The 57-year-old actor confessed to an audience at the Sarajevo Film Festival on Thursday that he was out of work for almost 14 years because he did "not behave properly, like a professional, I wasn't real responsible." He said he blames himself for ruining the first part of his career.
The star was gone from Hollywood after squandering his early potential with bad-boy behavior and by turning down roles.
"I paid the price for it," he said.
Those years were hard, he said. "It's better to never work than to have worked and become a has-been. I have been a has-been for 12, 13 years. You feel terrible about yourself, you are not in control any more."
His comeback came with "Sin City" and was followed by Darren Aronofsky's "Wrestler." Aronofsky fought to cast Rourke against the concerns of financial backers and forged a comprise by settling on a lower budget of $6 million. The role brought Rourke a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination.
Rourke said he had not expected to get another chance, but then got two.
"I feel very blessed, very thankful, very fortunate," he said.
As a teenager, Rourke took up self-defense training, switched to boxing and decided on an amateur career before turning to acting.
"I think sports gave me a mindset to keep moving, that I'm not dead," he said. "You learn to pick yourself up and keep going ... For me the game was not over," he added.
The "Wrestler" is his favorite movie, he said, but also was the hardest one he ever made.
"Thirty years ago these guys were a bunch of fat guys in Speedos who looked like a bunch of Germans on vacation in Miami Beach. Now they know about nutrition and they stay at the gym," he said.
So the role of a wrestler required tough training and six meals a day to gain the required extra 32 pounds, he said.
"I'm not 20 years old any more and when they throw your ass down, something is gonna hurt," he said. "My back would go out, my knee would go out. I had three MRIs in the first two months. If they would say they want to make Part 2, I would say, 'No, thank you."'
He said his next project, "Iron Man 2," in which he plays an evil assassin, will "be better than Iron Man 1, that I can guarantee you."
The Sarajevo Film Festival traditionally organizes events called "Coffee with ..." that allow the press, as well as other people, to talk to stars at a downtown square. This year the guests were Rourke and "X-Files" actress Gillian Anderson, among others.