Grappling with the past
‘The Wrestler’ Mickey Rourke gets another shot at the big time
By Carl Kozlowski 12/18/2008
Mickey Rourke’s Randy “Ram” Robinson is a washed-up pro wrestler whose greatest glory days were 20 years ago. His once-handsome face has been ravaged by the poundings he’s taken in the ring. Along with that, he’s lost his home — living in a decrepit trailer — and his wife and daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) due to his neglect.
After doctors order him to end his career following a match-induced heart attack, he struggles to enter the daily grind of “real life” with a job at a deli — an attempt to finally be a good father and establish a relationship with a stripper (Marisa Tomei), who wants out of her own racket.
Yet, hovering on Robinson’s limited horizon is one last chance to have a great match that might land him back in the big time, wrestling at Madison Square Garden.
While Robinson is a fictional character in the new film “The Wrestler,” his storyline — and the gritty way in which director Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream”) and debuting screenwriter Robert Siegel depict Robinson’s existence — are disquietingly true to life for Rourke, who in real “real life” is making his own dramatic comeback after years of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse and near-homelessness.
So far, “The Wrestler” has earned Rourke a coveted Golden Globe nomination for the first time in his career. And an Oscar nod is now considered a foregone conclusion by many critics.
“Darren probably knew things. I don’t read anything that’s written about me, but the way Darren works, he knew more about me than I wanted him to,” says Rourke, while tucked into a booth at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills last Friday night. “He said it was gonna be tough to make the movie with me since I screwed my career up for 15 years, but he still fought hard to make it with me and battled for the budget. I’ve been working on getting back in the game for 10 years and I had changed for the better. I knew I had to give him all of me, but if he said I would make the effort again, he’d get me an Oscar nomination.”
The process involved in portraying a wrestler included packing on 43 pounds of muscle and practicing flips and scissor-kicks for four months prior to shooting. Aronofsky kept the training intense, all the while keeping Rourke away from Tomei and Wood on the set. That way the actresses could maintain a sense of emotional discovery in their respective parts.“It was the hardest fucking movie I’ve ever made — physically and emotionally. It was the first time in 20 years I wanted to go to a wrap party, but I couldn’t get off the couch for four days,” says Rourke. “Darren wants all of you, like a football coach like Vince Lombardi — he’d push your buttons all week until you’re over-ready when game time hits.”
“You rarely if ever see a connection between a role and an actor that’s so perfect, and we had to get that,” says Aronofsky in a separate interview. “There was literally no one else in Hollywood whom I could see playing this role, and he dug deep to nail it.”
On this Friday evening, Rourke is calm and collected, his soft-spoken growl a far cry from his wild-man days of the 1980s and ’90s. With a rakish goatee that makes him look like a real-life Captain Morgan, it’s hard to tell if he’s managed to recover the once-striking good looks that added much to his bad-boy charmer appeal in cult classics like “Diner,” “9 ½ Weeks” and “Angel Heart” — looks pounded out of him during a several-year sojourn as a boxer fighting low-grade bouts in far-flung locales; from Argentina to Thailand, Georgia to Oklahoma.
What is clear is that he’s regained his movie-star swagger, as evidenced earlier last week when he entered a roundtable question and answer session with reporters wearing an outrageous fashion combination that only a supremely confident dude could pull off: a black suit with thick white stripes, key lime-green shirt with navy-blue stripes and a goldfish-colored vest to go with a sharp pair of boots. In the moments before his entrance, reporters nervously speculated about how he would look in person, since the film’s depiction of Robinson placed him under unusually harsh lighting that spotlighted every rough patch and scar on his body.
When he finally strolled in and eased his way into taking an immediate smoking break on a hotel patio, the room breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was clear that the man still “had it”: the inscrutable air of star quality that leaves strangers trying not to stare at his every move. And when he came back in the room, he held court like a seasoned raconteur, recalling his hardscrabble days of a youth spent on the streets of New York and Miami.
To the roomful of reporters on a Wednesday afternoon, Rourke depicted a tough childhood in which his parents split when he was 6 and his mother got remarried to a man who was abusive to her children. Rourke fell in with a rough crowd, studied self-defense training and eventually boxed his way to an amateur record of 20-7, including a string of 12 straight first-round knockouts. He also shared an unusual glimpse of what his life might have become if he had never considered acting.
“I was helping some bad characters collect money from gambling debts and one day I was sent in to rough up a particular customer,” he recalls. “Turns out it was a dwarf who happened to have a degenerate gambling habit. I tried pushing him a couple times, but then I just couldn’t bring myself to do beat up a dwarf. I quit and started acting.”
But speaking one-on-one Friday night, he also recalled the happier moments of his childhood and the significant role his Catholic faith played in his life.
“I grew up going to Catechism classes, and the early part of my life was in the Catholic Church. My father was very devout. He left us when I was 6, but I looked forward to Sundays as the days I got to see my dad,” Rourke recalls, happy memories lighting up his eyes. “I loved going to church with him, and we had our ritual where after church we’d get a bag of donuts, a quart of milk and sit on a stoop. You know it’s like you see somebody you know and respect, my father on his knees praying, I wanted to be just like him.”
When his mother got divorced, she joined the Episcopal Church and it was a decade before Mickey turned 17 and decided to return to Catholicism on his own. Despite his past battles with drugs and alcohol, and his still-ongoing predilections for pretty women, he’s rarely stopped praying since.
“If I wasn’t going to church, I always made sure I said my prayers. My younger brother got very sick at 17 and was given a short time to live, so I was told about St. Jude the miracle priest,” says Rourke. “My brother lasted 20 more years and I owe a lot of it to my faith and believing that my prayers helped my brother live as long as he was able to stay here. I used to go jogging 4 or 5 miles, and I’d continuously say my prayers over and over as I jogged.”
But just because Rourke was talking the talk with his prayers didn’t mean he was walking the walk of a holy man. Even at his peak, he purposely built an image as an outrageous outlaw prone to creating scenes, like the time he attended a meeting with studio execs with an entourage of Hells Angels in full regalia beside him.
He was also filled with self-loathing from his childhood abuse, with that being the prime factor in his decision to drop out of acting and get into boxing. The combination of bad behavior in Hollywood, bad film choices after his early string of classics, and newly bad looks from boxing and poor plastic surgery left him virtually unemployable.
The defining moment of his life came in 1994, amid a turbulent six-year marriage to former supermodel Carre Otis, with whom he had starred in the notorious soft-core film “Wild Orchid” in 1990. During their union, she got hooked on heroin, an addiction so fierce it resulted in her getting raped while disoriented from the drug.
When Rourke learned who the rapist was, he decided to take matters in his own hands and headed out with a gun in one pocket and a note in the other to explain his motivations in committing murder/suicide as a last act on behalf of his now-twisted sense of honor. He wanted to kill the rapist and then kill himself, figuring he had nothing left to live for and that his murdering the rapist would be an act of vengeance in Otis’ name.
Yet, instead of going through with it, Rourke felt compelled to enter one of New York City’s most famous churches — the Church of the Holy Cross near Times Square. There, racked with sorrow and doubt, he started to cry — and the parish pastor, Father Peter Colapietro, took notice.
“I reached a place in my life where living was living hard. I was at a crossroads. Because I was raised Catholic, I had issues with the dark side of life I was drifting in,” says Rourke. “I didn’t know this man, Father Peter. I just walked in his church one day, walked in the right door and met the right priest.
“I was ready to take care of business in a rather severe way and Father Peter talked me out of it. It was gonna be more than a punch in the mouth, and the guy deserved more, but Father Peter gave me the rap about where in the Bible does it say ‘Vengeance is mine, says Mickey Rourke?’ He really helped me because with this issue I wouldn’t have had a bad conscience. I’ve always had a conscience, I think that’s probably kept me out of prison by keeping me in line a little bit. But he took away my gun and had me leave the note with St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes. And he said that part of my life could be over now and I still had the opportunity to do things over again.”
Over the 14 years since then, Rourke and Father Colapietro have cemented their friendship, with Rourke saying his confessions in Colapietro’s kitchen over smokes and a bottle of red wine. Rourke has Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at the church rectory, a tradition that will continue this year.
“He definitely is a man of faith and believes in God’s presence in the world,” says Father Colapietro, when reached by phone at the Holy Cross rectory. “He often wonders why he’s having this success right now and I say you’ve got the talent, and talent is a gift from God.”
For his part, Rourke is trying to ride the wave of new success that “The Wrestler” is bringing him while keeping a level head about it all.
“Father Peter called me to say congratulations about the Golden Globes and said he wanted to pray for me. But I asked him to pray for my dogs [he has six in lieu of children] because I’m a wreck thinking about them when I travel and have to leave them behind,” says Rourke, who admits women are still a vice for him. “You can’t pray to get an acting job or a nomination or an award, because other actors need those things too and you can’t expect God to play favorites. What you do pray for are the important things, like the health and safety of your loved ones, or for God to intervene in some of the really awful things going on in this world.
“You know, you can have fame, success and all the money in the world, but you can never take it with you. I believe God can reward you, but I don’t think he punishes you really. And those rough spots are the lessons in life. I wish I went with God’s plan 15 years ago, instead of mine. I’d be in a lot different place — but I’m glad to be where I am right now.”