January 12, 2009 Leigh Singer

Darren Aronofsky – The Wrestler

Even for enfant terrible and filmmaker behind Requiem for a Dream Darren Aronofsky, directing Mickey Rourke in Oscar-tipped The Wrestler took a lot of work. “He’s got a few bad habits,” he tells Leigh Singer.

It’s being touted as the acting comeback of this century: Mickey Rourke, former ‘80s heartthrob movie star turned punch-drunk Hollywood punchline, grappling his demons as a legendary has-been out for redemption in The Wrestler. The tragic parallels between Rourke and his character, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, are manifest and, yes, the actor is superb. But if it’s Rourke in the ring, the guy who put him back there, effectively his trainer, mentor and cheerleader is The Wrestler’s director Darren Aronofsky.

To stick with the wrestling analogies for a moment, Aronofsky, a self-professed fan of Rourke’s landmark roles in Diner, Barfly and Angel Heart, not only went to the mat for his star, he basically found himself in a chokehold with financiers who could not – would not – back his project if Rourke was attached.

“No one really believed that he could do it, “ says Aronofsky wryly. “No one thought he could be sympathetic, that he could be the lead for a film. It took a long time to convince people. Basically there was one financier in the world who got it – for way too little money – but they stuck around and I finally figured out a way to make it work.”

In the flesh Aronofsky’s neatly pressed attire, round, rimless glasses and softly spoken demeanour give him the air of a mild-mannered high school teacher, an image entirely at odds with the haunted, fevered vibe of the 39-year old Brooklynite’s movie output to date: his synapse-scrambling, cerebral thriller debut Pi; expressionist, express train-paced drug-addiction saga (and one of the biggest downers in cinema history) Requiem for a Dream; and the New Age-y spiritual sci-fi of The Fountain, which co-starred Aronofsky’s partner and mother of his son Henry, British actress Rachel Weisz.

Listen closely to Aronofsky’s measured tones, though, and you quickly sense the steely, no-bullshit New Yorker temperament required to deal with ambitious projects such as those listed above – as well as notoriously mercurial, washed-up movie stars. Despite Rourke’s tough guy reputation (he once quit acting for an extended, bruising boxing career), Aronofsky didn’t stint on the ‘tough love’ he felt necessary to get Rourke to work.

“That’s the only way to deal with a spoilt baby,” he laughs. “He’s not going to hit me, I wasn’t afraid.” Well, maybe not a punch, but how about a wrestling lock? “You know, Mickey’s got a soft heart,” Aronofsky maintains. “He’s built a lot of tough guy around him to protect him but there’s so much emotion and I think that’s why he’s the star he is. Someone who feels dangerous and has got a big heart, those are always the best leading men.”

The best, perhaps, but not the easiest. Shooting with Rourke, even on a project that could potentially salvage his own career, sounds like one long championship slugfest.

“Mickey’s got a few bad habits,” Aronofsky explains, “basically he likes to take it easy. Getting him to the starting line, to ‘Action’, was a lot of work. But between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ he was completely open, took all suggestions and took all chances; and would do it again and again until he got it right or got it better. And then ‘Cut’ would come and…”

Rourke’s beloved, ever-present chihuahua Loki, would jump right back into his arms? “Exactly,” smiles Aronofsky. “He closes up and then you got to figure out how to get him back open again. It was a lot of work but it doesn’t really matter. As long as when the cameras are rolling he’s doing it.”

Aronofsky claims Rourke was “a joke” within the industry, right up until they finished editing The Wrestler last August and the very next week premiered at the Venice Film Festival – winning the Golden Lion for Best Film. Now of course, Rourke is the toast of Hollywood and tipped for an Oscar – something the actor insists his director promised him from the outset.

“He claims that,” refutes Aronofsky immediately, grinning. “I would never say it that boldly. I said that if you do what I’m telling you to do, you’ll get all the recognition you want. But he’s so talented that I knew if he did the work, the work would be recognised. That’s what I’ve always noticed: if you do the work, no one can deny that.”

It’s a mantra Aronofsky himself evidently follows. His last film, The Fountain, was set to roll as a $90 million studio film starring Brad Pitt, until Pitt pulled out just weeks before shooting began. It took Aronofsky years to re-imagine, recast and effectively remake his vision, the result being a hugely divisive work.

“I didn’t suffer at all during that process, even though it seemed like these epic tragedies happened with the film falling apart, “ he counters. “I just turned it into a lesson and tried to be in the moment with it. I had a great trip and I ended up making the film that I was supposed to make. There are people who love it and people who hate it and that’s how I think decisive work should be. ‘Blah’ is the worst thing that can happen – and when it does, take me off the field and fucking shoot me.”

The Fountain had the added charge of working with his partner Weisz, something Aronofsky now describes as “surreal” – “it feels like a different life actually because our relationship is so much more evolved.” Presumably becoming a father too, has shifted his perspective on life and filmmaking. The Wrestler exhibits a very different, stripped-down style to his earlier, more baroque work.

“I think that’s important though, to keep changing,” he urges. “The Wrestler is evidence of that – a film executed for real post-my son being born and it’s worked out very well. I think the biggest crime as a creative person is to hold on to who you were.” For all the razzle-dazzle of a Rourke fairytale comeback, perhaps, like Aronofsky, real champs are those who stay in the ring.

 The Wrestler is out January 16th.

 ‘© The Big Isue 2008. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.’

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