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Originally published Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 3:00 PM

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Mickey Rourke got back into mental and physical shape for "The Wrestler"

An interview with Mickey Rourke, whose slow, humble shuffle back toward grace has culminated with his universally praised performance in "The Wrestler," opening in theaters Friday.

Los Angeles Daily News

The Mickey Rourke Redemption Tour has been chugging along just fine, thank you. Hit a bump or two, but it wouldn't be about Mickey Rourke if it ran totally smoothly, would it?

In case you hadn't heard, Rourke, one of the most talented actors of the 1980s, alienated collaborators, made bad career choices and generally misbehaved himself almost entirely out of the movie business, even spending a few years in the 1990s focused on a professional boxing career.

But after giving up throwing tantrums, his entourage of bikers and doing nasty things on screen to Lisa Bonet (the infamous "Angel Heart"), Kim Basinger (the even more notorious "9 ½ Weeks") and off screen as well as on to his ex-wife, Carre Otis (the monument to bad taste "Wild Orchid"), Rourke began a slow, humble shuffle back toward grace that's culminated with his universally praised performance in "The Wrestler," opening in theaters today.

A genuine threat to such awards-tipped giants as "Milk's" Sean Penn and "Frost/Nixon's" Frank Langella, Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson is a beaten-up hulk of a former fake wrestling star, now not even making enough money from his steroids-fueled nostalgia matches to pay the lot fees on his crummy trailer.

With his smashed, smooshed face that didn't require a lot of makeup, The Ram is also something of a stand-in for Rourke himself, a congenital screw-up whose last stab at making his life right could still turn out a lot less predictably than a pro wrestling match.

But the Miami-bred Rourke — who now lives in New York — almost didn't get the chance to star in admired indie director Darren Aronofsky's change-of-pace piece of gritty realism.

And that would've been all right with the Mickster, for whom resignation comes as naturally as apologizing these days.

"I was down in Miami training for about a month when we got a call saying that they just can't raise the money on me," says Rourke, a vision in long, streaked, stringy hair; barely buttoned dress shirt and clashing striped sport jacket; shades, rings and tattoos.

"Darren wanted to come down and talk to me about it. But I said I know the way it is. It's OK, and there's no need to make the trip. But being Darren, he came down anyway and sat in my face, which I respected.

"But I understood that they had to get somebody with a bigger name that was bankable. They wanted to shoot the movie for about $16 million, and with me they couldn't even raise $5 million.

"I was also, to be honest with you, the only one who wasn't disappointed about not getting the part. I knew why Darren wanted me to do the material, and I also knew what he wanted out of me. I would have to revisit some dark places to bring that, emotionally, out of me. And I thought, well, having to work for nothing and then having to do four months of wrestling rehearsals and six months of going from 192 up to 235 pounds, that's a lot of work for free."

Apparently, Nicolas Cage felt something similar after reportedly flirting with making the film.

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"So, after 10 days, something happened and they go, 'You're back in!' " Rourke, 52, reports. "And I cursed. I cursed my agent, I cursed Darren under my breath. But there was a bigger part of my brain going, this is a real opportunity to work with somebody who everybody in the industry has a lot of respect for. I figured if I could make it through with this S.O.B., then people in the industry would trust me."

Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream," "The Fountain") is among a pretty large contingent of folks who will always admire the actor for his outstanding early work in the likes of "Body Heat," "Diner," "Rumble Fish" and "Barfly."

These include directors such as Robert Rodriguez, who enabled Rourke's comeback with such films as "Sin City" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico"; Tony Scott ("Man on Fire," "Domino"); and this season's designated opponent Penn, who directed him in "The Pledge." Also part of the contingent: pretty much the entire population of France.

Still, Aronofsky had to assure himself of a few things before offering Rourke the "Wrestler" role.

"It took me a while. I had to meet him and get to know him," the director says. "For a few reasons, it was a hard role to cast. First of all, there was the emotional range. I was pretty sure Mickey could do that because I was such a fan of his work back in the day. What I always admired about him was that he's a tough guy with incredible vulnerability, which is very rare.

"But I was actually more concerned about the physicality. To play a professional wrestler is tough, and either he would have to get fat or he would have to get built up. When I met with him, I realized that he came from a lot of weight- and bodybuilding culture, so that gave me confidence he could do something like that."

There is no doubt that the actor got in fantastic shape to pull off the punishing Ram role.

And he still has the pugnacious attitude of both a real fighter and the many tough guys he's played in Hollywood, both on and off the screen. Congratulated for winning the runner-up best-actor award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (Penn got the actual designation), Rourke smiled and said:

"Second's last, buddy. To me, everything's competition. It's all fine and dandy that people are responding positively to this movie. But I've returned to work harder than ever, and I learned a great lesson on 'The Wrestler.' I learned that when I pick a job or a director to work with or a cast to work with, it's got to be material and people I respect or I shouldn't go to work.

"I don't care how many ... zeros you put on the end of my paycheck. If I can't go to work for those reasons, then I'll short-circuit. This is my second chance, and it's my last chance. The acclaim I'm getting for 'The Wrestler' means everything in the world to me. But it also means I can't take my foot off the gas pedal."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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