Mickey Rourke returns to his craft

Character acting draws troubled star back into spotlight

August 09, 2004|By Roberto Santiago | Roberto Santiago,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Mickey Rourke's soul is in Miami. It's home. It's where his family is. It's where he is able to make sense out of life.

And, most importantly, the city is his artistic muse, an emotional oasis allowing the moody, misunderstood method actor to embrace skills neglected after filming 1987's Barfly.

"l really do love Miami," said Rourke, cradling Loki, an 11-year-old miniature whippet and Chihuahua mix, his constant companion. "Miami - you can relax here."

After years of therapy, Rourke said he is close to banishing most of the negative forces that crippled his life and career.

Gone are the hoodlum friends, dysfunctional relationships and bad-boy antics that made him a pariah in Hollywood. And gone are the bad films that went straight to video.

"I have fallen in love with acting again. I care about the craft," Rourke whispered in the same feathery tone immortalized in his modern-day film-noir cult classics Angel Heart and 9 1/2 Weeks.

Patient fans who long suffered through the horrible films Rourke made in the 1990s (with the exception of The Rainmaker) should be pleased to learn that Rourke, in the last four years, has been rebuilding his career through a careful selection of memorable and critically acclaimed character roles.

"The new generation of young directors don't care about my old reputation," said Rourke, chain-smoking in the lounge of the South Beach hotel he now calls home. "They remember how serious I was about acting and expect nothing less from me now. And I am not about to disappoint them."

Although he is still being cast in thug roles, Rourke can play street in a thousand innovative ways. Steve Buscemi cast Rourke as Jan the Actress in the prison drama Animal Factory, where Rourke stole the show as a neurotic, transvestite inmate.

In Jonas Akerlund's Spun, Rourke plays The Cook, a wild man who runs a crystal meth lab out of a motel room.

In Tony Scott's Man on Fire, he portrays Jordan Calfus, a corrupt lawyer who represents the family of a kidnapping victim.

And next year, audiences will see Rourke in what he hopes will be his defining, breakthrough role. He has the lead in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, playing Marv, a moody, disfigured, persecuted, misunderstood thug who loses the love of his life.

Rourke, whose once-boyish features underwent reconstructive surgery following a 1990s boxing career, relates to Marv's disfigurement, angst and street code.

Back in 1961, a child named Philip Andre Rourke Jr. - nicknamed Mickey by his father - grew up in a housing project on 84th Terrace near Miami's Liberty City neighborhood.

In 1967, the family moved to Miami Beach, where Rourke hung around the now-defunct Fifth Street Gym. He had a few amateur fights, but hung up the gloves after suffering two concussions.

After graduating from high school, Rourke knocked around Miami Beach, later working in the very hotel where he now lives. He hung around with a group of street punks and may have wound up dead or in jail had acting not come into his life.

He performed in a University of Miami production of Jean Genet's Deathwatch and moved to New York City in the 1970s, where he eventually studied at The Actor's Studio under Lee Strasberg. After years of struggle, he got his big break when cast as arsonist Teddy Lewis in 1981's Body Heat.

Then the moment he hit Hollywood's A-list, he lost the passion for acting, turning down blockbuster roles, alienating key directors and producers.

In 1990, while making Wild Orchid, he met the love of his life, co-star Carre Otis, who divorced him several years later. It was a wrenching heartbreak.

By 1994, Rourke attempted a comeback, but still didn't take his art seriously. But with the new millennium and extensive therapy, Rourke changed. And Hollywood's new generation of directors noticed.

But first and foremost, Rourke is happy that he has reclaimed his soul.

When he is not on a film set, he is in South Florida, caring for his brother, Joey, who is fighting cancer.

"It would be nice ... to get larger, better roles," Rourke said, "but even if I don't, I think I am making peace with myself, with acting and with those I love. I'm finding peace."

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