Film Scouts Interviews

Ving Rhames on "Rosewood"

by Henri Béhar

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You don't want to tread, however lightly, on actor Ving Rhames's toes. A) He's huge. His neck is thicker than your thigh; his shoulders are loft-size. B) He has that basso profundo voice that sends chills down your spine. C) You can't shake the image of the big bad dude who can twist you in a pretzel, no sweat, but got buggered in "Pulp Fiction"; the humongous bouncer who guarded Demi Moore's body in "Striptease"; or the man who, in "Mission: Impossible", threatens to go "medieval" on you.

He shatters the image in the softest tone: "I went to the High School of Performing Arts and I got a Master's degree at Juilliard". A pause. "I can read, you know."

In "Rosewood", he plays a Word War I veteran who drifts into town, falls in love with a young woman, Scrappie (Elise Neal), and finds himself in the midst of one of the most ferociously racist massacres in America's recent history. The character's name is Mann - the second "n" is an alibi. It is he who, after the lynching of the town, helps save the children of Rosewood by corralling them and putting them on board a train.

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ON PLAYING MANN. "I was going to play Sylvester Carrier (now played by Don Cheadle). It wasn't until Denzel Washington, Wesley and Laurence turned it down that I got the chance to audition for Mann. (Laughs).

Mann is a composite. According to my research, there were a lot of World War I vets in Rosewood. Actually, there was one time when the white mob came, the black vets set up a barrier and fought them off. The white mob came back with more people and wiped them out.

"Did I have fun doing it? Yes.

"Is Mann everything I wanted him to be? No.

"There was something else I wanted to do - it was part of the back story I gave the character. Mann was married; his wife was lynched while she was pregnant. He, too, was lynched. His uncles came by, they cut him down and wound up killing the guys who lynched him.

"There was a monologue that was cut from the film where Mann said, 'It takes... 35 seconds for the heart to stop beating', which is medically accurate. That explained how I got the scar on my neck, and it said that my wife had been lynched.

"I thought that if I had the wedding ring from my wife, which I would have had when I was lynched, and later gave it to Elise (Scrappie), that could be what Stanislavski called 'a private object'. The last sign of his bond with his wife.

"John (Singleton) thought it would be too confusing. So instead, I give her the medal I got during the war.

"I met three of the survivors that came on the set of 'Rosewood'. I didn't ask them any specific questions about the incident. But I could see them reliving it. They were looking at the set that resembled their homes seventy years ago. That's what I tried to recapture: their spirit to survive. The spirit to live, The pain in the moment of being hung. So in doing the scene where I get hanged, I really forgot about myself physically, and tried to focus on... on THEM. On them and then."

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ON HIS BAD-DUDE REPUTATION. "They all think I'm like the character I play in 'Pulp Fiction'. I was with my wife on Piccadilly Circus recently - we'd just seen 'Five Guys Named Mo' in the West End - and these guys started running in our direction. They looked just like what you'd expect skinheads would look like. There were so many of them! And they were yelling stuff.

"What they were yelling was 'Marcellus Wallace!'. Because of their accent, I didn't catch that. All they wanted pictures and autographs with me. Honestly. I've never been so happy to comply.

Was it frightening? For the moment that it was happening, it was.

Was it a strange trip into stereotype and prejudice? You bet."

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ON LEADING MEN vs. CHARACTER ACTORS. "I really don't think of it in those terms. I mean this: for me, extras in a movie are just as important as the 'leads'. We couldn't have done 'Rosewood' without the extras. We are all pieces of a puzzle. My approach to the work is the same, whether I had the 'lead' or a supporting role. I consider myself a character actor in the true sense of the word. Unless I'm doing my autobiography, I'm playing a character."

* * *

ON *THAT* VOICE. "I've had it pretty much most of my life. Actually my body had to grow into my voice. This is true! I'd go to auditions, and they'd say: 'We really loved him, but he sounds like he's 35!'

"No one would believe I was 21 - which I was at the time! I weighed 160 lbs, now I weigh 210 lbs. So everything fell into place.

"Yes, I did Shakespeare, but only in regional theatre. I would have wanted to do the Bard on film. No offense to Laurence Fishburne's 'Othello', but that's a role I want to play. I don't really want to get into the O.J. Simpson story, but there *are* some parallels... It would be interesting to do a contemporary 'Othello'. I also want to play Macbeth, and do Tchekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard'.

"So many roles... that I still have the time to do. I'm still growing and hopefully becoming a better actor, so that when I do them, I can nail 'em."

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ON WORKING WITH SINGLETON. "John gives the actors freedom, he believes in rehearsal, but his approach to it is closer to theatre games, where you're learning about your relationships with other characters. We didn't really rehearse the lines or the scenes so much. But we thoroughly explored the relationships.

"Which, for me, is one of the powerful things in this film. I was blessed to be working with Jon Voight, and I think we captured a complex relationship. I like that the characters are not - no pun intended - just black and white. Jon Voight's character and mine grow to have a mutual respect for one another. But we're still not buddy-buddy. I'm still going to go my way, he's still going to go his way, and we'll probably never see each other again in our lives.

* * *

ON THEATRE GAMES. "John would have one actor sit in the middle of a circle. In character. Each actor sitting on the circle, also in character, had to ask him questions.

"It forces you to think as the character. It put me back into a 1923 sensibility and not a 1990s sensibility.

"One thing I learned about black men in 1923: there wasn't much eye contact with white guys. So a lot of times when I'd be speaking, I would look up only every now and then, particularly if it's a white man questioning me or calling me 'boy'. If Don Cheadle asked me a question, I'd look at him. If Jon Voight did, I wouldn't.

"And I don't in most of the film, whether I go to his store, or during the auction scene.

"There's one moment, however, where I choose to look at him. As I'm getting on my horse to leave town, he says something to me, I look at him. And it's all the stronger and more powerful as I've never looked at the man before."

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ON TURNING MANN INTO AN ACTION HERO. "I don't think of him as that, but I can see how one possibly could. As an actor, you don't define your character by the number of people he shoots. I'm sure Bruce Willis would say this too: even in "Die Hard", he is trying to create a character with moments and intricacies, and keep the action as just a side thing. 'This is what I'm DOING in the film, but...'

"Sometimes who you are is based on what you do, as far as Stanislavski is concerned. My character really didn't want to kill. In one scene, he says, 'I've been to one war, I don't want another war.'

"Yes, Mann may appear to be taller, larger, stronger, more responsible, more this, more that. I still don't think it's pushing it to call him 'Mann'. There are very few heroes that African-American youths can see on screen. Apart from Wesley Snipes, perhaps, but his films don't score that high, all they have are Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, guys who are beating up hundred of guys. Now for black kids to see a strong black man, you know, MAN...

"And the fact that in the lynching scene I get away, to me it makes him a little superhuman. I kind of like that touch, quite honestly. If Denzel played it, I don't know if people would have thought of Mann in the same way. But with my physicality, it is... Boom!"

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ON SEGREGATION TODAY. "I grew up in New York and lived here for 33 years. We have Harlem, which is predominantly black. We have Spanish Harlem, predominantly Spanish. We have Chinatown, which is self-explanatory, and Little Italy, which is too. So to me, New York City is still segregated.

"You also have segregation on an economic level. The gap is huge.

"I don't think we should necessarily call it racism, and I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with wanting to live with people closer to your culture.

"But I look at America today and I say, 'We're still very divided.' Even among the black community. It's light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks. 'His hair is wavy', 'He's a mulatto.' This divide-and-conquer thing adds to the tension within the black community."

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ON O.J. SIMPSON. "Is O.J. the epitome of that divide? I personally think O.J. either did it or had something to do with it. That's my personal belief. However, in the first trial, in my opinion, the LAPD screwed up so much that I would have had to vote 'Reasonable doubt, not guilty'.

"Now O.J. is not the first man in America who had some money and who's got off on something. I was amazed how, more than a whole year later, the whole country hawks on O.J. Simpson.

"Strangely enough, I found out in my research for 'Rosewood' that the origins of civil suits in reference to murder cases had something to do with the Ku Klux Klan in the South.

"The K.K.K. committed crimes. They murdered black persons. But then it would be an all-white jury, sometimes made of K.K.K. members.

"I think you have to jump forward to the 1960s to have a civil suit tied to a murder case, where perhaps the guy is not going to go to jail, but you could possibly get a 'fair trial'.

"I think we have a problem in the United States as far as dealing with the truth. It's okay if you and I disagree on a subject; we can agree to disagree. 'Schindler's List' can do well in America because 'that's what the GERMANS did to the Jews.'

"'Rosewood'' is what *Americans* did to Americans.

"So now we really have to hold the mirror up to nature, and really look at ourselves. And sometimes we see an ugly sight.

"It may take going through that pain of America really looking at itself, black America AND white America, for us to come to a point of any sort of racial harmony.

* * *

ON NATIVE AMERICANS. "If America ever dealt with the true history of how the Native American was treated, it would bring more shame than incidents like Rosewood.

"Have you ever read a book called 'Custer Died For Your Sins'? Pick it up. It's frightening, what we've done to a peaceful, intelligent people, that were HELPING the first settlers over here. That story, too, needs to be told."

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