The "Mission Impossible" actor doesn't know how he made it to the top of the acting heap, but he credits his faith, his craft and his instinct for survival for leading him to Hollywood success.
In this theater, with these people and in this moment, Ving Rhames is pretty close to OK.
Rhames, the venerable actor of stage, screen and Arby’s commercials, held court Tuesday afternoon in a moderated discussion with Nate Jacobs of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
Rhames was in town for the express purpose of touring the theater and providing a master class in counsel for the theater troupe’s assembled students, and he told the audience about his origins in acting and the little angel in his corner for contract disputes.
“I tell every artist to believe in themselves and allow your voice to come through,” says Rhames, emotional and philosophical throughout the discussion. “Don’t concern yourself with what directors say or critics say. You stay true and passionate to the art form.”
Rhames, who grew up in Harlem, said he originally hoped for a career playing football, but he found that acting provided an emotional outlet he needed. A 12-year-old Irving Rhames first found drama by literally following a group of young women into a poetry workshop, and while there, he found the works of Maya Angelou, Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin.
All these years later, Rhames references the poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and he’s immediately overcome with emotion recalling his journey.
“I don’t know how I made it though the struggle. I just know I never gave up,” he says. “In acting, you can cry, you can scream, you can yell. You can be crazy. I needed that for my life to survive. I have to say acting is the main reason I was put on the planet. Whatever it is I have to say, it can come out not necessarily through my voice. It can come out in character.”
Rhames is fiercely proud of the energy he’s put into his craft, and he helped the audience chart his path to the silver screen. Rhames attended the High School of Performing Arts, and he knew Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as teens.
He later studied at the State University of New York-Purchase, where he met Stanley Tucci, who gave him his “Ving” sobriquet.
Rhames completed his education at Juilliard, and he embarked on a career in the theater before breaking through to film audiences everywhere as Marcellus Wallace in "Pulp Fiction" in 1994. Since then, says Rhames, he’s never had to audition again.
Rhames was prepared when his big break came, and he lauded the WBTT actors for staying true to their craft and for having a home where they can learn and help each other grow.
“I believe in being trained. And I know you guys are getting training here,” he says. “I believe in making yourself as versatile as possible because it will come in handy, and you will be expanding yourself as an artist. Get to know yourself as much as possible. After that, I honestly believe it’s just a matter of time. … I’m in Hollywood, but I’m not of Hollywood.”
He might not be of Hollywood, but he certainly has some Hollywood stories.
Rhames, 62 years old, said he is now getting ready to film “Mission Impossible 8” and that he first met castmate Tom Cruise while in the bathroom at his "Pulp Fiction" premiere.
“It was just him and I in the bathroom, and he started the conversation,” he says. “‘What have you heard about this film?’ ‘Hey, I’m in it.’ After the film, he ran and jumped in my arms. I didn’t really know him. But the paparazzi was around like we were best friends.”
That first impression was solidified over time. Rhames says that he and Cruise began to bond when Cruise asked him about parenting and raising Black children in this day and age.
Rhames says that his "Mission Impossible" character was originally supposed to die in the first 10-15 pages of the script, but now he has Cruise in his corner when he needs them.
“If there’s ever a contract dispute, who do I go to? God blessed me with this angel named Tom Cruise,” says Rhames. “I don’t debate with people. I don’t hang out with producers because normally my experience has been that they’re going to want something. And something on the cheap. I let my manager handle things, and if there’s ever a problem, Tom Cruise.”
Rhames told the crowd to value WBTT because when he was their age, he wanted a home to act and couldn’t find anything like it.
He praised Jacobs for his resilience and told the actors its support system would always be there for them.
“I want you guys to really value what you have here,” he said toward the end of the moderated discussion. “Because there are a lot of young men and women who don’t have that, who have no home to grow, who have no home to make mistakes and try things.”
A number of actors and filmmakers had the opportunity to ask Rhames a question, and he encouraged them to pursue their craft with all the passion they can muster.
When it was all over, he took a group picture and spent a moment answering questions about the event.
Rhames said that he had the opportunity to hear Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones and Robin Williams speak while he was at Juilliard. But now he’s on the other side of that experience, and he said he was grateful to the audience for the opportunity to give back to his craft.
“The wonderful thing is what they gave me,” he says. “I can feel their love and the innocence of acting at this age. When you get to the business side, it’s not as innocent. I appreciated this and had a good time and it brought up emotions in me of my life and stuff I hadn’t really thought about. To look at the journey and what they’ll be experiencing, it’s a roller coaster.”
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