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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Rourke is back in the ring

September 11, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

TORONTO — MICKEY Rourke's time has finally come. More than a quarter of a century after he catapulted to stardom in Barry Levinson's "Diner" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Rumble Fish," the man who never won an Oscar but pretty much retired the trophy for America's Craziest Living Actor may get that second act that few artists who self-destruct at an early age ever live to see.

When I had dinner with Rourke in L.A. a few years ago, he spent two hours at a crowded Sunset Strip eatery, virtually unnoticed. Here in Toronto, after getting raves for his tough-but-tender performance in Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," Rourke is the center of attention again. The film was the big sale of the festival, going to Fox Searchlight for roughly $4 million after winning the Golden Lion in Venice last week. And wherever Rourke has gone here, he's drawn a crowd of photographers.

Nearly back to his regular 190-pound fighting weight after gaining 35 pounds to play the part, wearing a blue pinstripe jacket with little blond ringlets in his hair, he's hard to miss. As we sipped coffee in an upstairs lobby at the Four Seasons Hotel here, actors, producers, agents and wannabe screenwriters all stopped by, eager to offer hugs and congratulations or pass along hand-written notes, hoping to interest him in one new project or another.

Maybe this time Rourke can handle the spotlight. Earlier in his career, he fumbled the ball, taking horrible parts, partying all night, spending years fruitlessly trying to revive his schoolboy boxing career and telling anyone who would listen how much disdain he had for the art of acting. Although he's still as eccentric as ever -- taking his favorite Chihuahua, Loki, whom he also calls "No. 1," with him nearly everywhere he goes -- he says he's been in therapy for 13 years and can finally control the anger he'd carried around after surviving a turbulent and violent childhood.

In "The Wrestler," Rourke plays Randy (the Ram) Robinson, a beaten-down wrestler 20 years past his prime, his body scarred and gone to seed, unable to sustain any real relationships, least of all with his daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who wants nothing to do with him. The part hit home.

"Let's put it this way, Randy the Ram was somebody 20 years ago, and so was Mickey Rourke," he told me. "When you used to be somebody and you aren't anybody anymore, you live in what my doctor calls a state of shame. You don't want to go out of the house. You hate just going to the store and having to stand in line, because inevitably someone will stare at you and say, 'Hey, didn't you used to be someone in the movies?' "

Rourke doesn't mince words: "I lost everything. My house, my wife, my credibility, my career." He shrugs. "I even lost my entourage, which is when you know things are really bad. I just had all this anger from my childhood, which was really shame, not anger, and used it as armor and machismo to cover up my wounds. Unfortunately, the way I acted really frightened people, although it was really just me who was scared. But I was like this person who was short-circuited and I didn't know how to fix myself."

So how did Rourke turn his life around?

Rourke finally found a therapist in Los Angeles -- he simply refers to him as Steve -- who helped him deal with his issues. "I started going to see him all the time, at first three times a week. He was great. Even when I didn't have the money, he kept seeing me. It was like he believed in me. I wouldn't be in the business if it wasn't for him and my agent, David Unger at ICM. I was done. Everyone but them thought I was too difficult, too crazy."

Rourke says he finally figured out how to let go of his anger and shame. "You just can't go through life holding on to all that stuff. I just couldn't live with that boulder on my shoulder."

Even though it seemed at the time to be the most ruinous escapade of a career filled with ruinous escapades, Rourke firmly believes that by going back to boxing in the middle of his career he actually regained his equilibrium. He worked with Freddie Roach, Oscar De La Hoya's fight trainer, who wouldn't put up with the antics Rourke had gotten away with on film sets. "Freddie was no-nonsense," Rourke recalls. "When I started staying out all night, fooling around, he quit. He said, 'I'm going back to Vegas. I don't train fighters to lose.' I had to beg him to stay. I cried like a baby before I could convince him I was serious."

Rourke ended up losing most fights, but he found a focus he'd never had. "I started training the way I should, and I demanded a discipline of myself that I'd never had. And I've been able to use that ability to concentrate in my acting."

Rourke said that when he walked down the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival, he never felt happier. "It's really a nice feeling to be proud of the work you've done. Second chances are a great thing."

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