The Observer, Nov 2003
He had the white-hot career, the drop-dead wife and the wiseguy entourage. But that was never enough for Mickey Rourke. Now, after five years in the boxing ring and six years in therapy, he’s inching his way back into Hollywood. Sanjiv Bhattacharya meets the troubled actor and his new best friend, Loki, a pet chihuahua.
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A French cafe in West Hollywood, Mickey Rourke has barely lit his first Marlboro red when he sits bolt upright and looks over my shoulder into the car park. ‘Hey, what’s this motherfucker doing? He parked his car right there to block me in. Hey!’ He calls over the offending waiter, a young Frenchman just arriving for work.
‘I want to be able to get my car out of there.’
‘That is employee parking only,’ the waiter replies in a crisp French accent.
‘I always park there, pal, so just move your car so I can get out, all right?’
‘Why? Are you leaving right now?’
Rourke freezes for an instant and then stands up to face the waiter. He’s a big guy, 6ft tall, with bulging arms and broad, sloping shoulders – an ex-prizefighter who lifts weights at 5.30 every morning. He’s wearing sweat clothes, a beanie hat pulled low and black sunglasses. He takes off the shades and points at the waiter with a sausagey finger.
‘Listen,’ he says, quietly. ‘Don’t get smart with me, man. Just move your fucking car.’
‘Of course.’ The waiter takes a few steps back. ‘When you leave I will move it.’
Rourke sits down and exhales, his dark eyes blazing. Years of fist fights and reconstructive surgery have left the star of Rumblefish and Angel Heart a little puffy and pummelled, but he is clearly recognisable.
‘You see? This is the thing I gotta watch. Because he’s being rude. He purposely blocked me in. And now I got smoke coming out of my ass. But here’s the deal – if we were back in Florida, it’d be all over, just for that. That’s where I come from. I’m not proud of it and I can kinda control myself. But I gotta stay on top of it.’
He takes a drag of his cigarette. ‘It’s like my therapist tells me: “You don’t live in the Dark Ages, Mickey. You don’t have to go around with a suit of armour any more.” Right?’ He smiles fondly at his pet chihuahua, Loki. ‘We got each other, right?’ The big man pets the little dog, his constant companion for three years. ‘We’re all that we got, Loki, so we gotta stick together.’ He scoops some cappuccino froth with his finger and Loki licks it off. ‘That’s my girl.’
Rourke was always a hothead. His bad-boy reputation was built not on cocaine and hookers but on smashed glasses, broken noses and upturned tables; on spousal-abuse charges which were dropped by his ex-wife Carré Otis in 1994; on being, as he puts it, ‘a hard man’. There are other reasons why his career collapsed so spectacularly in the 90s, reasons he has discussed with his therapist, Steve. Arrogance is one, and immaturity, and at the root of it all, a harsh and scarring childhood. But the hardest part to live down is the hair-trigger reputation. Directors and studio executives who don’t know better are still afraid to hire him. Jane Campion (The Piano), for example, requested Rourke for her recent thriller In the Cut, but Nicole Kidman, the executive producer, vetoed it. The hard man shrugs. ‘I can’t blame her.’
This is only part of Rourke’s reputation, of course. He is also a former screen idol whose epic arc through Hollywood these past two decades includes one dizzying rise, one thudding fall and now his crawl back into the limelight. In the 80s, he soared like Icarus on a Harley-Davidson with a body of work that had critics hailing the new Brando, the new Dean. In Diner, Rumblefish, Barfly, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Angel Heart, Year of the Dragon and 9 1/2 Weeks, Rourke established himself as Hollywood’s existential hero, a dark and bestubbled Marlboro-smoking mumbler. Though none of his films hit it big in the US, Europe loved him, particularly France, where Rourke was embraced with a passion that only Jerry Lewis had known before him. 9 1/2 Weeks played for two years in Paris.
Yet just as he had it all – the smoulder, the talent, the model wife, mansion and gleaming gold Rolls-Royce – he threw it all away. ‘I had everything going and I fucked it all up,’ he smiles. ‘Disaster. Total disaster.’
His work degenerated into flaccid soft-core (Wild Orchid). He barged through Hollywood with his middle finger aloft, snapping at the hands that fed him. Throughout this riot of self-destruction, all that sustained him was youthful arrogance and a nodding entourage of thugs, thieves and bikers who provided the matches once Rourke had doused his bridges in gasoline. Blinded by hubris, he picked straight-to-video turkeys while passing up Platoon, Rain Man, The Untouchables, 48 Hours and Highlander, every one a box-office smash. Eventually, at what might yet have been his peak, aged 34, he turned his back on Hollywood and became a prizefighter for five years. He regrets it now. By the time he hung up his gloves, he had nothing left but injuries and a few motorcycles.
‘I lost the house, the wife, the credibility, the entourage. I lost my soul. I was alone,’ he says dramatically. The phone didn’t ring any more. He had barely $200 a week to live on. And for the first time in more than a decade, he had to get his own groceries at the supermarket. ‘I’m sort of OK with it now, but the first time I’m in there, pushing a fucking cart, getting my supper… I used to go to the 24-hour place in gay town, so no one would recognise me.
‘The only thing I could afford was a shrink, so that’s where my money went. Three times a week for the first two years. The year after that, twice a week and now I’m down to once a week. I’ve only missed two appointments in six years.’
He lives in a one-room bungalow in the Hollywood Hills, alone with his five dogs – Loki, a couple of other chihuahuas and two mini-eskimos. His stormy marriage to Carré Otis ended in 1996 – it was his infidelity that sealed it – and though he refuses to mention her by name he has said in previous interviews that Otis was the great love of his life. Either way, there is no girlfriend on the horizon.
‘I went through a period with women,’ he says, ‘where I didn’t want to spend time with them in the morning, and I wanted to shoot myself for being with them in the evening. So I don’t even do that any more. It’s like monkville, my place.’ Where once he tore down Sunset Boulevard on his bike at 80mph in the driving rain, Rourke now stays in cooking chicken breasts for his brood and reading novels.
And, sure enough, the phone has begun to ring. At 48 – though articles indicate he’s probably turning 50 – Mickey Rourke is making a comeback, part by quirky part. In 2000, Sylvester Stallone hired him for Get Carter, and, the following year, Sean Penn gave him a small role opposite Jack Nicholson in The Pledge. Steve Buscemi cast him in The Animal Factory as Edward Furlong’s transvestite cellmate Jan the Actress, the most memorable character in the film. And, this year alone, he stars in Once Upon A Time in Mexico alongside Johnny Depp, and Spun, in which he plays the Cook, a crystal-meth manufacturer in a cowboy hat.
Rourke’s history makes him compelling to watch, particularly in such a hip, young movie as Spun, alongside Mena Suvari, Brittany Murphy and John Leguizamo. The sunbaked and leathery Rourke appears as though after voyages untold, his eyes darting oddly from side to side. ‘I like these young guys,’ he grins. ‘They’re not as afraid of me as the last lot.’
At first, however, he wasn’t keen. ‘I didn’t care for the material and I wasn’t real interested in the cast. But two years ago I put myself in the hands of an agent, David Unger at ICM, and he said: “Do the movie.” So I did.’ He based the Cook on a speed-freak assistant he had back when he had assistants. ‘And a bunch of girls I knew along the way. Strippers do that stuff, too – it’s real big with them.’
But Rourke couldn’t tell you what happens in Spun. I mention the lead character, who cuffs a girl to a bed for four days, and he looks puzzled. ‘Really? Which guy was that?’ He has just finished shooting Man on Fire, directed by Tony Scott, but he doesn’t know what that’s about, either – ‘I just read my part.’ He’s not punch drunk, nor uncommitted. There’s a reason for his odd distance from the films he works on, and it stems, by some twist of Rourkean logic, from The Pope of Greenwich Village, 19 years ago. ‘I loved that movie, but they didn’t do any P and R for it,’ he says, with a sigh. ‘There was a regime change at the studio and they let the picture fall in the toilet.’
You could say Rourke did the same with his career. Even at his peak, during Angel Heart and 9 1/2 Weeks, he didn’t know his agent’s name. He would call CAA and ask the receptionist, ‘Who’s the little bald guy with the white Porsche?’ When Dustin Hoffman called to offer him the Tom Cruise part in Rain Man, Mickey forgot to call him back. He was too busy at the time, swaggering about with villains and bruisers, jetting over to Miami – where he grew up – to kick it with his roughneck Cuban friends. ‘Some of them were, you know, villains – most of them were – but they were my boys, you know?’ And among them were celebrity villains – the late rapper Tupac (‘great guy’) and Sonny Barger, the chief of the Hell’s Angels (‘very intelligent man’) and even, at one point, the Mafiosi boss John Gotti (‘no comment’). Rourke showed up at Gotti’s murder trial in 1992.
With such bad company, surely these were high times? ‘You know how I parallel it?’ Rourke stands up and rubs his hands together. ‘I was on the field, lining up to play, I picked out all my own players. And when the whistle blew…’ Holding an imaginary ball, he looks around him, confused. ‘Everyone had on the wrong outfits and ran in the wrong direction. Now if they give me the ball, I line up with the right players. The last team, forget about it. Halloween III. Elvis on acid. You should have come to my big fucking mansion with the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Neighbours moving out each side and at the back.’ He’s beaming now, at the memory of his reckless years. ‘I had six motorcycles. Joey’s [his brother] got at least six and he had two flags flying over the guest quarters – the Confederate flag and the Jolly Roger. We just didn’t belong. Richard Harris used to have that house before me and he said: “Mickey, they’re going to kill you, these guys.” I’d say, “Hey, what does Richard know?” But he knew. He knew.’
To see the smile on his face, Rourke would still be chilling with the villains, if only the price weren’t so high. ‘I know – I should have been talking about acting with Chris Walken instead of sitting with the soldiers, but I’m comfortable with that element,’ he says. ‘We have our own laws. We don’t go to lawyers to straighten out shit, we do it right there on the spot!’
The mansion years – all two of them – were for Rourke the high point of his delayed childhood, all invincible swagger and irresponsibility. ‘I didn’t have a childhood, really, because I worked my whole life and… other reasons. So when I had some success, I went ballistic. That was my childhood, and the party kept going on. I didn’t get off my motorcycle for 10 years.’
His actual childhood he won’t talk about, but all the arrows point to a brutal time when the hard man was first toughened up. He was born Philip Andre Rourke in New York, to a father of the same name who he scarcely knew. As a toddler, he and his brother Joey were moved to Liberty City, on the outskirts of the Miami hood, where they were raised by a stepfather they couldn’t stand. It was a hard, blue-collar upbringing, near a rough black ghetto. Black and blue were always his most familiar colours. ‘That’s why I drive a Cadillac now. Everyone who makes it in Liberty City gets a Caddy.’
He hints at violence at home. When I ask about his five stepbrothers, he shakes his head. ‘I only have one brother. The rest don’t count for shit.’ And, later on: ‘I went through some shit growing up that stayed in me and that makes you hard. It’s like a dog that’s been kicked in the ass every day. You can’t come near it.’
Perhaps it was the ass-kicking that drove young Mickey to the boxing gym in the first place. He was good and could have turned pro had he chosen, with an amateur record of 139 wins and three losses. Instead, he fled to New York to study at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. ‘I loved acting most, because it was all about the work then. Not the business or the politics. You were either a good actor or you sucked.’ Rourke was good and a purist with it. So when success came, and he span out of control, his excuse was that he was rebelling against Hollywood’s unrepentant mediocrity, the very ‘bullshit and politics’ every student loves to loathe.
‘I thought: I’d have to be dead not to work if they settle for what they settle for,’ he says. ‘That was very arrogant on my part.’
But the fall has changed him only so much – off the record, he still sees mediocrity everywhere. He scoffs at certain peers, notably those who remained in the A-list from his own generation. ‘I see so-and-so actor and I say, “That’s a fucking movie star! That loser can’t shine my shoes!” I think deep down the reason they’re so disciplined and focused on their careers is because they know they don’t have the goods.’ The ‘goods’, the talent, the mercurial spark – this is what Rourke holds dear, what he believes still distances him from workaday drones.
He never much liked actors anyway. Only last week he changed gyms to escape them ‘always whining about how they didn’t get this job or that job’. His most famous quote on the subject was that acting was ‘not a man’s job’. ‘Yeah, I know I shouldn’t have said it,’ he admits.
‘I remember Mel Gibson had something to say about that, but he should have said it to my face.’ (Gibson had claimed: ‘Well, Mickey just thinks he is a tough guy in a black T-shirt.’)
If machismo reflects an inner vulnerability, if the thickness of the armour mirrors the tenderness beneath, then Mickey Rourke has a wounded and weeping core. No one surrounded himself with such relentless machismo as Mickey – with the villains, the motorbikes, the Cuban boys and the strippers, Rourke’s testosterone-drenched life only stepped up a notch when he announced his return to boxing in his mid-thirties.
He took a good deal of stick for ‘doing a Hemingway’, for pretending that a soft-bellied actor could amount to anything as a fighter. But Rourke was a boxer first, and under no illusions. ‘I felt I ran away from turning pro as a kid; there was a cowardice there I had to deal with. Become a decent club fighter – no more. Yeah, I admit I thought I could come back to acting easily enough,’ he laughs. He won nine and drew two over five years – which isn’t bad, considering everywhere he went the crowds bayed for his blood. ‘But unbeaten doesn’t mean anything,’ he adds. ‘I was beaten up every day in the gym.’
Is it self-loathing that makes the pretty boy subject his face to a world-class thumping? Rourke won’t say. But he took a heavy beating. For 18 months he sparred with James Toney (who beat Evander Holyfield in October). ‘He beat the shit out of me. He broke my cheekbone, with a headguard on. I had five nose operations, broke my hand a few times, two or three concussions. But I became very disciplined as a pro. I use that focus now as an actor. When I started, my trainer Freddie Roach said: “I’m going back to Vegas – you’re not training as a pro. Train on your own for a month, and when I come back, if I like what I see, I’ll train you.” I had tears running down my face when he said that, because I thought I was training hard. Freddie knew what I was getting into. He did it for my best interests.’
For all the havoc boxing caused his health and personal life, his acting career suffered equally. It was while he was fighting that Quentin Tarantino sent him the Pulp Fiction script, highlighting the boxer role that eventually went to Bruce Willis. Tarantino wanted to resurrect a Rourke as well as Travolta in that movie. But Mickey didn’t read it. ‘I had a fight in Kansas at the time and I was really nervous,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘I know, I know. I was stupid.’
A devout Catholic, Rourke believes that God is testing him with this mighty rise and fall. His sin? ‘Not forgiving and moving on from my childhood.’ He believes that when his world collapsed, God gave him his dogs to give him a sense of responsibility that he never had before. ‘I’m closer with my dogs than most people,’ he says. ‘When Bo Jacks died – that’s Loki’s father – I was beside myself. I had to call Father Peter in New York and he said: “Anything you love that much, you will see again.” I had to hear it from him, you know?’
Today he will spend at home with his animals. Maybe later he’ll surf down at Venice Beach – ‘I’m the worst surfer in California,’ he grins. ‘My balance is off from boxing.’ Maybe there will be a decent movie on cable. He could always go back to the gym.
He puts a $100 bill on the table, leaving an enormous tip, and gets ready to go. ‘I said to my doctor: “Steve. All these blokes I know, if they had to live the way I live now, they’d kill themselves.” And you know what he said? “None of them would have a clue how to fall as far as you’ve fallen.” And he’s right. It’s where I came from.
‘But I want to say I have changed. I don’t want to be a hard man any more. It has killed me. I just have to think two steps ahead. Like asking that guy to move his car – I can’t let that short-circuit me. It’s not my right. All I can do is ask him, give him that opportunity.’
That sounds like your therapist talking.
‘I know. I hear my therapist coming out of my mouth a lot lately. He’s going on holiday soon, what am I going to do?’ He laughs. ‘Me, of all people.’