Keith Mason: The Mickey Rourke meeting that led to Hollywood roles and a writing career

Keith Mason
Keith Mason represented Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, Melbourne Storm, St Helens, Castleford Tigers. Huddersfield Giants and Wales in his rugby league career

Keith Mason can pinpoint the exact time and place his life changed. The venue was Stringfellows nightclub and it was the moment when Mickey Rourke asked him whether he was a gangster.

Until then Mason's life - troubled teen turned rugby league stalwart - had been far from glamorous, but that meeting with Rourke and Hollywood A-lister Jason Statham, and the evening of partying that followed, changed everything.

While sports stars often do not know which way to turn after retirement, Mason has forged a path filled with glitz and glamour as he has landed parts in Hollywood movies and huge TV shows and, in his latest move, created a graphic novel, Rugby Blood, that has reimagined some of the sport's top stars as fictional superheroes.

It is a far cry from a childhood in trouble with the law, and battles with depression after his playing days.

With future plans to turn his graphic novel into a movie and talks with streaming giants over creating a TV series, Mason tells BBC Sport Wales about his remarkable journey.

Keith Mason and Mickey Rourke
Mickey Rourke (right) quit acting for a time to become a professional boxer

'Are you a gangster? An athlete?'

Mason thinks his chance meeting with Rourke, at the time riding the crest of a wave after his outstanding, Golden Globe-winning performance in The Wrestler, was the moment that transformed his life.

"I met Mickey, it was 2009 and I had just played in the Challenge Cup final for Huddersfield Giants at Wembley against Warrington. That was a boyhood dream coming true for me in itself," Mason says.

"We lost that one, but I had picked up a winners' medal in 2004. Anyway, that day, we were back at the hotel where all the team was staying and we got invited to Stringfellows.

"That was the year after Mickey Rourke had made his big comeback with The Wrestler, so when I saw him in Stringfellows I thought 'I've got to go and say something'.

"I went over and shook his hand and asked about the movie and he said to me 'what are you kid? An athlete or a gangster?'

"I explained I had played rugby that day at Wembley and it went from there. We hit it off and two weeks later he invited me to London for the GQ awards. I went as his guest and ended up partying all night with him and Jason Statham - you couldn't write it."

Mason and Rourke remained friends, with the Hollywood connection proving extremely useful after Mason's retirement from rugby in 2013.

"I went to New York to visit Mickey and he flew me to Los Angeles," he recalls. "One day a couple of years later Mickey called me and said 'I've got a part for you in a movie, do you want to do a screen test? And I think you've got lines in the film.'

"That film was called Skin Traffik and starred Mickey, Daryl Hannah and Michael Madsen. I played Mickey's heavy.

"Ever since then I've been working so hard to make my mark in Hollywood. After playing rugby league for 14 years I wanted my next step to be a bold move.

"Sport was only one chapter of my life. Going from sport to acting wasn't easy, but I chased the goal with everything I have got. I have tried to learn the business from A to Z."

Further movie roles have followed, as well as opportunities to appear on UK screens in programmes such as Peaky Blinders and Cold Feet.

Rugby Blood
Rugby Blood began life as a film idea, before being published as a graphic novel

'It's my tribute to the sport of rugby league'

Rugby Blood, Mason's graphic novel about a player called David King, sprang from a conversation about the potential of making a film set in the world of rugby league.

Mason wrote a script and met producers from Pinewood Studios.

Talks continue about bringing it to the big screen but, in the meantime, Mason has written an origin story about the main character, who he admits is based on himself, and published it as a graphic novel, with the help of illustrator Paul Roper.

"I came up with an origin story about David King and how he becomes who he is, so I made him into a kid who goes through a lot of struggles," he explains. "Hopefully it's very relatable.

"David King is a guy who never gives up. He is a superstar rugby player who goes on missions saving the world.

"And at the same time, in the comics you have the best players from the NRL [Australia's National Rugby League] and Super League and we are taking people from other sports as well."

Jake Connor, Kalyn Ponga, Daryl Clark, Konrad Hurrell, Jermaine McGillvary, Mark Percival, Jake Trueman and Luther Burrell all feature in Rugby Blood with Tyson Frizell, Nathan Cleary, Victor Radley, Josh Addo-Carr and Anthony Milford also set to make appearances in the graphic novel series, along with former undefeated world champion boxer Joe Calzaghe and television presenter Adam Hills.

"I am the first person to do a rugby comic, featuring real people, and it is very unique," Mason says. "The next comic will be called 'Shot Clock' and it is going to be set in New York.

"My end game is a film and an anime series. I am in my own lane as this is such a unique thing - we don't have any competition. It's my tribute to the sport of rugby league."

Keith Mason
Keith Mason (right) played under-21s rugby league for England and Great Britain and also represented Wales in senior Tests

'I battled depression, lost two houses, had a bad car accident'

While David King is an inspirational character saving the world one adventure at a time, Mason admits his own origin story is a bit more downbeat.

Mason was in trouble a lot as a child. He was arrested several times, he says, and was ultimately probably "scared straight by the courts".

Then after his rugby career ended, things turned sour again.

"I had a tough time after playing; I was lost for a while," he explains.

"I had a battle with depression, I lost two houses, I had a really bad car accident and lost my driving licence and pretty much lost everything.

"But I've worked really hard to get where I am today."

He hopes his story provides motivation for others.

"I like inspiring people," he says. "The novel, the film roles, it's not just about me, it is giving back as well. I am in a good place, I am happy and I am in a lucky position that I got into by working super hard.

"I lived a wild childhood and thank god I got out of that, but kids need to see, if you want to achieve in life, you need to do difficult things.

"That is how you grow. I've pushed myself my whole life and it is paying off now."

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