I hated the '90s. The '90s fuckin' sucked," professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson says early on in The Wrestler — and he should know. Over the hill and past his prime — his steroidal body a palimpsest of battle scars, his graying hair dyed a Nordic blond — Robinson hasn't seen the inside of a major arena in the better part of 20 years. Nowadays, he gets top billing by scraping bottom, trading blows with other used-to-bes and might-have-beens in school gymnasiums and banquet halls, earning a cut of the door that's barely enough to cover his trailer-park rent.
As it happens, the '90s weren't much kinder to the actor playing Robinson: Mickey Rourke. By the end of that misbegotten decade, the onetime Hollywood A-lister was living in a $500-a-month studio apartment and subsisting on a meager income generated by the sale of his motorcycle collection, plus whatever acting jobs he could scrounge up from the few producers in town who weren't afraid to hire him. His flirtation with a boxing career had come to an end. His tabloid-catnip marriage to model Carré Otis had hit the skids. There were reports of arrests, of plastic surgeries gone awry, and of the actor walking off the set after a producer refused to allow his pet Chihuahua to appear with him in a scene.
"The thing is that I am the one to blame for all that," Rourke says as he lights a cigarette in what I'm pretty sure is a nonsmoking suite at the Four Seasons Hotel the day after The Wrestler's North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. His Chihuahua, Loki, barks from a nearby cushion. "I used to blame other people, but I've got nobody else to blame except for Mickey Rourke."
That's more or less the same thing director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) told Rourke when they first met to discuss The Wrestler in New York. "He sits down, and for the first five minutes, he tells me how I fucked up my whole career for 15 years behaving like this, and I'm agreeing with everything," Rourke recalls. "Yes, I did. That's why I haven't worked for 15 years, and I've been working real hard not to make those mistakes." After that, Aronofsky pointed his finger at the actor — something, Rourke says, that not so long ago would have prompted him to say: "Don't do that, OK buddy?" — and laid out the ground rules.
"He goes: 'You have to listen to everything I say. You have to do everything I tell you. You can never disrespect me. And you can't be hanging out at the clubs all night long. And I can't pay you.' And I'm thinking: 'This fucker must be talented, because he's got a lot of nerve to say that.' " Then Aronofsky told Rourke that if he did all of those things, he would get the actor an Oscar nomination. "The moment he said that, I believed him," Rourke says. "The first day of work, I believed him more." (As for the finger-pointing, "I'm from New York — we point a lot," Aronofsky tells me later. "Like any good marriage, you want to be as up-front as possible about what the issues are.")
On set, the actor/director relationship continued in a similar vein. "He knew how to push my buttons," Rourke says. "I do a take, and I nail it. I look over at Darren and I think: 'OK, we're moving on.' And he walks over to me and says: 'Do it better.' And you know what surprised me? I did it again, and I did it better. He knew that if he challenged me, that's what I wanted. A lot of people don't like that; me, I need it."
The result, which has been widely hailed as Rourke's career-capping/redefining/resuscitating turn, is a characterization of rare intensity and pathos that bristles with the lived-in authority of someone who knows what it means to live with his back against the ropes. "Unfortunately, I've seen this side of life," Rourke sighs. Watching the Ram on screen — reduced to working the deli counter of a New Jersey supermarket after a heart attack takes him out of the ring; playing the electronic avatar of himself in an '80s-era Nintendo wrestling game — the line between performer and performance all but disappears. But The Wrestler, at least where Rourke is concerned, almost didn't happen at all. Although Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel developed the project with Rourke in mind, they found it impossible to secure even the modest financing required for a sometimes explicitly violent wrestling movie starring an actor who hadn't headlined a major motion picture since the first George Bush was in office.
Shortly after Rourke and Aronofsky's first meeting, "They called me up and said they couldn't do the movie with me; the investors wanted a $20 million actor to do the part," Rourke says. (When The Wrestler was first announced in the pages of Variety, Nicolas Cage was attached to star.) Rourke, meanwhile, was secretly relieved, "because I knew that Darren wanted me to revisit these dark places, these painful places. And then there was the physical part — the two months of training — and the not getting paid."