Friday, February 20, 2009
But still, Rourke looks like a visitor to unfamiliar shores. How changed is he? Well, not entirely. He shifts uncomfortably on the soft furnishings before telling the story of a recent night out in London, to illustrate how “there always going to be that little mad hatter inside of me with the axe.”
It is a long tale, and he tells it slowly, relishing the confessional tone. He was out, he says, with his two minders, one of whom (“a big black hulk of a man”) is waiting in the other room of Rourke’s suite. The other, an East End geezer, “who can handle himself ”, has presumably been given the day off. So, the three of them are standing in the street, when a man walks past with his girlfriend. The man, says Rourke, is “real flash, and he says ‘Excuse me ladies’. Now, ten years ago, I woulda hit ’im right on the chin for saying something like that. Because then I did not deal with consequences. The world that I lived in, there were no rules. He would have been missing nine teeth for what he said.
“So, I said to the boys, ‘he got a pass’. But I watched him all the way down the block, wishing he would come back. You know what? He turned around. I’m watching him walk up the street, and I took off my jacket so I just had a vest on, so I could move, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do him right now.’ And there’s a part of me that’s going…” - he starts whispering – “‘it’s still there, goddamit’, and he comes walking up, and I turned my back right in front of him. And he said: ‘Excuse me. Do you know where such and such a place is, and he was really polite. I said, ‘No, ma’am, I don’t know where it is.’ And he walked along the kerb and left.”
Rourke takes a moment to enjoy his moment of restraint. He removes his glasses, and cleans them pensively. “I mean, there was no point to him saying: ‘Excuse me, ladies’. I wouldn’t say it to the guy I was standing with, much less a stranger. But there’s always going to be the jerk-off that tries it. So I gotta work at it all the time. Also, I kinda knew I was going to give him a pass, because he wasn’t a hard man, he was just an arrogant rich asshole.”
This, then, is the new Mickey Rourke. And it’s his good fortune to have found a filmmaker (Darren Aronofsky) and a film (The Wrestler) to dramatise the struggles that derailed his career.
The Wrestler is no Citizen Kane, but thanks to Rourke, it works. It is a film about old age and decrepitude in which a once pretty actor is portrayed as a battered, emotionally-constipated wreck. Aronofksy employs the manners of a horror movie, taking an age to reveal the monster – so that when the camera finally does take cognisance of Rourke’s bruised potato face, the moment is played for shock. It’s not a deep film, but the shallows are heavily pebbled, not least by the suggestion that show-business – represented here by wrestling – is just another version of prostitution, in which the wrestler, Rourke, is a one-trick pony trapped in the dark alley of his own limitations.
“I’m an old broken down piece of meat and I’m alone, and I deserve to be alone,” Rourke says, as Randy the Ram. “I just don’t need you to hate me.”
It helps when you know that Rourke rewrote his dialogue: the sense that this is autobiography is no accident. Rourke based Randy on a retired wrestler called Magic, who lived in a bus outside Gold’s gym in Los Angeles, but the film is about the actor. And it works, because in a world of identikit stars with perfect teeth, he is a survivor from more interesting times.
Partly, this is a matter of style. He wears a red pinstriped jacket over a grey undershirt which struggles to cover his stomach. There are two turquoise rings on his left hand, and a tattoo on the middle finger of his right. His hair is streaked; there is a moustache, and a rumour of a goatee. He wears studious glasses, and golden shoes. He looks like a bohemian from another planet. Or Johnny Depp’s dad.
I suggest to Rourke that the film is more about loneliness than wrestling. Was that what he was thinking of?
“Not thinking of. Existing in for many years. I wasn’t a little bit bad, I was horrible for 15, 16 years. I was out of control, I was out of my mind. I had to lose my house, my wife, my money, my career, everything, for me to fall all the way down to the bottom. And somebody advised me I needed to talk to somebody. I resisted, but I went, because everything was gone.”
In the 1980s, in films such as 9 ½ Weeks, Rumblefish and Angel Heart, Rourke sparred on equal terms with De Niro and Pacino. But in 1991, he returned to his first career as a boxer, before edging back into acting in the 2000s. He says he made more than $1m in 5 ½ years of fighting, “but a million dollars isn’t really a million dollars anymore.” He had no job, and was living in a $500 a month room in Venice Beach, with Loki and five other dogs. He ate by selling off his motorcycles, and was down to his last bike when Sylvester Stallone gave him a part in the remake of Get Carter, and paid over the odds, encouraging Rourke to contemplate a comeback.
He says his acting was improved by his 5 ½ years as a boxer. “Because one of the qualities I lacked as an actor was focus and concentration. But in boxing, when the bell rang, I had to be right there. You can’t say, ‘Hold on I need a minute’. When you hear the bell, you gotta go. Also, when you’re hurt, you learn to survive by being defensive. When you’re fighting a guy that’s much stronger than you, you don’t go to war, you let him shoot his load, and weaken, and then you get him later with angles and speed.
“Of course, I regret that I had to leave everything and fall so far from grace, but I needed to change, and I have. When I was little I was really quiet and shy and all the other boys were very tough in the neighbourhood, so I thought ‘I gotta be like that’. I was about 11 when some bully was beating me up in the schoolyard, and I finally got up and beat the piss out of him. From that day on, I noticed I got treated a different way.”
Rourke says that his recovery is due to seven years of therapy, in which he ran up a debt of $60,000. “I needed to go three times a week or I was going to suck on a bullet.” He came to understand that he had thrown his acting career away because he felt that he didn’t deserve his success.
“I came from a very violent background. I let go of that when I was a student, but when I started to be really successful, it came back again. It came back because I resented the fact that people treated me special for being in movies. I’d go to a restaurant that was very expensive, and they wouldn’t let me pay the bill – they’d throw people out of tables to give me a seat, or I’d go to a shop and some guy wouldn’t even let me pay for a coat. I’d think, fuck, I remember when I washed dishes; I collected money for gamblers, and I did security in whorehouses, and transvestite bars. I worked my whole ass off my whole life, and now I couldn’t even pay for something, and I had money. I had a big house, and pussy and anything anybody could want. And people treated me different, and kissed my ass. I wound up getting really upset about it and I just didn’t want any of it.
“I had some shit happen when I was little, that I was terribly ashamed of, and I had issues of physical abuse and abandonment issues, that made me feel very insignificant and very small. I masked that by becoming hard. That was where the change had to take place, because I had to come to terms with these people - authority figures, producers, or anybody that looked at me crooked – it wasn’t this man that was kicking the fuck out of me and my little brother. So I had to say, wait a minute, I can’t blame the rest of the world for something one guy did, and my mother allowed him to do, when I was this big.
“I didn’t have the knowledge to fix what was broke. I needed to talk to somebody that knew what makes one go mad.”
I ask whether the violent man was his father. He checks himself, saying this is not something he wants to talk about. “It wasn’t my dad, it was somebody else. I only met my dad once, in a bar. I introduced myself to him when I was 25.” (The New York Times attributed unspecified abuse to Rourke’s stepfather, who denied it).
Rourke is, he admits, a work in progress, and it remains to be seen how he will react to a second shot at success.
“But it’s new now. It’s almost like I never really had a career before. And let’s face it, my career was over almost before it began.
“I was ashamed I lost my wife [Wild Orchid co-star Carre Otis] more than anything else. Not the money. It’s the other things that come along when you become a failure, because you self-destruct.”
Whatever happens, the love of Rourke’s life won’t be around to congratulate him. Loki died on Tuesday.