‘The Wrestler’ director focused on Rourke’s eyes

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, January 8, 2009 11:02am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Darren Aronofsky is a perfectly normal-looking person, which is a little disconcerting — this is, after all, the man who directed “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain,” which are among the wiggier films released by Hollywood in the last decade.

The latest film by Aronofsky, who came to the area in December on a publicity tour, is “The Wrestler.” The grungy, bruise-making milieu of the movie would hardly suggest the personable fellow sitting drinking herbal tea in his hotel room while I interviewed him.

“The Wrestler” is about the final hurrah of a once-promising pro wrassler, played by Mickey Rourke, whose beaten-up performance is the heart and soul of the picture. I asked Aronofsky about working with the eccentric but talented actor, whose career choices have often seemed whimsical, to put it mildly.

“He’s probably the most naturalistic actor I’ve ever worked with,” Aronofsky said. “He’s built up a lot of armor, had a tough childhood, had no tools or support structure.” He said that in their first meeting, Rourke showed a vulnerability. “I knew then I could always find that person, no matter how tough it got on the set.”

The director explained that Rourke’s eyes were the key to revealing the soul beneath the rough exterior. “The close-up was the greatest invention of the 20th century,” he said. “It lets you stare at Paul Newman and see every emotion. So my goal was to have enough light on Mickey’s eyes so you could always see that.”

This was not always easy, given the actor’s fashion sense. “My greatest accomplishment on this film is there isn’t a shot of him in sunglasses,” Aronofsky laughed. “He came to the set in a new pair every day.”

Aronofsky said his leading man packed on 35 pounds of muscle, painstakingly worked over the script, and hit the tanning salon every day — the latter not a sign of vanity, but of his character’s need to be spotlight-ready.

I asked about Rourke’s strange career, which included a detour into boxing during the 1990s. “All of us thought he was a joke,” Aronofsky said, “but he’s one of the greats. He just doesn’t have the work to show it. I’m looking forward to seeing his work” in the future.

Aronofsky said his first ideas for the movie actually came with the final shot of the film. “Now we figure out how we got there,” he said. “It’s a maze from which you work your way back. Meeting a lot of these guys (real-life wrestlers), some of whom are legends, helps you create the story.

“The more people I talked to, the more the stories seemed the same. These guys would spend 350 days a year on the road. None of them prepared for the future, and so many die by the time they’re 40. And the ones who live can barely tie their shoelaces.

“That world has a unique aesthetic, intriguing to me, and that’s why I wanted to photograph it. That whole muscle-building culture — it’s definitely a freak show, and historically came out of the carnival sideshow.

“It’s all about the details, especially when you’re going to a place you’ve never been before. And that’s why people go to movies.”

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