In Conversation With Mickey Rourke

There's only one Mickey Rourke, the unpredictable come-back kid who turned on Hollywood before it could turn on him. With The Wrestler he finally won the battle for acceptance.
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There's only one Mickey Rourke, the unpredictable come-back kid who turned on Hollywood before it could turn on him. With The Wrestler he finally won the battle for acceptance.

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Having already won a Golden Globe for his efforts, Mickey Rourke was heavily tipped for the best actor Academy Award for his beautiful and heartrending performance as a fifty-something has-been wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. The finest onscreen performance I have ever seen, it tells of the disenfranchised, the lonely and the lost and is simply astonishing. Of course Rourke’s drift paralleled that of his subject. He was the biggest, grooviest star in Hollywood during the eighties, commanding millions for a role and cutting the mustard with films like Diner, RumblefishThe Pope of GreenwichVillage and Angel Heart. And then it all went to pot and he lost everything in a sea of excess and downright belligerence. Remarkably, his answer was to return to his first love, boxing, and so he stepped back into the ring in his mid thirties, turned professional and battled it out some 12 times, winning $1million for his troubles, retiring undefeated only 8 fights away from a World Title shot. An uncommonly humble and enormously honest man, interviewing him was not a chore: it was indeed an absolute pleasure.

This interview was conducted in person at Blake’s Hotel on 27th October 2008.

Congratulations on your performance. It really hit the spot for me. I really felt for your character. I am now 48 and in many ways can really empathize with Randy [Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler]. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house at the end of the film – me included…

Yes. As Bette Davis once said "Getting old ain't for pussies".

And you should know -- not because you're that old - because you've certainly been through the mill and back. When your phone first stopped ringing what did you think?

Well you never know exactly why -- maybe the guy is getting a hell of a blowjob.

Well that is what we all hope for anyway. Was this role a gift from God for you?

Well that would be a good way to put it. Yes certainly a gift from God. First of all with me I've always been as good as the directors I've worked with. I mean because first of all where I have problems is if I take a job and go through the motions because I have to pay a bill or two or I got to work on material I don't care about or with a director I have no respect for or don't like and I'd heard about Aronofsky for some time and I did some research and heard nothing but the best. It was the way people talked about Coppola in the early days -- very intellectual, very innovative, he is his own man. And even though Hollywood wants him to do the big budget stuff he does his own thing, beats his own drum and hangs his balls over the fence.

Everyone has the highest regard for him. Then when I met him he was all everyone had said about him. He held his finger up and said "Nobody wants me to do this movie with you as you're not a star anymore and you fucked up your career for 20 years". "Okay" I said, "I heard that one". Then he said: "Listen if I get the money to do this you're gonna listen to everything I say, you're gonna do everything I say and you are not going to disrespect me. Also I can't pay you". And I thought, well you got balls to say that this -this is my kind of man.

CS: But the last time we spoke you said you were living on $200 a week and so who else could have played this man -few have been through what you've been through.

MR: Oh yeah. Reading the script was like "I hate this. I hate the man -- what a piece of shit." It was painful but I stepped away from the character for a while and thought about it. Aronofsky wanted me to do the movie initially but the money guys didn't want me, so they replaced me with a movie star. Then something happened between Darren and him and next thing we were talking again and I was back in. Also, there was a fear because when I read the material, and then met Darren, I knew he was going to make me work and make me go to some very dark places and it would be very painful both emotionally and physically. I had to put on the 36 pounds of muscle over six months, which was   going to be a lot hard work. So at first I really didn't know if I wanted to work that hard, for that long, for free. But the bright Mickey, not the stupid Mickey, said to me, "with this kid you'd better go to work.” So when the part came around again I was like: ' Oh Fuck yeah, let’s go!’ And then was a lot of material that Darren wanted me to rewrite -- like the stuff with Evan and all the personal stuff at the end. But it wasn't that difficult  for me to write for Randy, as I had been there myself. Darren gave me the courtesy of allowing me to rewrite my role myself which was very gratifying. There was a lot to add. I would say that I am a pretty instinctive guy and knew that Darren was the real thing. He told me that I was to do my own stunts with no stuntman at all - diving off the ropes and all that wrestling stuff. He asked me if I knew what gigging is - that is when they hide a razor blade in their bandages and they cut themselves and make themselves bleed. Then he said wanted me to do that. And I thought, ‘Fuck off I can only hurt myself when my woman leaves me,’ you know. And so the day that we had to do it, I had to cut my forehead with this little razor blade, it was quite hard because I was not upset about anything. But I had committed to do it and then he said "Listen you don't have to do that if you don't want to - we'll get around it". So I was like "Fuck that let's do it". But it was wild. And as we shot it very quick just for five and a half weeks he decided to shoot it in a very objective way - almost like a documentary - watching someone's life with a handheld camera and that helped a lot as it was very quick. We shot a lot of the wrestling scenes in real gyms and at real wrestling events, and after three months of training as a wrestler some of the moves that we incorporated were added which were very difficult. Thank God I was able to nail them because at times there were 3,000 people watching.

CS: And talking of nailing what about the hardware bout with the guy with the stepladders and bug spray?

MR: The hardcore stuff? That guy was actually putting staples in his head with a real heavy-duty stapler and all the scars on his back were real. That hardcore stuff is pretty crazy and was a total surprise to me, as I hadn't seen a wrestling match in years. But there is a real big underground scene.

CS: I must say a lot of people are saying you must win the Oscar and the only thing that stands in your way is that you pissed people off. Who did you piss off and how?

MR: Oh my God, I pissed everyone off and it was very easy to do; at one point it came easy to me. But I feel that I had certain things that happened to me in my childhood that I kept with me. I came from a very violent background and that was a way of life .So I became very hard -- harder than I had to be maybe -- you know you walk down the street and someone looks at you for maybe too long then it's on. And for years I was proud of that and I was also trained as a boxer. If you're going to go with me you'd have to be prepared for a battle and I didn't care if you were two feet taller than me. What happened was, that that strength that I built up was the armour that became a weakness. All that rage and anger caused me to lose everything: it pissed everyone off. I lost my wife, my house, my money and my name and my career. Nobody really knew just how broke I was. I was paying $500 a month for a one-room apartment with a yard for my dogs. A friend used to give me a couple of hundred of dollars a month just to feed myself just to buy something to eat. I'd be calling up my ex-wife and crying like a fucking baby. People said I should go talk to a psychiatrist and I went for five years for three days a week to talk to this man and had no money to pay him and eventually owed him $60,000 but he said to me, because he worked with a lot of Hollywood people: "I know you're the kind of man who will pay me eventually" and Steve stuck with me and I worked very hard and I have to admit that I went there. It was the final straw when the old lady left I fell apart.

CS: What happened there?

MR: Well I really loved her [He touches a tattoo on his arm with her name on it] but we were like fire and fucking fire. I waited for her to come back and then when Joey [Mickey Rourke's brother] died I gave up.

CS: And that was a turning point?

MR: At the end of the day everything was gone and I was left in a room on my own   and then one day I walked past a mirror and saw myself and I was like "Holy shit!" because I didn't realise how I looked. It was no wonder people were scared of me. I looked like a mad man and I didn't want that anymore; that day I didn't want that anymore because I had nothing but I didn't want to change because it was like, ‘Change into what?’ I was glad of who I was in a way. I just took it too far. But I'm a proud man. I'm a man's man, I'm an old fashioned man and that's the way it is. But I was hanging around with all the wrong people.

CS: I remember I met you with your brother Joey when he had the motorcycle shop. I was hanging out with Billy Idol and Steve Jones.

MR: Are you kidding me? Jesus! Billy's manager would allow him to hang out with me.

CS: Christ that's saying something.

MR: Oh I know... I was off the map. But Stevie Jones he's a good man. Apart from the few who are still great friends Mick and Paul from The Clash and Joe Strummer God rest his soul -- they were my guys. And we had a great time but I was going through the motions for the first few months and I kept thinking how am I going to change. If someone looks at me or gives me a hard time what am I going to do? But I realised that that strength I had was a weakness and I also realised that I had made myself that way to deal with a feeling of abandonment and shame. A lot of it began when I was a little boy - as it is a lot easier for a proud man to feel tough and feared than smallness and abandonment. And, I didn't know why my father abandoned me and never came to see us and I didn't know why my mother married a physically and mentally brutal cop and let things happen to me and Joe and never did anything about it; I don't want to talk about those things. But all that was quiet for years; and when you've had enough of being quiet for years it comes out eventually. Not vocally but in a different way and with me it was my belligerence. I blamed everyone in Hollywood and I made him or her into this authority figure that had beaten me with a stick and it wasn't their fault. I spent so long studying really hard to become a fine actor and then I threw it all away and I didn't understand why. I threw it away but, it was probably because I got the adulation and the fame but it was like, ‘where were you when I needed you? I'm a man now I don't need you.’ I needed someone to go fishing with. You know [he stops and wipes a tear from his eye] I tried to protect Joe, not when I was little kid as I was too small, but when I got older I did [stops and sobs] because, even though I was just a year older, I really felt like his dad 'cause we were extremely close and I looked out for him.

CS: What about your mother?

MR: She got diagnosed with Alzheimer's three months ago and she doesn't remember what happened so now I'm OK with her. But I was angry with her for my whole life maybe because she turned her back on it. She was supposed to be responsible for Joey and me and she wasn't -- she let it all happen. And it happened for a decade. It was easier to just get mad than to deal with it. I was kind of 50/50 about her until around two and a half, three years ago when Joe died and, as he always blamed her, I stopped talking to her. All of these things have made me realise why I pissed people off. I did and I regret it and I didn't know any better. I worked really hard for the change. I am not angry with anybody and I am now grateful for the second chance.

CS: Well you seem a lot happier than when we last met five years ago.

MR: Shit yeah! [He raises his eyebrows and sighs]

CS: And to be fair your rise was rather meteoric and the adulation you received was intense. You were the hippest thing since sliced bread. I used to see you in Paris and it was like seeing Elvis - they loved you - coming from the streets that is hard to be able to deal with -- and you had the hippest films.

MR: And I also stayed up for seven days on the run.

CS: Well there is that.

MR: And that was seven days without the gear.

CS: Christ I can't stay up past 11 o'clock these days!

MR: [Laughs] Me neither.

CS: I read that you said that acting is no job for a for a man but in The Wrestler what you've done via acting is prise open and expose all the difficulties there are in being a man and that is very brave.

MR: I really regret saying that. It is a man's job. The man that said that was masking all the pain inside and anything I could say to piss anyone off… I said it.

CS: Is that why you went back to boxing?

MR: I went back because of shame. I was a really good amateur and took a year off due to early concussion -- really bad concussion -- and I was supposed to take a year off but never went back and accidentally went into acting and I regretted it because I loved it so much and it was so natural for me. I was in the gym for so many years. I grew up in a gym in Miami, same gym as Ali, Angelo Dundee, you know. I was very lucky because I had power in both hands. I was good at it. I was a boxer before I was an actor; I started at 12 or 13. I was an amateur for seven years, and then I stopped. I had 142 amateur fights and lost three. When I came back I was a super middleweight, light heavyweight, different fucking ball game. I was only going to have one fight but that never happened and I carried on and, after the twelfth fight, I started to have the problems with my memory and my balance and the neurological stuff but I wanted to have one last fight. Luckily I got out when I did still relatively intact. I was three fights away from a title fight and I will never know what would have happened. I had already turned 40 and was fighting guys 20 years younger. But I had a great trainer in Freddie Roach and I was sparring with [thinks] James Toney and Roberto Duran and a couple a Panamanian guys and let me tell you I didn't lose any pro fights but I got my arse properly kicked every day in the gym. James kicked my ass for 18 months. He shattered my cheek, but now I look at him as the guy who beat Holyfield and think hey! I am not so bad.

CS:  But not the usual career-path, boxer, A-list actor and boxer again?

MR: Acting wasn't planned. It was very odd; very hard at first but after time once you figure it out and then it's enjoyable. When I loved acting I was at the Actor's Studio, because it was all about the work then. Either you were a great actor or you sucked.

CS: What boxer did the most damage to your face?

MR: James Toney - I had my five operations on my nose and one operation on a smashed cheekbone. I had to have cartilage taken from my ear to rebuild my nose as I had none left and even today I still cannot feel the tip of my nose. The worst thing is that my hands shake because when you break the fourth or fifth Metacarpal you must bang it up. The short-term memory stuff only affects me when I drink and I have no problem going up stairs only when going down.

[He sees that my teacup is empty and picks up the teapot]

MR: More tea?
CS: Yes please.
MR: Milk sugar
CS: Just milk

[He pours tea and milk into my tiny bone china flowered teacup.]

MR: Yeah where was I ?  [laughs] no but  my memory is bad when I drink …  oh yeah

CS :I can't remember anything when I drink -- you're making me think now. And the surgery - what happened there?

MR: Well, most of it was to mend the mess of my face because of the boxing but I made a few mistakes there and went to the wrong guy to put my face back together.

CS: When did the downturn with the career begin?

MR: After I did my best work. It was around Angel Heart. While I was making the best movies, Angel Heart, I was out of control. I didn't think the party was going to end. The motorcycles, the nightlife, the pussy, you know, it's all... blinding. It's blinding to have enough money to stay in any hotel you want, buy any car you want, take all your entourage out to dinner. You don't think that's going to end and when it does, it's real scary. I surrounded myself with a bunch of retards and idiots, guys from the street and it brought me down, because they were goofballs, and villains and stuff. I allowed myself to get very proud and angry because I could do the acting. I didn't have any fear of falling. I thought, I'd have to be dead not to fucking work. And that's wrong because, it was a poor judgement on my part, very arrogant on my part, because it's a business. And I refused to see it that way; I wasn't equipped or educated enough to see it as a business that I had to take care of the shop. I didn't see that I should have taken this commercial movie because it would have made $200m, but I should have. That would have given me the juice to do the other stuff that I wanted to do. I always say that this is the second act of my life the first act was fucking crazy and now in Act Two I've learned. If you've got the guts and the desire and the talent, the first time around is pretty easy. The second time around its murder. How many guys make it round the second bend.

CS: Is Angel Heart a favourite of yours?

MR: Alan Parker had hired me because he liked my work but had heard a bit about my antics and was very authoritarian. And then there were the problems between me and De Niro that I won't get into. It wasn't that much but De Niro and I worked differently and Alan had to pacify us both. And I wasn't going to bend.

CS: What is your advice to a young actor?

MR: I don't think I'm the man to give advice but I would say that you have to play the game. And if I ever said anything different that was the stupid crazy Mickey talking. It is a business with a lot of money at stake. A game with proper rules. But I will not make my mistakes again. I will not trip over myself twice.

[The publicity lady walks in and   calls the end to the interview. But Mickey is having none of it. “ I ain’t finished talking to my friend here' he says.]

CS: I used to run clubs and lost everything. Had a Soho nightclub lost it all and my wife? I used to see you all over the place in the clubs.

MR: Did you know my great friend Georgie Best?

CS: Yeah I did - he said he spent he spent millions on wine women and gambling and the rest he wasted - he was a friend of my Irish business partner.

MR: (laughs) He was a piece of work. My oh my. We used to go to Tramp together and I went there a few years ago and asked Johnny where everyone had gone and he said they're all dead you're the only one left. Ronnie and all the rest don't go out anymore.

CS: But if you hadn't have done all that you might not have had the goods to deliver this performance.

MR: That is so true. God works in mysterious ways. I had to learn my lessons the hard way for a higher reason and I feel very, very thankful and blessed that I have been given a second chance. And it was very tough the second time around, very hard work. One thing I do know is that I will never return to my old ways as that is a very dark place to be and I never want to go back there again. A lot of people never get back out and a lot of talented people too. Oh yeah...

CS: And you're back - all guns blazing.

MR: Yeah and Axel Rose helped us by allowing us to use "Sweet Child Of Mine" and my old friend Bruce Springsteen wrote a song especially for us -- what a nice thing to do. But things are looking good and the offers are not flying in but they're coming. A lot of people have seen that I have put the work in and redeem myself and to be accountable for the hell I caused. I am just grateful that people are just judging me for the man I am today and not the fool I was yesterday.

CS: Are you happier now then?

MR: I am not a peaceful man. This thing with my brother still causes me pain but that comes with like age and I don’t know if I will ever get over it but I am trying... 

[PR woman walks in and ends the interview.]

CS: Okay thanks. Mickey once again congratulations on such a truly astonishing performance.

MR: Thank you. It was a real pleasure talking to you my friend. Make sure you come to the premier. I will get them to send you a couple a tickets.

CS: Well good luck with every thing. I am certain that Academy Award will be on your mantle piece in 6 months

MR: Thankyou . It was a pleasure to meet you again my friend.

[MR gets up and gives CS a big hug. CS received the tickets as promised.]