He lost all his money, his looks' and even his self-respect. But Mickey Rourke has got his act together again. By Ariel leve.
Mickey Rourke is surrounded by cops. He looks over, winks and calls out: "I'll be right there - just making a few new friends." He chats for a few minutes, signs an autograph, lights up a Marlboro red and appears genuinely at ease in the company of the blue-collar working man. Much more at ease than he ever seemed in the company of movie stars. Here, on a residential street in a dusty suburb outside Las Vegas, Rourke is hanging out, waiting, in between takes of Tony Scott's latest film, Domino.
People remember Mickey Rourke as a riveting actor; he stood out as a maverick refusing to be part of the Hollywood cloning system. He had the Brando aura: sensitive and dangerous and unquestionably masculine. For a long time he cultivated the power; it was familiar and comfortable - boxing, lifting weights, picking fights, wooing women, riding Harleys, saying what he felt, no matter what the consequences. He was a hell-raiser who didn't care what anyone thought, and he paid a heavy price. He pissed off directors and producers; it burnt bridges, cost him work.
Scott had to fight hard for Rourke to get the part. Studios were afraid to work with him. "Yeah, there was some flavour-of-the-month c*** they wanted for this part, but Tony went to bat for me. I found that out 10 days ago. I was well behaved on the last few movies, and coming off working on Robert Rodriguez's last movie, I didn't think he'd have to do that, but he did."
Two months later, arriving at his house in Los Angeles, the first thing you hear is seven small dogs yipping and yapping and woofing. They arrive in a pack, gleefully tripping over each other, and Rourke appears at his front door in torn blue jeans and tinted sunglasses, and shepherds them out into the yard. He is tall and solid and moves with the swagger of a tough guy who's tired of fighting.
The modest two-bedroom house in which he lives alone is rented, tucked away in seclusion in the hills of Los Angeles. Rourke has learnt to control himself, but his masculinity remains conspicuous and intact. So the little dogs seem incongruous. The contradiction is glaring: the tiny chihuahua in muscular arms. But the reason he's drawn to them is simple: small dogs, he says, live longer than big dogs. And he gets very attached.
"Come on, honey," he purrs. For a second I think he is talking to me, but he's addressing Ruby Baby, who I'll later find out is the needy one.
His looks are far less imposing and surreal than they used to be. He still works out every day at the gym, but more out of boredom and the need for routine. He is healthy and fit. The surgery to his face (four operations in total - rebuilt cartilage in his nose, repairing a fractured cheekbone) has distorted his looks and helped keep his age a mystery - between 48 and 52? There is a heap of vitamins in a plastic box on the coffee table next to the pack of Camel Lights. He's trying to cut back on the Marlboros. There is a book on the regime he's following - the new millennium-diet revolution - and he talks about rebuilding the immune system. The sunglasses stay on because he has conjunctivitis. He got it originally from the Vaseline and the leather in the boxing days and now it reappears when he gets his make-up done for movies. All I can think is: did he shake my hand? "It's not contagious," he says, dabbing away dripping fluid with a tissue.
"But I told my agent it is," he laughs.
A few minutes pass before he introduces me to Little Mickey. (No, it's not what you think.) Little Mickey was on death row at Chihuahua Rescue, and on his cage was a sign that said: "Do not touch. Bites." When Rourke picked him up, he bit off a piece of his lip. (He points out the scar. Next to the scar from a boxing punch.) So blood's pouring out, like a pint of blood. They get him some ice. They thought he would sue them. He said: "I'll take him."
"He'd been abused. Somebody beat the shit out of him - for years." Rourke tells me this story while stroking the now-docile dog that sits on his lap. "You could look at this one's face and know he had a rough life."
The same could be said for Mickey Rourke. The turbulent story of his life has played out on his face. In the early days of Diner and Rumble Fish, it conveyed depth in its youth; there was always a menacing smile. Then it matured into movie-star seductive, interesting and deviantly sexual in 91/2 Weeks, Angel Heart, and Barfly. But a vacancy crept in. The soullessness of Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man mirrored Rourke's own ambivalence. So he fled back to boxing, something he'd done before acting. Why did he choose to beat up his face? Maybe too much of his face had become a business.
For a number of years, people would look at his face, swollen from the harm inside and out, and they would wonder: what happened? It wasn't just the emotional scars from his past or the literal scars from the ring: it was altered, alarming, and he knew it too. "I looked in the mirror one day and went, 'Holy shit.' I just had too much armour. Physical armour. It was the overtraining at the gym and what was going on in my head. It was scary. No wonder when I walk through a restaurant, people whisper, 'Oh Jesus, what's going to happen here?' It was my whole essence, really." People didn't know what to think. The reports of violent behaviour, the transformed face and bulked-up body, the attitude that went with it - all of it fed the public's perception of him having gone off the rails.
This was several years ago. He was trying to get a job, living in Venice, California, at the time. And there was a seismic shift; a moment when he saw what others saw and why people were afraid to hire him. That day he knew he belonged in therapy. So it began. The road to wellness.
He had nothing to lose; he'd lost everything already.
"You wake up one day and everything is gone. Your respectability, your money, everyone you care about. You're alone. You call up and try to get a table at a restaurant, and you can't. It went on for a long time. It's a dark hole, where I would pray to God. I mean, literally, on my knees, where I would say, 'Please can you just send me a little bit of daylight?' I always thought it would go away. There would be a little bit of hope, but then boom, it was black again."
He thought it would take six months of therapy and he'd be okay. Now it's going on eight years. It's been eight years since he's done anything that would put him in jeopardy. Eight years since he's been to Paris, where he could run around, "sightsee," he says with a naughty smile. Eight years since he's ridden a motorcycle (even though he has one in the garage) or been to New York or had a significant romantic relationship. He lives full time in LA now, a place he despises, sequestering himself to stay out of trouble.
"But I always have to say, 'I'm not gonna go down those streets, I'm not gonna go into that club, I'm not gonna go into that restaurant and I'm not gonna make eye contact the way I used to.' So I'm not setting myself up for an incident."
He has placed himself in emotional quarantine, living an abbreviated existence, because he wants to come back. "What else am I going to do?" He has the discipline and has made the commitment to change, even though he didn't want to. He had to, he says, because he's Catholic. "If I wasn't Catholic I probably would have blown my brains out." He was broke, had sold his motorcycles, his cars, was two steps from getting a construction job, a hairdresser friend in Beverly Hills was giving him a hundred dollars a week to eat on; some days he didn't have gas money. This went on for three years. He lived in a studio apartment in LA for $700 a month - enough to make anyone contemplate suicide, let alone an actor who once earned $2.6m for a film (1991's Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man).
The fall from grace was extreme. Bit by bit, dog by dog, a story unfolds. Rourke lovingly pets Little Mickey - only that's not his name any more. "I felt ridiculous going, 'Here, Little Mickey, Little Mickey.'" His new name is Jaws. Just then, he touches him in the wrong place and the dog starts snarling. "See? He's never gonna trust anybody."
His manner, so placid, suggests a mellower state of mind. He looks annoyed. "I really hate that word. I'll never be mellow, okay? I'd rather be dead than mellow. You might as well take me out back and shoot me in the back of the head before I'm gonna be mellow."
What then? Calmer? "Contained. Let's put it this way: I was very happy when my brother Joe said he was glad I changed. Coming from him it meant a lot to me. He should have been more worried about what was going on with him." His younger brother died last October from cancer. "The little things don't bother me any more."
For example? "It has to do with little tiny shit that gets under your skin. Business stuff. It's like... the word 'actress'. You know. Cate Blanchett is an actress. Paris Hilton is not a f***ing... I mean, how can they use that same f***ing word? You see what gets under my f***ing skin? You know? It's shit like that. It would make me go off."
He admits he would short-circuit. "It was never drugs and booze. Everybody likes to say that, but no. On my brother Joe." Steroids? "What about them?" he asks.
"I never took steroids till I was finished fighting. After I was done boxing. Afterwards I took testosterone shots, because after 34 your testosterone level goes down, and if you're monitored by a doctor and get a testosterone shot, it's fine. No, it wasn't drugs and alcohol. It was rage. It's easier for people to label you. But rage is very intimidating. And it was something I cultivated. An intimidation-factor thing. It was a macho thing too."
Rourke was born in upstate New York and was six years old when his father, an amateur body builder, left. His mother married a police officer with five sons of his own and moved Mickey, his younger brother and their sister to Florida. He grew up in Liberty City, a Miami ghetto of street violence, drugs and poverty. It was the world he became comfortable in, where macho is what you had to be to get by. He won't talk about his past, but the determination to avoid it is futile. The violent home he grew up in, the chaotic streets, the need to protect and intimidate - it's a history he can't avoid.
He thinks for a long time when asked if he's introspective, before finally arriving at the conclusion: "My mind don't work that way." But then, as soon as he says this, he embraces the chance to explore it further.
"It depends on the person. The bravest person I ever met in my life was my brother. And I miss him terribly. I wonder where he is right now. I think about that a lot. I think about if I'm gonna see him again. I think about if he's with me. I remember when he was sitting here really sick before I took him to Mexico. He looked at me and he says, 'You changed, bro. You're not so crazy.' And I knew it was relief to see me not off the wall."
On the mantel there are several photos of Joe: Joe with Mickey in New Orleans, Joe on his Harley. There's a shrine with rosaries and a lit candle that will continue to burn. "I think of him every night. He suffered. He didn't want to go." The emotions are still raw. Rourke lifts his sunglasses and wipes his eye. I can't tell if it's a tear or the infection. Regrets loom large in Rourke's life. "I never liked my brother's wife," he says. "And I made peace with her so I could be with him the last two weeks. I knew he needed me with him. And I did what I needed to do."
In spite of the fact that he and Joe were extremely close, there was a period when they didn't speak for four or five years because of a particular incident. Rourke hesitates. "I don't know if I want it in the article."
Joe needed a big operation and Rourke was in LA. He didn't have the money to buy a plane ticket home to Miami. Joe's wife got on the phone: "She started calling me a loser and a has-been, and I couldn't tell her that I didn't have the money for an airplane ticket. And uh... it really pissed me off that she said those things." When I ask if this can be written about, he shrugs. "I don't care."
His brother had cancer on and off since he was 17. When he was told he had six months to live, Rourke says he knew he wouldn't make it this time. "Every night I'd lie on this couch and think, 'My younger brother is dying.' I mean, I took him to Mexico and tried the stem-cell thing, but there was a part of me that sensed... I'd always gotten him out of trouble but I couldn't save him this time."
Two days after Joe died, the director Tony Scott called. "We shared some shit and he told me he had a brother that died too." He credits Scott with saving him from slipping backwards, giving him work to go to.
The affection with which he speaks about Scott is childlike and endearing. It happens when he speaks of other men he respects too - directors such as Alan Parker or Adrian Lyne - and it's striking because so much of Rourke's past was about fighting authority figures.
"He wasn't difficult, he was naughty," says Parker. "He admired rock'n'roll stars. He didn't want to be a movie star. To him, movie stars were Harrison Ford and people that he didn't like. He wanted to be David Bowie."
Adrian Lyne once said: "If Mickey had died after Angel Heart, he would have been bigger than James Dean. He was extraordinarily lovable. And when he did behave in a naughty way, he was infinitely forgivable. I would love to work with him again. He's the same actor."
It's been written that Rourke's stepfather bullied him and his brother, and he never knew his biological father until he walked up to him when he was 26 and introduced himself. It was the early 1970s and he was about to do his final audition for the prestigious Actors Studio, one of five students they took out of thousands who applied. He had to do a scene between a father and a son and he couldn't relate to a father figure, so his acting coach suggested he find him. He called his mother, who made some phone calls. He got a number and went to upstate New York.
"I called up this bar where he was spending time. They told me he had left to go get something to eat. And he was in the restaurant that I was calling from. Pretty wild.
He was there. I didn't know he was there. There were only about four or five people in the restaurant and I looked at this man and I went, that's him, right there. I went back to the phone and I called the bar back and asked what he was wearing, and they told me what he was wearing.
"He walked out of the restaurant and stood at the corner, but when the light changed, he didn't cross the street. Finally - I couldn't f***ing move, my legs were shaking - and I went up and I said, 'Hey, I'm so and so, are you so and so?' and he said, 'Yeah.' And then he f***ing took a drag and said, 'I always knew you'd come by one day.' And we spent four or five hours together and that was it."
He says he got out of it everything he needed and he never saw him after that. But seeing Rourke with his dogs, I ask if he's made a conscious decision not to have children. He pauses. He points to the glass front door and on the other side is the tilted, anguished face of a jet-black pug. The dog is whimpering.
Rourke smiles. "See that? That dog is the worst. That dog is a miserable c***. He really is. Undisciplined. This f***ing dog. He doesn't listen. He annoys all the other dogs. He still shits everywhere. He jumps up when other dogs are resting. These other little dogs hate him. Everyone hates him. Look. Look at him. He's got the whole yard to play in and all he wants to do is sit there and look miserable."
"But here's the deal. I can't get rid of him. Because I took responsibility for him. He's my little dog. I'm not gonna get rid of the dog. I'm not gonna give him away. Because that's what happened to me. My mother gave me away to somebody else - who abused my brother and me for years. And if it goes on for years and years, you're better to take that person outside and put a bullet in the back of their head. Because you don't get over it. You don't get over the Halloween 3 that goes on for a decade-plus. So it's like... It would be very easy... Most people would have given this f***ing dog away already. He's useless. But he's mine. And I love him and take care of him and I put up with his shit because I took responsibility for him. Okay? So if I ever have a kid, that's the way it would be."
Rourke revisits the subject of his brother. Towards the end of his life there was a hospice nurse here at the house. One night she took Rourke aside and asked to talk to him. "I went in the kitchen and had a cup of coffee with her and she said, 'I gotta tell you something. Joe shouldn't still be here. Do you know why he's not ready to go? Because he's worried about you. You have to tell him it's okay for him to go.' Man, that hit me. I was shaking. I went back in the bedroom and I put my arms around him and said, 'Hey, bro. I know how painful it is.' I told him how much I loved him and everything. And I said, 'If you gotta go somewhere right now,' I said, 'you go ahead and go there and I'll meet you there later on sometime.' I said, 'But if you gotta go now, that's okay, 'cause I'll be okay, you understand?' And he took these weird kind of breaths and died in my arms.
"Once I was in the bedroom with him, it was okay. But the walk from the kitchen to the bedroom was murder. It was absolute f***ing murder. I thought I'd seen it all. Nothing will ever be like that."
He lights a cigarette and exhales a long line of smoke. "That's changed me greatly in a lot of different ways. A lot of shit's just not that important any more. Because Joe's gone."
There has always been an inferno of rage inside Mickey Rourke, and in 1993, when a promoter talked him into boxing, he went back to it. He had boxed before he became an actor, as a teenager, training at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami, where Muhammad Ali worked out. He enjoyed the training and the camaraderie of the guys in the gym. He was, he says, never afraid of getting hit - his only fear was in the dressing room before the fight.
It was painful for him to give it up. He was 38 at the time. "The doctor made it really f***ing clear to me. I was excited - three fights away from moving up to cruiserweight division and fighting for a championship belt. They wanted me to go up 15lb, where the competition wasn't that great, so I had a chance. But the doctor said, 'Mickey, forget about it. It's over. You failed the neurological. It's over.'"
He went back to acting and all the doors were closed. He missed having something to do every day - somewhere to go, being around the guys. The memory loss has improved and while he has nerve damage in his fingers when he holds out his hands, which have a slight tremor, they don't look too ruined. He still goes to the gym every day and hits the speed bag, but it's not the same - and the adrenaline rush is gone.
Rourke's circle now is nonexistent. He hangs out with nobody. Relies on nobody. He has one or two good friends - not actors ("not my cup of tea") - and is still close to his ex-wife, the model Carré Otis. They met during the erotic film Wild Orchid, had a volatile and passionate romance, married in 1992, and have been on and off since. He confesses he feels lonely. "To be honest with you, there's not a lot I do." But women are around, right? There's a mischievous look. "I'm very particular. I have people come over sometimes, but normally I don't want them to stay overnight. I don't date."
Is it that he's not ready to let love in? "Don't know." Hung up on somebody else? "Could be." He's talked before about how Otis is the one love of his life. "I'm not gonna open up to just anyone. I got a doctor I can open up to. There's nothing I feel I have to share with some woman in a relationship right now.
"Uh," he says, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, "I think because I got all the dogs, it fills the gap."
Rourke talks about guys who, when their relationships don't work, have a new girlfriend two months later. He shakes his head. "I don't work that way." Just then, a playful smirk appears as he reaches for a sip of water. "Means I end up with Russian strippers."
When asked if people worry about him, he looks perplexed. "People? What people? There aren't that many people around. Put it this way, I don't have that many friends who really know what's going on with my life. It's nothing that I talk about. This is the most I've talked with anybody about it. I'm not looking for a girlfriend. I'm not looking for a relationship. I'm not looking for a Band-Aid. I'm not looking for something to take the place of something." He lets out a resigned sigh. "Besides, look what town I'm in." The dogs race in and Rourke excuses himself to put some more eye drops in. When he's finished, he returns to the subject of violence. He tells me he knows now that there are repercussions to his actions.
"Look, if you grow up in a certain area - it's a neighbourhood thing, an accepted mentality - there are no repercussions when you cross the line. You just act upon it. But you don't realise that until you've made some pretty shitty mistakes. When I found certain people were giving my old lady - my ex-wife - drugs, I would walk right into a place and do what I had to do, okay? But the next day you lose a major movie 'cause it's in all the newspapers."
Repercussions, responsibility, consequences - these are words that were not in his lexicon, but that he's using a lot these days. "I don't have another f***ing 10 years to be out of work. So it's important for me to be consistent with controlling myself.
"I think Joe left me something. His spirit. As long as I can work with people I'm excited about working with, it will be okay. I just can't work for the pay cheque."
Several hours have passed and Rourke tells me he has an eye-doctor appointment he has to go to. Then he will come home, eat some dinner, maybe watch a movie before leaving for Texas in the morning to do some additional work on another film he has coming out. This is his life. Dogs, doctors and staying out of trouble. And now, after all the years of work and change he's gone through, when he looks in the mirror, what does he see? He is silent, submerged in his search for an honest response. "What I see," he says, "is a stranger."