Ving Rhames gets adamant when the subject of typecasting comes up. He wants to be seen as an actor and not as a type. Yet it’s precisely when the subject comes up that he most resembles the parts he’s known for: the scary crime lord Marcellus in “Pulp Fiction,” the scowling bouncer in “Striptease,” the enigmatic cyber-whiz in “Mission: Impossible.”
He’s gotten plenty of praise for mastering such supporting roles, even in the woebegotten “Striptease.” Yet if you ask the 35-year-old Rhames what his favorite role is, he’ll tell you that, by far, it’s his latest one.
He plays Mann, a drifter-turned-reluctant-savior in John Singleton’s “Rosewood,” a fact-based story of the destruction of a flourishing black town in 1923 central Florida. After a white woman from a neighboring town falsely states that she was raped by a black man, an enraged mob burns down the town and tries to kill all its residents. Rhames and Jon Voight, playing Rosewood’s only white resident, seek to get the populace out of harm’s way. The film, which opens Friday, also stars Don Cheadle as one of the town’s defenders and Esther Rolle as his mother.
The role of Mann had been offered to the hot triumvirate of leading African American male icons, Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and Laurence Fishburne, the latter of whom had been in two of Singleton’s previous films, “Boyz N the Hood” and “Higher Learning.”
“For whatever reason, they all turned it down,” Rhames says one recent Sunday afternoon in a hotel room on Park Avenue in New York. And, for whatever reason, he’s glad they did. It’s the most high-profile role thus far for a solid actor who, for the last few years, has been cruising the edge of major recognition. Mann could very well deliver the goods.
Rhames says he liked “the multidimensional quality” of Mann: “He was a reluctant hero, not just the guy in the white hat who rushes in to save the day. You know what else sets this film apart? The thought put into the white characters, especially Bruce McGill’s character, Duke. You see that he’s not a bigot because the story simply needs a villain, but because it was the way he was brought up. That he was taught this is the way you become a man.”
Rhames is a thoughtful speaker, one who will occasionally pace as he speaks--or maybe sit and kick off his shoes. When he’s done with an idea he gives you a look that’s as final as the last period at the end of a story. He doesn’t smile much but when he does, it’s an event.
Born and raised in Harlem, Rhames got the call for acting at an early age. He attended the High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan and went on to the Juilliard School of Drama. He then went to work on stage in parts that range from Miguel Pinero’s “Short Eyes” to Shakespeare’s “Richard II.”
In television, he’s probably best known as Dr. Peter Benton’s slow-to-anger brother-in-law on “ER.” He’s had small roles in films such as “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Dave” and “Kiss of Death.” Though he’s glowered as often as not in these films as well as “Pulp Fiction,” “Striptease” and “Mission,” Rhames thinks that, for the most part, he’s escaped strict typecasting among those who cast movies--if not in the minds of those who see movies.
“People often think I’ve played the villain more times than I have,” he says. Four by his count, most notably Marcellus and Cinque in Paul Schrader’s 1988 “Patty Hearst.” Generally, he feels blessed in the roles that have come his way, “Mission: Impossible” being a case in point.
“The character of the computer whiz is not one that would normally be associated with me,” he says. “Another director might have chosen me for the more sinister part that was played by Jean Reno. But Brian DePalma looked at me as an actor.” The two had worked previously in the 1989 Vietnam drama “Casualties of War”; Rhames calls DePalma his favorite director and says he’s aboard for the next “Mission” film.
Rhames is also fond of his role as Whoopi Goldberg’s supportive husband in “The Long Walk Home,” dealing with the Mississippi bus boycott. “A good historical piece often overlooked. I’m proud of that film. I also found Whoopi Goldberg a good woman and a fine actress.”
Rhames agrees with the public that probably his most controversial role is “Pulp Fiction’s” Marcellus, who, while chasing boxer Bruce Willis, is kidnapped and raped by some sadomasochistic goons.
“The thing that intrigued me about that role was here you have this man of power who is feared, who is placed in probably the most vulnerable situation a man can be placed in. Although it was difficult to play, it’s also something you don’t see black actors doing every day.”
He still continues to be amazed how often people stop him to say how much they like Marcellus. “How bad and how cool they think he is. I get that a lot in Europe.”
Asked about the reaction of some people to Quentin Tarantino’s frequent use of a certain racial epithet in “Pulp Fiction,” Rhames says the word “was part of the vernacular of the characters, not just thrown in for the sake of sensationalism, so I was fine with it.”
In “Rosewood,” one of the more intriguing aspects of his character, Mann, is the rope scar around his neck, which is never discussed. Was there a back-story invented for that?
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Rhames says. “Mann is a World War I vet. Many black vets were despised by whites, especially if they were seen in their uniforms. There’s historical precedent that it was cause enough to get them lynched. That’s what happened to Mann, but he was able to escape before the deed was done.”
When Rhames is asked about John Singleton, one of his rare smiles materializes.
“Didn’t he do a fantastic job [directing “Rosewood”]? He shows a tremendous growth as a director in handling this piece. I feel this is going to be seen as a classic film. I’m only sorry it wasn’t released earlier so it would be eligible for Academy Award consideration. By next year’s nominations, we’ll probably be forgotten.”
Maybe, maybe not--but surely Rhames won’t be forgotten. Not with his full plate of forthcoming projects like “Con Air” with Nicolas Cage, and “Body Count” with David Caruso, John Leguizamo and Forest Whitaker. He also can be seen in the just-released “Dangerous Ground” with Ice Cube and Elizabeth Hurley. He has formed his own production company and is looking for a studio to back his production of “Macbeth.”
With all this activity, it appears that Rhames’ dance card in films will be filled for some time to come. So much so that we may not see him on “ER” for a long while.
“I like the show and I have a good relationship with the producers, but it’ll depend upon my schedule . . . Khandi Alexander’s, too.” She portrays his wife and is currently co-starring on NBC’s “NewsRadio.” He also finds it amusing that so many people tell him how much they hate his “ER” brother-in-law.
When asked if he had been offered a part in Tarantino’s forthcoming adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch,” he said he hadn’t heard anything yet. “Tarantino and I have the same manager, so you never know. I did hear that he was grooming Pam Grier for a part. He’s really into reviving careers.”
* AVOIDING A PIGEONHOLE: Director John Singleton aims to show his versatility. F5