August 2002
Undisputed : An Interview with Ving Rhames

Undisputed : An Interview with Ving Rhames

No stranger to hitting ‘em hard from the silver screen, Ving Rhames provides audiences with an emotional gut punch in Undisputed. His character, The Iceman, is the heavyweight champion of the world who, after being convicted of rape, is sentenced to prison. sat with Ving Rhames to discuss the film and his career as an actor.

VR: First off – I’d just like to say that I would have beat Wesley’s ass!

AAH: What was it about this character (The Iceman) that really appealed to you and how did you go about not trying to make him a cliché?

VR: Two things. When Walter Hill called me he offered me the role that Wesley plays. Wesley read the script and said he wanted to play that role. When I read the script, I actually wanted to play the Iceman. One of the things that I found interesting was that it took place in a prison, but its not a prison movie. Secondly, I know Mike Tyson, and I know there are parallels here. It was interesting that in this, there is no quote, unquote, good guy and bad guy. He is in jail for murder. I am in jail for rape, but I constantly say I did not do it. Of course both are awful sins. But there is murder, and then there is rape. The murderer wins the fight. I felt it would make the audience think as to whom they would side with. When we were filming in prison, we used 99% of the inmates as extras for the fight scene. Iceman was there kind of guy.

AAH: What was it like filming in prison?

VR: Well, I grew up around criminals so it was comfortable. Honestly. Those guys, I think we gave a lot to them, by being new stimuli in their lives. It was something to look forward to. A lot of them were in there for 10-15 years. That gave them energy and emotion and it was kind of like we were giving something to them. I really felt that for whatever time, three weeks, we were there, we gave them something that was exciting for them. I met one guy who was in a Broadway play that was called “Black and Blue” back in the 80’s in New York City. He was in prison. They have the no-tolerance law in Las Vegas and he found with a small amount of cocaine. He is now doing 5-7 years. I was talking to him. I remembered him. I bought him a pair of tap shoes before I left. They were two-tone $300 tap shoes. He was a hoofer. In a sense, they are somehow forgotten and they are not a part of our lives. It reminded me a lot of when I was growing up in Harlem and I was a part of mainstream America and they did not think about me. It was parallels like that for me. When I was growing up, I remember people shooting up heroine. But it did not become an epidemic until it reached out to middle America. I was seeing it for years growing up and never read it in a newspaper. Then, when I was in high school, I read about some drug epidemic. When it was in the ghetto, what was it? I used to see junkies shooting up in my hallway and there was a shooting gallery right above me. Those are the memories that I had when I went to prison.

AAH: What prohibited you from taking the wrong road?

VR: Well, a lot of it was my mother and God. I saw so many lives wasted. I saw a vicious cycle, generation after generation of drugs, crime, jail, or death. That was it.

AAH: Where did the desire to be an actor come from?

VR: Quite honestly I never had a desire to be an actor. I tell people, I did not choose acting; acting chose me. I never grew up wanting to be an actor. I wanted to play football. In about 9th grade an English teacher told me I had a talent to act. He said I should audition for a performing arts high school so I did on a whim. I got accepted. Then I got accepted at the Julliard School and by then I was serious about it. I think God has blessed each of us with at least one gift. So I think it’s a matter of do we find it within our lifetime. I think that’s what God blessed me with. I think I am doing what God put me on this planet to do.

AAH: When you were boxing Wesley, how many times did you connect?

VR: I think only once. It was choreographed. One time he hit me here, [on the chin] and I retaliated. Everything else was very professional and very easy.

AAH: Was the training tough?

VR: Training was the toughest part. However, I have been trained on and off for two years. I was in shape and it is a matter of getting conditioned to get punched in the face or punched in the stomach. It is really about the conditioning. I have done the Sunny Listen Story with the Hughes Brothers and other than that – The Don King Story.

AAH: What is it about boxing that is so fascinating?

VR: I think, like my character says, “they are gladiators.” Really, if you get in the ring and box with someone for real, I don’t think it is a sport. As far as professional fighters, you are literally putting your life on the line. A couple of months ago, a boxer died in the ring. To me, it’s not a sport. Most sports you life is not in jeopardy. Every time you step into the ring you are putting you life on the line and that is something that takes a rare individual to be willing to do that and call it their profession.

AAH: Are you a fan of boxing?

VR: Yes, I have been to almost every major fight in the last five years.

AAH: How much research did you do on Mike Tyson to prepare for this role?

VR: I already knew a lot about Mike Tyson’s life. Because I found maybe one or two elements that were parallel I did not really think about Mike. Quite honestly, my character talks a lot of crap like Muhammad Ali did but fights more like Mike Tyson.

AAH: Where did the attitude come from?

VR: If you notice, with a lot of the greatest of other sports, there is an air. Even with Michael Jordan, he lets other people say that he is the greatest. With fighters, I think there are some fighters that allow other people to say it and they feel it. Tiger Woods feels that he is the greatest golfer, but he would never say it. He will let everybody else say it. I feel that he [my character] believes in his self.

AAH: Did you talk to Tyson about this film?

VR: Not about this script. I did speak with him about Sunny Listen.

AAH: Tyson is obviously aware of the parallels of this film. How do you think it will be received?

VR: I don’t even know the story line. But I think that outside of the character losing the fight, its rare to see that there is no necessarily good guy. Second, a guy, like Mike Tyson that was convicted of rape, say, “no, I did not do it, and I will go to my death saying I did not do it.” So I think that he will applaud that. I think that he won’t applaud that the character loses.

AAH: A lot of characters use acting coaches to tap into their emotions. Do you use such coaches?

VR: For me, as a trained actor, I know how to do that without a coach. A coach is really only an acting teacher. I have had those classes of emotional memory and so for me, I don’t need a coach.

AAH: Did you have an alternate plan, if acting did not work out?

VR: Since I graduated college, all I have ever done for a living was acting.

AAH: Are you as passionate about it now as you were when you first began?

VR: Yes, because I realize now that this is my legacy. When I leave this planet, much like you guys and your articles. When I leave this planet there will be DVDs and movies will be here. So in a sense I look it as a famous quote, “art, is man’s signature on time.”

AAH: Thank you very much.

VR: Thank you.