Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reel Thoughts Interview: Wrestling with Demons


Daren Aronofsky and Marisa Tomei talk about creating The Wrestler

On an unseasonably cloudy November day, director Daren Aronofsky and Academy Award-winner Marisa Tomei met local press at the swanky Valley Ho in Scottsdale, Arizona to talk about their new film The Wrestler, starring Mickey Roarke in the title role. The weather fit the film’s cold and depressed New Jersey setting. When I arrived, Aronofsky was already there, mingling with the group. He was so down-to-earth and friendly, I at first mistook him for another critic.

I wondered why Roarke wasn’t part of the publicity tour, since he is the heart and soul of the film. He plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging pro wrestler who is forced to face his mortality and loneliness. Aronofsky explained that Roarke really wouldn’t have been up to the grind of all the traveling — it just wasn’t his thing. And considering the raw, moving (and now Oscar nominated) performance he gives in the film, he is certainly forgiven.


Roarke and Aronofsky.

Aronofsky is known for taking huge risks as a filmmaker, first with the independent sensation π, and then the virtual blueprint for drug addiction films, Requiem for a Dream. His next film, The Fountain (starring his partner, Rachel Weisz, and Hugh Jackman) was an effects-filled enigma few people understood. Now, with The Wrestler, Aronofsky has created a terrific film that is as straight-forward and stripped-down as it can be. (David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is similarly uncharacteristic of the Seven director’s work, although it’s still full of flourishes; it is interesting to watch how these cutting edge filmmakers change with each project.)

The Wrestler is a naturalistic character study of a man who is just now realizing that his bigger-than-life existence may be coming to an end. With a mane of bleached hair that makes him look like Dog the Bounty Hunter, Roarke seizes the opportunity to show Randy’s diminished power as a performer, but also the respect he shows his opponents off-stage and his helpless hunger for a connection with his estranged daughter (Rachel Evan Wood) and a sympathetic stripper (Marisa Tomei).


The director and his cast at the Los Angles premiere.

Aronofsky traveled to meet-and-greets of former wrestlers just like the ones he depicts in the film and found it sobering to see what the sport had done to these men like Captain Lou Albano (better known as Cyndi Lauper’s “manager”) and others (some on oxygen tanks or suffering from other terrible health issues). “We went to an autograph show that was just desperate. There were all these legends there and there were no people there. The scene with the catheter was fictional, but there was a guy in a wheelchair. It’s just sad, still holding out for that glory. We’ll see what Paris Hilton turns into — it’s the reason I stay alive, just to watch her decay,” he joked. Still, The Wrestler refuses to make Randy an object of pity. He will screw up and disappoint people, but ultimately he is going to live his life the way he wants.

Soon, Tomei arrived from another interview and someone asked how she keeps in such great shape. “Tell them your secret,” Aronofsky prompted. “Hula-hoops,” Tomei replied. Aronofsky probed her on how often and for how long she uses the 50’s throwback. “The longer you do it, the better! It’s my protective circle,” she laughed. “Will it drop in an hour or can you keep it going?,” Aronofsky asked. In an answer sure to please her fans, Tomei replied, “I can keep it going. Well, I probably drop it in an hour, but no, I can keep it up. I try to get more people into it. I gave a lot of hoops for Christmas last year. I’m checking up on them.”

The Wrestler is about people who hide behind personas and avoid human connection. While Randy the Ram is a prime example, Tomei’s character, Cassidy (her stripper name) is another. A single mother, she spends her hours at the club making guys feel however they want, but when Randy reaches out to her, she falls back on her “no dating the customers” rule. Tomei gives an exquisite performance (also recently Oscar nominated), full of doubt but also full of life when she starts to let Randy in. In one of the film’s best scenes, Cassidy helps Randy pick out a coat for his estranged daughter. Randy’s choice is a garish baseball jacket with an “S” emblazoned on it (which was probably a promotional item for Stride Gum). Cassidy picks out a pea coat that Randy ends up giving his daughter, and his look of gratitude when Stephanie loves it speaks volumes.

Tomei enjoyed working on the film, and at first didn’t recognize her costar. With his gold mane and bulked-up physique, she thought Roarke really was a wrestler, maybe an extra. She admits learning the stripper pole was challenging. “It’s more athletic, like gymnastics. It’s like the uneven bars, which I was never very good at. I’m more of a balance beam, floor work kind of girl,” she laughed.

Tomei has continued working hard both onscreen and in the theater. She recently starred on Broadway in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which co-starred Martha Plimpton and Mary Beth Hurt. I asked her what she liked about stage work. “It just takes more from me and it pushes me harder. It scares the hell out of me, and I like it,” she explained. “There never fails to be a point in that process where I’m like ‘Why did I decide to do this? Are you serious? I have to get up on that stage?’ and the overcoming of that fear is why I keep doing it.”


Mr. Cohen and Miss Tomei.

I asked how the role of Cassidy affected her. “We shot a lot at night, and I was already up doing stuff in the clubs, and I was also working really hard on (Top Girls) at the same time. I had three parts in that — I had a Scottish accent, and then a lower class British and an upper class British character. It overlapped with this for about ten days, so I was really, like, partying a lot. I had to burn off all that energy. The character didn’t affect me emotionally, I liked the dancing so much, it didn’t make me that depressed (playing her). But I definitely went, “I need to go out, I need to sing and dance, I need a drink” — I needed to let off a lot of steam.”

As far as her future plans, Tomei would enjoy working with director Catherine Hardwicke, Robert Downey Jr. (again) and Sean Penn and admires actresses Laura Dern and Toni Collette. She admitted that she’s eager to do a lead role, which was surprising to hear from an Oscar winner. Based on her great work in The Wrestler, casting agents should definitely grant her wish.

UPDATE: The Wrestler is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.

By Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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