Fast Chat: Darren Aronofsky on "The Wrestler"

There are two comeback stories in director Darren Aronofsky's new film, "The Wrestler." The first stars Randy (the Ram) Robinson, a washed-up pro—when the tights come off, the hearing aid goes on—who won't quit the only job he knows how to do. The second stars Mickey Rourke, who plays the Ram and gives a raw, career-resurrecting performance. Aronofsky spoke with NEWSWEEK's Devin Gordon about both.

Why wrestling? Was it a boyhood passion of yours?
Not really. Like most guys my age, I had an eight-month romance with wrestling. But it's such a huge part of the American landscape. And when I started to do the research and I went around the indie circuit, I saw these legends—guys who had sold out Madison Square Garden—suddenly working for $200 a night. There's a whole section of the video store with boxing movies, yet no one's done wrestling. I think that's because most people think it's fake, so they think it's a joke. But if you're a 300-pound man jumping off the top rope—even if you're trying to protect yourself and your opponent—you're going to feel it. That's the reality of these guys' lives.

Marisa Tomei's character is a stripper, and it seems like you're linking the Ram's job and hers — they're both peddling flesh, selling their bodies?
A stripper and a wrestler are both walking this line between what's real and what's fake. They're both creating a fantasy for the audience. They both have fake names. They both even wear spandex [laughs].

There's a possibly apocryphal story that you told Rourke, "If you do everything I say, I'll get you an Oscar nomination." True?
Not true. I think that's how Mickey interpreted it [laughs]. What I told him was that if you do the work, it'll be recognized. The exciting thing has been finding how many closet Mickey Rourke fans are out there.

Which movie made you one of them?
I was backpacking around Europe when I was 18, and I went into a theater in Paris and saw "Angel Heart." It's the first time I ever sat through a film twice. The credits came up, and I just sat there until the film started again.

You gave Rourke the role initially, then briefly replaced him with Nicolas Cage. Why?
Well, I spent about a year and a half trying to raise the money to make a film built on Mickey. And it was really f–––ing hard, because every single financier in the world said no. They didn't believe Mickey could be sympathetic. So there was a brief window when it just didn't seem like it was going to happen. That's when we started to work with Nic on it. And I basically couldn't sleep, because I knew the role was meant to be Mickey's.

How did you get him to, as you said, "do the work"?
I think in a lot of his performances, he kind of had his feet up on the desk. But if you inspire him, it's remarkable what he can do. Getting him to the starting line is tough [laughs]. He's challenging. But between "action" and "cut," no one's more natural.