"I hated the '90s. The '90s fuckin' sucked," says professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson early on in The Wrestler — and he should know. Over the hill and past his prime — his steroidal body a palimpsest of battle scars, his graying hair dyed a Nordic blond — Robinson hasn't seen the inside of a major arena in the better part of twenty years. Nowadays, he gets top billing by scraping bottom, trading blows with other used-to-bes and might-have-beens in school gymnasiums and banquet halls, earning a cut of the door that's barely enough to cover his trailer-park rent.

As it happens, the '90s weren't much kinder to the actor playing Robinson: Mickey Rourke. By the end of that misbegotten decade, the onetime Hollywood A-lister was living in a $500-a-month studio apartment and subsisting on a meager income generated by the sale of his motorcycle collection, plus whatever acting jobs he could scrounge up from the few producers in town who weren't afraid to hire him. His flirtation with a boxing career had come to an end. His tabloid-catnip marriage to model Carré Otis had hit the skids. There were reports of arrests, of plastic surgeries gone awry, and of the actor walking off the set after a producer refused to allow his pet Chihuahua to appear with him in a scene.

"The thing is that I am the one to blame for all that," Rourke says as he lights a cigarette in what I'm pretty sure is a nonsmoking suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, the day after The Wrestler's North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. His Chihuahua, Loki, barks from a nearby cushion. "I used to blame other people, but I've got nobody else to blame except for Mickey Rourke."

That's more or less the same thing Rourke told director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) when they first met to discuss The Wrestler in New York. Or rather, it was what Aronofsky told him. "He sits down, and for the first five minutes, he tells me how I fucked up my whole career for fifteen years behaving like this, and I'm agreeing with everything," Rourke recalls. "Yes, I did. That's why I haven't worked for fifteen years, and I've been working real hard not to make those mistakes." After that, Aronofsky pointed his finger at the actor — something, Rourke says, that not so long ago would have prompted him to say: "Don't do that, OK buddy?" — and laid out the ground rules.

"He goes: 'You have to listen to everything I say. You have to do everything I tell you. You can never disrespect me. And you can't be hanging out at the clubs all night long. And I can't pay you.' And I'm thinking: 'This fucker must be talented, because he's got a lot of nerve to say that.'" Then Aronofsky told Rourke that if he did all of those things, he would get the actor an Oscar nomination. "The moment he said that, I believed him," says Rourke. "The first day of work, I believed him more." (As for the finger-pointing, "I'm from New York — we point a lot," Aronofsky tells me later. "Like any good marriage, you want to be as up-front as possible about what the issues are.")

On set, the actor-director relationship continued in a similar vein. "He knew how to push my buttons," Rourke says. "I do a take, and I nail it. I look over at Darren and I think: 'OK, we're moving on.' And he walks over to me and says: 'Do it better.' And you know what surprised me? I did it again, and I did it better. He knew that if he challenged me, that's what I wanted. A lot of people don't like that; me, I need it."

The result, which has been widely hailed as Rourke's career-capping/redefining/resuscitating turn, is a characterization of rare intensity and pathos that bristles with the lived-in authority of someone who knows what it means to live with his back against the ropes. "Unfortunately, I've seen this side of life," Rourke sighs. Watching the Ram on screen — reduced to working the deli counter of a New Jersey supermarket after a heart attack takes him out of the ring; playing the electronic avatar of himself in an '80s-era Nintendo wrestling game — the line between performer and performance all but disappears. But The Wrestler, at least where Rourke is concerned, almost didn't happen at all. Although Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel developed the project with Rourke in mind, they found it impossible to secure even the modest financing required for a sometimes explicitly violent wrestling movie starring an actor who hadn't headlined a major motion picture since the first George Bush was in office.

Shortly after Rourke and Aronofsky's first meeting, "They called me up and said they couldn't do the movie with me; the investors wanted a $20 million actor to do the part," Rourke says. (When The Wrestler was first announced in the pages of Variety, Nicolas Cage was attached to star.) Rourke, meanwhile, was secretly relieved, "because I knew that Darren wanted me to revisit these dark places, these painful places. And then there was the physical part — the two months of training — and the not getting paid."

So, Rourke returned home to Miami, only to receive a phone call from his agent a few weeks later saying that the role was once again his. "My reaction," he says, only half-jokingly, was: "'Oh fuck! Can't you get me something else?'"

"With luck, Rourke could become a major actor; he has an edge and magnetism and a sweet, pure smile that surprises you," wrote Pauline Kael in her review of Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), in which the actor played the compulsively gambling and girl-chasing hairdresser Robert "Boogie" Sheftell. "He seems to be acting to you, and to no one else." That was a movie that launched at least a half-dozen careers, but Rourke, whose bit part as an arsonist in the previous year's Body Heat had nearly stolen that movie out from under Kathleen Turner's smoldering legs, stood apart from the crowd, and won the Best Supporting Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics for his efforts.

Rourke's "edge," as Kael (and others) termed it, was a welcome trait in a decade that gave us lots of clean-cut, boy-next-door movie stars like Tom Cruise, Matthew Broderick, and — yes — Steve Guttenberg. Even among the talented ensemble of Francis Ford Coppola's Brechtian Rumble Fish, which included the young Matt Dillon and Nicolas Cage, it was Rourke, cast as the doomed, James Dean–like Motorcycle Boy, who carried the greatest gravitas. He seemed to have seen things and been places, to bear the marks of experience. And while Rourke went on to be perfectly convincing in white-collar roles like that of the Wall Street power player who cooks three square meals for (and on) Kim Basinger in Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986), he was never better than as a certain breed of sensitive, soft-spoken hustler-vagabond-dreamer — the guy more likely to be roughed up in some back alley than to be the one doing the roughing.

He was casually mesmerizing as the small-time hood who dreams of opening a restaurant in Stuart Rosenberg's underrated The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and then, in a piss-and-vinegar tour de force, as Henry Chinaski, the autobiographical alter ego of Charles Bukowski, in Barbet Schroeder's Barfly (1987). Already, though, there were stories that Rourke could be difficult to work with (Basinger famously, if somewhat enigmatically, dubbed him "the human ashtray") and hostile to those in authority. During the production of Nine 1/2 Weeks, a New York Times report described a brass plaque in Rourke's trailer that warned "all studio executives and producers" to stay away. "Stay the fuck away," Rourke corrects me when I mention this.

"I look at these guys like Matt Damon, George Clooney, Sean Penn — they're all very bright, educated guys who understand that it's a business and there's politics involved," Rourke says. "I wasn't educated or aware enough. I thought I was so good I didn't have to play the game. And I was terribly wrong."

So, in 1991, Rourke effectively turned his back on the industry, returned to his childhood home of Miami, and resurrected his adolescent dream of becoming a professional boxer. It was during that time, while training for a fight in Kansas City against light heavyweight Tom Bentley, that Rourke's assistant told him that an up-and-coming director named Quentin Tarantino wanted to meet with him about a role in his next movie. "I said, 'Who else is in it?' She said, 'John Travolta.' I said, 'How much?' She said, 'Scale.' I took the script, and I remember throwing it at her. I didn't even read it. I went to Kansas City and had a first-round knockout, and that was more important to me."

By the time Rourke retired from boxing in 1994 — the same year in which Otis filed, and later dropped, spousal-abuse charges against him — it was difficult to determine what had taken the bigger beating: his career or his once smooth, beautiful, boyish face.

In person, Rourke now seems more pussycat than mad dog, and looks better than he has in years: the cheeks less puffy; the tan less bottled. Not bad for a guy nearing 60, if you believe the least flattering of Rourke's various reported birth years (1950) — a subject on which the actor himself declines to comment. But every once in a while, you can catch a flicker of the deep-set anger and rage that Rourke has grappled with for decades, particularly when the subject turns to his childhood.

Rourke, who was born in Schenectady, moved at an early age with his mother, brother, and sister to the mostly black inner-city of Miami, following his parents' divorce. He doesn't reveal much about those years (though he has alluded in past interviews to abuse suffered at the hands of a violent stepfather), but what he does say paints a vivid portrait: "It was horrific; it was shameful," he says. "Let's put it this way: I would have preferred never to have been born. When you have things like that happen, you either go to prison for your whole life, or you act out and self-destruct."

The self-destruction would eventually come, but at the time, Rourke threw himself into sports. He was good in the ring, and a professional career seemed in the offing, until a couple of bad concussions set him back. It was then that Rourke, who had never given any thought to acting, auditioned for a role in a University of Miami production of Jean Genet's Deathwatch, and got the part. By the time the play closed, he had resolved to go to acting school "and learn how to do this shit. So I got on a plane and went to the Village."

Eventually, Rourke found his way to the Actors Studio, where he learned the Method and dedicated himself to his newfound trade with signature obsessiveness. "I wanted to be like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Chris Walken, and Harvey Keitel," he says. "I wanted to be a really great actor. And if I worked really, really fucking hard, maybe one day I could do that. And I worked really, really hard. I had no social life. I lived like a monk. For weeks on end, I slept on the couch at the Actors Studio, working on scenes nonstop."

Yet, at the height of his fame, when younger actors were heading to the Studio wondering if they might have a shot at becoming the next Mickey Rourke, he was never satisfied. "I was waiting for the great picture, and it didn't happen," says Rourke, who was offered — and turned down — roles in Beverly Hills Cop, Platoon, and Rain Man among others. "And I was living way above my means. I bought a big house, and because I was always turning shit down — formula stuff, Hollywood stuff — I got in a jam, so I had to do a movie called Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). They paid me a lot of money, and I went fuckin' bonkers because I sold out and I hated myself for it. Some kind of anger kicked off, about the fact that I'd put myself in a position to have to do that movie. The demons took over."

And they reigned for most of the next decade, during which you needed an active Blockbuster membership to keep track of Rourke's erratic movie résumé, until the actor slowly but steadily began to re-emerge from his personal and professional inferno. Vincent Gallo took a chance on Rourke, giving him a role as a bookie in the offbeat Buffalo '66 (1998). Another actor-director, Steve Buscemi, followed suit, casting Rourke way against type as a transvestite inmate in the underseen prison drama Animal Factory (2000). Then Rourke's friend Sean Penn put him opposite Jack Nicholson in a three-minute scene in The Pledge (2000), and he was brilliant. As word got around about his new professionalism, bigger roles in bigger movies (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Man on Fire, Domino) came Rourke's way, until there he was, handily stealing the show as the disfigured, partly CGI vigilante, Marv, in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City.

But The Wrestler is something else entirely — a movie in which Rourke appears in almost every frame of every scene, and where, as German filmmaker Wim Wenders commented upon awarding the film the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, he more than once breaks your heart.

"Let's look at it this way," Rourke says, couching things in the same metaphorical terms he uses with his therapist of more than a decade. "There's a stadium, and they're not going to let you in to play the game, but you're going to be out there buying a ticket to get in. Four years later, you're watching the game from inside the stadium. Three more years go by, and now you're on the bench. Two more years go by, and you're on the field, but they're not kicking you the ball yet. It's been a game of inches."

Come February, that game of inches may well land Rourke in the end zone of the Kodak Theatre. But no matter what happens, Rourke says there's no danger that he'll ever revert to his hell-raising ways. "Look, a little time bomb's always gonna be in Mickey Rourke, OK?" he says. "But I used to have bad people around me. Now, I've got people around me who have my best interest at heart. I'm always going to be a volatile cat. If someone disrespects me, it's always going to be on, so I try not to put myself in positions where that's going to happen. I do everything I can to avoid that, because let me tell you...to live in a state of shame for so many years, to be a has-been...it hurts...it really did hurt."

Rourke chokes on those last few words, then takes a deep breath and asks his assistant to re-light his cigarette. "I'm so amazed that I'm getting a second chance," he says. "I said this to somebody recently: God's got a plan for us all. I sure as hell wish I would have looked at his instead of mine."

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