Everyone who found themselves magnetically drawn to the larger-than-life characters that ran amok in the World Wrestling Federation during the xenophobic Reagan years is going to want to see Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (opening tomorrow). After a recent screening of the film, we found ourselves standing face-to-face with three-time WWF champion Mick Foley (who, along with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, was one of the sport’s biggest stars of the late nineties). We noticed a lot of parallels between Randy “the Ram” Robinson’s plight in the film and the landmark 1999 professional wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat, which starred Foley and shone an unforgiving light on the physical and emotional toll that wrestling takes on its stars and their families. So we cornered the New York Times best-selling author in order to get his highly informed opinion on topics as diverse as the film’s authenticity, steroid abuse in wrestling, and whether he still has beef with the Rock.
As someone who has twenty-plus years of wrestling under his belt, not to mention the experience of going from regional wrestling tours to becoming a three-time WWF champion, how did the film feel to you?
I walked in something of a cynic, figuring there was no way an actor could ever really get a feel for what we do without having done it. But within the first five minutes, I was completely sold. From an emotional standpoint, I found Mickey Rourke to be so believable. He made it so easy to suspend disbelief that within five minutes in the movie, I never once thought of him as being Mickey Rourke, let alone an actor. He was Randy the Ram. It was the little cues that really registered — like how he lived to get a reaction from people, even if they were just customers at the deli counter.
There are certainly parallels one could draw between the Beyond the Mat documentary you starred in and this fictionalized portrait of an aging wrestler in the twilight years of his career. Particularly with the Jake “the Snake” Roberts sections of Beyond.
I had read in advance of seeing the film that there were shades of Jake, Terry Funk, and myself in Mickey Rourke’s character. After absorbing it, I certainly saw shades of Jake the Snake, just a little bit of Terry Funk, and I was actually disappointed I didn’t see more of myself in Mickey Rourke’s performance [laughs].
We think you might be a little bit too close to it! We certainly saw the parallels with your infamous “Hell in a Cell” match and the brutal match that occurs in the middle portion of the film, what with the devastating use of thumbtacks and staples. These were some of the things that you pioneered and ushered into the mainstream.
I can see how some of the extreme things he did and maybe even elements of his horrible wardrobe could’ve been partially inspired by me. You could also look at “Hell in a Cell” and say that any legitimate sporting contest would end when one of the participants was knocked unconscious. [Ed. note: That participant was Foley.] But mine didn’t, and in the back of my mind, no matter how badly hurt I was, I wanted to finish that match back in 1998. That’s exactly what I got from Randy the Ram, except that he took it even one step further in that he would rather risk death than not get in his signature move.
Were there any things that you felt like the Ram wouldn’t have done, things that didn’t strike you as feeling authentic?
I thought that, in a real-life situation, a guy like Randy would understand the value of the wrestling tights [that he throws away]. And no matter how injured he was, he would’ve taken those tights home with him and immediately put them up on eBay! In fact, I once had an article of clothing that had to be cut off me in the hospital and, believe me, that made it a cooler piece of memorabilia.
There was another thing that didn’t ring true to me — the steroid deal. My editor would’ve referred to that as being “way too convenient.” For a film that dealt with subtleties so well, it felt a little too obvious and unlike anything I have seen in my 23 years in wrestling. I’m not saying guys don’t take things, but that transaction seemed a little forced. I just doubt that a transaction like that would occur out in the open like that in any wrestling room I have ever been in.
Switching gears ever so slightly, we loved that the scene where Randy dusts off his old 8-bit Nintendo and plays video games with a kid from the neighborhood. Have you ever played wrestling video games as yourself?
I thought that scene was a funny but sad situation at the same time, because it served to illustrate just how long ago the Ram’s heyday was. But the last time I played a wrestling video game was with my son back in the late nineties. At the time in my wrestling career, I had a grudge against the Rock, so I chose to play as the Rock and my son wrestled as me. Needless to say, I proceeded to do nothing with the controls, as it gave me a lot of enjoyment to see my son beating the living crap out of the Rock [laughs].
On a sort of related tangent, what did you think of the Ram Jam, which was Randy the Ram’s finishing move?
[Laughs] It was a diving head butt, right?
Yeah, but with a double elbow drop mixed in, too.
Not only did Rourke pull it off well, but I thought it was really important to the development of the character and the film’s authenticity that a finishing move be established. Not just in his individual matches in the film, but also how important getting that finish in was to the end of the movie.
How do you think that WWE chairman Vince McMahon is going to respond to the film?
I personally don’t think Vince will like it, because Vince really believes in the philosophy of keeping wrestling as entertainment for the fans. And part of that is keeping up the mystique of what goes on behind the scenes. I’m not sure he would enjoy a film that shines a light on the hardships that some wrestlers go through.
So what’s keeping you busy these days? We heard some rumblings about a reality show…
We shot a pilot with A&E for a reality show about a year ago that went very well. We made some money from it, we got some great home movies out of it, but the only knock on the project from day two was that my family got along too well [for the show to get picked up]. And you know what? I can live with that.