“When I’d graduated film school I’d made a list on my Mac Classic, or whatever it was, of some ideas for feature films,” Darren Aronofsky said during a panel at this year’s New York Film Festival. “And one of them was called ‘The Wrestler.’ [It] came out of the idea that there had been so many boxing movies that it’s basically its own genre, yet nobody had done a serious fillm about wrestling.”
The idea spent a long time on Aronofsky’s hard drive until six years ago when he and producer Scott Franklin (who was a producer on “Requiem of a Dream” and “Pi“) started talking about it. “Scott turned out to be a bigger fan of wrestling than I was,” he laughed. “So [he] started putting together some ideas and eventually the idea of Mickey Rourke came up and that same time we met a writer named Robert Siegel and he started to write to script.”
Eventually shot in just 35 days, “The Wrestler” is opening in limited release today. It has already garnered a significant amount of praise from the awards circuit. It grabbed a Spirit Award nod for best feature, three Golden Globe nominations, and a assemblage of critic’s awards or nominations for stars Rourke and Marisa Tomei.
The film details the simple and moving story of fictional wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke), who is unhappily facing retirement. As he fights this personally devastating reality, “The Ram” also tries to woo an aging, single-mom stripper named Cassidy (Tomei), and reunite with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Aronofksy, Rourke, Franklin, and Tomei, who plays an aging stripper and Rourke’s love interest in the film, all sat down for a talk a the New York Film Festival.
“I didn’t know anything about wrestling at all,” Rourke admitted. Aronofksy put him on an extensive rehearsal schedule, handled in part by the film’s stunt co-ordinator, Douglas Crosby, an actual judge at UFC fights. Crosby brought in a team of professional wrestlers to help Rourke prepare.
“While Darren was away on vacation for two months, he made me train with these guys,” Rourke laughed. “He had a ring put up in his office and everyday for two hours, Darren made me go to wrestling practice with these guys. At first it really hard and I didn’t get it because I was trained in a different sport. It made it harder to learn wrestling because in boxing you’re taught to hide everything. I would have been better of if I’d never had a boxing lesson… Wrestling and boxing are like ping-pong and rugby.”
“I was so glad when this movie was over,” Rourke said regarding how physically exhausting the process was. “I can honestly say [its] the best movie I ever made and the hardest movie I’ve ever made.” Rourke said he got hurt more in the three months wrestling than he did in sixteen years boxing. “I think I had three MRIs in two months,” he said. “Darren would screech at me that ‘your’e only giving me fifty percent,’ and I was like ‘I can’t fucking move, brother.’ I’m no spring chicken and this would be hard for a twenty year-old to do.”
Regarding her role a stripper, Tomei also admitted several challenges. “I was [just now] listening to Mickey and I was thinking that there were so many feelings that were similar,” she said. “Although Darren did not put up a strip pole in his office for me.”
Like Rourke’s hired wrestlers, Tomei was given professional strippers to help her prepare and Rourke also helped her considerably. “I was still quite nervous but Mickey made me feel better after the first day I had to do it,” Tomei. “I was waiting to see his eyes when he came in to make sure it looks right. ‘I know you know,'” she remembered saying.
“I remember Mickey with his long blonde hair trying to show Marisa how to twirl,” said Aronofsky as both he and Tomei started immitating Rourke’s lesson. “Actually, [it was he who] taught me,” joked Tomei.
Producer Scott Franklin acknowledged the film’s financing was a challenge, in part due to Rourke’s casting. “Mickey’s comeback as a lead actor… a lot of people doubted him,” Franklin said. “And Darren and I never wavered in believing in Mickey.”
Rourke wasn’t always as sure about himself. “If I knew it was going to take me fifteen years to get back in the saddle and work again because of the way I handled things, I really would have handled things differently,” he said. “I just didn’t have the tools. Doing things differently this time around and understanding what it is to be a professional and be responsible and be consistent. Those were things that weren’t in my vocabulary back then. Change for me, didn’t come easy. I didn’t want to change until I lost everything. Then I realized, ‘you better change or just blow your fucking brains out’… I thought it was a weakness to change from all the armor I had put on my whole life. I was too proud to change.”
Rourke certainly swallowed his pride, as his performance in “The Wrestler” displays a dedication to his craft few are capable of realizing.