Mickey Rourke Knew The Wrestler Would Demand A 'Pound Of Flesh' From Him

When legendary pro wrestler Ric Flair recently held his retirement match at age 73, many said, "He's going to go out like Randy 'The Ram' Robinson." The reference is to Darren Aronofsky's film "The Wrestler" where it is implied that the protagonist of the film dies in the ring in search of another moment of glory. While Flair survived (after passing out twice during the match), the reality is that "The Wrestler" mimics the tragic lives of many other aging stars from the wrestling business.

The comeback narrative was eerily similar to the career of Mickey Rourke, who played Randy "The Ram" Robinson. Esquire documented the actor's fall from grace in the 1990s, which included a dead brother, a failed marriage, and bad plastic surgery. Aronofsky knew that Rourke was the perfect actor for the part, and Rourke knew that the meaty role would require him to return to some of those dark places.

"The Wrestler" was a comeback for Aronofsky as well, returning to his independent roots after his bold yet financially disappointing 2006 film "The Fountain." The film works as a parallel to the indie wrestling circuit that attempts to compete with the glitz and glamour of the mammoth World Wrestling Entertainment.

With the film's bleak material, Aronofsky's flair for realism, and the use of handheld cinematography, "The Wrestler" felt more like a documentary than a Hollywood film. Rourke humanized an aging wrestler grappling with the reality of a broken body, faded glory, and a lifetime of bad decisions. As an actor, he knew all about working in an industry that is quick to chew you up and spit you out.

The film made older wrestlers break down

"The Wrestler" is a heartbreaking portrayal of life as an aging wrestler long after the lights are turned off and the cheers have vanished. Rourke found this out firsthand. In an interview with Tribeca, Rourke described the realism of the film and the effect it had on older wrestlers. He said:

"These guys just fade away. We were in L.A. doing a Q&A, and there was a wrestler from the '80s in the audience named Roddy Piper...Piper came backstage, and he broke down, actually. He was emotional about the identification with what happened to him. The wrestlers who have seen the movie have all been very positive."

After the film was released, Fox Searchlight released a five-part roundtable interview with stars from the 1980s. The videos are available on YouTube beginning here with Part One. The consensus among all the participants was the undisputed realism of the film.

Much of that can be attributed to Rourke. His career has the intrigue of a well-scripted wrestling storyline. The former amateur boxer became an actor and sex symbol in the 1980s, but in the early 1990s, Rourke felt compelled to return to the sport of boxing, this time as a professional. By the time "The Wrestler" came out in 2008, you could tell that Rourke had been through the wringer. And he channeled that pain into a brilliant, agonizing performance, leaving you hoping his character would make a comeback, but also convincing you that he wouldn't.

To physically prepare, Rourke followed an intense training regimen to pack on 30 pounds of muscle for the film. Despite the physical demands of the role, Rourke knew playing Randy Robinson would be more emotionally exhausting than anything else, and he'd have to revisit old wounds to bring the character to life.

'I'm going to have to revisit some really dark, painful places'

Mickey Rourke's re-introduction to Hollywood via "The Wrestler" revealed a hardened version of the actor. During his brief professional boxing career, Rourke broke his cheekbone, and his nose twice. But it's where he went emotionally that created the searing performance in "The Wrestler."

In an interview with Collider, Rourke revealed that he was hesitant to take the role, but the desire to work with Aronofsky was too great. Rourke said:

"I knew he'd [Aronofsky] want his pound of flesh, you know? And I thought, 'I'm going to have to revisit some really dark, painful places.' But there was the other side of my brain that went, 'This is a chance to work with somebody really good.' And I think there was a lot of the character in the movie that I kind of didn't really want to go there, you know? The closeness of it was kind of...The guy's desperate, sort of hopeless situation that he's in."

"The Wrestler" was widely praised and maintains an impressive 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Rourke was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and many considered his loss to Sean Penn (for his portrayal of Harvey Milk) an Oscar snub. While the role didn't turn Rourke into a leading man, it did lead to a slew of opportunities, including a high-profile role in "Iron Man 2." Of course, as if he were still channeling Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Rourke later slammed Marvel for the poor acting and "mindless comic book movies." If Rourke is going out, he's going out swinging.

Meanwhile, Aranofsky is at it again. This time it's Brenden Fraser's turn for a comeback in "The Whale," which just debuted to a five-minute standing ovation at its Toronto International Film Festival debut.