INTERVIEW : The Last Anti-Hero? : Sure, Mickey Rourke has his ego set on full-tilt boogie, but Hollywood’s bad boy now says he’s made some career mistakes
On the shade inside his bathroom door, Mickey Rourke has scribbled his warrior credo. “I must be mentally and physically prepared so defeat does not exist in my mind and body. Shadow box in a mirror 30 minutes a day. Movement is concentrated. Positive attitude to survive and be as good as I can possibly be. No excuses for laziness. And no second chance again.”
At the bottom, following more exhortations to discipline and excellence, Rourke has written one final reminder: “I must be true to myself.”
Rourke has always followed that last motto--perhaps too far. Obsessed with staying true to his gifts as an actor, the 36-year-old actor has fallen far from grace--and far short of the movie stardom predicted for him a decade ago.
“This is the first year I’ve had to look at what I do as a business and it was a rude awakening for me,” said Rourke, lighting up a Marlboro as he paces nervously around his spacious Hollywood loft. “I gotta admit that a lot of the movies I’ve been making, well, not too many people have wanted to see ‘em, even if they’ve been the ones I wanted to do.
“I’ve had some great moments in some of my movies, moments that most of the actors who are around now couldn’t touch in another lifetime. But I’ve made some mistakes too. I don’t blame anyone else. They’re mistakes I made. I just hope I can learn from them.”
Rourke sits back down and falls silent, listening to the hum of traffic outside his window. “Down the line I’ll get my act together,” he finally says, talking in a hushed, feathery voice. “But it hasn’t been easy. I thought I knew where my niche was. But I guess I didn’t. I gotta admit I don’t know where it is anymore.”
At first, it seemed that Rourke’s niche would be stardom. After a series of riveting performances, most notably in “Diner,” “Body Heat” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” he was being hailed as a young Hollywood lion, an actor with the brooding intensity of the early Marlon Brando, the electricity of James Dean and the emotional charge of John Garfield.
“Mickey is totally beguiling, both as a person and as an actor,” says Adrian Lyne, who directed him in “9 1/2 Weeks.” “But the choices he’s made recently have been awful. If he had died when he was making ‘Angel Heart,’ he’d have been talked about like James Dean. Dead actors can’t let you down.”
Times have definitely changed. Rourke still gets a hefty $3 million a picture, thanks to the success of several of his mid-’80s films overseas. But as of late, his box-office track record has been dismal. Two low-budget projects, “Home Boy” and “Francesco,” never received a theatrical release in America, while his two most recent Hollywood films, “Johnny Handsome” and “Desperate Hours,” were flops.
If you’re riding high, Hollywood’s insular community will abide arrogance and eccentricity. But it doesn’t cut much slack for losers. In recent years, Rourke has become an outcast, viewed as a mercurial kook most famous for wrecking hotel rooms, giving film directors migraines and treating the press with disdain.
Whether playing a boozy, bloodied poet in “Barfly” or a disheveled sleazehound in “Angel Heart,” Rourke has reveled in so many grungy roles that the grit seems to have stuck to his collar--and soiled his image. On hearing that this interview was about to take place, one Hollywood executive sneered “See if he’s taken a bath.”
The press hasn’t been much kinder. When one critic reviewed “Desperate Hours,” he sarcastically noted: “It’s hard to think of an actor who would be scarier in the role of a domestic invader than Rourke. After all, he might use your towels.”
Rourke has responded in kind. When critics blasted “Year of the Dragon,” his first movie with Michael Cimino, he returned fire, dismissing the film’s critics as “totally gutless.” Enraged by what he felt was ill-advised interference in the making of the film “A Prayer for the Dying,” Rourke livened up a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival by refering to “Prayer” producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. a “liar” and a “scumbag.”
Even though his tongue is as acid as ever, Rourke ruefully realizes he’s burned a lot of bridges along the way. “When I first met Alan Parker, who directed ‘Angel Heart,’ he’d heard so many horror stories about me that he was literally scared to death of me,” Rourke recalls. “Right away, he sat me down and said, ‘I’m very scared of you. I’ve heard you’re a very bad boy.’ ”
Rourke wearily wagged his head. “And you know what--he reminded me of it every day.”
There were plenty of bad-boy tales to be heard. When Kim Basinger, who worked with Rourke on “9 1/2 Weeks,” was asked to describe the pair’s heated sex scenes in the film, she tartly replied that smooching with Rourke was like “kissing an ashtray.”
After Rourke’s antics on that film, it’s no wonder she was a little cranky. “When we were shooting the film, Mickey’s hero was Billy Idol,” explains Lyne. “So for 12 weeks, we played this insane game. The hairdresser would fix his hair each morning to fit his character, who was a businessman. And then Mickey would go into the bathroom and completely change his hair, spiking it up so it looked more like Billy Idol.
“It turned into a French farce. The hairdresser would fix his hair right again and then Mickey would go back into the bathroom. So I’d stop what I was doing and follow him in to make sure he didn’t change it back again.”
Lyne laughs. “He’d even play Billy Idol records on the set. Before each scene, Mickey would blast out ‘Rebel Yell’ at ear-splitting volume to get ready for the take. It drove poor Kim completely crackers. But Mickey needed to do it his way.”
Rourke’s trump card--his stubborn independence--has kept his career in low gear in recent years. But it’s made him a huge star in France, where cinephiles see him as the reincarnation of America’s film noir renegade heroes. It’s also won him a host of admirers, including such young actors as Sean Penn and Matt Dillon, who saw Rourke as a Hollywood rebel with a cause, a fearless actor with passionate convictions.
To actor Don Michael Paul, who also wrote the script to Rourke’s latest film, “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” Rourke is a screen icon. “From a young actor’s point of view, Mickey is an artist’s artist,” says Paul. “He’s incredibly compelling. He has a fire--an intensity--that you only see in great actors. But what sets him apart is that he doesn’t have the armor most people have. You see the pain. There’s trouble in those eyes.”
An intense, childlike man, Rourke remains as inscrutable as ever: when he had his picture taken for this story, he refused to stand up, preferring to remain in a crouch. While being interviewed, he freely discusses his career ups and downs. But he keeps more private woes to himself--he doesn’t show off his scars. It’s apparent Rourke had a rocky childhood, but he resolutely refuses to discuss his family or early upbringing. He hews to the anti-hero code: Never complain, never explain.
Even when freshly scrubbed for his interview, Rourke is perhaps the least prepossessing movie star imaginable. His hair is uncombed, his clothes are disheveled and he has a patch of dried blood above his lip where he cut himself shaving.
Lean and well-conditioned, he’s clearly shy around strangers, frequently getting up to roam around his loft, walking with the rolling, slightly unsteady gait of an ex-boxer. Wearing a white T-shirt, a threadbare sweater and rumpled jeans, he looks like a motorcycle mechanic on holiday, the kind of scruffy hot rod you’d bump into at a Billy Idol concert.
Rourke is dismissive of his gifts as an actor--he has soured on the profession. But ask him about boxing and he springs to life, talking animatedly about his favorite fighters. The warrior credo on his bathroom door isn’t inspiration for an upcoming movie part--he wrote it when he was training for a charity exhibition with veteran light-heavyweight Thomas (Hit Man) Hearns.
Growing up in a tough neighborhood in Miami, Rourke spent much of his teen years as an amateur fighter, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his childhood idol, Muhammad Ali, who gave up his heavyweight crown to remain true to his religious beliefs. After two concussions and a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, Rourke turned to acting. But he’s remained obsessed with a similarly idiosyncratic individuality.
“When I was younger, I saw being an actor as something to be looked up to,” he says, walking around his loft, which is adorned with a quartet of handsome vintage motorcycles, a jukebox, several punching bags and a jungle of gym equipment. “It’s not that way anymore. Look around. You can be mediocre, the way most actors are, and you can still be a top movie star, even if your movies are boring and predictable. All you have to do is know how to sell yourself, let yourself be manufactured.”
Rourke is on a roll now, his voice thick with emotion. “There are guys I respect. Brando has always done it his way and he’s been great. Al Pacino held onto his roots and never sold out. And then there are these other guys. . . .”
Rourke laughs--a bitter, strangled laugh. “They consider it a stretch if they grow a mustache!”
Rourke sits down, and immediately bounces up again, prowling around his exercise equipment. “I’m sorry,” he says gently. “I’m pacing ‘cause talking about all this stuff makes me agitated.”
He finally takes a seat and continues. “When you’re young, working in a warehouse or selling hot dogs, you look at work--at acting--as something precious. It gets you out of the stink. But as you get older, you realize that the movie business settles for a lot of mediocrity.”
Even his admirers wonder if these caustic remarks are inspired by his insecurities about his own abilities. “Mickey is a wonderful, selfless actor,” says Adrian Lyne. “But he’s let his hatred for Hollywood affect his acting. In a way he’s strangled his own talent. It’s total bull for him to say he doesn’t care about acting. He cares deeply. He couldn’t live without it. I think it’s just a defense mechanism--his way of protecting himself from failure.”
To hear Rourke talk, he’s far more comfortable working out at his favorite boxing gym than hanging around with the acting crowd. “Acting has never been a release for me,” he says with a sigh. “I see through it too clearly, I see the controls. Going to the gym and boxing is a good release for me.”
A scowl sweeps across his face. “I don’t mind getting punched in the nose by a guy standing in front of me. It’s getting stabbed in the back that I can’t handle.”
For a moment, it looked ugly.
After all the things you’ve heard about the on--and off--set antics of Rourke and Don Johnson, you had to be a little taken aback to arrive on the location of “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” and find Rourke with his arms locked under Johnson’s armpits, squeezing the air out of his lungs in a classic World Wrestling Foundation death-grip embrace.
Only when Rourke spun around and flashed a big grin did it become evident that the two bad-boy actors were simply enjoying some between-takes horseplay.
“How’s that?” Rourke says as he finally releases his co-star from the chokehold. Johnson playfully staggered around the set, trying to catch his breath. “Wow!” he whoops with obvious surprise. “Where’d that come from?”
Set in the near future, the lighthearted action adventure film stars Rourke and Johnson as two outlaw buddies who try to prevent a rapacious villain from taking over their pals’ rock ‘n’ roll bar. Outfitted in a leather jump suit with short, thatchy hair, earrings and a nasty little scar behind his right cheek, Rourke plays Harley, a laconic drifter who says of his bike: “It’s not just a motorcycle. It’s a way of life.”
Rumor has it--though his manager denies it--that Rourke was so eager to get his career back on track that he took the part without even reading the script. At a budget of nearly $20 million, with $3 million going to Rourke and just about as much to Johnson, the summer-bound “Harley” costs more--by Rourke’s own account--than four or five of his most recent films combined.
In his loft, he candidly acknowledges that the film isn’t going to win him any Oscars. “There were days when I was into what I was doing,” he says. “And there were days when. . . .” His voice trails off. “It wasn’t the type of movie where I cared so much if someone was in my eye line or if someone was on the set. It was a job. Just a job.”
He shrugs. “It was like going to work, like being a shoemaker. You can’t hang onto one pair of shoes forever. So you try to make a good shoe out of what you’ve got.”
“This character is a real departure for Mickey--he actually smiles all the time,” explains “Harley” director Simon Wincer (“Lonesome Dove”). “It’s funny, because he was a little uncomfortable about smiling at first. I think he’d lost some of his teeth when he was young, so he’d always laugh with his mouth closed. But now he’s so relaxed that he’s smiling all the time.”
Producer Jere Henshaw said Rourke was on his best behavior. “I’d heard all the horror stories,” he says. “But Mickey’s been great. No temper tantrums at all.”
Johnson didn’t get such great on-location reviews. When the former “Miami Vice” star discovered an US magazine reporter on the set, making a prearranged visit, he made a stink, demanding that the reporter be asked to leave. After lengthy negotiations, the reporter was allowed to stay and briefly watch filming, before being escorted off the set by someone in Johnson’s entourage.
According to several crew members, Johnson also had a falling out with “Harley” screenwriter Paul, who he tried to have banned from the set. Paul also clashed with Rourke on one of the last days of the film, getting into a confrontation where the two had to be pulled apart.
Paul wouldn’t specifically discuss the incidents. But he did say: “If there were problems, it was as much my fault as anybody’s. Nobody likes having the writer around. I was probably being too aggressive and adamant about presenting my point of view because it was my first movie and I cared about it a lot.”
Johnson’s tantrums did not endear him to “Harley’s” producer. A movie veteran who began his career working on John Ford Westerns, Henshaw was so peeved at Johnson that when a studio video crew asked him to compare the actor to Western heroes like John Wayne, Henshaw snapped: “Don’s not the Duke. He’s not even a pimple on the Duke’s ass!”
When the interviewer said, “Jere, can’t you say something nice about him,” Henshaw laughingly replied, “Sure, but I’d be lying.”
To hear something nice about Mickey Rourke, just ask Bill Slayton, the formidable boxing trainer who owns the Broadway Boxing Gym and has schooled such boxing stars as Ken Norton and Michael Dokes. “Mickey is a beautiful, everyday person,” says Slayton, who has been Rourke’s boxing coach for the past five years. “He likes being with the little guys. He’s not impressed by people who put on airs.
“Mickey’s very generous too. We have a lot of equipment here in the gym that we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for Mickey.”
Slayton was on hand when Rourke sparred with Hearns recently. “He hit Mickey with a good little left hook,” Slayton recalls. “Mickey really felt it--he went right down to one knee. I don’t think Tommy was trying to knock him out, but he wanted to show him he wasn’t kidding around.”
Rourke still savors the experience. “It was incredible--it was the first time I ever felt overwhelmed,” he says. “He was so fast. You never saw the punches coming. I gotta admit, I was a little flustered. He got me in the first round. He hit me with a left hook-- boom --and I went down for an eight count. But it was great being in there with him.”
Slayton is convinced Rourke is in the wrong business. “He’d rather be a fighter than an actor. He hates all the phony people in his business. He was talking to Boom Boom Mancini here one day and he said, ‘If I could box the way you do, I’d trade places with you any day.’ ”
Rourke puts it more simply: “Bill knows I’d rather be at his place than anywhere else.”
It’s no wonder Rourke feels more comfortable at Slayton’s place than at a hip Hollywood watering hole. He came of age in gyms like the Broadway. Growing up in Miami Beach, Rourke held down all sorts of odd jobs, including a stint at a firing range where he picked up bullet casings. (“I really liked it, but I kept getting lead poisoning,” he says).
For the most part, he worked as a pool boy, cleaning cabanas and parking cars at the Fountainbleau, the Eden Roc, the Algiers and other old hotels along Collins Avenue. An ardent athlete, Rourke played Little League baseball and high school football. But his true love was the ring. “Even then I had trouble with organized sports,” he says. “I got into boxing because it was one on one--me against the other guy. That suited me just fine.”
From the time he was 13, he spent most of his free time at the 5th Street Gym, a fabled boxing haunt that spawned a legion of memorable champs, most notably Muhammad Ali.
“I idolized Ali,” Rourke says, his eyes growing bright. “There haven’t ever been many people that I’ve looked up to, or put on a pedestal. But when he walked into the gym, the place lit up.”
Rourke even picked up acting tips from Ali. “It was great training to watch him, because you learned to adapt, to improvise, to treat each opponent a different way. Ali knew when to be offensive and when to be defensive. It works the same way in acting. You need to know when to go wild and let go--but you also need to know when to shut up and be quiet.”
After his second concussion, Rourke’s doctor made him take a year off from boxing. While on the mend, he took a small part in a Jean Genet play at the University of Miami. “I didn’t know what the (expletive) I was doing,” he recalls. “But I loved it.”
Rourke headed for New York and joined the Actor’s Studio, where he quickly developed a reputation as a mesmerizing young actor--and just as quickly clashed with Studio guru Lee Strasberg. “I really respect him, but that place was like the tomb of darkness,” Rourke says quietly, his voice barely a whisper. “Everyone was so afraid to fail. Everyone was so afraid of Lee. Everyone was so intimidated that the whole place became a trap. I never saw anyone leave there except for Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel.”
One day, after Strasberg harshly critiqued one of Rourke’s scenes, the pair had a noisy, public confrontation. Rourke stalked out of the Studio, never to return. “I felt free,” he says. “I didn’t want to be subservient to anyone anymore.”
Soon afterwards, Rourke got his first movie role--a bit part as an arsonist in “Body Heat” that won him immediate accolades. True to form, Rourke had almost blown his big chance. “I held out for an extra $500 and almost didn’t get the job,” he says with a lopsided grin.
His next role, the addicted gambler in Barry Levinson’s “Diner,” made everyone take notice. By the time he did “9 1/2 Weeks” and “Year of the Dragon,” he was a budding star.
But after “Angel Heart,” which met with mixed reviews, his career arc began to level out. “9 1/2 Weeks” was a huge hit overseas, especially in France, where it’s still playing at a theater on the Champs Elyse’es. But in America, Rourke was increasingly viewed as a Hollywood kook, a reputation fueled by both his erratic behavior and the oddball film roles he chose.
He still had splendid moments--many critics raved about his performances in “Angel Heart” and “Barfly”--but most of his films seemed to miss the mark. Hearing him retrace all the misadventures is like listening to a general reliving his old battlefield defeats.
Rourke’s most personal movie, “Homeboy,” which he wrote on coffee-shop napkins and worked on for seven years, disappeared without a trace. Rourke puts the blame on its producer, Elliott Kastner. “I never saw a penny for that movie,” he says. “I felt violated. I learned a great lesson--never trust someone on a handshake. People’s words mean nothing in this business.” (Kastner declined to comment.)
He blames another producer, Sam Goldwyn Jr., for his “A Prayer For the Dying” debacle. “He was behind the scenes, changing everything,” Rourke says bitterly. “I’d worked for six months on my Belfast accent and then I had someone from Goldwyn’s office, who wouldn’t know potatoes from tomatoes, telling me to change it because no one could understand me!” (Goldwyn refused to comment on Rourke’s charges.)
Adrian Lyne, his director on “9 1/2 Weeks,” said Rourke “never shortchanged me on his acting at all.” The problem was getting Rourke up in the morning: “He played very hard at that stage of his life and he had trouble getting to sleep. I even stationed someone outside his room to try and keep him from staying out all night.”
Rourke is contrite. “I misbehaved on that film. Adrian would probably never work with me now. I was naive. I didn’t know any better than to get angry and I got a big black mark against me which has never gone away.”
Another misfire was “Wild Orchid,” which was laughed out of the theaters in America, though it turned a profit overseas. His loopy performance inspired a torrent of abuse from horrified critics. Many poked fun at Rourke’s blotchy make-up and swollen cheeks, speculating that he had undergone cheek implants.
Asked about it, Rourke seems flustered, mumbling a vague denial. “People are going to believe what they’re going to believe,” he says. “I had four wisdom teeth pulled and I got swollen up.”
In many critics’ eyes, his outlandish appearance symbolized his downfall as a serious actor. By their account, Rourke has willfully abandoned his youthful acting style--a razor-sharp naturalistic approach--and replaced it with method acting hocus-pocus, disfiguring himself in each role with a trick-bag of freaky mannerisms and make-up.
Rourke doesn’t exactly take the criticism to heart. “I’d rather hear what some mechanic working on the street thinks than the intelligentsia in this country,” he says. “Since ‘The Pope of Greenwich Village,’ I don’t care about good or bad reviews.
“In Europe, they’ve appreciated my efforts. Here they’ve been offended. Acting is a matter of choices. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they backfire. I don’t make movies to please everybody. I just go with what I believe in, and I go with it 100%.”
People who have worked with Rourke in the past aren’t fooled by this bravado. “What gives Mickey his fascination is that he’s really a kid at heart,” explains one industry admirer. “Mickey is more vulnerable than he’ll ever let on. Once he was living by himself in a house in the Hollywood Hills. When the wind would blow in the middle of the night, the house would start to creak and groan. And Mickey got so frightened that he had to leave and check into a hotel. He was just like a kid, afraid of being alone in the night.”
Rourke would never let an outsider see the child inside him--perhaps there are too many unhappy memories he doesn’t want to spill out. He insists that much of his reputation for on-set antics derives from his search for truth.
“If you tell me we’re going to do this script and we’re going to work five days a week, then I’m fine,” he says, getting up to pace again. “But if you change the script and tell me to work six days a week--if you start to manipulate me and disrespect me--then you’re going to have trouble on your hands.”
He circles around his gym equipment, wanders over to one of his motorcycles and finally sits down again. “It goes back to boxing. If you tell a guy you’re fighting someone on Friday night who’s 5-11 and 160 and then you get in the ring and find yourself facing a guy who’s 6-4 and 230, how are you going to feel?
“I don’t see why, just because I’m an actor, that it should be any different. If you’re straight with me, you’re never going to have a problem. But if you make me a slave. . . .”
Rourke abruptly stops himself. He flashes the sweet smile of a mischievous choirboy.
“Look,” he says shyly. “They all think I’m hell on wheels. But I’m a pussycat. I’m just not very good at taking orders.”
“Body Heat” (1981)
“Rumble Fish” (1983)
“The Pope of Greenwich Village” (1984)
“Year of the Dragon” (1985)
“9 1/2 Weeks” (1986)
“Angel Heart” (1987)
“A Prayer for the Dying” (1987)
“Home Boy” (1988--no U.S. theatrical release)
“Francesco” (1988--no U.S. theatrical release)
“Johnny Handsome” (1989)
“Wild Orchid” (1990)
“Desperate Hours” (1990)
“Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” (1991)
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