing he said that day was, "After a while actors dry up like leaves. They don’t turn colours any more. I wasn’t enjoying acting, because of stuff - worms in my head - but I’m fortunate, I love doing it again now. Was I the new Brando? Well, hey, maybe if I woulda offed myself back then I‘d be well thought-of now. But God punished me - he made me live."

Another thing was, "I made some stupid, jerky, fall-on-my-ass mistakes, for fifteen years, and I regret a lot. A lot. Hollywood didn’t kick my ass; I kicked my ass. You go up against the system, you don’t win. I lost. That was it. I lost. Humbling."

"But we all change and evolve. People shouldn’t be afraid of my reputation. If I’m judged for who I am now, not for who I once was, then it’s a good day. The big picture may be out of my hands, but at least I’m not out of control any more. Of course, there’s a fear, an insecurity: is the party over? Did I miss the boat? Whereas before, I was 100% confident, I didn’t give a fuck. But I’m still living, so it’s all about survival now."

As we now know, Mickey not only survived, he triumphed. The Wrestler isn’t just a sports movie. It isn’t Rocky. It keeps it painfully real (psychologically, as much as physically). Randy "The Ram", a washed-up ex-pro wrestler now eking out an existence before moderately-sized crowds, does not enjoy an Indian summer. He’s trapped in his body, in his shot-to-bits self-image, in his habits, in his almost but not quite glorious past. The wrestling, in case you’re as dumb as a shoe, or a critic on Newsnight Review proclaiming this "not a movie for women", is a metaphor. Wrestling is what Randy did pretty well when he was young. He’s no longer young. His options are narrowing, perhaps fatally. That’s what the film’s about.

The object of Randy’s affections, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei as a stripper with a heart of gold, though even this cliché is brightly handled) naively compares his decline to Christ’s Passion. Randy suffers humiliation, suffers because he’s addicted to steroids, because he has to work on a butcher’s counter (a redundant piece of meat serving…oh, you get it), because the daughter who he was never there for (Evan Rachel Wood) thinks he’s a bad joke, and because Cassidy doesn’t see him as partner material. "I rewrote some of my scenes", Rourke offers. "Some of the stuff that comes out of my mouth is very personal. Stuff I’ve been through. That’s me in there. I was glad to be making a movie thinking, well, nobody’s gonna realise I’m talking about myself…ha!" In the ring, Randy’s perversely fearless. Outside it he’s crippled by fear of change. His inner growth arrested back in his good years, before he aged and broke down. He’s clinging on.

The parallels with Rourke’s career are many, but the actor should now garner the garlands (a Golden Globe this week, a chance of an Oscar on the cards). The titular wrestler doesn’t, despite the equal levels of their commitment. Of course, Mickey might screw it up again, might decide that acting isn't "manly", but that seems unlikely. His body was genuinely trashed by some of the fight scenes, and his candour and nerves in person, while charming, don’t suggest swagger. Rourke is a bull, but he’s brittle.

He loves his boxing metaphors. "When you’re hurt, you have to survive by being defensive. If something's stronger than you, let it shoot its load then counter with angles and speed. The more excitable you get, the more you run out of steam. Don’t panic - relax. I think all this gives me something special in acting. It’s almost like I know how to get by in hostile territory."

So is everything rosy now?

"I do feel thankful, because let’s face it my career was over. But…I’m wary, now. In LA they’re quick to say: you’re over, you’re finished. Go self-destruct, you hopeless failure."

It’s looking good for Mickey at this moment; the Comeback Kid myth flourishes. Yet the greatness of The Wrestler, which is macho-sentimental in all the places films usually aren’t, and vulnerable and truthful and funny and bleakly depressing where few are, is that for Randy "The Ram" it isn’t looking so good and the comeback attempt is just a flurry of hope postponing the inevitable. Mickey Rourke is one in a million. Randy "The Ram" is, sooner or later, most of us.

Click here to see our gallery of other cinematic comeback stories.