Mickey Rourke Explains His Preparation For ‘The Wrestler’: ‘I Had Some Demons’

Director Darren Aronofsky also on hand to discuss buzzed-about indie film.

Mickey Rourke‘s performance as Randy “the Ram” Robinson in “The Wrestler” is the kind of thing you can’t wait to tell everybody you know about. You may have heard the first whispers about it already. Since debuting at the Venice Film Festival last week and premiering in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week, the buzz has started to build. And I’m here to tell you it’s for real. If this isn’t an Oscar-caliber performance, I don’t know what is.

A moving and soulful portrait of a man who can find no peace outside of a wrestling ring, Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” could have been pitched as “Rocky Balboa” without the happy ending. Eschewing the stylistic flourishes he became known for with films like “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain,” Aronofsky’s latest offering is spare and quietly mesmerizing, even when its protagonist is bleeding and battered.

MTV News caught up with Rourke and Aronofsky in Toronto only hours after the film was sold to Fox Searchlight (which will, by all accounts, release “The Wrestler” for awards consideration before the end of the year). We found an introspective and ultimately upbeat Rourke, mindful of his past mistakes and eager for the next phase of his career.

MTV: This is such a raw performance in every conceivable way. Did you know what you were getting yourself into?

Mickey Rourke: I knew 10 days into making this movie that this would be the best movie I ever made, and I knew after three days that it would be the hardest movie I ever made. I didn’t have a wrestling background. People like to go, “Oh, he was an ex-professional boxer — he can do the wrestling.” Wrestling and boxing is like Ping-Pong and rugby. There’s no connection. These guys get really hurt. You’ve got guys who are 265 [pounds] throwing you across the ring. They take several years to learn how to land. I landed like a lump of sh–. Every bone in my body vibrated. Darren would go, “Let’s do it again!” I was like, “Give me five f—ing minutes to relax!” Here’s a guy whose only exercise he ever did was lifting his fork to his mouth, and he’s going, “C’mon, Mickey, you’re only giving me 50 percent!” That’s part of his thing, to push my buttons.

MTV: What kind of training did you go through?

Rourke: I got a really good Israeli trainer who made me pump iron and do the cardio for four months. Then we did two hours of weight training and cardio and two hours of wrestling practice. This is months before the film. By the time we shot the movie I was like, “This is the easy part.” The other stuff was murder.

MTV: I’ve heard that you rewrote a lot of your dialogue in the film.

Rourke: I rewrote all of my scenes and all of my dialogue. The speech at the end I wrote the night before.

MTV: That’s a heartbreaking speech for this character. Where did it come from?

Rourke: I was an amateur fighter way before I was an actor. I got hurt and I quit. I had a lot of shame about that. I felt I quit because I was afraid I was going to fail. When I turned 34 I went back and [fought]. I did pretty good. I had 12 fights and six knockouts. It probably wasn’t the brightest decision in my life, but I had some demons as a man. At that point, I was getting really destructive. I didn’t want to act anymore. I had issues from my childhood. It was shame that turned into anger. Some really awful things happened. Boxing was almost like a healing process for me.

[Aronofsky joins.]

MTV: This sounds like a close collaboration between you two.

Rourke: The best thing that I can thank Darren for is he surrounded me with the best possible people. We had some stuff choreographed for the movie that was going to be a lot simpler than what we did. And then one of the real wrestlers would do a fancy move, and I’d say, “I want to do that!”

Darren Aronofsky: I’d be like, “You’re crazy! Just do the basic moves.”

Rourke: As soon as my head got in that mindset, I wanted to be the best wrestler in three months in the world.

Aronofsky: And by the end of it, a lot of his trainers said to me, “He’s better than 80 percent of the WWF guys out there.”

Rourke: I was more proud of that than the acting.

MTV: I’ve never seen a film that stayed quite literally on the back of a character for so much of the story.

Aronofsky: It’s one of the connections me and Mickey have. My mentor at film school was Stuart Rosenberg who directed “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village” [which starred Rourke]. When I first met Mickey I tried to impress him by saying I was Stuart’s friend. And Mickey told me, “Stuart taught me one thing. He taught me how to act with my back.”

Rourke: There’s a scene [in "The Pope of Greenwich Village"] where Daryl Hannah shoots me down. As I walk out, Stuart says to me, “You just got dumped by the love of your life. You’re going to walk out of the room.” Now what does a guy do then when they have to go out and face the world? [Rourke gets up and demonstrates a slow, defeated walk.] He walks out, stops a second. [Rourke stops, subtly collects himself and continues walking.] It was little things like that.

MTV: When I watched the film I couldn’t help but think about your personal ups and downs, Mickey. Did you guys discuss the audience coming to this with that kind of knowledge?

Aronofsky: No, we never talked about that. For me, it was always about the talent of this man who’s been playing heavies for 20 years and never showing his sympathetic side.

Rourke: For me, it was a little different. I had a career 15 years ago, and I screwed it up from my issues I couldn’t deal with until I got help. When you were somebody and then you’re not anybody anymore you live in a state of shame. Randy is a proud guy. He doesn’t want to work at a deli counter. He wants the audience still, but his time has passed him by.

MTV: Mickey, how are you feeling today, both physically and about where your career can go at this point?

Rourke: I looked in the mirror when my boxing career was over. My equilibrium was off. I can’t do intricate things with my hands because of the nerve damage. There are a few teeth missing. I don’t remember things the way I used to. But I was fortunate. I got out when the doctors told me. I wasted a lot of time. I want to work with interesting directors. I’m going to do a lot of work because of the time I wasted.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Wrestler.”

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