One of the most acclaimed actors of the ‘80s, Mickey Rourke spent much of the ‘90s burning bridges in the business that made him a star. After flare-ups on set and off, and a five-year experiment with professional boxing, he found himself exiled from Hollywood. Now, after years of introspection and therapy, where he found answers to many of his questions and a rekindled passion for acting, Rourke is back. His performance in this summer’s Masked and Anonymous, where he played a conniving despot, transcended a muddled picture. And presently, opposite Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp (his interviewer here), and a fine ensemble in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, it’s Rourke’s repentant thug-turned-hero—a delicious piece of casting—that delivers the film’s knockout moments.
JOHNNY DEPP: Mickey? How are you doing?
MICKEY ROURKE: Hey! I’m good. How about you? Are you in France?
Johnny: No, I’m in Canada, north of Montreal [shooting Secret Window].
Mickey: I see your face every day going to the gym.
Johnny: Really? Oh yeah, the ads [for Pirates of the Caribbean]. [Both laugh] Right.
Mickey: Congratulations on the movie. It’s all over the place. So when’s the movie we did with [director Robert] Rodriguez coming out?
Johnny: Once Upon a Time in Mexico is coming out early this fall. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it yet. Have you?
Mickey: No. But I had to go back to Mexico to work.
Johnny: Really? On what?
Mickey: Man on Fire [due next year]. I’d never been to Mexico City before—it was crazy there.
Johnny: Oh, wow. It was pretty tranquil where we were for Mexico.
Mickey: Yeah. Say, thanks for doing this, Johnny. Can’t think of too many people who I would be okay talking to like this.
Johnny: It’s a pleasure and an honor. As you know I’ve always been a huge admirer.
Mickey: Well, they’re slowly letting me work again, you know?
Johnny: [Laughs] Which is great. I read an article a while ago where you said something about acting—it was a great quote. You said you started to hate it because it was difficult coming to terms with the fact that it’s about business and money and—
Mickey: —And politics. Basically what it was, was this: You start out, and there are certain actors whose work you admire, right?
Mickey: It’s not like you want to emulate those people, but you want to do that sort of work—you want to be thought of as as good an actor as you can be. An example would be like watching Montgomery Clift, or watching obscure Marlon Brando movies that didn’t do so well at the box office.
Johnny: Where the work is shocking.
Mickey: Exactly. Where you see somebody really stretching. And where you can say, “Okay, I can fall on my ass or I can be really good—it’s going to boil down to the choices I make.” And if you make interesting choices where you put you ass on the line, the results are either going to be really special or really terrible.
Johnny: But it’s a great place to be, teetering.
Mickey: Right. That’s what got me interested in acting. But it’s the formulaic studio movies the make money, and when they do, the actors in them are automatically [turned into] movie stars. And years ago I realized that maybe I made a mistake, politically, when I turned a lot of that stuff down. I would go off to obscure places and make movies that six people went to see.
Johnny: Well, I think you did what you needed to do. And I believe you did the right thing.
Mickey: Yeah, but it’s frustrating because if you don’t make movies that make a lot of money, then it’s very hard for you to continue to do the work that you want to do.
Johnny: Absolutely. There’s the balance.
Mickey: But see, that’s it: I was very immature when I was young, and for me there was no balance.
Johnny: But that’s understandable. You came out of the Actor’s Studio [a renowned training program in New York] loaded up, ready to go, wanting to make art, and you were thrown into a pool of commerce and business. But the beautiful thing is, your approach to the work is pristine. It’s never faltered. As far as I’m concerned, your approach is as an artist, whether the movie is art or not.
Mickey: Everything was just all or nothing.
Johnny: But I don’t think that’s so wrong.
Mickey: Yeah, well, a couple of guys won Academy Awards for the things that I turned down. [Both laugh] Today, after coming to terms with everything, after being in therapy for a long time—it was either therapy or die—there are areas where I will compromise. I’m 47 now, and when I was 37 I couldn’t do that. It’s not easy, but I’m not as angry as I was 10 years ago. I blamed a lot of other people for shit that I shouldn’t have, and I became famous for my notoriety off the screen instead of for my work.
Johnny: But there’s also a domino effect, because as a human being, when the attacks on you begin to have an effect you instantly put up your dukes, right? Once the interest starts becoming more about when you went to the toilet—
Mickey: —Or where you went all night.
Johnny: Right. Once they start writing horse-shit about you, it’s pretty difficult to stop. But I’ll tell you, the times we ran into each other over the years, I never saw what the hubbub was about. You were always a gentleman.
Mickey: Well, I did hang out with bad people at one time five or six years ago. [a dog barks in the background] Loki, be quiet! You know Loki.
Johnny: Yeah. I was going to ask about your dog.
Mickey: If I don’t pay all my attention to her, she throws a fit. [more barking; to Loki] I’m right here, you little fucker! [Both laugh] So what I’m saying is that I didn’t really cultivate a relationship with people in the business. Maybe I should’ve—or could’ve tried to.
Johnny: Well, that would’ve been playing the game, and the game is so foul.
Mickey: To be honest with you, Johnny, I feel like I’m playing the game now, and it hurts a little bit. But I realize if I want to work at all, I’ve got to.
Johnny: I don’t think you’re playing the game. I don’t think you’ll ever play. Maybe you just have a better perspective on the game.
Mickey: Maybe. I did think for many, many years that because of my ability I could beat the system. And I was wrong.
Johnny: But in terms of the work, which is the all-important thing, directors rave about you.
Mickey: I’ve been very fortunate. It was nice working with Robert Rodriguez, who I think is a very interesting guy. We got along fine. As I said, I just finished a movie [Man on Fire] with Tony Scott, and there was a time, like a year and a half, two years ago when I couldn’t get a job with a director like that. But it wasn’t the directors—it was the studio guys who said, “He’s crazy!” What I’ve got to do now is let them judge me for who I am as an actor and not for my notoriety.
Johnny: Who you are now. Forget the past.
Mickey: Right. As long as I can work with guys like Rodriguez and Tony Scott, I can see the problems that people have [with me] going away.
Johnny: Absolutely. I think that’s going to happen.
Mickey: I had a bonding problem [with people in the business] when I went off and boxed for five years. I was over in Europe and Asia fighting because I wanted to do something different; I was tired of acting. But the thing is, when I was done doing that, I couldn’t get a job and I was having a really hard time. I said to my doctor—who I couldn’t even afford to pay at the time—“I’ve really fallen.” I said, “None of the guys I know could handle this. They’d blow their brains out.” And you know what he said to me? “Those guys wouldn’t know how to fall so far.” [Both laugh]
Johnny: Listen, taking those five years off, going off and fighting—it’s all an education, right?
Mickey: I look at it this way, Johnny: When the bell would ring and I was fighting some guy 15 years younger than me, there was no second take. And I never lost any of my fights. I had 10 wins and 2 draws, and I fought all over the world, but I was scared shitless every fight I had.
Johnny: I’ll bet.
Mickey: I trained like an animal, but the thing, really, is focus and concentration. When the bell rings it’s like when the little red light goes on over the camera. And I can usually nail my lines on the first or second take because I’m right there. People can say, “He was crazy to go off and box,” but I love sports and I wanted to do something competitively one more time before I was a goddamned geriatric. God, when you’re in your forties, what sports are left? Fishing?
Johnny: [Laughs] Right. One thing I’ve always wanted to ask you about is The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), because, to me, it was perfect cinema. Your work in it was unbelievable. Eric Roberts’s work was unbelievable. Everything moved perfectly.
Mickey: I remember reading the book three or four years before I met the producer on it. I just loved the book. Eric’s another guy I wish they would judge on his work instead of his reputation. To me, he’s one of the best actors around.
Johnny: Exactly. What he’s capable of is just incredible. Pope was pure magic with the two of you.
Mickey: It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie. It was one of the happiest times in my life. I was living in New York, and I really enjoyed acting at the time. [Pauses] Also, it’s funny because that was also the time when I went downhill.
Mickey: Yeah. The studio changed hands and they didn’t promote [the movie], so it went in the toilet, and that’s about the time I started to short-circuit—because I had high aspirations for the film. I never told anybody that.
Johnny: Jesus. I thought it was wildly successful.
Mickey: Nobody saw the movie. It became a cult movie on video. The same thing happened with Angel Heart (1987).
Johnny: Another great film.
Mickey: And Barfly (1987), which six people saw.
Johnny: I was one of the six.
Mickey: I remember years ago, one of the first movies I ever made was Rumble Fish (1983). And it was a major flop here—maybe three people saw it. And then I went to Paris to promote it, and it was like, “I’m a goddamned movie star!”
Johnny: I think Rumble Fish is one of Francis [Ford] Coppola’s bravest films.
Mickey: Well, we all had to be brave. We improvised a bunch because he’d just gotten done shooting The Outsiders (1983) and didn’t have much time to put a finished script together.
Johnny: Fantastic. So it was brave from every angle. Listen, man, they’re banging on the door trying to get me back to work here . . .
Mickey: All right, Johnny. I’ll probably be in London next week, but if you get a break, give me a hoot.
Johnny: I will. For sure.
Mickey: Take care of yourself.
Johnny: You, too, brother. Bye.