Up from the Mat: An Interview with Mickey Rourke
With his scene-stealing performance in Body Heat, Mickey Rourke announced himself as a major talent. The work which followed -- Diner, 9 1/2 Weeks, Rumble Fish, Barfly, Angel Heart -- marked him as a serious actor with an immense devotion to his craft. It also marked him as a major headache for directors -- temperamental, confrontational, and given to hubristic excess. It all came crashing down in the early '90s, marking a 15-year absence from the Hollywood A-list. His efforts at a comeback had been only sporadically successful, but recently gained ground with his acclaimed turn as a noir force of nature in Sin City and now The Wrestler -- a role which may very well land him an Oscar nomination. He spoke to the press about the film, his life, and the lessons they both have taught him during the publicity tour for the film.
[Spoiler Warning: The last question in the interview discusses the movie's finale.]
Question: How familiar were you with the world of wrestling before you started this project?
Mickey Rourke: Zip. I knew that I didn't like it and that was about it. When I was a kid, some of us would go to boxing matches and some of us would go to wrestling matches. I always went to the boxing matches because I thought the wrestling was fake. (That's a big argument at that age: Is it real or is it fake?) I never had any love for it until about the third month of our three-and-a-half month shoot... and my third trip to the hospital and my third MRI. These guys have to be in shape. I was gassing because it's a different type of workout from boxing. I couldn't do any of the flips and stuff, and yet these guys were pulling all kinds of shit. It blew me away.
I wanted to impress Darren [Aronofsky], so I would go in on Sundays and practice. I wanted to secretly have, like, four moves that are really hard to do. We had it choreographed so that any half-assed athlete could do it, but I wanted to take it a step higher and really fucking bring it. I wanted Darren to be happy with me. It worked out great and I came out of it with a newfound respect for these guys. They're a funny breed: there's a lot of camaraderie there. They depend on each other for their livelihood. They're all traveling in the same car together, eating at McDonalds together, sharing gas money, and all of that. They share supplements with each other -- legal supplements -- to help keep that edge that they need. And at the end of the day, because they're on the road so much, they don't have much of a family life. Whatever family they have, they're not able to be responsible for, and as time goes by, they're left alone.
Randy's dealing with that. He's trapped in that trailer with just memories, but he's not giving up. He's still trying to beat the clock and repair his relationships -- one that he'll never repair and one that he doesn't quite know how to because he's never really been consistent with his life. I can relate to that a lot. I knew why Darren wanted me to do the movie, and why he fought really fucking hard to get me the part, and why part of me inside didn't want to do the part. Randy's living in this state of disgrace, a state of shame. He was somebody at one time, and 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.
Q: Did the film help you find peace with some of the relationships in your life? Did Darren maybe know some of that?
MR: I don't read any of the things that are written about me, but the way Darren works, he probably knew more about me than I wanted him to or that I realized he did. I know that Darren talked to half a dozen different directors who I've worked with in the past. He knew a lot more about me than I knew about him. All I knew was two movies he had made, and the fact that people I respected kept comparing him to Coppola. They talked about his mind, how much smarter he was than the rest of us. They said that directors like him come along maybe once every thirty years, and when I started talking to him, I could see that.
I also knew what he wanted out of me and why he wanted that. He told me how hard it was going to be to make this film with me. I'd fucked my career up for fifteen years, and he couldn't raise the money, and yet he was still fighting for me. He was laying his balls on the fence for me: giving me that chance that I'd been looking for after a decade of trying to get back into the game. I decided right then and there, that if it happens, I was going to give him all of me. He didn't have to point his hand at me and tell me to listen to everything he had to say. He didn't have to tell me not to disrespect him in front of the crew. I wasn't going to, but from things I've done in the past -- the way I've behaved in the past -- I wouldn't blame him for repeating that to me. I have to remind myself all the time of shit like that -- the old silly shit.
Q: How did you feel about the film when you were making it? Did you think you might have had a winner?
MR: After about the sixth day -- I think it was the scene with Evan Rachel Wood when I was crying -- I really felt like we had something special here. I knew Darren did. It's very rare that I look forward to working with an actor the next day, but I really wanted to keep working with her, and with him, and with the wrestling coaches, learning those hard moves I mentioned.
It was the hardest fucking movie I ever made. Just physically and emotionally draining. The wrap party was the first one in twenty years that I wanted to go to, and I literally couldn't get off the couch for four days. Darren is the kind of director who pushes you that way. I gave him so much of me and I hope the next fish he gets a hold of is ready for him. This guy will break you down. He's like Vince Lombardi: he busts your ass in practice so on Sunday you can win. Darren kept saying, "I want you to bring it," and I'd do it. Then he'd say, "I want you to really bring it," and I'd do it. Then he'd grab me and whisper, "Bring it," and I'd have to find some reserve that let me do it. I wanted it so bad, but he wanted it even more. He worked with me a certain way and he worked with Evan a different way, but he got what he wanted out of all of us.
He worked the crew that way too. There were no chairs on the set. First set I've ever been on where there were no fucking chairs to sit down -- and on this set, I needed a chair. I remember one time when I was laying there on the top rope, huffing and puffing and hyperventilating. The camera guy was there with a handheld camera -- we were doing most of this documentary style -- and there were beads of sweat pouring off this guy's face. He was working just as hard as I was... and he was doing it for Darren.
Q: How much preparation was involved with the choreography and the physical workouts?
MR: About six months. I had this guy, this Israeli cage fighter. Ex-commando. We went back to Miami and he just broke my ass down. We just hit the iron really, really hard. Did cardio. Ate between six or seven meals a day. It was intense. But I think it paid off. Darren insisted that I do everything, and I couldn't have done that if I wasn't prepped.
Then I get done and my agent tells me, "Lose it quick." I've lost it all but about ten pounds worth.
Q: How much did you put on originally?
MR: I went from 192 to 235. But my agent, he said, "How are you going to play a doctor or a lawyer looking like that?" I said, "I don't want to play a doctor or a lawyer. Those aren't fun roles."
We did a lot with the look beyond the weight: the spandex and the hair extensions were all from the 1980s, from that era that had passed him by. I wanted to include the hearing aid too. I knew this old wrestler from Gold's Gym back in the day who had hearing aids in both ears. I think he lost his hearing from working in a Harley-Davidson shop, but he used to wrestle under the name of Magic. I actually based a lot of the character on this guy. Darren and I fought a bit about the hearing aid, because he thought I was going to use it as a prop. But I thought it was really important to show how he was breaking down -- to show that no matter how much iron he pumped, he was starting to lose it all. We ended up using it in a very discrete way, and this is another sign of how genius Darren can be. We used it, but only when Randy wasn't showing off or talking to a girl or performing in the ring.
Q: Did your boxing experience provide any help or insight into the character?
MR: It actually got in the way. For fifteen, seventeen years, everything was short and fast. You move gracefully and quickly, and catch the other guy by surprise. In wrestling you have to sell it and broadcast it. It took me a month and a half to stop moving like a boxer. Darren would yell at me from his office door -- we had the ring in his loft -- and he'd say, "You're moving like a boxer!" I finally asked the stunt coordinator to keep him out of the room just so I could learn some moves. My muscles and my mind had to be retrained. In boxing, I would never broadcast my moves before I was going to hit a guy. I had to change all of that.
There were a few times where it helped mentally. That moment where he's backstage and he's going out to his big match. I remembered how it used to feel to go to Germany or Argentina or Oklahoma -- places I'd fought. I remembered how nervous I'd get waiting for it all to start. But then my music would come on -- I always played "Sweet Child of Mine" coming into the ring -- and I was okay. So I asked Darren if we could use that in the final match, and I think it worked. Axl Rose did us a really great favor by giving us the rights.
Q: Have you seen the film?
MR: I don't watch anything I do. I saw the wrestling stuff, that was all I could bear. I'll look at it in a couple of years, but I really don't want to see the emotional stuff right now. It's still too close.
Q: In your interpretation, does Randy die in that final match?
MR: I hope so.
Article published 12.18.2008.
Also read: Q&A: Darren Aronofsky.
Also read: Rob Vaux's review of The Wrestler.
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