Pop Culture

Mickey Rourke: ‘Change has been hard for me’

Mickey Rourke initially didn’t want to make “The Wrestler,” the movie that has resurrected his career and earned him a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination.

“I kind of wasn’t that excited about doing it. There were some parallels there that were a little too close to home,” Rourke told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Friday in New York. The previous day, he had been nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of an aging, bad-boy wrestler.

Lauer read Rourke part of a review about his performance: “It’s hard to tell where Rourke ends and Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson begins. Both men led decadent, disappointing lives as performers on different stages, yet starkly similar. Each was once considered the golden god of his art, a pro wrestler acting famous and an actor wrestling with his fame.”

“It’s pretty much on the money,” Rourke said softly.

Tarnished golden boyTwenty years ago, following his performance in “9½ Weeks” with Kim Basinger, Rourke was one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood. He did not deal well with success. He drank, got in fights, didn’t show up on time (or sometimes at all) for work, lost his passion and his accountability. For a time, he even pursued a career as a professional boxer, a sport he had taken up as a boy growing up in Miami.

Although he got bit parts here and there, as far as major Hollywood directors were concerned, Mickey Rourke was through.

Rourke finally came to understand the damage he had done to himself and his career and set out to turn his life around. He doesn’t pretend it was easy.

“Change has been hard for me,” he said. “I’ve grown into someone who is professional, responsible and accountable.”

In his mind, Rourke still had good work inside him, but his reputation kept him from showing it.

“If you misbehave for most of your career like I did, and, say, 13, 14 years have gone by, there’s still going to be people that are wary of you,” the 56-year-old actor told Lauer.

A second chance
Despite that, director Darren Aronofsky approached him with the script for “The Wrestler,” a part that Aronofsky thought fit Rourke perfectly. Rourke’s character, Randy the Ram, is a former superstar who now finds himself chasing the shadows of fame in small-town wrestling shows in high school gyms in New Jersey.

The action was shot at actual matches with a handheld camera, bringing a heightened sense of reality to the film. The title song was written by Rourke’s friend Bruce Springsteen as a personal favor.

Rourke admitted he didn’t know much about professional wrestling when he signed on. At the film’s Hollywood premiere, he worried what professional wrestlers invited to the showing would think. Among the wrestling icons who watched it were Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger, Ric Flair and Brutus Beefcake, along with wrestling impresario Vince McMahon.

“They all embraced it,” Rourke said softly.

Man’s best friend
Despite the universally glowing reviews of the film and his acting, Rourke refused to accept Lauer’s invitation to declare himself totally back.

“I don’t think I can allow myself to feel like I’ve made it all the way back,” he said, his words echoing the language used by people in 12-step programs. “I think that’s where the problem is, feeling that sense of security about what I do. I think I’ve always got to go, ‘I’ve gotta get by today,’ like a guy who’s got a drinking problem or a drug problem … If I get too steady with it, maybe some of that bad stuff will slip back in there.”

Twice married and twice divorced, Rourke lives with seven Chihuahuas. When he accepted his Golden Globe for best actor and listed those he wanted to thank, he singled out his dogs.

“Sometimes when a man is alone, that’s all you got is your dog,” he said in his acceptance.

Lauer asked if Rourke had thought about what sort of speech he would give if he wins the Academy Award for best actor.

“I don’t think I’ve allowed myself to go that far,” Rourke replied. “That’s sort of too far down the road to allow myself.”

Lauer asked what the success of “The Wrestler” means to the actor.

“To be honest with you, just to be back in the game and working again on movies that have integrity and directors that I respect — that was a big hump to get over,” he replied.

But there’s still work to do, still people who aren’t convinced that he’s really changed.

“For me, what I look forward to is the people who thought, ‘He’s finished, I’ll never work with him.’ I want to convince them,” Rourke said.