Rourke's career began to fall apart as his erratic behavior on movie sets earned him a reputation as a self-destructive troublemaker, and he later headed for Miami to pursue his dream of becoming a professional boxer. When he finally did return to acting, Rourke struggled for years to find a decent role. Now, he's not only collecting critical raves, he's a potential contender for Oscar gold.
Q: How huge of a challenge was this for you?
A: It was the hardest movie I've ever made. I was never so glad for a movie to be finished because it was just exhausting emotionally and physically. What's funny is that coming from boxing, I kind of looked down on wrestling. I saw it as a pre-choreographed, pre-arranged kind of entertainment. But after my third MRI and my fifth trip to the hospital during wrestling practice, I went, 'Man, these guys do get hurt.' At the end of the day, when they're in their mid-40s, they can't even tie their shoes. They're really busted up from head to toe.
Q: How badly did you get injured?
A: I had to go from 192 lbs up to 235 lbs and when you're packing that kind of weight and somebody picks you up, twirls you around and throws you down, something's going to hurt, rattle or roll. Finally I got a real serious one about the second month into training. I blew out an L5 disc in my back, which is not a good thing. So I limped back and instead of giving me sympathy, Darren Aronofsky the director, would be yelling at me in the gym, 'You're only giving me 50%.' That's what I like about him. He is the captain. The first day we met he pointed his little pinkie finger at me and he said, 'You're going to listen to everything I say. You're going to do everything I tell you, and you're never going to disrespect me in front of the crew. And I can't pay you.'
Q: How did you get Bruce Springsteen to do the title song for the film?
A: I wrote him a letter about how I felt about the movie. I had kind of lost touch with Bruce for a long time during my lost years. I lost touch with a lot of people. I wrote him a personal letter and he responded with a very beautiful song for us, 'The Wrestler,' that we couldn't have afforded in a million years. He did it as a favor to us. So I'm just so honored that 'The Boss' did that.
Q: What happened during those lost years?
A: I behaved so badly, people didn't trust me. It was never about the acting with me, it was about losing trust. So I did boxing for five and a half years in Miami. And then seven or eight years went by and then I hoped I'd work as an actor again. I think I wasn't ready to give up. I remember being on a set and the director said to me, 'Well you'll never be a movie star again. But you, you're a good actor. You can work here and there.' And I was like, 'Screw you and the horse you rode in on.' But then, at night, I would think, 'Maybe he's right.'
Q: People are calling this your comeback.
A: 'Come back' is two words. If you look that up in the dictionary, you can be coming back from lunch, coming back from losing both legs in Iraq, coming back from a great night with a sexy lady. I mean, it's gotta be defined. The comeback thing has been a process for me over the last 13 years of having to realize that I had to change. I didn't want to change, but I had to.
Q: What have you learned along the way?
A: After I got out of the Actor's Studio I was naive and I thought it was supposed to be all about the work, not about how you can be a movie star because you look a certain way and you know how to handle yourself talking at an office or a dinner party. But I don't expect everybody to forgive me for being a son of bitch or unpredictable, undependable or irresponsible. The only way you can change is you got to look in the mirror and go, you know, 'It's your fault.'
Q: Now there's a lot of that Oscar buzz surrounding your performance.
A: To me it's about every time Darren would say to me 'Do it again. I want you to bring it.' Every time he wanted me to put in another hour here, another week there — just all the hard work. But I realize it's political. You can be Joe Blow and get an Academy Award. I'm OK with that because that's the way it is. I tried to beat the system and it kicked my ass.
Q: How do you feel about this moment in your life and your career?
A: It feels like the clouds have lifted after you're in the dark for so many years and by yourself. But the only way you can grow is by yourself. There's always going to be that part of me that goes, 'Man, I could mess this up like that.' That's what I'm afraid of. But I don't think that's going to happen again.