Sure, the Golden Globe winner isn’t as pretty as he was, but he is having more sex and attracting attention for his acting, not his antics. And if Rourke doesn’t nab an Oscar this time, so what? He’s going for one next year, too.
I was in the lobby, where I had bumped into the waiting Unger, whom I knew a little. The agent offered me a ride to the airport. Did I want to share a limo with Mickey Rourke? Fuck yeah, I did.
Stepping out of the elevator, he was bleary-eyed but smiling, with a bandanna tied around his head and Loki in a mesh carrier slung over his shoulder. His face looked a little strange (since his boxing days, his nose has been rebuilt with cartilage from one ear), but he was still sexy, like Axl Rose with muscle tone. We said hello as he parked his luggage at the curb and piled into the car. Rourke had things on his mind (apparently very beautiful things — “To this day,” he says, “every time I go to Toronto I look for that girl”), so we rode mostly in silence for several minutes. Then, suddenly, Rourke erupted.
“Where’s my dog?” he yelped, and in his voice there was no badass, only terror. “Stop the car!!” The driver pulled over, even though we were on the freeway and there was no shoulder. Rourke jumped out and ran to the trunk. A moment later he fished out his dog, who hadn’t yet suffocated, and proceeded to kiss her repeatedly on the lips.
Loki, buried in the dark, was like his career at the time. Rourke cherished her because she made him feel special. Even today he calls Loki his “Number One,” pays a guy to cook her meals, and has recently hired Italian artisans (I’m not making this up) to cast her in bronze. He loves that little dog. And yet, like his talent, he almost killed her with neglect.
“I’m sitting there going, ‘I can barely pay for this bowl of spaghetti,’ ’’ says Rourke. “ ‘Goddamn do I need a movie.’ ’’
Famously, Rourke turned down roles in some of the most acclaimed films of the 1980s and ’90s: Pulp Fiction, Platoon, The Untouchables, Beverly Hills Cop. The director Adrian Lyne once said that if only Rourke had died after he made Angel Heart, in 1987, he would have been James Dean. But Rourke lived and was himself: a has-been, reduced to selling off his Harley-Davidson collection to pay the bills.
I ask if he has regrets. “Of course I do,” he says, exasperated. “My head was up my asshole. I’ve got a lot of fucking regrets.”
Regret, of course, is a big part of what makes The Wrestler so devastating. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: The Wrestler doesn’t just star Mickey Rourke. In many ways it’s about him.
Just as the film’s main character, Randy “the Ram” Robinson, avoids his prissy given name (Robin), so too does Rourke, who was born Philip Andre Rourke Jr. (His father and namesake, an amateur bodybuilder, left when Rourke was six and ultimately drank himself to death.) Just as the Ram is humiliated when a fan discovers him working behind the counter in the deli meats section of a New Jersey grocery store, Rourke was once shopping in a 7-Eleven when a guy walked up to him and said, “Didn’t you used to be a movie star?” In the film the Ram deliberately sticks his hand into a meat-slicing machine; a few years ago Rourke intentionally sliced off the tip of his finger (enduring hours of surgery to have it reattached). Just like the Ram, who lives in a decrepit trailer (when he can afford to pay the rent), Rourke — who once owned a $5 million house and that huge motorcycle collection — knows what it is to be flat broke.
“There were parallels. It was almost embarrassing. There was a lot of shame. A lot of living in disgrace in a state of hopelessness that was really close to the belt,” Rourke says, remembering the period when he had to ask friends for money just to get by. The parallels were so strong, in fact, that when Rourke asked Aronofsky if he could rewrite his dialogue, the director said yes. “There’s a speech at the end of the movie where I say I never thought I’d be back here in the ring again — that I don’t hear as well as I used to and I don’t have as many teeth in my mouth. And when you get to be a certain age they want to put you on the goddamn shelf. That was all something I was able to write from what had happened to me,” he says. “I mean, that’s how I felt with the acting.”
We are sitting at a corner table in an Italian cafe a few blocks from the rented Greenwich Village townhouse he shares with his beloved dogs and his manager. It is early December, just as the Academy Award frenzy is beginning to peak. This interview is part of that frenzy, part of playing “the game” that the old Rourke once disdained so vocally. But now, for perhaps the first time, he is not too proud to admit he wants to win. “Everybody wants to play in the big game on Sunday,” he says. “But if you don’t train hard — if you don’t do your roadwork — you’re not gonna.” Five days after he said that, Rourke nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for best actor.
It’s been a long time since Rourke, who once studied with Elia Kazan and Sandra Seacat, has won attention for his acting instead of his antics. He gained critical acclaim in 1981 for his breakout role in Body Heat and, in 1983, got the best supporting actor award from the National Society of Film Critics for his role in Diner. In 1984 many praised his unforgettable performance as a small-time hood with big dreams in The Pope of Greenwich Village. He became a sex symbol by romancing Kim Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks. But he never got nominated for an Oscar.
“Listen, I get laid more now than I did back then, so I’m not going to complain,” he says.