After a long wait by the Arlington Theatre red carpet last Saturday, I finally stood face-to-face with actor Mickey Rourke, who is currently enjoying a career comeback this year with his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Wrestler.” He already won a Golden Globe for the role, and he was in town this past Saturday to receive the festival’s prestigious Riviera Award. With his hands resting on the railing that divided the celebrities from the press, he waited patiently as I asked him my one allotted question.
“What was the biggest fight you had with [director] Darren [Aronofsky] on the set of ‘The Wrestler’?” I asked.
“The biggest argument we had was over pink sunglasses,” he said in his deep smoker’s voice. “I wanted to wear pink sunglasses and a hearing aid, I had to choose [between the two], and I chose the hearing aid. And then at the last minute, I said I wanted the pink sunglasses, and he said, ‘Fuck you.'”
Rourke was probably the least-polished actor to win an award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this year. During his 90-minute interview with film critic Pete Hammond, Rourke sat on the stage of the packed theater with his legs far apart and his gut hanging out. After about 10 minutes, he finally remembered to cross his legs, only to later ruin the elegant pose by zipping up his fly. He spoke to Hammond with sincerity, gratefulness and a very repetitive vocabulary. He used the same three adjectives – innovative, tough and uncompromising – to describe his favorite directors, from Francis Ford Coppola to Darren Aronofsky, and affectionately remembered female director Liliana Cavani as being “just like a dude.”
Rourke gained critical acclaim in the’80s by playing sexy, tough-guy characters in hit films like “Body Heat” and “Diner.” But the real-life Rourke was too sensitive to handle the poor reviews in 1985 for “Year of the Dragon.” Rourke felt that the reviewers attacked director Michael Cimino, rather than the film itself. “I never rebounded from the whole Michael Cimino ordeal. … I haven’t read a review since,” he said. The experience left him with “a lot of misdirected anger,” which only intensified when he wrote a script called “Homeboy.”
“It got ruined by a real scummy producer; he sold it as a really crappy karate movie, so I got fucked,” he said with a straight, somber face.
Rourke initially humored the audience with theatrical stories about his early days as a youth boxer, his first acting gigs and his side-job as a bouncer for a transvestite nightclub. But he grew more despondent with his stories about acting in 1987’s “Barfly” (“A movie I really didn’t want to do… the men in my family didn’t make it to 50 because they were drunkards”), his five-year break from acting and subsequent return to boxing (“I wasn’t in the right headspace to act”), the short-term memory damages that forced him to quit the sport for good and his eventual return to acting (“I thought I’d get roles in a year; it took me 14. … I really blew it”). He received help from “a really great priest” and “a really great therapist” before finally landing a substantial film role in 2005 with “Sin City.”
Francis Ford Coppola concluded the evening by presenting Rourke with his well-deserved award. When Coppola described Rourke as “a genuinely sweet person,” I believed him. Rourke seemed like a more talkative, less naïve version of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, the tough yet loveable character he portrayed in “The Wrestler.” But despite his comfort with publicly pouring his heart out, Rourke also said many things that were charmingly random and poorly thought out.
“This is the smallest microphone I’ve ever spoken on,” he said, looking visibly perplexed after accepting the Riviera Award from Coppola.