Ving Rhames, who stars as a world heavyweight boxing champ incarcerated for rape, said that he had no difficulty playing prisoner, surrounded by both real-life and fictionalized criminals. “I grew up around criminals, so it was comfortable,” Rhames explains when discussing how difficult it was shooting Undisputed in an actual prison. “I think we gave a lot to them by just being new stimuli in their life and something they had to look forward to. So, they gave energy and emotion, and it was almost like we were giving something to them. I really felt like for the three weeks in the prison, we gave them something that was exciting for them.”
Rhames plays James “Ice Man” Chambers), a top ranked heavyweight boxer. However Chambers has his world turned upside down when he is accused of rape and sent to prison. Upon his arrival he hears talk about Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes) who is the top ranked prison boxing champ 10 years running. Immediately there is bad blood with Chambers not wanting to be second to no one which leads to a lunch room fight between the men. Figuring it will be a good way to make money fellow convict Emmanuel ‘Mendy’ Ripstein (Peter Falk) sets up a prison boxing match between the two men to decide who is the real ‘undisputed’ champ.
Originally, Rhames was offered the role of Monroe, but the award-winning actor was keen to step into the shoes of the arrogant and egotistical Ice Man. He adds that was also drawn to this project for two other reasons. “One of the things I found interesting, was that even though it takes place in prison, it’s not a prison movie. Secondly, I said OK, I know Mike Tyson, and yes, there are some parallels here, and it was interesting that I found in this film, to be no ‘good guy and bad guy.’ Wesley’s character is in jail for murder while I’m in jail for rape. So I thought we could make the audience think a little differently as to whom they side with.”
Rhames was born in a tough part of New York’s Harlem, “when I wasn’t a part of mainstream America.” Surrounded by dealers and pushers throughout much of his youth, he did avoid falling into the trap of making a wrong turn. He succeeded where many of his childhood contemporaries failed, through the influence of “my mother and God” and “because I saw so many lives wasted,” Rhames quietly recalls. “I grew up with Nicky Barnes’ nephew. Nicky Barnes’ was like the biggest drug dealer in New York City who was on the cover of Time Magazine and then turned State evidence against all of them. So, I saw a vicious cycle of generation after generation, drugs, crime, jail or death, so I learned to desensitize myself to it, but it was almost like: If you do this, this leads to this, and this leads to this.”
Yet through it all, acting, not crime, came Rhames’ way, but admits that “quite honestly, I never had the desire to be an actor. I tell people, I didn’t choose acting – acting chose me. I never grew up wanting to be an actor, I wasn’t that type of kid; I wanted to play football.” Rhames doesn’t remember when he first started to act. “It was probably in 9th grade, when an English teacher said, you know, I think you have some talent to act, and said you should audition for the performing arts school, so I did, just on a whim, I got accepted, and then from there I got accepted to the Julliard School; by then I was serious about it.”
Since making his TV debut in an episode of Miami Vice in 1984, the 43-year old has had a blessed career. Significant films such as both Mission:Impossible films, Don King: Only in America, Entrapment, American Tragedy, Baby Boy and the upcoming RFK and Dark Blue, have made the versatile actor one of the most respected in Hollywood. The very spiritual Rhames admits to not being surprised at what the profession has done for him, “Because I think God has blessed all of us with at least one gift, so I think it’s just a matter of do we find it within our lifetime? So I think that’s what God really blessed me with, and I’m doing what I was put on this planet to do.” And he remains as intensely passionate about his craft as he ever was, “because I realize now, and me being a fairly new father, that it’s my legacy. I know that when I leave this planet, films and DVD’s, will still be here.”
Rhames has two children, Freedom, his son, who is 5 months old and a daughter Rainbow who is 23 months old. Having played an assortment of tough, screen characters, Rhames was also heard, in the surprising hit animated feature, Lilo and Stitch, which he says he did for his son. “That movie affected so many people emotionally and it was such an extraordinary experience being a part of it.” Rhames revealed that he set “to do Part 2 which I’m excited about.” Rhames is also ready to embark on a third instalment of the Mission:Impossible franchise, to be directed by David Fincher, “which I’m sure will be an interesting experience”, he says laughingly. Rhames is on top of his field, but refuses to measure his success on a financial level. “For me, I tell people from what success is, if you can make a living doing what you love doing, that’s success to me. You don’t have to make you know, $3 Million dollars a movie, or $20 Million dollars a movie, but if you make a living doing what you love doing, then that’s success to me. A lot of people make a living, but are not doing what they love doing.” And the man who didn’t want to act, has found himself a profession which he loves.