To members of the media, the words "sardonic" and "Mickey Rourke" go together like the entwined lovers in Wild Orchid, the Rio de Janeiro flesh fest from 1990. To Miamians Rourke is a bad boy, but he's our bad boy.
To the film industry he's a bad boy whose years of tirades and partying have winnowed to a select few the number of people willing to give him a break. These days he claims to have cleaned up his act, but only time will tell if he's serious.
Rourke is an accomplished actor whose body of work spans three decades, and whose appeal to his fans is perpetuated just as much by his outlandish antics as it is from his acting chops. And he does have chops. Rourke attended the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute during the Seventies. He's worked on at least 52 films, some with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Sean Penn, and Tony Scott. In Sin City -- which opens next week and stars an ensemble cast that includes Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Hartnett, Rosario Dawson, and Jessica Alba -- Rourke plays the character Marv, an obsessed man who roams the dark streets seeking vengeance for the murder of his girl. He follows that with a role in Domino, a film by Tony Scott (Top Gun, True Romance, Enemy of the State, and Man on Fire, with Rourke).
The once-rugged actor, whose black-Irish looks have been transformed into a weird pastiche of cheek implants and uneven skin, is poised on the verge of a huge comeback -- Sin City, which screened last week at Show West, the mini film festival attendant to the SXSW music conference -- has generated tremendous buzz and favorable early reviews.
In the spring of 1992, Rourke went a few rounds with New Times when the free weekly decided to make a little sport of Rourke's sideline as a boxer. That was right after his appearance in the disastrous Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man with Miami-affiliated costar Don Johnson. The rest of the Nineties were rough on Rourke, who had his scenes cut from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and was reduced to taking bit parts in Get Carter and Buffalo '66. Rourke, who once owned a nightclub in Miami Beach, began spending less and less time here.
Recently, though, El Marielito has been hanging out in these parts again, and his career is showing signs of reviving, thanks to peaceful collaborations with directors Scott and Robert Rodriguez.
Here's what Mickey has to say about the movie business, his ups and downs, Miami, and taking it all like a man.
New Times: In your career, you've managed to come back from the dead more times than the zombies in Evil Dead. Are you hoping Sin City is going to do for you what Pulp Fiction did for Travolta?
Mickey Rourke: Well, I'll tell you this: Travolta didn't raise half as much hell as I did. I mean, you pay for that shit. Travolta, even though he went a few years not being at the top of his game, he still had work. He was still playing the game. You know, it's a game and you got to be able to play well with others. I didn't do that all the time and I paid the consequences.
What sort of consequences?
I mean, there were a good ten or fifteen years there that were pretty rough. I had to sell all my cars, my bikes. I couldn't get work. You got to be able to work. People would say, "Ah yeah, Mickey's a good actor, but can we get someone else. Someone we can handle?" That's kind of what happened in Domino, my next film. Luckily, Tony Scott, he went to bat for me. He wasn't afraid to stick with his vision.
You've worked with Scott in the past; you seem to have a lot of respect for him.
Yeah, Tony Scott is the consummate professional. He knows what he wants in a shot and he works with you till it's exactly right. The guy is just, he's respectful to the craft. He's really the most professional guy in the business. You want a director that can get that performance out of you. Not everyone is able to do that. He's one of those that can. I admire him for that.
How do you view your mid-period work, which was panned by the critics of the day but has now become regarded as influential and classic? I'm thinking in particular of Angel Heart, which has been extremely influential on European directors including Dario Argento?
Right, right, well you know a lot of my stuff is like that. Nine 1/2 Weeks and Rumble Fish didn't do anything here in the States either. I mean nothing. With Rumble Fish, Francis, you know, he had a vision, but Universal didn't know what the hell to do with it. It was so different than anything that was being done here. People didn't understand it. It wasn't till I got overseas, in Paris, that I realized, shit, people really dig this.
What do you think is the reason for that disparity?
The Europeans, they have a different way of experiencing film. It's more a part of their culture over there. They don't see it as entertainment like we do over here. To them it's more like art.
A lot of people don't realize you have a strong relationship with the Cuban community here in Miami. In your boxing career you even fought under the name "El Marielito." Do you secretly long to be Cuban?
I was raised in Miami. We used to live over by [Miami Edison Senior High School]. When I was growing up, we lived with my grandmother behind this Laundromat. That was around the same time that all the Cubans started to come over. It was an explosion, you know, and a lot of those people started to move into the neighborhood. You know, everyone knows, I'm into boxing, but even before that I was always into baseball and these guys, they could play, man. So, that's how it started, playin' ball. They're a hard-working, fun-loving people, and you know, I eat my black beans and the rice. I love it.
You must miss that being away from home, huh?
Oh no way. I hired the chef from this Cuban restaurant in L.A. I take him everywhere.
Save me some platanitos.
(Laughs) Sure thing.
You played so many different types of roles, from action in Man on Fire, to impotent ex-con opposite Tupac in Bullet, and somewhere in between a Skinamax pseudo porn star in Wild Orchid. Thank you for that, by the way, from every teenager with late-night cable. But what does a script have to have for you to get interested?
You look at the story, you look at whose making it, but that's all part of the game. In the end it comes down to being able to relate in some way, however small, to the character. I mean, sometimes that's harder than others.
Give an example.
I did this movie in Italy, Francesco (based on the Hermann Hesse novel), and I'm supposed to be St. Francis of Assisi on this beautiful mountain talking one-on-one with God, right? This is Italy you know, they take this stuff really seriously. So I got my hands all in the air and I'm doing this passionate look with my face, but inside I'm like, jeez this is really kind of a stretch for me.
What do you do in those situations? Pray?
You just work through it. You keep doing it over and over till the director feels they've got something. In Assisi, the director, Lillian [Cabaña], she was really nice. I was getting frustrated, but you know we would try it one way and then she would say, "That was good. This time try to do it like this or maybe like that." And eventually we nailed it. It's a process.
Sin City is your second film working with Robert Rodriguez. What is it about his style that draws you to want to work with him?
Well, Robert is his own person. He's unique. He's another one of these guys that has a vision and he's not going to allow anyone to alter his perception of how it should look. A lot of people say, "Oh, when is Robert Rodriguez going to make a serious film?" I tell them, "He doesn't have to." The guy locks himself down here in Texas and he does exactly what he wants to do. He's immensely talented. He does things his own way and a lot of people in this business just can't accept that.
Rodriguez wanted to bring in Frank Miller on Sin City and "those people" didn't take too kindly to that, huh?
Yeah, Frank Miller co-directs on Sin City. The Director's Guild wouldn't let him do it. Robert quit the Guild over that. He doesn't need them if they are going to interfere with his vision. He said, "Fuck it, I'll do it my way." That's what you need in a director. They have to be willing to fight for what's in their head, you know.
Were you aware of Sin City prior to being approached for the film?
Graphic novels, Mickey.
Right, but I read the script and I said to myself there's something here. My character, Marv, he's a serious dude. But it was all done in front of a blue screen, so even I didn't fully realize how cool it was going to look. Until I saw the end result, then I was blown away. It's incredible, man. It looks great.
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Looking back on the character you played in Johnny Handsome, who underwent radical plastic surgery that changed his life but also made him unrecognizable, what do you have to say about your own apparent fascination with the knife?
Hold on a second.
A tiny dog yelps in the background. While Rourke admonishes his pet, we can't help but wonder if it's the same chihuahua that he took to the set of Luck of the Draw, and then walked out in the middle of shooting when the producers refused to include the dog in the film. Maybe it's Moco, the chihuahua Rourke's character cradles throughout every scene in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Displaying all the skills of a Miami native with plastic surgery, Rourke tactfully dodges the question, comes back, and starts talking about boxing. Stay tuned. Rourke promised to let New Times follow him around Miami Beach as he paints the town red. We want to make sure he doesn't stick too tightly to his new reformed lifestyle; otherwise we'll have nothing to write about. So we're bringin' the booze and the dope. Some people might call that enabling, but we call it serious journalism.