- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008

The quickest way to elicit a grimace from Darren Aronofsky, director of “The Wrestler,” is to suggest his latest film is depressing, a downer. It’s an easy mistake to make, considering the subject matter - a broken-down wrestler (Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played to perfection by Mickey Rourke) surveys the wreckage of his life and tries to make amends.

“Yeah, it’s sad,” Mr. Aronofsky says of the film’s closing moments. “But for him, glorious.”

Marisa Tomei, playing a stripper who befriends Randy as the film progresses, concurs.

“What is ‘The Wrestler’ about? It’s about artistry, it’s about facing time and age,” she says, but most importantly, “it’s about being a performer.”

Those themes almost certainly attracted Mr. Rourke to the project and, considering the tumult in his personal and professional lives over the past couple of decades, made him a natural choice for Mr. Aronofsky.

“Between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ there’s no one greater,” Mr. Aronofsky says of his star. “He’s incredibly natural, relaxed, technically controlled in terms of the medium. Getting him to ‘action’ was probably where my directing skills came into play. I think he’s very shy, and I think for a lot of these scenes, he had to go to very dark places.”

Mr. Aronofsky used Mr. Rourke’s and Miss Tomei’s talents - as well as their dislike for rehearsal - to craft a better, more spontaneous film.

“I love actors that are willing to do another take, do another take,” Mr. Aronofsky says. “What else are you gonna do, sit by the craft service table and get fat? This is why we’re here, this is what is most fun, between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ So let’s do it.”

Actors are sometimes a little less charitable about such repetition - they’re the ones repeating themselves over and over, after all - but Miss Tomei seems thrilled to have worked with a pair as dedicated to their craft as Mr. Aronofsky and Mr. Rourke.

“There’s a scene where he gives me a [thank-you] card and I kind of break up with him - not that we’re even together, where I pre-emptively break up with him - that we did a lot of times,” she recalls.

What did all of those takes entail?

“There were takes where I spit in his face, where I was on the bar and punched him, where I called the bouncer over; there were just so many ways that we did that. He still wanted to go further, and Mickey and I were like, ‘You’re beating a dead horse, we have nothing left to give,’” she says.

Another scene shot many times involves Miss Tomei dancing at the strip club - a harder task, physically, than one might think.

“The dance that I had to do that involved most of the pole work [was tough] because that was a song that was about a minute, at the least, and we did it like 26 times. That’s 30 minutes of pretty much straight physical gymnastics,” she says.

Getting the actors to do scenes over and over allows for some improvisation, which is especially important on a movie like “The Wrestler” for which there were no rehearsals beforehand.

“We had to do a lot of takes because we were working it out on camera,” Mr. Aronofsky explains. “Luckily, we were working in a very guerrilla way that we could move very quickly, and we could adapt pretty easily.”

He says he appreciates his stars’ flexibility.

“Sometimes we would improv, and sometimes we would do the script stuff,” he says. “Mickey was improv-ing nonstop. Half the customers in the deli scenes were real people that just came up and were ordering meat. Mickey just started serving them. All the wrestlers were not actors; they didn’t have lines. Mickey would just go and interact with them, and whatever happened happened.”

The improvisational nature of the dialogue gives it a naturalistic feel, one heightened by Mr. Aronofsky’s minimalist shooting techniques. Gone are the stylistic trappings he employed in “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream”; this is a movie that hews much closer to the neorealist tradition.

“I just wanted to do something different,” he says when asked about the sparse approach. “I think it’s important as a creative person to keep challenging yourself. … I just wanted to do what I felt was the most difficult thing, I think, for myself, which was to be spontaneous and in the moment.”

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