Ring master

Toe to toe with Mickey Rourke at center ring, director Darren Aronofsky fired off a list of demands that the actor would have to follow if he wished to return to leading-man status after 15 years of semi-obscurity. The film in question, The Wrestler, is appropriately enough the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up grappler searching for solace at the end of his career. The requirements included listening to everything the 39-year-old filmmaker said, doing everything Aronofsky told him to do, never disrespecting the director on the set, avoiding the clubs, and not expecting a paycheck at the end of the day.

“I’m thinking, ‘This fucker must be talented, because he’s got a lot of nerve to say that,’” Rourke told the Village Voice, adding that for his commitment to the production, Aronofsky promised Rourke an Oscar nomination.

Aronofsky had already proven his visionary talent with his first three feature films — Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain — but the once-troubled Rourke was a different challenge. Aronofsky, too, would have to put his faith in his new leading man and hope to get something in return.

Aronofsky spoke to the Current from Dallas.

How did you actually confront Mickey with this role? In one interview I saw, he says you cut him down and made him feel “small.”

I was very direct with him just because it was a risk to undertake. I wanted to make sure he was going to approach this film in the right way. In the end, I think it was very good for him because ultimately I think what drives Mickey is competition and being an athlete. I think coming up right into his face was actually good. My instincts just told me that was the way to treat him.

The Wrestler is so different from your other films. As a director, did you think it was time to try something new?

Absolutely. I think it’s important as a creative person to keep changing and reinventing yourself and challenging yourself. I really wanted to do something very different with this movie. I tried to approach it from a whole new way.

Had you followed wrestling — whether it was professional or underground — when you were a kid?

Like a lot of guys my age, I had a long romance with wrestling growing up, but that was a long time ago, and that’s not why I did this movie. I think I did it because no one had ever done it before and I thought it was an interesting world.

Since you did have some familiarity with the wrestling world, did you let that affect how you envisioned the character of Randy “The Ram” Robinson? There are quite a few parallels between his life and wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and Jake “The Snake” Roberts.

Really, we did a lot of research and got a lot of inspiration from a lot of different wrestlers. I started working on this film back in 2002, so there was about a good six years of meeting people and talking to them. It seemed like the more of these guys we met the more cliché their stories became. Many of them had very similar things happen to them. So, we just sort of collected a lot of that stuff based on their stories and it turned into our character.

I think you really get an idea of the Ram’s iconic status, not only during the behind-the-scene wrestling scenes, but also when he’s interacting with the kids who live around him, and how they all see him as this hero. Did you ever have that growing up — someone you looked up to as larger than life?

That’s a good question. I’m sure characters like Batman and Superman and Spider-Man were heroes. When I was into wrestling I’m sure some of those guys were heroes, like Andre the Giant. But to be honest, not really. There was never someone who lived down the road from me who made that kind of impact.

You often hear the words “comeback” and “resurrection” to describe Mickey’s performance. Do you agree with these sentiments, and, if so, what exactly is he coming back from in your opinion?

Well, I think he took a long time off and spent about 15 years in movie jail. He had offended a lot of people and was difficult to work with, and it took him a while to figure out how to get everything back together. I think Mickey is back. So, in many ways, I think it is a comeback.

I know many studios didn’t want to finance The Wrestler with Mickey in the lead role. Now, when you look at the character, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the Ram. Does this give you satisfaction, knowing you knew all along that this was the right choice?

Yes, ab-so-lute-ly! `Laughs` It was a hard role to cast. I had been a big fan of Mickey’s acting. I needed someone who could pull off the emotions and someone who could pull off all the physicality. There are not many actors out there that could do what Mickey did.

Were there any times during production you can recall where maybe you and Mickey weren’t on the same page and, if so, how were you able to resolve those instances? Were you able to match his intensity?

Well, you know, Mickey is always tough and challenging. I think every day it took a lot of conversation and dialogue. Ultimately, he’s like me. He’s a perfectionist and wants to get the best possible product onto the screen.

I’m sure it helped to allow him to stray from the script and make the character his own.

Yeah, there was a tremendous amount of improv. That was definitely the nature of the project. It was just letting Mickey unleash and watching what came out. •

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