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
"But I told my agent it is," he
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
"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
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?"
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."