To reach the point where he could once again amaze audiences, Mickey Rourke has, most certainly, been a wrestler.
“Change to me has been tremendously hard, because it was something I resisted out of ego, arrogance and pride,” says Rourke, whose buzzworthy performance in the upcoming Fox Searchlight release “The Wrestler” ensures he’ll be revisiting the tale of his personal recovery countless times in the coming months as award season rolls on.
“At one point, what I saw as my strengths were eventually exposed in time as weaknesses, but it takes years to see that. And only you can do that for yourself. … It takes many years to change what has been set in stone.”
Hollywood likes a great comeback story almost as much as it likes a great performance. Rourke offers both, and beyond the intrigue of whether his journey will take him to an Academy Award lies the question of whether this is truly the start of a new chapter in his life.
Jackie Earle Haley, who lit the comeback fires two years ago with his Oscar-nominated work in “Little Children,” is proof that comebacks don’t have to be one-shot deals, though you have to keep up a vigilant effort.
“For the first time in my life, I worked nonstop for a good year and a half, and that was an amazing experience,” says Haley, whose recent credits include “Semi-Pro,” “Winged Creatures” and “Watchmen.”
“Some things I kind of went out and really fought for and put together some audition tapes (for), some things were offered to me, and some things didn’t really quite fit,” Haley says. “It has been a neat experience, getting out there and getting to do this work again.”
Comeback stories aren’t hard to find among this year’s Oscar contenders, though the details vary. Debra Winger, whose rare appearances in Hollywood since 1995 helped inspire the documentary “Searching for Debra Winger,” has several pivotal scenes in “Rachel Getting Married.” Twelve years removed from his last Oscar nom, Richard Dreyfuss plays vice president Dick Cheney in “W.,” only his third film appearance since 2001.
Perhaps the closest parallel to Rourke is Robert Downey Jr., whose drug and alcohol problems derailed his career before he got himself back on track and became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after thesps. While keeping his professional expectations in check, Rourke is seeking similar personal redemption.
“For some men, they have to fall as far as one can fall from grace to change,” Rourke says. “I had to lose everything, but at least now I can look in the mirror and I know who to blame. I can blame the face I am looking at and not everyone or everything else.”
A quarter-century ago, Rourke earned substantial acclaim for performances in “Diner,” “Rumble Fish” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village.” But his career became a shadow of its promise by the time Darren Aronofsky was seeking a lead actor for “The Wrestler.”
“He kind of pretty much had disappeared for the last 15-20 years,” Aronofsky says. “I wouldn’t say I was too aware of what he had been doing since the late 1980s-early ’90s.”
Nevertheless, Aronofsky had been “a very big fan” of Rourke ever since he saw him in 1987’s “Angel Heart.”
“When I started to think about who could play this role,” Aronofsky says of his film’s lead character, the past-his-prime wrestler Randy the Ram, “I needed to find someone who had … the scale of emotional range and also had the physicality. That’s not an easy role to cast.
“I think it was more of a lightbulb moment with Mickey. I was such a big fan, and I immediately went after him just to see what he was all about, to see where he was at and see what he wanted.”
What Aronofsky found was a man he describes as “very aware of where he was in the world and what he had done to his career,” and who very much wanted a chance to work again. That gave Aronofsky the confidence to tailor his still-gestating project to Rourke.
When shooting started, Aronofsky quickly found that Rourke still had the gift.
“Between action and cut, I had never seen anyone as natural and in the moment, and then if you really wanted him to do more, he was always able to pull something out,” Aronofsky says. “It wasn’t just that he was completely aware of everything beyond the emotional stuff, he was also technically connected to all the needs of the film crew.”
Aronofsky further validated Rourke by letting him rewrite his own dialogue and offer input into wardrobe, makeup — even his tattoos.
“Mickey, in many ways, authored the character,” Aronofsky says. “The screenplay gave the character a name and described (him), but it was Mickey who breathed life into Randy the Ram.
“The deli scene’s a good example. It’s a big, happy scene when he’s charming everyone, but he hated doing that scene, because he felt a lot of that shame the Ram was feeling. He could relate to it. It was really tough for him those days.”
Having come so far just to get to this point, Rourke is asked whether this was satisfaction enough, or would he leave himself on the canvas.
“What is that Springsteen song?” Rourke replies. “No retreat, no surrender.”