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Aronofsky, Rourke Make Triumphant Returns with The Wrestler

Fresh off his disappointment at the tepid reception that greeted The Fountain, his 2006 tale of immortal love starring fiancée Rachel Weisz, director Darren Aronofsky went back to the drawing board and perused a list of ideas he’d come up with in film school. It was there that The Wrestler, his astonishing new drama about a W.W.E.-style ring warrior sputtering down the stretch of a hard life and punishing career, was born.

Aronofsky, who admits to being the furthest thing from a wrestling aficionado, found himself struck by the countless stories of men who rose to fame in the sport by mercilessly abusing their bodies with performance-enhancing drugs and acts of pure physical torture. He was stunned that nobody had tackled the subject in a movie.

“So many of these guys die young,” he says. “If they’re lucky enough to make it into their 30s and 40s, most of them can’t even tie their shoelaces. They are really messed up. When you’re 250 pounds and jumping off the top rope, you’re going to feel that the next day.”

Aronofsky was as shocked to find living legends like Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, now 65, still competing in small-time matches for meager paydays as he was to witness the physical degradation they choose to endure decades after their heydays. But his research paid off when another former superstar, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, broke down after a recent screening and praised the 39-year-old Brooklyn native for the honesty of his film.

The Wrestler almost never made it to the screen. Aronofsky, who conceived the film with fellow New Yorker Mickey Rourke in mind, soon realized that his choice of leading men was toxic to prospective backers. Not a single investor would go near the movie, and, says Aronofsky, “Mickey Rourke was the reason why.”

“There was a brief window where we were going to go with Nic Cage. I think he sensed my reservations and was an incredible gentleman about it, stepping aside so I could go with my gut,” he says. “And that was the first time anyone wrote about the movie. We’d been trying to raise money for a year-and-a-half for Mickey, but nobody was writing about it.

“That’s one of the problems with independent film in America – a project isn’t real until there’s a movie star attached. Eventually we had one offer, and even though it was too low, I took it. I had to find a way to make that budget work. We made sacrifices along the way, but I think you have to follow your heart and go where the material takes you.”

Meeting with Rourke, he’d become convinced that the controversial faded star was the only man for the job. Co-star Marisa Tomei, who attended high school with Aronofsky, agrees.

“He can be so sweet and so tough at the same time, so charming yet so direct,” says Tomei, who saw no evidence of Mickey Rourke, the infamous on-set miscreant. “He helped me a lot, which was good because my very first day I was naked and doing a lap dance.”

Today, Aronofsky is enjoying the last laugh. With Rourke’s latest comeback in full swing and Oscar buzz surrounding The Wrestler – many have pegged Rourke as the unlikely favorite for Best Actor – both men are riding a wave of glowing reviews. It’s enough to ease the lingering pain of The Fountain, but that doesn’t mean Aronofsky is done with the story closest to his heart. Besides being slated to helm MGM’s upcoming RoboCop reboot, he recently announced plans to “reassemble” his epic romance using unreleased footage.