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.
Rourke looks out from under a cowboy hat, his two front teeth rimmed in gold for an upcoming role, his blue jeans slack on a lean frame (he’s almost back to his normal weight, 195), his mien a weird mix of warmth and ferocity. This is a man who says he finds punching things relaxing but also a man who dissolves into tears when Loki or one of his other five dogs falls ill. That soft/hard duality is on display in The Wrestler, too. But Rourke wants people to know that, all echoes aside, he isn’t just playing himself. Before you can be considered for best actor, after all, people have to believe you were acting.
Because he is trained as a boxer, many think wrestling came easy for Rourke. On the contrary, he says: Boxing is short, quick movements, while pro wrestling is more acrobatic, with exaggerated, roundhouse swings. “It’s like ping-pong and rugby,” he says of the two sports. “I had so many habits to break.”
Rourke, who for years has followed anti-aging regimens that include self-administered B-12 shots and intravenous vitamin replacement sessions, is serious about his body. Even before The Wrestler he worked out for 80 minutes five times a week, a mixture of cardio, light weights, and boxing — mitts only, no contact. “I can’t do any contact anymore,” he says, repeating a doctor’s assessment.
To acquire the physique of a wrestler he pushed himself to the limit. (Officially, he did it with twice-daily workouts with a former Israeli cage fighter and seven meals a day, but when I ask if he also used steroids or human growth hormone, he smiles conspiratorially and says, “When I’m a wrestler, I behave like a wrestler.”) He did all of his own stunts, diving off the ropes onto the mat, flipping backward through the air, even doing what pro wrestlers call “gigging.” Aronofsky asked Rourke, in their first conversation about the film, if he was familiar with the term. He wasn’t, so the director explained: To give audiences the gore they want, wrestlers often hide bits of razor blade in their taped-up wrists. Then, at the right moment, they cut themselves, usually on the face so the blood will flow into their eyes.
“Darren said, ‘I’m going to want you to gig in the movie.’ And it was always on my mind: God, when are we going to do that scene,” Rourke says. “So the night of the scene, he says, ‘You really don’t have to do it.’ I said, ‘Fuck you. I’m gigging!’ ”
The scene is hard to watch, not just for the blood but for the desperation in Rourke’s eyes. “I wasn’t doing it for my art; I was doing it for Darren,” Rourke says. “Because Darren challenged me. He knew how to push my buttons.”
Ah, Rourke’s buttons. Who hasn’t heard about them? His problems with, but yearning for, discipline. His temper (famously, he once beat up his ex-wife’s drug dealer). His inability to deal with authority. “I’ve got to watch my ass every second of the day,” he tells me. “I mean, I’m not as out of control and unpredictable as I was. I’m accountable now. I really am. But still there’s always going to be that little man with the hatchet inside of me.”
In almost every interview over the past year, Rourke has laid the blame for this psychic torment on the abuse he suffered at the hands of a brutal stepfather. And he has thanked God and his therapist, a guy he simply calls Steve, for helping him to keep his rage in check.
How well Rourke has heeded God and Steve is put to the test when I mention a recent profile in the New York Times Magazine in which Rourke’s stepfather denied any abuse and painted the actor as a poser who has faked his own suffering to justify his tough-guy persona and get attention. Rourke bristles, but doesn’t blow.
“Let me just say one thing to you: I studied — and struggled and persevered and concentrated and focused like a fucking monk — to be the actor that I am, and then I threw it all away,” he says. “You don’t do that unless you got issues, and those issues are fucking real. And there’s no gray there. They’re all fucking black and white.”
Rourke’s sister and stepsister issued a statement denouncing the Times piece. They noted that had the writer contacted them, they would’ve backed their brother up.
You can almost see Rourke catching himself again as he changes the subject and begins to talk of being grateful. There were the friends who gave him work when he could barely afford to eat: Francis Ford Coppola, who featured him in the 1997 courtroom drama The Rainmaker; Sean Penn, who put him opposite Nicholson in his ’01 movie The Pledge; even Sylvester Stallone.
In 1999, Stallone came over to Rourke in a restaurant. “He said, ‘Listen, I’m doing this movie, and I need somebody in it who looks like they can kick my ass. You look like you can kick my ass,’ ” Rourke recalls. “I’m sitting there going, ‘I can barely pay for this bowl of spaghetti. Goddamn do I need a movie.’ ” But when his agent got the call about the job, a remake of Get Carter, the money was so low it was “disrespectful,” Rourke says. He turned it down but thanked Stallone for the gesture. Suddenly, the money doubled. Rourke took the job. When he arrived on set, an assistant filled him in. “Sly really wanted you to be in the movie, and that asshole producer wouldn’t pay for it,” so Stallone kicked in the rest of the money.
Wouldn’t it be sweet, I ask, if it turns out that his fall from grace and long fight back up gave him the strength to finally redeem himself? Wouldn’t it be fucking Shakespearean if the Ram ends up giving Rourke what the wrestler couldn’t find a way to give himself: a future?
Rourke strokes his mustache with his right thumb. Then he speaks. “I know what I can do. And very few people can do what I can do,” he says firmly. “I ain’t got no problem with not getting an Oscar this year. Sure, I’d be disappointed. But you know what, then I’ll say, ‘Fuck you, I’m coming back next year.’ And I’ll goddamn mean it. I ain’t going away this time.”
Watch Mickey Rourke’s Golden Globe acceptance speech here.
This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.