Q & A: Ving Rhames on Preparation, Actors vs. Movie Stars and Fighting Zombies

Ving: "If you're working constantly at your craft you should always be growing, improving, learning"

If you’ve ever wanted to see Ving Rhames beat the hell out of a Zombie with a sledgehammer, your wait is over.

This Saturday night, he’s starring in the SyFy Original Movie, Zombie Apocalypse where yes, he kills many a Zombie. Rhames plays Henry, the “enforcer and protector” of a group of people trying to survive a zombie outbreak.

Rhames went to school at Julliard and in 1984, appeared in his first Broadway play, The Winter Boys. From there, got some supporting roles in shows like Miami Vice and The Equalizer and then made a huge splash in Quentin Tarintino’s Pulp Fiction. He also won a Golden Globe winner for his work in the miniseries Don King: Only in America. He can also be seen in the upcoming Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

Ving talked to me about his preparation, the differences between an actor and a movie star, whether he’ll do Broadway again and a whole lot more. I’d suggest you listen to the audio version of the interview. Lots of great stuff in there!

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

Zombie Apocalypse premieres Saturday Oct. 29 at 9/8c

Ving Rhames: I like that title, Daily Actor. Interesting.

Thanks! I appreciate that coming from you. You went to Julliard. How has your preparation for roles changed from the time you graduated to now? Is it a lot easier for you?

Ving Rhames: No. My preparation is basically the same. It’s even when I’m doing a play, which I haven’t done in decades. But, I do kind of a – we call it a character analysis. I do a scene analysis, a script analysis. I go over what are my character’s intentions in the movie? What are his actions? What are my overall intentions? What are my goals in the – my character’s goals in the film? How do I get from Point A to Point B? You know, just basically what we call a Stanislavski moment-to-moment reality, what have you. So I use the same process in every film really.

In a film like this one where it’s a lot of action or whatever – of course being in shape physically comes more into play.  

Any chance you might want to try and do something on Broadway again?

Ving Rhames: No. I was offered – as a matter of fact, I was offered something that I don’t think they thought Denzel would do it so they offered it to him after me. But Fences on Broadway with August Wilson.

But I think one of the problems for a lot of actors – and I’m from New York but I live in LA, is you know a Broadway schedule is – they wanted a minimum of six months, and you know that means total relocation and I have kids and – so that would be – it was just – they were asking for too much.

And also you know financially – you know a Broadway play it’s a lot of work and they really don’t pay – you know what I’m making you know one day on a film I wouldn’t really make that in a week on Broadway.

You would be awesome in Fences.

Ving Rhames: Yes, well honestly I really liked the role; however, I just looked at it as I couldn’t like relocate for six months. You know, that means my kids have to go to a new school, and they – it was just a bit – they were asking a bit too much from me. Then with Denzel of course, he didn’t do it for six months, but I would’ve had to have done it – a contract for six months.

What’s your advice to actors?

Ving Rhames: Train. I think that with anything in life you need training if you want to be – what – well, there are certain requirements. You want to be a doctor? Well, you have to go to you know college and then you know get your Masters and then medical school – or whatever, an internship. And I look at the same – or basketball. You have to train if you want to be a professional athlete. You have to run. You have to practice your dribbling. Your shooting. Your footwork.

And I think so many times now actors just think that you can have a nice personality or have a certain look and that means you’re an actor. So I think that the whole acting now is extremely watered down.

I even think if you look at many of the actors who we call our “movie star actors”, they’re not necessarily trained, or not necessarily as — I hate to use the word “good” — but a lot of guys who don’t work as much or – as Robert De Niro once said – you know, Robert De Niro makes Mr. (Unintelligible) less money than guys who are, the “movie stars”. And as Arnold Schwarzenegger said, he said, “I’m a movie star. I’m not an actor.”

So you know – and I think we have – I think that’s prevalent in our system now.

What’s the most enjoyable part about doing a movie like this, shooting a zombie thriller?

Ving Rhames: Well, I would really say the bond that the actors developed working with each other. Because even in the film, of course we have to work together to survive, and so we just – we got a nice group of actors who had very good chemistry. So you know, making new friends – it was pretty cool.

What kind of preparation goes into this? I assume there’s probably a lot of fight scenes and maybe some martial arts. Do you have to do training?

Ving Rhames: Yes, I’m already a black belt so that wasn’t really – the most preparation is really just being in shape. So I work out like four to five times a week. So as long as you were in shape, a lot of running, some fight scenes. My character wields a huge sledge hammer.

So I lift weights, I run, and I box so things went well.

Do you think we’ll ever see you in a director’s role?

Ving Rhames: No. I’m not interested in directing. I have produced, which I really enjoy, but directing – I think honestly – I grew up in a generation of actors and even coming from a theatrical background where you really have to know how to act.

I think now in Hollywood there are many actors who’ve never done a play, who’ve never really even taken – I graduated from The Julliard School. Not saying everyone has to do that, but they don’t really have a trained background. They may have a nice look or a nice body or nice personality.

So I think for me, I’m more old school as far as requirements of an actor, and it would probably be difficult for me with many people who call themselves actors today, directing them.

When the cameras aren’t rolling, are you just kind of standing around chatting with the actors that are in full zombie makeup like at Craft Services?

Ving Rhames: No. Actually I’m one of those actors who if I’m not working and being used I normally go to my trailer. I try to stay a bit focused and – I just realize for me, I have to keep a certain professional distance from dealing with a lot of people when on a set. Because a lot of times people – and I think – I feel that background — we call them extras — are as important as lead actors.

What was the most difficult part of filming this?

Ving Rhames: Probably the heat and all of the physical activity, including running.

I’m one of those people where I just realize how I had to pace myself. And of course, there’s quite a bit of downtime when doing a film. Thank God we had air conditioned trailers. And so, I basically – a lot of liquids and pacing myself.

But, we were filming out in some dessert-type places, so there was a couple of 90-something degree days. And with running and being physical in that type of weather, you know you have to be a little careful. I basically would pace myself. And when I wasn’t on set working, I was back in an air conditioned trainer – trailer.

You can’t do a film without background or “extras”. But what I’ve found is sometimes it could into wanting to take photos and what have you, and I don’t take any photos until after the day is done. So I I go back to my trailer and relax.

How do you choose what roles to take and what roles not to take? Is there a specific thing you look?

Ving Rhames: Well, it depends on what film – one that I’ve done right before that, because I try not to do something too similar back-to-back. So that’s one of the things. And then, it will depend on if the script you know touches me in any way. Or in this case with Zombie Apocalypse honestly, it just seemed like, “Wow. This would be cool and this’ll be fun and a lot of action.” So, that’s what drew me to this one.

What would attribute to your ongoing success?

Ving Rhames: Well one of the things I tell people is I didn’t choose acting; God chose me to act. Or I may say I didn’t choose acting; acting chose me. So I know I’ve been blessed with a certain talent. I’ve been blessed with good acting teachers and classes and training to become “a relatively good actor.” So, I was able to cultivate whatever gift God blessed me with as far as acting.

And I think a lot of times people don’t really – they could have a natural ability, but they don’t really cultivate it. So I think partly – then I think I have to thank performing arts high school and the Julliard School for “giving me tools to allow me to be a versatile actor.” So I feel if you’re versatile, there’s always going to be room for you in this industry versus actors who basically you know, play themselves in every role.


You mentioned the difference between a movie star and a actor. So if people refer to you as a movie star, is that something that you’d rather not them do, and you like the term actor a lot more?

Ving Rhames: No. Well, I just think this. I’ll put it this way. Not all movie stars are actors, you see. And of course, not all actors are movie stars, but every now and then you get someone like a – let me see, I’ll use like Sean Penn. Someone who’s an extremely good actor but is a “movie star.” And now there are other people who are movie stars and no one looks at them as, “Wow, what an actor,” you see? The guy that I grew up watching was like wow – De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino. All of those guys were movie stars but they were I think actors first you see.

So, I look at things now and I don’t know if the quality of acting has changed, but I don’t know – I just named those three names off the top of my head. I don’t know what three names I would name now that are comparable to those three. Then I put Sean Penn in there, but then I don’t really know the – maybe a Johnny Depp. You see – you know now I really have to start thinking, whereas I just rattled those three off the top of my head.

I think that also you had a lot of guys who were very good actors you know that I grew up watching that were just real strong actors and they weren’t really the guys who were even you know the star of the movie. They just happened to be real solid actors.

And I think now things have changed. The economy has changed. The quality of films have changed. We do a lot of blockbusters now. We don’t really do that many films dealing with the human spirit, the human condition, what have you. So I just think that it – those – when you have better scripts, I think it raises the actor.

And I think now you know the scripts are not as good and Hollywood is now more so run by business men. You know, people – you look at their resume you know, Harvard Law degree or a Master’s degree in Business in Yale or what have you, versus many years – decades ago there was something artistic in the background of heads of studios. And then I think that reflected what type of films were being made. Now, their resumes are more business related for the heads of studios.

What role did you have or take on or consider that made you say, “This is why I’m doing this. This is why God decided to put me in the role of being an actor to entertain.”

Ving Rhames: I look at it this way, and a lot of people may not understand this. But I think – this is not answering the question directly, but there was something about Pulp Fiction where I played this – let’s say mob boss, and then the character gets raped. That really kind of humanized him. That even the strongest person in the world can be brought down.

And I think that how the audiences around the world reacted to that film and my performance in that – I think that kind of just shook me on a different level. So I’m not going to say there’s any one role that I would say, “That one stood out.”

But I think anytime you can be – I graduated college in 1983, so anytime you can be a “working actor” — you know that’s all I’ve done for a living for 28 years — I knew God had his hand on me and I knew that this was what – you know, one of the things I was put on this planet to do.

What do you think about Reality TV?

Ving Rhames: Well, I think that what it does is it really just extends the belief that, “Oh, you can just be you,” – and reality TV in my opinion, it has nothing to do with talent. But if you can become you know a reality TV star, you can make millions. You know, I’m looking at – you know, like Jersey Shore, Kim Kardashian – you know what I’m saying? Basketball Wives. It’s not really about any talent really.

So I don’t quite understand the intrigue about it, but it’s – what is the talent level? Or, is it just about, “Okay. I’m going to be me and it’ll be a little bit scripted and we’ll do some improv conversations.” And I think with the writer’s strike, reality TV really started hitting and/or was possibly created. And I think it’s so cheap to do that you know networks flock to that.

And I think it really has hurt you know, a lot of good actors who there’s no work because you know, there’s no series because reality TV has you know, replaced them.

But I think in due time, America will get tired of them and will go back to a different format as far as television.

Do you still study acting?

Ving Rhames: You know, well I do study my craft, but see I think at a certain point, as far as being a craft’s been, if you’re working constantly at your craft you should always growing, improving, learning, what have you. So now my study is more so “on the job training.”

It seems like you really have a good sense of humor about yourself. Is it easy for you to sort of laugh at some of the roles that you’ve done in your career and kind of just play along with that?

Ving Rhames: Well I do have a pretty good sense of humor, and Elizabeth Shue – she’s a lot of fun and I think sometimes I tell people, “Look, it’s just a movie.” You know, it’s not curing cancer. It’s not curing AIDS. It’s only a movie. So I take my work seriously, but at the same time I realize look; this is just a film. Now hopefully it’s a film that can do something to enlighten, inspire, or effect the way one may think about whatever issue we’re dealing with.

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