TOWARDS THE END OF HIS ILL- advised career as a professional boxer in the early 1990s, Mickey Rourke began to notice he couldn't remember things. At first he wasn't able to recall what he'd been doing the night before or what he'd had for breakfast. Then it got really worrying. After particularly tough sparring sessions, he'd be hanging out with his friends only to realise that he couldn't understand anyone. One time he zoned out so much that his buddy Guiseppe had to ask
Diagnosed with the first stages of short-term memory loss, his doctor told him he had to quit boxing. "He said I was on the line. He said: 'I don't know if it's going to be one more punch, ten more punches or a thousand more punches, but when you cross over to the other side there's no coming back.'"
The same might once have been said of Rourke's acting career. After all, few in Hollywood have burned their bridges quite as spectacularly as Rourke. From roughly the time of his break-out performance in Body Heat (1981) to the moment he shared top billing with Robert De Niro in Angel Heart (1987), Rourke was a genuine contender: an actor with the looks and the talent of a young Marlon Brando. In a decade remembered for Sylvester Stallone's muscles and Tom Cruise's grin, Rourke delivered a series of soulful, intensely felt performances in Diner, Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village and Barfly that struck a blow against the cinematic mediocrity of the Reagan era. He was so good, in fact, that he even managed to escape the erotic thriller 9 Weeks with his dignity (relatively) intact.
Within a few years, however, that dignity was evaporating. The vanity projects started (Homeboy, anyone?), as did the pro-boxing, the bad behaviour and the bad decisions. There was a disastrous marriage to his Wild Orchid (1990) co-star, Carrie Otis, an arrest for domestic violence (the charges were later dropped), lots of straight-to-video movies, and a lifestyle way beyond his means. By the end of the 1990s he was living in a $500-a-month studio apartment with his pet Chihuahua, Loki. His striking good looks were long gone, the result of too much physical punishment in the ring and too much reconstructive surgery out of it. It was as if he'd morphed into Brando at the end of On the Waterfront or De Niro at the climax of Raging Bull – but this wasn't a movie, it was life, and he looked out for the count.
Yet here he is, sitting with Loki in an upscale hotel room in Kensington, casually ignoring the non-smoking policy as he talks about his very real comeback in The Wrestler, a film that will almost certainly win him a Best Actor Oscar nomination later this month, and a movie so closely aligned with his own experiences that it's quite impossible to separate Rourke from his character.
That character is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an over-the-hill pro-wrestler two decades past his prime who used to fill arenas but has now been reduced to scraping a living on the independent circuit, trading pre-choreographed blows with other has-beens in school gymnasiums for a meager cut of the takings. With his bottle-blond hair and his sunbed-blasted body, he cuts a sad figure of a man as he juices cheap steroids and struggles to pay his trailer park rent. Almost every line he speaks is filled with a regret that's given extra weight by the parallels with Rourke's own fall from grace.
Which is hardly surprising. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) conceived The Wrestler with Rourke in mind and allowed the actor to rewrite much of the dialogue himself to give it a more lived-in, from-the-heart quality. The result is a film so full of pathos that Rourke says he can only watch the wrestling scenes (most of which he did himself), not the emotional ones. "Even when it came to looping, I said to Darren, make sure your sound guys do their f****ing job because I'm not looping any of the heavy stuff."
In fact, Randy was almost too tragic a figure for Rourke to contemplate playing. In the end a plot point in which Randy develops a potentially fatal heart condition helped him confront his own demons by reminding him of how he felt when his own neurological damage forced him to walk away from boxing three bouts shy of a title fight.
"That's the thing I can relate to with Randy: not wanting to give up something that you love, just wanting that one more chance, one more opportunity," he says.
"It was a way into the film for me, because when I read the script I really hated the f***ing character. I hated his f***ing guts. I hated the side of him that was such a loser, that couldn't be accountable for not taking care of his responsibilities – the thing that I didn't do for many years before I went into therapy and worked on changing."
Rourke makes no secret of the role therapy (14 years and counting) has played in his recovery. "Listen, I behaved worse than anybody for 15 years and you have to pay the price for that," he says. "I used to blame other people, then therapy made me realise I had to change."
These days he's all about fixing the "broken pieces" he didn't know how to fix back when he was raising all kinds of hell. "Now I understand where it came from. I was very arrogant and very proud until I went into therapy and realised that all those things that I was were just masking the abandonment issues and feelings of shame I had from childhood."
Rourke was born in Schenectady, New York, but moved to Miami at an early age after his father walked out and his mother remarried. He doesn't talk in too much detail about that childhood, except to say his background was "very violent".
"It was just war for me from the moment I had my first fistfight when I was ten, you know. I was very, very quiet when I was younger and then there was a change in my life and I went from a very peaceful place to a very violent place." He remembers the day that change manifested itself. "There was a guy kicking me in the schoolyard and I just got up and beat the f*** out of him. From that day, it was just on. I had to get beat up a lot at home, so I didn't want to get beat up by anyone else ever again."
Over time he channelled that aggression into sports, contemplating a life of boxing until a couple of concussions put paid – for a little while at least – to a professional career. The love of acting began when a friend suggested he audition for a play. Rourke gave it a shot, won the part and was hooked almost immediately, leaving soon after to study in New York.
When his career rapidly went stratospheric, though, Rourke reckons he subconsciously began plotting his downfall. "I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that when the fame started and the money rolled in, people started to treat me special and I resented it in a way. I didn't really need it then. I needed it when I was that big." He holds his thumb and index finger open an inch or so.
He turned to boxing to regain some of the self-respect he lost after selling out with the thoroughly awful Harley Davidson and the Malboro Man in 1991. Alas, despite a relatively successful – if hardly distinguished – professional record, that soon disappeared when he decided to give acting another shot and blithely assumed Hollywood would welcome him back. Charitable friends such as Francis Ford Coppola, Vincent Gallo and Sean Penn fought in his corner, giving him a scene or two in their films, but it wasn't until the middle of this decade, when Robert Rodriguez cast him in Sin City (2005), that he took his first serious step on the comeback trail.
Given this, it's no wonder people keep quoting Rourke one line in particular from The Wrestler: "The '90s sucked."
"Actually, it's 'The '90s f***ing sucked,'" corrects Rourke. "But again, you have to be accountable for behaving in a non-professional way and for being arrogant and selfish." The irony, of course, is that had Rourke been more together in the 1990s – he turned down Pulp Fiction without reading it – it could have been his decade. So it's a sign of how much savvier he's become that when he heard Aronofsky was interested in him for The Wrestler, he actually did some research and didn't flinch when the director effectively told him that because he was such a liability, he wouldn't be getting paid much.
Then again, maybe that's just a sign that Rourke appreciates how rare second chances are. He's had to work like hell to secure this one so it's unlikely he'll risk throwing things away for good by reverting to his old ways now that he's back on top. "This is the best movie I've ever done, and the hardest," he says of The Wrestler. "But if I'd known it was going to take this many years, I'd probably have found a better profession." That's one thing you sense he's not going to forget anytime soon.
• The Wrestler is released on 16 January.