LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. actor Mickey Rourke knows all about the dark side of Hollywood -- a bad-boy reputation meant years of rejection for a man who, in the 1980s, was a star with a great future after turns in "Diner," "Rumble Fish" and "Angel Heart."
After 15 years as a struggling actor, during which he returned to his boyhood love of boxing, the 52-year-old made a tentative comeback to the movie mainstream in the comic book adaptation "Sin City" in 2005.
But it is his performance in Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" that really has impressed the critics, who, along with Rourke himself, say it is his best performance to date. On Thursday, he was nominated for best actor in a film drama by the Screen Actors Guild, to go along with his Golden Globe Award nomination.
His portrayal of a down-and-out wrestler struggling to stay in the limelight while fighting his own personal demons has strong echoes with Rourke's own tumultuous life.
Rourke spoke to Reuters earlier this year at the Venice film festival, where "The Wrestler" won the coveted Golden Lion award for best picture.
Q: What made you want to act in "The Wrestler?"
A: "I would say the day that I met Darren Aronofsky, he was really forthright and honest with me. He says, 'Look, you've fucked up your whole career for 15 years, you're a great actor but everybody's afraid of you. I've got a movie and I want to do it with you.' And he goes like this: 'I want you to hear me: you have to listen to everything I say, you have to do everything I tell you, you can't go out all night long, you can't disrespect me and I can't pay you.' I thought, he must be really fucking good to have the balls to say that to me.
"I had heard through the grapevine that he has a very large brain, that he doesn't compromise, that he's his own man and I thought, well, that's my kind of guy. And I met him, and he was in my face and I read the material. It was a little scary to me, because after meeting him I realized he's going to want me as an actor to ... tap into very painful dark places that I don't know if I really want to re-visit, not getting paid. Because of the way I work, I go to those places, go into places where I have to tap into some painful shit about my father, my wife, my brother ... I'll be a basket case when I'm done with the movie, which is actually exactly what happened.
"And then I got replaced and they wanted like a $20 million actor, the financiers, I was down in Miami training three hours a day trying to put on 25 pounds. These guys (wrestlers) are really big. I actually went, 'Oh God, I'm so glad, now I don't have to work with that son of a bitch.' And then about a month later my agent calls and says 'You're back in,' and I'm like, 'Oh fuck.' There was a part of me that went, 'You know what, if I want to reclaim my career, and really have a chance to show what I should have shown 15 years ago this is the man to do it."
Q: Where do you rate this performance in terms of your career?
A: "People for the last 15, 20 years would say, 'What's the favorite movie you've ever done, what's your best work?' And I would say 'I haven't made it yet.' And I can honestly say right now, the best fucking movie I've ever made is this. Three of the hardest movies I ever made -- 'Nine 1/2 Weeks', 'Angel Heart' and 'Year of the Dragon' -- and you could take all three of those movies and roll them into one and it wouldn't have been as hard as this. I'm not a young man any more, and this has nothing to do with my training as a boxer. This is a whole other sport. So everything I learned as a fighter is thrown out the window. I had no respect for the sport (wrestling), really, to be honest (...) But you know what, when a guy weighing 265 pounds picks you up and throws you across the ring, if you haven't had the training, it hurts. Your teeth rattle, every bone in your back hurts, and then you've got to do it again.
"I bet I gained respect for what these guys do, for what their sport is. It's never going to be my favorite sport, but they have to be athletes. And the majority of them end up half (...) crippled at the end of the day because they lived that life and they hurt themselves for the crowd. Even though it's entertainment, they really get hurt. We got three months of wrestling practice and I had in the first two months three MRIs (scans), my back went out, my knee went out, my neck went out. This is hard. But if I didn't do all that there was no way I could pull this off."
Q: Are you surprised you have managed to stage what critics are calling a major comeback with this film?
A: "When I went back to the boxing for five-and-a-half, six years and I had to retire for a couple of reasons (...) I really didn't want to go back to the acting. And then I realized it's the only thing I can do. And then I realized they didn't want me any more, because I'd burned bridges, I didn't handle myself as a professional, there was just too much anger and luggage that I carried around. And then people were afraid of me for all the right reasons. I mean I really fucked up worse than you can imagine. If I would have known it was going to take me 15 years to get back in the saddle I would have made some sort of attempt to behave differently. I just didn't know how. Fortunately I was able to surround myself with people who were able to help me with the pain that I had."
Q: The parallels between your character in "The Wrestler" and your own life will not be lost on audiences.
A: "It was one of the reasons I was happy with the replacement, because I didn't want to go there, because there's a lot of shame attached to being put on the bench, there's a lot of shame to "We don't want you any more, you're not 28 any more, there's the new boys coming up.' Fuck the new boys, I can do what they can do. (...)
"You get to a certain place and they want to put you out to pasture, you know? But there's some men that just aren't ready to go. When they said to me your career's over I said, "Oh yeah? God will tell me when my fucking career's over, not you.'"
Q: What about your reputation for being difficult on set?
A: "A guy like me changes hard, I didn't want to change, but I had to change, because I cultivated a strength that was really a weakness (...) I didn't want to change really, because everything I had built myself up (into), the whole macho kind of thing, was really a weakness and I thought I would be less of a man if I change. It was hard, painful. Once I said, 'You know what? All that strength is really a weakness, it's OK that Darren yells at me. You know, he's the boss.' You have to be a team player. It's OK for me now at this point in my life to play ball, to be a team player."