Zombies might be referred to as the “walking dead,” but they really don’t know what dead is until they’ve felt the cold end of Ving Rhames’ sledgehammer in the SyFy original movie Zombie Apocalypse. In the film, which airs Oct. 29 at 8 p.m., Rhames plays Henry, the “enforcer and protector” of a group of survivors fending off a zombie outbreak.
During my interview with the Julliard-trained actor last week, we talked about why he doesn’t think he could actually survive a zombie attack, what the difference is between an actor and a movie star, and his thoughts on criticism of director Tyler Perry.
Do you think you could survive a zombie attack if it ever was to happen, and how would you do it?
No, I don’t think I could survive it. So no, I’d be gone. I think dealing with something that’s stronger than you, that’s very difficult to kill, that’s already dead, I just think that percentages are slim that a human being could really beat a zombie. We also have a lot of fast zombies [in Zombie Apocalypse], so they’re stronger, faster, and they’re already dead. So, how do you conquer that?
When the cameras weren’t rolling on the set, did you just kind of stand around chatting with the actors in full zombie makeup at Craft Services?
No. Actually, I’m one of those actors who normally go to my trailer if I’m not working and being used. I try to stay a bit focused. I just realize I have to keep a certain professional distance from dealing with a lot of people on a set. Because a lot of times, I think the extras are as important as lead actors. You can’t do a film without extras. But sometimes [extras] want to take photos and what have you and I don’t take any photos until after the day is done. So I go back to my trailer and relax.
Asylum (the studio behind Zombie Apocalypse) is known for making films that sort of piggyback on major releases. For Snakes on a Plane, they did Snakes on a Train. Transformers becameTransmorphers. What do you think about that filmmaking strategy?
Well honestly, this is my first time working with Asylum. I didn’t even know they did that. Evidently, it’s something that’s working for them. I was in Death Race 2 and I’m going to be in Death Race 3 and Death Race 4. [These movies] piggyback off of something that already developed an audience, theatrically. So I think it’s a very good business move. I think it’s much cheaper when you’re doing something for television than having to shoot on film.
Everybody knows you for your masculine roles. What scares Ving Rhames?
I think some things in life [scare me] like [not being able to] protect your children from things. It could be something as simple as a child getting sick. You know what I’m saying? The mumps. The measles. The flu. You know what I’m saying? I don’t want to say that’s a fear, but I would say it’s when something happens to a child and there’s nothing I can do except wait. My fear is when I’m in a position where I can’t help. A kid gets the flu [and] you can take them to the doctor and give them plenty of liquids and whatever, but I can’t necessarily heal them in a day or so. So I guess it's the fear of something happening to people I love and there’s nothing I can do about it.
You've mentioned in the past what you think the difference between a movie star and an actor is. Do you prefer the term actor or is being called a movie star OK with you?
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 – Sean Penn; someone who’s an extremely good actor but is a movie star. There are other people who are movie stars and no one looks at them as, “Wow, what an actor,” you see? The guys I grew up watching were like [Robert] De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino. All of those guys were movie stars, but they were actors first. So, I look at things now and I don’t know if the quality of acting has changed. I just named those three [actors] off the top of my head. I don’t know what three [actors] I would name now that are comparable to those three. I’d put Sean Penn in there, maybe Johnny Depp. You see, now I really have to start thinking, whereas I just rattled those [first] three off the top of my head. I think now things have changed. The economy has changed. The quality of films has changed. We do a lot of blockbusters now. We don’t really do that many films dealing with the human spirit, the human condition. When you have better scripts, I think it raises the actor. I think now the scripts are not as good and Hollywood is more so run by businessmen. Decades ago there was something artistic in the [résumés] of studios heads. I think that reflected what types of films were being made. Now, their résumés are more business related.
Are you familiar with the social commentator and writer Touré?
Well he just came out with a book called Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness. He talks a lot about black America. He also does a lot of commentary on the entertainment industry and has a lot of criticism of director Tyler Perry. I’m wondering, since you are an African-American actor, would you ever accept a role in a Tyler Perry movie?
What’s his criticism?
He thinks roles that he portrays of black characters aren’t very realistic. I know Spike Lee has the same kind of criticism. They say [Perry’s movies are] more buffoonery than anything.
Well, for me, I’d have to read a script and look at the role and see if it’s something I wanted to do. But I also feel that this is America and Tyler Perry has the right to do whatever type films or TV things he wants to do. I think that if something is not your cup of tea, that’s fine. But I think many times we criticize without actually talking to the person and getting to know their perspective of things. I can look at Tyler Perry and say, “Well, he’s employed more African-Americans than any other director in the past five, seven years.” I don’t watch [his movies or TV shows]. They’re not my cup of tea. But I have to say, “Well, hey, he created his own studio in Atlanta and he is creating jobs for people, mainly African-American people.” So, I’m not ever quick to criticize because many people didn’t care for a lot of Spike Lee movies. You get my point? They’re entitled to that like he’s entitled to have his perspective on Tyler Perry. I don’t give into nonsense or people’s opinions. Many years ago - I forgot the name of that movie that Spike Lee hired Damon Wayans to do (Bamboozled), a lot of reporters asked me if I thought Spike Lee was doing that in reference to me. (Quick background: Rhames won a Golden Globe in 1998 and during his acceptance speech called fellow nominee Jack Lemmon onto the stage and gave him the award. Many people said Spike Lee was satirizing Rhames in Bamboozled because Wayans’ character makes a similar gesture). And I said, “You know what? I don’t know, but God bless Spike Lee.” I’m supportive of whatever a person is doing as long as it’s not against the Lord and it’s relatively positive. People can have their opinions of me or others, but I’m not going to let someone divide and conquer. The Lord knows we have many more problems in black America than movie images. We got a homeless problem. We got teen pregnancy. We have AIDS. We have drugs. You get my point? My focus is more on that than focusing on the perception of whatever Tyler Perry is doing. If we focus on cleaning up our house, we may not have enough time to look into Tyler Perry’s.
I’ll go from something really serious to something more lighthearted. I saw the FunnyorDie.com video where you accepted an Oscar for Piranha 3D...
And 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 you’ve done in your career and play along?
Well I do have a pretty good sense of humor and Elizabeth Shue, she’s a lot of fun. 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 this is just a film. Hopefully it’s a film that can do something to enlighten, inspire, or affect the way one may think about whatever issue we’re dealing with. But again, there are very few films that really say something.