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Aging Athlete Faces Consequences of Life Choices in 'The Wrestler'

Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei received Oscar nominations for their performances in a gritty drama set in the shadowy world of second-rate sports arenas and seedy strip clubs. Here's a look at The Wrestler.

Randy Robinson is a man past his prime. His hulking, muscular figure is marked by scars and aches from bruising years in the ring as professional wrestler "Randy the Ram." But as he watches his place in the spotlight taken over by young newcomers, Randy finds it is even more painful to deal with the emotional scars his life choices have inflicted.

Director Darren Aronofsky says he loves the dramatic potential of sports stories with, as he puts it, "people overcoming impossible odds to do tremendous things;" but to make The Wrestler he had to find an elusive dignity in its flamboyant world of "smackdowns" and carefully rehearsed stunts.

"I didn't know how respectful the film would be to the art of wrestling until I got deep into it," explains Aronofsky. "Even when I realized how deep the world was and how much history there was to it, I never realized that the craft would come across. The line between real and fake was always important to me. I think people just assume it is fake and there is nothing else to it; but the reality is if you are a 250 pound [115 kg] man jumping off the top rope you are going to feel it. So how much is real and how much is fake was a big question."

"They are entertainers. That's what they really are …and they are athletes, which I didn't know," adds Mickey Rourke, who stars as "Randy the Ram." "I didn't have any understanding or that much respect for the sport when I did the movie, but it grew on me."

Rourke took a break from acting several years ago to become a professional boxer. However, he says that experience did not help him find respect for the pro wrestling world he needed for this film.

"Coming from my sport, I looked at wrestling in a different and not a really high way," Rourke explains. "I didn't have a lot of love for that sport because it is a choreographed, pre-arranged kind of entertainment. I had issues with that; but, I'll tell you, those issues changed because I had no clue at all, whatsoever. I knew nothing about wrestling and after my third MRI and my fifth trip to the hospital during what they called 'wrestling practice,' I went 'man, these guys do get hurt.'"

Director Aronofsky says Rourke trained intensely to make the wrestling scenes as authentic as possible; but there is much more than physicality to his performance.

"There is no one like him out there in the talent base. He is such a unique actor," Aronofsky notes. "You see all this armor all around him, but if you look in his eyes there is such a fire burning. There is so much honesty, a lot of love, conflict, intelligence, passion …all of these different things …and you know the eyes don't lie."

Aronofsky cast Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei as Cassidy, a stripper with whom Rourke's Randy would like to have a relationship; but like his character, she tries to draw a line between her professional and private lives.

Tomei says working with Rourke in The Wrestler felt natural and authentic.

"We didn't talk that much about it ahead of time. He doesn't like to rehearse. I didn't really want to rehearse for this particular movie," Tomei says. "It's very naturalistic, so we just showed up and did it together."

His portrayal of Randy is being called a "comeback" for Rourke, known as much for his raw off-screen behavior as he is for is brooding, intense performances. The 56-year-old actor acknowledges that his own actions harmed his career; but he adds that may be why he understood this character so well.

"Nobody wants to admit they screwed up so badly with their life and then you're left alone like yesterday's news," Rourke says. "If you've been there, and I have been there, it is no picnic. Randy wants one more chance and he ain't going to get it. I've been lucky. I got another chance."

The Wrestler also features Evan Rachel Wood as Randy's estranged daughter. The screenplay is by Robert D. Siegel and the soundtrack features a title song written for the film and performed by Bruce Springsteen.