Irving "Ving" Rhames didn't always want to be an actor. He didn't grow up watching films or dreaming of the footlights of Broadway. In fact, the Harlem-born-and-raised Rhames had his sights set on playing football, not becoming one of the great character actors in the business today. Luckily for us, a high school teacher changed all that.
"I was in the ninth grade when an English teacher had all the students read poems in class," Rhames recalled in a recent interview with Back Stage West. "She said, 'You know, I think you have some talent. Maybe you should audition for the High School for the Performing Arts.' So I did. Didn't take it too seriously. Got accepted."
Not only did Rhames take his acceptance into the famous high school in stride, he was a little disappointed in its facilities. "I was only 14 years old; all I wanted to do was play football," he said. "They didn't even have a football team or a gym. I was more interested in playing sports than acting. I didn't take acting too seriously until the end of my junior year."
It was then that Rhames got bit by the acting bug. "I think God blessed me with a gift that made me start to think, OK, you know what? This is interesting and it is therapeutic," he recalled. "I didn't realize it then, but it was a way for me to release whatever tension I had growing up in the neighborhood I grew up in, which was 126th Street in Harlem. It was really an outlet for me. And by the end of my junior year I started getting serious about it. I thought, This is what God put me on the planet to do."
Rhames was offered a scholarship to attend Juilliard School's Drama Division, where he quickly developed an affection for classical theatre as well as classic cinema. As part of the class of 1982, he also spent two years at the State University of New York at Purchase—where his roommate Stanley Tucci gave him the nickname "Ving"—before completing his studies back at Juilliard. "The training at Juilliard School is classical training, and it really makes one very versatile. I mean, we're doing Shakespeare, Chekhov, Molière. Then I was doing A Raisin in the Sun and things like that. I got a very well-rounded training."
Outside the Average
For Rhames, the transition from student to working professional was an easy one. After Juilliard, he immediately began performing in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park productions, including Richard III with Kevin Kline in the title role. Two years later he made his Broadway debut opposite Matt Dillon in The Winter Boys, after which he worked in a variety of Off-Broadway productions. And Rhames was content.
"I never grew up thinking I wanted to be a quote-unquote star or anything," he said. "My thing was just feeling blessed to be able to make my living acting. So how I approached my work in college is the same way I approach it now. I take it very seriously."
Rhames worked successfully but largely unnoticed by the public until his role as crime boss Marsellus Wallace in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 sleeper hit Pulp Fiction. It was a character that made quite an impression. The hulking Rhames combined gravity and great humor in the role, and uttered the memorable catch-phrase, "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass." Other feature film roles quickly followed, including Demi Moore's self-appointed bodyguard in Striptease, Tom Cruise's partner in Mission: Impossible, the heroic stranger in John Singleton's Rosewood, convicted felon Diamond Dog in Con-Air, and tough guy Buddy Bragg in Out of Sight opposite George Clooney—a role originally written for a blond, blue-eyed man. "The fact they even let me read for it was astonishing," said Rhames. "The fact I got it proves that, for me at least, things are changing in Hollywood."
Certainly Rhames is one actor whose roles have transcended the color barrier in Hollywood. "Part of that is because, unlike most African-American actors, the black directors were not hiring me early in my career," he said. "I'm from New York, and yet I've done only one film executive-produced by Spike Lee and have never done a film that Spike Lee directed. I've never done a film that Keenan Wayans has directed, or Bill Duke. You name a black director and I probably haven't worked with them. I just did a Showtime film for Robert Townsend, but not a feature film. But Brian DePalma hired me, Martin Scorsese hired me, Quentin Tarantino hired me. The only black director of note that I've ever worked with in feature film was John Singleton—I've worked with him twice—and now Walter Hill."
Hill is the acclaimed producer/writer/director of Rhames' latest project, Undisputed, co-starring Wesley Snipes and Peter Falk. Undisputed is the story of Monroe Hutchen (Snipes), a one-time boxing star in California who is convicted of a crime and given a life sentence without parole. While serving his sentence in the newly built Sweetwater Prison in the Mojave Dessert, Hutchen continues boxing in the inter-prison program. When World Heavyweight Champion George "Iceman" Chambers (Rhames) is sentenced to six to eight years on a rape charge, tensions soon rise between the toughest guy inside Sweetwater and the undisputed champ, leading to a big event behind bars.
Undisputed originated when writer/producer David Giler sat down to lunch with longtime partner Hill and the two filmmakers looked through the daily sports pages. "We were talking about the Mike Tyson story—right after he had gone through all of his trials and tribulations—and how much the film business had changed," recalled Giler in the film's production notes. "In the old days Hollywood would have churned out five films based on that story. But up to that moment, there hadn't been a single one."
Rhames had kept himself in great physical shape for two years prior to being offered Undisputed, because he was waiting to portray prizefighter Sonny Liston for the Hughes Brothers. But that project kept getting pushed back. He initially got the call from Hill to ask him to play Hutchen. However, when Snipes got attached to the script, he wanted to play the lead. Hill asked Rhames if he would play Iceman instead, and he agreed.
Asked what attracted him to the role, Rhames explained, "I think, 1.) the fact that it has shades of Mike Tyson—as a champion who goes to prison—and I was already in training for boxing, and 2.) I would say the script is not just a prison movie, even though it takes place in prison. I was attracted to the fact that the film could have more layers; I could add more colors than just being a tough guy. One of the most poignant lines in the film for me is, 'Anything I ever got in life, I got with these [holding up his clenched fists].' For me, that encapsulates a lot of guys I grew up with in Harlem. There were parallels that I saw, as an African-American male, with how [life] is a fight. I just saw a lot of metaphors in this role."
More Than Flavor
Rhames' struggle as a performer has, of course, paid off. In 1988 the actor won an Emmy and Golden Globe for his portrayal of tenacious boxing promoter Don King in HBO's Don King: Only in America. In a now-classic awards show moment, Rhames gave away his trophy for Best Actor in a TV Miniseries to fellow nominee Jack Lemmon, whom he felt was more deserving of praise than he. Said Rhames, "I think, quite honestly, today there are a lot of overrated actors. I think that people believe if you're known and if you did a movie that was a box office hit, you're a good actor. But it doesn't necessarily mean that. It just means that you were in the right film, it was marketed correctly, and it became a hit. I don't think there are enough trained actors working."
Rhames maintains that he has lived a remarkable and blessed life. And because he believes acting is the trade God has chosen for him, he handles it with respect. "I do my homework. I never let the quote-unquote rules of the industry affect me. I do TV, I do feature films, I do commercials, I do voiceovers, and I do animated films. Rules say you can only do features. Well, I don't."
Thus far, his career has left him with no room for complaints. "I am content," he said. "I always thank God that first of all I have the breath of life. When I look at what my parents, grandparents, ancestors have been through, what really do I have to complain about? Sure, I wish I got this job and I'm upset I didn't get that job, but I'm still a millionaire, so what really is there to complain about? You see what I'm saying? I basically apply myself as fully as possible to my work.
"There's a famous quote: Art is man's signature on time. Well, I look at my work on film, television, or whatever as my legacies. When I leave this planet, outside of my kids, this is what's left—on DVD or whatever else is around in 50 years. Somebody can say, 'Yeah, remember him.'"
For those with a yearning passion to create Hollywood legacies of their own, Rhames offered this advice: "Make yourself versatile and as well-rounded as possible, because when you walk into a room they are going to stereotype you. They'll say, Ah, he's a bald-headed black guy, he must be a thug or tough or what have you. You may have to do things like I did for Showtime's Holiday Heart, where I played a drag queen. You may have to do things just to show you can do other things. It's good to do theatre, even though [for most of your career] you may be in feature films and television, playing one type of role. Theatre keeps you versatile.
"I think the problem with a lot of young actors today, especially in California, is they're not theatre-trained. A lot of them have never done a play. A lot of them have one thing they can do, and when America gets tired of that one thing then you hear things like, 'Wow, whatever happened to so-and-so?' Well, so-and-so wasn't a trained, versatile actor. So that's why so-and-so was here today—when his flavor was in—and now he's gone." BSW